Let the great adventure now begin… the last lyrical line from The Neal Morse Band’s landmark epic, The Similitude Of A Dream album, prophesied its successor. January 25th will see the release of the follow-up album, The Great Adventure and a subsequent world tour, which will begin on February 2nd, in Nashville, TN. The Neal Morse Band consists of: Neal Morse, primary lead vocals, keyboards, guitars; Mike Portnoy, drums and vocals; Bill Hubauer, keyboards and vocals; Eric Gillette, guitars and vocals; Randy George, bass and vocals. Whereas Morse is the primary lead vocalist, Portnoy, Hubauer and Gillette all contribute lead vocals and collectively, the four of them blend their voices into mellifluous three and four-part harmonies. The predecessor, released in late 2016, resulted in a busy 2017 for the band and produced a live video release of a European performance, culminating in the final performance at Morsefest 2017, which is also available on video and audio.
Although it is a continuation of a story, The Great Adventure is in no way a carbon copy of its forerunner. This offering is similar in form, as a two CD set, and while the structure is similar, the tone and musical styling is quite different. The composition is definitely darker and edgier in tone and reflects the perspective of its focal character, who is the son of the main character in the previous story. Morse explains why that is by saying, “I think it was a God thing. In this one, the main character is working through the anger he has at his father. Imagine if your father left you for religious reasons. How would you feel about him and religion?” This story furthers the previous story which also comes in the same method. “Well, it starts off with the dream continuing. Except this time, there’s the vision that has to do with the abandoned son of the guy from the first album, who tried to get his family to go with him on this spiritual journey, and they won’t go. Then lyrically, I got the idea about the abandoned son being angry, but then feeling called to follow in his father’s footsteps, even though he’s really angry with him. Then he would make it to the end, the river, and his father would have already crossed over. And then he gets to decide whether he’s going to cross over or not. That was a lyrical key to unlock the story for me.”
The material was originally written in January of 2018 as a single CD, stand alone record and not a supplemental story. Morse put it aside for a while, as the individual members were busy with other projects. Upon revisiting the material, he states, “I just didn’t feel like it was everything it needed to be.” After some discussion and back and forth, the members collectively decided to continue to work on it. Subsequently they reconvened in August of 2018 and finished what is the completed product. One of the first initiations of the adventure is Welcome To The World, in which the cruel realities of the world are laid out. Welcome To The World was one of the songs from the original writing period. He goes on, “We had a version on the January version of the album, but it had a different chorus and I wound up rewriting the chorus, with the one we have now.” Dark Melody gives the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the tormented Joseph, as he questions what life is all about. The haunting chorus evokes empathy for him as he ponders his own journey. Venture In Black begins like a funeral dirge. As the protagonist sets out on his personal journey, he meets the first would be detractor, who comes as “nothing more than a friend” and tries to discourage this spiritual pilgrimage. The adventure presses on as he meets his father’s guide and they decide in Hey Ho Let’s Go that together they can make it. Beyond The Borders rounds out the first half of the album, highlighting Hubauer’s soulful voice as they trek in search of a love that never dies.
The second half of the album progresses with more commentary on the human condition and the dream continuing, and the journey will have pitfalls and troubles. Fighting With Destiny is a dark rocker, that maps out the road and makes sure to point out all the trouble spots and warning signs. Next is an allegory on the need for people to keep up with the Joneses and the trappings of materialism. On their ability to be sardonic while playing music that seems so upbeat and positive, as in Vanity Fair, Morse had this to say, “I just found with writing from Joseph’s perspective, just feeling the angst of that, getting into that sense of anger and abandonment, and I liked making him a sarcastic guy. I know a lot of guys that are kind of bitter, but they’re just quietly sarcastic and funny. And I wanted to make him one of those guys, just sort of cold and sarcastic.” That sarcasm shows through in the perky “cardboard people” that repeats behind the verses throughout the tune. Welcome To The World 2 is a colder, harder and more direct and less cynical interpretation of the first. Portnoy takes the lead on the vocals and his gritty singing style is fitting for the mood of the song.
Element Of Fear begins with a slow, augmented, deep guitar riff that resurfaces later in Freedom Calling. When it makes it second appearance, it is faster and more sinister sounding. It is a small piece of the puzzle, but has the feel of that piece that fits into the corner and is so gratifying when you find it. As it pertains to the music of the Neal Morse Band, it is one example of many of the varying textures that run through their music. When asked where that ability comes from, Morse theorized, “I think it’s just who we are. We’re creating from who we are, from our backgrounds. Generally speaking because Eric [Gillette] and Mike [Portnoy] are in the band, you know, that’s just kind of more their background. As far as that riff, that was Eric from January. That whole section, especially that Element Of Fear section, that was created in the room with the whole band. Then I put it to a beat and made it bad.” The journey concludes with another epic climax that starts out slow and builds throughout, into an emotionally evocative crescendo. Joseph arrives at a place of peace and understanding of his father’s decision and his own seeking of A Love That Never Dies. Gillette’s virtuoso guitar playing and sweet mid-high vocals command this piece. Gillette implores the listener to seek a higher place as the heavenly harmony of the background vocals fill the audible spaces with the power of a church choir.
It’s not uncommon for a band or artist to hit a new high, which opens them up to reaching a larger audience from what they previously have experienced. When this happens, those who are uninitiated may tend to expect a part two, three, etc. of the previous work. It may require some discipline to hear the new offering with fresh ears, as it may not be what one expects to hear. But, not to worry, some of your musical friends do visit this work, to lend an ear of familiarity to it. Maybe creating a bridge between the past and present is important for the listener. Morse explains, “Well that’s pretty much Mike’s thing. He loves to do that sort of thing and he was the one who mentioned, if we’re going to do a Similitude follow-up, we really should mention some of the main themes. And, so each guy would kind of throw out, oh, at the end of this, I could play this theme on acoustic guitar and then land here and it would segue into The Great Adventure. All the little ideas that we started to have, those became keys that unlocked certain sections of the album. For me it’s always about discovering what the album wants to be. Interjecting some of the things from the first album was really cool and worked out really perfectly, I think that it’s gonna be really fun for the audience, especially.”
There are struggles in playing a near two-hour album in its entirety, with minimal breaks in the action. The band is also about to embark on a 46 date world tour in just a 71 day span. Morse related how he personally approaches that, “Yeah, it’s real challenging and you want to get to a place where you can deliver your heart, so I just try to practice a lot and pray even more. I mean, for me it’s a matter of prayer more than anything, more than having the right notes and all the right words. We want to have the right spirit and have the spirit of God touching people. That’s what it’s all about.” Summarizing what message he would want to convey through the album and its live performance, Morse finished with, “My goal is like we say at the end of the album is, come on, you can find a place that’s higher, wherever we are, we can find a place that’s higher. God’s always moving us on to higher ground, if we’ll seek him. Seek your heart’s deepest desire for a love that never dies. What we say at end of the album is my goal for people, and myself as well.” With that message on their lips, The Neal Morse Band will unleash their follow-up album and the ensuing tour to the world, in a matter of just a few days. Let the great adventure now begin!