- Impressive Band Members
Rarely have I seen an artist which was so generous on their preview clips as Neal Morse was with the release of his latest live DVD/CD set, Live Momentum. Between long video samples of “Momentum,” “Author of Confusion,” “The Conflict,” and the Portnoy drum-cam, it was pretty clear from the start that this was to be a release that fans should not miss out on. Of course, it’s always dangerous when the previews set such a high bar; the risk of having too high of expectations was great, but I was still thoroughly excited to see what Mr. Morse and company had to offer. In the end, I was not disappointed in the least.
Before getting to the songs, let’s get a few minor details out of the way. This is a five disc set, which shouldn’t surprise anyone because we all know how progaliciously long Neal’s concerts are; in this case we’re looking at about a three hour set spanning over two DVDs and the same material on three CDs, making a pretty thick digi-pack release, if I do say so myself. On the film side, it’s pretty much what we expect by today’s standards, which means high quality and well shot video with superb audio. It’s actually pretty surprising to me just how good the audio is. Oftentimes I don’t end up listening to the CDs if I have the DVD, because without the video you sometimes realize the sound quality isn’t that awesome and so you prefer to watch the DVD and listen to the studio album instead. In this case, the recording is excellent and the performances are inspired, so much so that I found myself thoroughly enjoying listening to the CDs even without the visual element. Of course, I’ll probably still find myself mostly just watching the DVD since that gives you the closest live experience that you can get without being at the venue. Additionally, there is also the obligatory ‘tour documentary’ bonus feature for those who are interested in seeing Randy George dancing and Mike Portnoy doing velociraptor leaps onto the luggage conveyor belt at the airport.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get on to the live film itself. Essentially what we get is the type of experience we hoped for and expected from Neal, which means that he gives us a good representation of his new material as well as a healthy dose of back catalogue. The show kicks off with the title track from Momentum which gives us an upbeat introduction to Neal’s new band, including some wild soloing from his new right hand guitar gun, Adson Sodre, who instantly won me over with his fun attitude and wild display of chops. As we move a couple of more songs in we arrive at the first piece that truly knocked my socks off: “Author of Confusion.” The performance of this one was so dynamic, with tons of rhythmic heaviness and intensity. Loads of things make this track stand out, from the juxtaposition of heavy guitars to haunting Mellotron, to the nice dual guitar interaction between Neal and Adson, to Hubauer’s fun Hammond solos. I even couldn’t help myself but grin as Mike laid down some fabulous hi-hat work on the softer section towards the end of the song. However, nothing could prepare me for the vocal harmonies. These dudes pull off Gentle Giant style vocals so amazingly that I was left breathless. Honestly, that moment is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. And, as if you didn’t get enough, we get another healthy dose of these type of vocals on “Thoughts Part 5” a couple of songs later. If you loved it on the album, you’ll dig it here, although nothing compares to the harmonies they lay down on “Author of Confusion.” You’ll watch this, and re-watch it, and watch it again in awe.
Following “Author of Confusion” the Neal Morse Band takes it to the Testimony album with “Testimony Suite,” comprising heartfelt moments from “Sleeping Jesus,” “Prince of the Power of the Air,” “The Promise,” and “Wasted Life.” This set takes the intensity down a bit and allows Neal to get out some of his more emotional moments with a cycle of songs that turn out to be solid all the way through. After delivering “Thoughts Part 5” the band dives into the first epic of the night: “The Conflict” from the Sola Scriptura album. The performance is, of course, well executed, with loads of heavy, Dream Theater-esque sections featuring doubled (tripled, quadrupled?) runs and all sorts of instrumental showcasing. The real treat of this song, and I mean the real treat, is hearing Adson’s solo during the latin section of the piece. Incorporating a distinctly Brazilian jazz feel, Adson lays out the tastiest phrasing which he doubles on vocals as he solos. I’m pretty sure that he was probably just like, “hey Neal, I want to play in your band. Watch what I can do” and then Neal like peed himself and let him join. Either way, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor when Adson’s solo was over.
Time to switch discs and get to one of the sections which I most anticipated: the “Question Mark Suite.” Clocking in at 20 minutes, it certainly lived up to my expectations and even delivered a few surprises. It was great to see Bill Hubauer step up to the sax for doubled parts with Adson. Furthermore, Eric Gillette, who had been more or less a back up dude up til this point, finally comes out to show us what he’s made of with some expressive whammy bar usage and uber (with an umlaut) shredding runs. On vocals Neal absolutely nails it with “Entrance.” 100% inspired, this vocal moment stands out among solo vocals on the DVD and carries us into some powerful moments as the band moves on to reprise “Temple of the Living God” with loads of harmonies, lots of keyboard glissandos, and an overall uplifting feel. The only thing that I was disappointed with was the fact that they chose to end the piece quietly with vox and piano rather than the big, epic album ending full of keyboard melodies. Oh well, you can’t win them all I guess.
Despite all the mind-blowing moments I’d seen up until now, the true feast of this performance was the thirty-three minute epic from Momentum, “World Without End.” It’s funny because there weren’t any big surprises here. It was pretty much similar to what you get on the album. All I can say though is that this song made for a killer live track and that the entire band was on fire! This piece has so much to offer in the way of big sweeping melodies and leads, solos, virtuosity, catchiness, and great themes that tie the whole thing together. All the planets aligned on this performance and the band really comes together, showing that each member plays an essential role in making this a stellar concert performance.
At this point the band has gotten all the huge pretentious stuff (which I love) out of the way and they decide to move onto some good, old-fashioned fun: Mike Portnoy on the mic singing “Crazy Horses,” a song which blew him away at the age of five as the heaviest song he’d ever heard. Many of you are probably bracing yourselves right now, but I’m not going to lie, this was so incredibly fun that you will probably watch it over and over. Then comes the song that I’d never have expected them to play live: “Sing It High.” But, there’s a twist that goes beyond that country vibe. Neal takes this moment to do what I have come to expect from Steve Vai, in other words, he shows off his band a ton. The results were splendid. Eric and Adson throw down some seriously wild shred, followed by some delicious phrasing on the keys by Mr. Hubauer himself. After loads of lick trading (G3 style!), we must not forget Randy, the man who throughout the entire show demonstrated first class musicianship and professionalism on the bass.
Live Momentum ended up being a real treat, the sort of show that prog fans demand, and the type of artists that can deliver in terms of musicianship, professionalism, and all around entertainment. Once again I stand impressed by Neal Morse and his band of gifted collaborators for their ability to deliver a truly amazing night of prog.