After living with the Neal Morse Band’s The Similitude of a Dream for several weeks, I haven’t been as excited about an album release since… the band’s previous one.
And that’s with some 70 reviews in between.
No wonder that drummer Mike Portnoy posted that this was the best album he has made. Coming from a man with a career in Transatlantic, Dream Theater and Flying Colors, that is saying something.
He called it their Tommy and The Wall and I’d rather have Similitude than either of those.Both are double albums that tell a story, and so is the Genesis epic The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which, for me, is a closer comparison. Certainly, the synth solo in Morse’s “We have Got to Go” is straight from the Lamb / Selling England era of Genesis (whose “Entangled” Morse – ahem, shall we say – ‘paid tribute to’ on their last album).
Such is the sheer musical brilliance, emotional intensity, and sustained compositional expertise of this one that it is not something you can describe adequately in words. It has to be heard, and several times, so that the intertwining themes sink into your psyche and the overall impact makes its mark. Even the tasters do not do justice to the whole (I wasn’t originally knocked out by the trailer tracks Overture and City of Destruction). It truly grows with each listen.
Across its 106 minutes, there are several other moments that could be direct tributes to earlier influences. “The Ways of a Fool” starts off as a soundalike to “Mr. Blue Sky” from ELO but turns undeniably (and with alphabetical predictability) into a heavy slab of ELP. The intro to “Makes No Sense” is pure psychedelic Beatles; and sometimes it is just a short spell that reminds of classic albums, such as the echos at the end of “The Dream” and start of “Sloth” that take me straight to Floyd’s Animals. “Man in the Iron Cage” includes both a Led Zepp-inspired riff and Jon Lord-like organ lines.
But this is no pastiche. The production quality, instrumental prowess and melodic memorability mean that it can stand fearlessly in the presence of these earlier influences.
As the title suggests, Similitude is based on John Bunyan’s classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the scale and construction of this album matches the scale and depth of Bunyan’s project.
It seems such an appropriate vehicle for Morse’s passion, given the culture we live in. The story is of a man who has a dream about leaving the City of Destruction and heading for the Celestial City. On the way, he meets a range of characters, who sometimes help – but mostly hinder – his journey. It is an allegory about how to live a Christian life and avoid the pitfalls, remaining true to God.
Bunyan wrote about doubt, easy salvation, despair, sloth and the allure of the past and Morse has approached the release in such a way that it feels personal. If he hasn’t experienced these trials, he’s observed them.
Over the years, Morse has faced charges of preachiness and judgementalism (Sola Scriptura), but here he is invitational, with lines like,
“It’s life that awaits you / no one will make you / it’s yours to decide.”
Such is the consistency on this one, that it is pointless to pick out individual players. Every member of the band performs superbly and it is the whole-band contributions from writing, coordinating and performing that make this such a special recording.
As a double album, it has a double climax. The ultimate one is great for powerful, sustained guitar work, but the first disc has a glorious ending (so much so, that it has brought tears to my eyes):
“With the breath of angels charging up the atmosphere
And all around me is the love that casts out all fear
The hosts of heaven sing along so the world can hear
as the breath of angels drives away every tear.”
Morse’s opus is seamless across the two discs, with not only tracks melting into one other, but choruses reprising and themes rising and falling across the project. You can silently ‘hear’ these themes under many of the solos – and there are some fine solos. In the quiet section in instrumental “The Slough”, guitarist Eric Gillette’s tone and technique are highly reminiscent of Jeff Beck.
Like Grand Experiment, this has a broader scope than just prog, with a sax solo in “Shortcut to Salvation,” the bluegrass of “Freedom Song” and the odd soul/gospel backing. There is even a fun approach to sloth.
It’s not perfect; there are some average tracks. But there are light and shade, strings and all-out riffing, interweaving themes, memorable tunes, harmonies, fun and an overall sense of epic grandeur in this mammoth album. As soon as I stop it anywhere, there are hooks in my head that refuse to fade.
If anyone wants to offer a Christian album from the last decade that can touch this at any level, I’d love to hear it.