Issue 2007-013: Neal Morse - Sola Scriptura - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Door (29:14): (i) Introduction (ii) In The Name Of God (iii) All I Ask For (iv) Mercy For Sale (v) Keep Silent (vi) Upon The Door, The Conflict (25:00): (i) Do You Know My Name? (ii) Party To The Lie (iii) Underground (iv) Two Down, One To Go (v) The Vineyard (vi) Already Home, Heaven In My Heart (5:11), The Conclusion (16:34): (i) Randy's Jam (ii) Long Night's Journey (iii) Re-Introduction (iv) Come Out Of Her (v) Clothed With The Sun (vi) In Closing...
Geoff Feakes' Review
Believe it or not it’s been nearly five years since Neal Morse dropped his bombshell announcing that he was quitting both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic. Admiring his talents as both a musician and songwriter I for one felt concerned that his new found faith would signal a withdrawal from recording and performing. My worries were unfounded however with his output remaining as prolific as ever and this his fourth release since the announcement. As previous releases Testimony, One and ? have demonstrated his Christian beliefs have had a significant effect on his work lyrically. His music however has remained solidly grounded in progressive rock. In fact sound wise Sola Scriptura is his heaviest album to date and that includes the work with his previous bands.
The title Sola Scriptura is Latin for “by scripture alone” meaning dedication to the words of the Holy Scriptures. It relates the story of the controversial 16th century German monk Martin Luther. Luther rejected certain activities of the Church at the time that he felt were in conflict with the scriptures. He was eventually excommunicated by the Pope for his beliefs. Interestingly Morse does not address Luther’s later life and his anti-Semitic writings which foreshadowed the actions of the Nazis when Hitler came to power some four hundred years later. In addition to writing and production Morse once again handles vocals, keyboards and guitars. He is joined by long time collaborator Mike Portnoy on drums and Randy George on bass. Adding that extra weight to the sound is special guest Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big fame on lead guitar.
The Door opens (excuse the pun) with a five minute instrumental that includes trademark Morse guitar, synth, piano and organ interplay with showy drum work from Portnoy. When the vocals enter the verses alternate from each speaker a device Morse has used many times before and is beginning to sound a tad dated. The menacing chorus “In the name of God you must die” is not one of Morse’s strongest and becomes over repetitive. The frantic organ and drumming that follows sounds straight out of Transatlantic’s Duel With The Devil. All I Ask For is a catchy song with smooth harmonies and brass effects that reminded me of one of my all time favourite Morse tunes Wind At My Back from Snow. More energetic playing with impressive soloing from Gilbert leads to Mercy For Sale with its skilful vocalising and tricky time signatures. The almost gospel Keep Silent is a song that would have sounded at home on Testimony with bluesy guitar licks from Gilbert. Sublime flute sounds and a soaring string theme sets the scene for the climatic Upon The Door. A clever false ending with subdued piano, string effects and a reflective vocal from Morse builds to stunning guitar solo from Gilbert that for me is the albums highlight.
Power metal guitar from Gilbert launches The Conflict with a heavy rock vocal for Do You Know My Name? that ironically sounds closer to current Spock’s Beard than it does Morse’s usual style. The stirring Party To The Lie is one of the albums better songs with great keys work from Morse. The lengthy instrumental Underground is another flashy display of musicianship lead by Portnoy’s lively drumming and George’s spot on bass work. An articulate classical guitar interlude is a welcome acoustic moment amongst all the musical mayhem that develops into a Latin rhythm with some jazzy keys work for the appropriately titled Two Down, One To Go. The Vineyard returns to the main musical theme with more heavyweight playing and dramatic almost shouted vocals from Morse. A delicate Yes like guitar and vocal moment opens Already Home with has another excellent chorus and a lyrical guitar break from Morse to provide a suitably uplifting ending.
The piano lead Heaven In My Heart starts out as a stately ballad with thoughtful vocals from Morse but when the strings enter it builds with grandiose orchestration and multi part vocals to a majestic almost over the top conclusion. It just about worked for me but some may find the sermonising lyrics and almost treacly arrangement a little hard to swallow.
