- 30+ minute songs = PROG
It’s been a decade since Neal Morse left Spock’s Beard, one of the defining progressive rock bands of the 90’s. Despite leaving one of the biggest prog groups to come out of the last twenty years, Mr. Morse has not slowed down one bit; like the chorus of the title track off his upcoming release says, he’s got some new momentum. I cannot help but stand in awe at the vast collection of great music Neal has left in his wake since leaving Spock’s Beard. Apparently, he didn’t jump ship just to drown out at sea. He’s become a leader in the genre, and spares no moment to rest from his labors. Between his output with Flying Colors, Transatlantic, and his solo records, I count at least eight prog rock albums, which is an amazing feat for a ten year period, not to mention he’s released a slew of DVDs and Christian albums during that time on top of the afore-mentioned prog gems. Between his new record, Momentum, and the tour he is embarking on I see absolutely no sign of him slowing down. I stand impressed.
Once again, joining Neal at the core of his band are none other than the uber-talented Mike Portnoy and Randy George. This nucleus of musicians is among the finest I have encountered, and on this, the latest Morse release, they show that their ability to feed off each other’s work is continuing to get stronger and stronger. Couple that with the fact that Neal pretty much called his boys up, told them to be there in two weeks, and then wrote the majority of the record between then and their arrival, what I’m seeing here is a very a special work.
With such a short time frame in mind, it may not come as a surprise that Neal’s latest offering is a single disc album and is not a concept album; yes, you heard me right, just one disc. To be honest, this had me initially worried, until I began listening and found the variety and sheer enjoyment of the songs on his latest effort. Momentum features a total of six tracks, each being meant to stand alone and each offering a pretty distinct angle at Morse/George/Portnoy style prog rock, ranging from the accessible catchiness of the title to track to the gloriously excessive, theme driven, 33 minute masterpiece, “World Without End.”
At this point, most fans have most likely seen the music video for “Momentum,” but this continues to be a song that surprises me with the small, yet important prog details that line the overall pop approach. Details such as the seamless blend of prog and pop through means such as the brief, yet fabulous use of Mellotron choirs in the pre-chorus give us a reminder of Neal’s roots while foreshadowing the proggy goodness that’s to come in upcoming tracks. The first of these that had me totally grinning is the Gentle Giant inspired “Thoughts Part 5,” delivering fantastic vocal harmonies, roaring Hammonds, and lots of delicious rhythms. Next up, we see “Smoke and Mirrors,” an introspective ballad-esque piece that is full of heart, devoid of cheese, and emphasizes its powerful chorus. Following “Smoke and Mirrors” are two more short tracks: the rocking and somewhat simple “Weathering Sky” and the strings driven rocker, “Freak.” While these were decent tracks, they certainly aren’t meant to be the musically deep moments of the album and didn’t really excite me too much, despite the new elements that “Freak” added to the Neal Morse sound. However, this isn’t a big deal at all when you realize that what you’re about to be hit with next is an absolutely massive and engaging 33 and a half minutes of prog in the form of “World Without End.”
“World Without End” offers absolutely everything that Morse fans love about his composing. The scope and vision of this piece of music is vast. As is traditional in Neal’s longer pieces, “World Without End” centers around several main musical motifs and develops them through a number of variations, mood shifts, and distinct song sections. While this makes the music sound very familiar, very “Neal Morse,” it is nowhere near stale. The music is grandiose and the themes are worked and reworked with skill and care, leaving an overall effect which makes the individual sections stand out as while making clear contributions to a larger, holistic view of the piece. The final product is a fantastic journey that is at times rock’in, playful, epic, intense, classic, and always proggy. I look forward to many such pieces to come.
With Momentum, Neal Morse and company show us that they know how to build upon where they’ve been and take some risks, but definitely not abandon all that we have come to love about their composition and performance. Momentum is a strong effort, both musically satisfying and uplifting. There’s a strong sense that Morse, George, and Portnoy are totally loving their collaboration, and honestly, I hope they continue that way. They make a great team, and with the contributions of new members of the Morse family too (by way of some of his new touring band mates) we should be seeing some great albums still to come.