One of the most prominent figures in modern progressive rock is singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse.
Starting with his critically acclaimed band Spock’s Beard, Morse has made his presence known across various projects, including progressive rock super groups Transatlantic and Flying Colors, his solo career as a Christian musician and now his current project, The Neal Morse Band.
Despite the name, this group is anything but a backing band for Morse. Rather, this is a full-blown creative unit that features every member bringing something unique to the table.
Aside from Morse on lead acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keyboards and vocals, the band also includes Eric Gillette on lead guitar and co-lead vocals. Longtime Morse collaborator Randy George is on bass guitar and Bill Hubauer is on co-lead vocals, keyboards and saxophone.
Transatlantic and Flying Colors bandmate and Dream Theater co-founder Mike Portnoy plays drums. The band made its debut with 2015’s The Grand Experiment and is now looking to expand its horizons with a follow-up record, The Similitude of a Dream.
Rather than creating a straight-forward progressive rock album similar to the previous disk, this new record is now a full-blown concept album.
Loosely based on the Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come under the Similitude of a Dream” by John Bunyan, the album follows a lead character named Christian, who is tormented by spiritual anguish and is told that he must leave the City of Destruction to find salvation in the Celestial City.
Concept albums and rock operas are nothing new to Morse. He previously wrote and recorded Snow for Spock’s Beard, The Whirlwind for Transatlantic and various Christian-themed albums for his solo career. Bandmate Portnoy has also cut his teeth with concept albums like Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory for Dream Theater, as well as the aforementioned Whirlwind.
In a fitting twist of irony, just before this new record was released, Portnoy’s former band Dream Theater released its second rock opera, The Astonishing, this time with Portnoy’s replacement Mike Mangini. Compared to the Rush and Styx-inspired rock and roll rebellion storyline of Dream Theater’s album, The Similitude of a Dream’s storyline is more spiritual in content, in keeping with Morse’s born-again Christian background, but still manages to be easily accessible to both longtime fans and those who are just getting into the genre.
The band also manages to avoid falling into one pitfall that is commonly found with concept albums. While a lot of them could easily be condensed into one album’s worth of great music, a lot of them are packed with interludes, minute-long intros and filler tracks that could easily be left on the cutting room floor.
Across the two disks, there is not one moment of pointless filler and listeners are in for 100 minutes of musical diversity that only Morse could provide.
While it is billed as a progressive rock album, the band dabbles in all types of music. Aside from standard progressive rock, several of the songs feature elements of Beatles-esque pop, blues, gospel and even country. Adding to the rock opera element of the album, several band members join Morse on lead vocals.
Compared to Dream Theater’s latest album, which had singer James LaBrie providing vocals for all of the characters in the opera, this new album’s vocal contributions result in it sounding more like Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall classic rock operas.
While it is too early to say if The Similitude of a Dream could easily stand alongside those two aforementioned operas over time, it is safe to say that The Neal Morse Band’s sophomore effort shows that this new band really is more than just another side project for Morse.
Last month, The Neal Morse Band started a tour to promote its new album. A few days before the North American leg ended, the band stopped by the Highline Ballroom for a sold-out evening.
The shows consist of the band playing The Similitude of a Dream album in its entirety, coupled with a changing encore of Morse’s classics. This tour is coming off of Dream Theater’s latest run on the road.
But compared to the vast concert halls and theaters that Dream Theater were playing in, The Neal Morse Band opted for a more intimate setting with stops in smaller theaters and nightclubs.
This approach, coupled with simple rear projection visuals, results in a show that succeeds in getting the album across to fans in a way that is straight and to the point. A lot of the songs take on a whole new life on stage compared to their studio counterparts.
“The Battle,” for example, becomes longer and even more intense than the album version. But the thing that really drives the show is Morse’s stage presence.
Aside from being incredibly quick and charismatic, Morse enhances the concept by wearing various costumes and masks of the characters found in the album, augmenting the Tommy vibe of the album.
Closing off this particular night were two cuts from The Neal Morse Band’s debut album and an extended rendition of Morse’s solo song “Author of Confusion.”