The Conclusion opens with the bombastic Randy's Jam with lighting fast drumming, fiery synth and some stunning bass work from George. The chorus to Long Night's Journey sounds remarkably like Long Time Suffering from Snow but is still a good song all the same aided by dramatic string punctuations. Re-Introduction is a return to the opening instrumental followed by the melodramatic song Come Out Of Her with a string arrangement influenced by Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Clothed With The Sun is another climactic song from Morse designed to push all the emotional buttons with sweet strings, gorgeous backing vocals, and a melodic guitar and synth coda. In Closing... provides a delicate vocal and electric piano moment of serenity to close.
In truth, in spite of the harder edge in places, this album doesn’t break any new ground in terms of style or content. All the usual pomp and bombast we’ve come to expect from Morse is present and correct. Testimony still remains his best solo outing in my opinion basically due to the sheer excellence of the songs. I would say that in the quality stakes this release sits somewhere between ? and One. Although Sola Scriptura shows no significant development over his previous work it still has all the elements you would want to hear in a good prog album. Admittedly I do have a soft spot for Morse and he can do almost no wrong for me. Listening to Morse, Portnoy and George in full flight, this time aided by Gilbert, is still a joyful experience. I’m therefore compelled to give it a cautious DPRP recommendation although I suspect that if this was my first introduction to the man’s music I would like it even more.
Martien Koolen's Review
Sola Scriptura is Neal Morse’s fifth solo album and I must say that after the truly disappointing album ? and the super redundant Cover To Cover I actually like his new album. Although the playing time of the CD is 76 minutes the album only features four songs, three epics and one piano ballad. The epics are Transatlantic all over and that is probably the reason I like these songs so much. Paul Gilbert’s guitar playing really adds another musical dimension to this album. His “heavy” riffs, melodies and solos are a sheer delight to my ears; however I think that some Neal Morse fans could find some of the guitar passages too heavy….
The super epic called The Door, playing time over twenty nine minutes is without any doubt the best track on the album as it is filled with typical Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and Neal Morse musical elements. The five minute instrumental intro is divine prog rock music, especially Paul Gilbert’s guitar picking and shredding. Later on the song evolves into a classic, bombastic prog rock song with lots of solo spots and musical twists and turns.
The second epic also has some rather heavy riffs and rhythms as again Gilbert’s guitar work makes this song maybe too heavy for prog lovers. In the middle of the track the listener is treated to a Spanish/Latin acoustic guitar passage and the song ends extremely melodically with emotional vocals and nice guitar picking. The Conclusion is the third epic that reminds me of Transatlantic and it is again packed with already familiar Morse melodies, dramatic vocals, harmony singing and lots of interesting musical passages, although I prefer the other two epics.
The only bad song on this album is the piano ballad Heaven In My Heart, a song that gives me a real bad “deja-vu feeling” as I heard Neal doing this kind of song so many times before…
The album is lyrically based upon the Augustinian monk Martin Luther and his famous 95 theses. Sola Scriptura is Latin and means only according to the scriptures. During the dark times of the church the teachings of Christ got corrupted and there are still things that need to get sorted out. However, luckily Mr Morse is not as preachy on this album a usual, although it is again a controversial theme…… But the music is all that matters, or maybe not? Musically I really like this album and that is good enough for me!
Tom De Val's Review
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have awaited any new release featuring the playing and song-writing talents of Neal Morse with almost feverish anticipation. Like many prog fans I imagine, hearing my first Spock’s Beard album (in my case, The Kindness Of Strangers) was something of a revelation – I simply had no idea there were bands making music of this quality and style in the otherwise rather moribund prog-rock climate of the late 90’s. Similarly I remember well my first Beard concert – at the old LA2 (Mean Fiddler) in London on the Day For Night tour - and was gob smacked by the band’s musicianship and stagecraft – Morse’s in particular. In my mind, Morse and co kept up the good work all the way up to his last album with the band, Snow, which I found a little too disjointed to be particularly satisfying. However the news that Morse was leaving the Beard to pursue his new-found interests in Christianity was still a bitter pill to swallow, and it was with great rejoicing (groan – bad pun I know) that I greeted his musical reawakening (aargh – did it again!), Testimony. Whilst I know a section of the prog audience were uncomfortable with the very personal and religious message contained within the lyrics, a far greater number felt they could accept the lyrics (or simply ignore them) and get on with enjoying another quality album. Whilst many of my DPRP colleagues were putting the boot in regarding Morse’s seeming regurgitation of old themes on the follow-up, One, I kept the faith (ouch – must stop this) although, looking back on my review, I see that I did write “There is sometimes the feeling that Morse is going through the motions a little here, and his trademark sound obviously isn’t as fresh now as it once was”….
…. And now, with Sola Scriptura, my fear that diminishing returns were likely to set in should Morse simply continue in the same vein have, as far as I’m concerned, been well and truly realised. I should state from the outset that my thoughts on this album may not be entirely detached from the fact that the music I’m listening to these days is ever more varied, adventurous and experimental – thank/blame the Internet for that – and that perhaps I just expect something more stimulating from new music now than simply yet another album containing several more twenty-plus minute symphonic suites? I also have tried to put myself in the position of someone coming to the album having not heard Morse’s work before (although by now their must be very few potentially interested parties in that position) and would have to say that I probably would have rated it a little higher. But the fact remains that I am familiar with Morse’s work, and whilst there’s no way on earth you could call this a bad album, it just has an overwhelming feeling of ‘been there done that’ about it. Its’ not even that this sounds like any one particular album that Morse has produced before – just that almost all the elements within it sound rather over-familiar and reheated.
To illustrate, the listener could think for a minute and say, if I could describe a typical Neal Morse (or Morse-era Spock’s Beard, or Transatlantic, for that matter) album, how would it be constructed? Well, how about a thirty minute grandiose epic to kick things off, with an overture to introduce certain recurring musical themes before we go on a journey through a mixture of upbeat rocky sections, slower more balladic ones, symphonic forays, a bit of bluesy rock circa The Eagles, a dash of gospel vocals, and a long drawn-out conclusion that really does test the patience a little. OK, up next, mmm, maybe something a bit more quirky and edgy – how about we introduce some hard rock riffs in there, then maybe some Beatles-esque psych-pop, perhaps a bit of flamenco guitar? We’ll have a ballad to break things up, then bring things to a rousing conclusion with another epic which ties together any loose ends and once again batters the main signature themes into submission…Voila, the end product…Sola Scriptura!
Looking back at what I’ve just written, I’ve realised it does sound a bit harsh, but these were the thoughts that was running through my mind – Morse on auto-pilot, if you were. Again, I should emphasise that there are more than a few elements I do enjoy about the album – once again there’s some sublime musicianship, brilliant melodies and certainly some energy in the performances, if not the writing. There’s also something about Morse’s upbeat, breezy delivery (both vocally and musically) that almost effortlessly carries the listener along with him. I just can’t get very excited about a release that shows an artist effectively hitting a creative dead-end.
The principle new element – a lead role for ex-Mr. Big / Racer X guitarist Paul Gilbert – fails to add much that is new or exciting to the mix; his hard rock style of playing does add a slightly heavier edge to some of the material, which is welcome, but it can hardly said that his solo spots are particularly inspirational – technically adept maybe, but not exactly setting the pulse racing.
Lyrically, Morse has once again stuck to a religious theme – something I defy anyone to be particularly surprised about. This time he has taken a step back from his own personal perspective on faith and gone for a historical epic based upon Martin Luther and his 95 theses, proposing that one should live only to the words of the Holy Scriptures and not according to the dogmas announced by clerics. Its already attracted some controversy on various forums, but to be honest I think most fans will have decided by now where they stand with regards to Morse’s lyrical themes – i.e. that this is where he is at now, so its time to accept it or move on.
So to summarise – there is no doubt that Morse will find some favour with the prog community with his latest opus, as it undoubtedly ticks many of the boxes which attracted many of them to his music in the first place. It’s just an album in this style too far as far as I’m concerned.
As a postscript, I really do feel that Morse needs to do something that will help him get the freshness and vitality back into his song-writing. At this stage in his life, no-one’s expecting a complete musical volte-face, but perhaps a return to the simpler style of his first – self-titled - solo album (minus the epic!) and a – temporary if necessary – move away from the religious lyrics and focusing on other themes, would at least be a refreshing change. Both I realise are unlikely in reality – particularly the latter – but I feel Morse needs to do something before the creative well truly runs dry.
Dave Baird's Review
If only everything in life was a dependable as a new Neal Morse CD - or so the old Volkswagen TV advert nearly went. Well, here we are faced with Neal's fourth progressive epic since his high-profile defection to God, and based on previous form there's no reason to believe that the music will be nothing short of excellent. Perhaps the two most pressing questions to be answered will be: how will the lyrics be and, somewhat ironically, how much will it sound like Neal Morse? Fair dues to Neal on this occasion because he's chosen a slightly different line-up, still we have the rhythm section powerhouse of Mike Portnoy and Randy George on bass but this time they're joined by Paul Gilbert (who also played with Neal on Mike's Beatles tribute project, Yellow Matter Custard).
The answer to the first question is that of course that it is a religiously themed album but the religious references are less in your face than those on Testimony, One or ? so for the unbelievers amongst us it's an easier ride this time around. As someone said on the DPRP Forum, Neal preaches what he believes in and you have to respect him for that. Allegedly the album's about the 16th century German theologian Martin Luther - look it up on Wikipedia if you're really interested to know more... And what of the music? An often heard criticism is that Neal Morse has become a parody, constantly repeating himself on subsequent recordings - if you have one you have them all if you like. There's a fine line between a trademark style and self-plagiarism and whereas you could recognise the music as Neal's from just a few short bars I think there's enough evolution from what has gone before to make this CD very interesting indeed. And the introduction of Gilbert on guitars seems to have been a master-stroke giving the whole album a more metal feel than previous releases.
The Door really sounds like a track from a lost SPMTe session tape that someone found in their attic - very fine stuff but a little too comfortable maybe with typical Morse arrangement and a bluesy feel to the guitar work with Gilbert sounding surprisingly like Neal's brother and former Spock's Beard band-mate Alan Morse at times. Things move up a gear or two at the beginning of The Conflict with a real prog-metal feel and genuine guitar shredding in the opening minutes - quite unexpected on a Morse album but very effective and appreciated. This track is closer to having a Snow vibe but benefits the heavier approach in the beginning as well as a lovely nylon-stringed acoustic interlude bang in the middle of the track - another little pleasant surprise - which shifts into a Latin feel before returning to heavy bombast, a repeat of the main themes etc.
After two great epic tracks, Heaven In My Heart is somewhat a disappointment being a rather short and standard piano/strings driven ballad style song. Normally Neal excels with such music but this sounds flat and uninteresting - not perhaps a strong enough melody to carry the piece. However, this is only five minutes out of the whole 75 so it can be forgiven. Fortunately things get back on track with The Conclusion and it's clear from the opening minute that the best has been saved to the end - this is far more up-tempo than we've heard before from Neal, rippling keyboard arpeggios, sudden mellotron interludes, frenetic bass and drums, heavy guitar - really excellent stuff again with that unmistakable bombast gluing it all together. In a way it's a shame that Neal starts singing, I really could have accepted fifteen minutes like the opening three! When he does sing though you really have to think Snow again, especially with the chorus. The tempo picks up again in the middle of the track (listen to the drums around the seven minute mark, really incredible stuff) before running into a somewhat inevitable but nevertheless superb ending sequence where Neal passes through the main themes of the album in the final minutes.
There's a lot going on with this CD - yes in many ways it mostly sounds like Neal's previous work but this is a plus in my book - Neal is quite unique and if he were to change we would surely miss it. The harder edge of Solo Scriptura though makes for a more intense experience than his other recent releases and it's different enough to delight the existing fan-base and win back some that he had perhaps lost along the way. Yet another great album in 2007 - the poll is going to be tough this year...