Artist: The Neal Morse Band
Album Title: The Similitude Of A Dream
Label: Radiant Records
Date Of Release: 11 November 2016
Is it just well-calculated hype or is it a genuine belief? That was my first thought when Mike Portnoy declared that the new Neal Morse Band album, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ to be the album of his and Neal Morse’s career. But he even went further than that on his official Facebook page to declare:
“I will be so bold as to put my balls on the table and say I think this album can even sit side by side with The Who’s Tommy & Quadrophenia, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Pink Floyd’s The Wall…yes, I said it!!! ”
It was at that point when I realised that I had to hear this record. I really enjoyed ‘The Grand Experiment’ from last year and when one of my favourite and most highly respected musicians and songwriters makes a comment like that, it is hard to ignore. I mean, come on, Mike was partly responsible for ‘Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory’ for heaven’s sake.
Inevitably, it fans the flames of expectation and gets tongues wagging immediately and I firmly believe that was an intended consequence of this quote. However, having lived with ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ for a little while now, I’m beginning to think that the hyperbole wasn’t just a clever marketing ploy; Mike Portnoy believes his words to be true and, being the larger than life character that he is, he isn’t afraid to voice his opinion.
But not only that, other press bods are broadly in agreement too. Many of the reviews already published are dishing out full marks and not sparing the superlatives. I’ve deliberately not read any of the content because I didn’t want to have my opinion clouded by the thoughts of others, but it’s hard to avoid the raft of 10’s that have been flying about of late.
But enough of that. What do I think?
First off, I must admit to coming at this album from something of a lay perspective. I have a guitar. In fact I have two guitars. Unfortunately, I can’t really play them and anything other than simple strumming in a 4/4 beat is beyond me. Therefore don’t read this review if you’re looking for a detailed commentary on the technicalities of the music, because you’ll be disappointed. Instead, I prefer to focus on what I like, why I like it and how it makes me feel.
That said, I can recognise talent when I hear it and there is no denying the technical ability of the musicians involved in this band. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Morse and drummer Portnoy are guitarist Eric Gillette, bassist Randy George and keyboardist Bill Hubauer. They are all, without doubt, some of the most extraordinarily accomplished, professional and highly talented musicians out there and their extensive abilities are writ large across ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ both in terms of their individual performances and as a collective group. Ambitious and flamboyant drumming, blazing guitar work, expressive bass, top class vocals; it’s all here in abundance and more.
And, in keeping with the previous album, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ was written in a much more democratic manner with each member contributing to how it was shaped. When the result is a near two-hour double disc, you can tell that the chemistry and creativity must have been at an all-time high.
Now, I have written ad nauseum how I dislike any album with religious connotations. My reasons are myriad and complex but suffice to say that when my only sibling passes away in his mid-twenties, a victim of one of the most vile and evil diseases on Earth, it is impossible for me to accept that there’s anything or anyone ‘up there’ looking over us. As such, the music has to be of the absolute highest quality for me to even contemplate listening to it where religion is involved. So when I discovered that ‘The Similitude Of a Dream’ is, according to Morse, loosely based upon a 1678 Christian allegory called ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ by John Bunyan, you’d have thought I’d have run a mile. However, given the hype surrounding this album, I felt compelled to give it a try.
I’m now on my umpteenth spin and I’m thoroughly smitten. Yes I can hear words like ‘God’, ‘Satan’, ‘Father’, ‘Mercy’, ‘blessed’ and others sprinkled throughout the record and yes, I do flinch a little at their use but I’d have to be a prize idiot to let that stand in my way. Why? Because ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is a phenomenal body of work that cannot be ignored.
Before I get on to the numerous positives, there are a few parts of this behemoth that I’m not so keen on from a musical perspective. To be clear though, these are down to personal taste rather than a dip in quality. For example, I can’t get into the bluegrass workout that’s ‘Freedom Song’, it’s just not my thing. And neither is ‘I’m Running’, the chorus of which includes far too much brass in a far too ‘happy’, vaguely ska guise. And whilst on the subject of brass and my general aversion to it, the sax solo within ‘Shortcut To Salvation’ is a tad unnecessary within an otherwise fabulous acoustic-led track. Put into context though, these are just a few examples among many of the variety on offer within this record, something that should be rightly applauded and welcomed, especially by those who accuse Neal Morse of being a predictable musician.
I’m also not convinced that the whole album needed to be quite so long. It’s not often that you hear a prog fan being critical of excess in any shape or form. However, there’s an argument for a slight truncation because however much of an aficionado you might be, two hours is a lot of music in one go, particularly when the music is as intense and ambitious as this.
But then, to immediately contradict myself, I have happily sat through the entire album in one sitting several times now. So maybe I’m just trying to find fault where none exists? Perhaps, but this is certainly something that might put a few people off listening in a day and age where attention spans are eroding faster than the polar ice caps.
Regardless, at this point, let me cut to the chase. ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ contains some of the very best progressive rock that I have ever heard.
The album opens with a short piece entitled ‘Long Day’ that introduces a melody and lyrics that are reprised at various points throughout the album and it sets the tone for what is to come rather wonderfully.
As the title suggests, ‘Overture’ is a near six-minute instrumental workout where every member of the band gets an initial chance to shine. Fundamentally however, in and amongst the technicality, there are lots of strong melodies to be heard as well as a myriad of different ideas that pull together to create a powerful song rather than a collection of disjointed noodlings. It flits from all-out 70s inspired prog with classic keyboard sounds, to heavier hard rock/metal via moments of wondrous and grandiose symphonic pomposity. The drumming is out of the very top drawer but then so is everything else. The keys are warm, inviting and varied, the guitar growls and sings in equal measure and the bass rumbles with panache. It might be self-indulgent, but it is highly enjoyable and when I listen, I can’t help but smile.
Comprised of a mere 23 individual songs, it would be impossible to run through each in turn so I will pick out some further highlights within an album that is, in itself, a highlight of 2016.
‘The Dream’ is a quieter, more contemplative piece that is beautiful with some excellent, emotional vocals that genuinely move me, whilst lead single, ‘City Of Destruction’ is an altogether angrier, more agitated, yet playful composition that delivers some of the heaviest passages within the entire record. Again, the guitars and the rhythm section come to the fore, as do the vocals that are delivered from multiple locations within the collective.
‘Draw The Line’ is a true Jekyll and Hyde track. It begins in spiky fashion, dominated by a funky bass and strong up-tempo rhythms. However, it unexpectedly changes tack quite considerably by delivering a sublime melody that borders on mainstream pop music blended with soothing sounds and soulful vocals, very 70s in their delivery. There’s even a dose of ‘lounge’ music for good measure and I can’t help but love it. It’s the kind of music that draws me in and forces me to press repeat as one listen is never enough.
‘Back To The City’ offers some really great vocals, full of passion and gusto, whereas ‘So Far Gone’ is a five-minute microcosm of everything that The Neal Morse Band do well; this is a really excellent progressive rock workout that succeeds as a standalone song or as part of the wider narrative.
‘Breath Of Angels’ by contrast is one of those songs that I should hate but don’t. It is a ballad of sorts to close out disc one and the lyrics here are more overtly religious than almost anywhere else on the album. It also features church choir vocals but I’m not deterred at all because the melodies and the atmospheres are so strong and addictive, not to mention the deft compositional nous it displays. It should be my most hated track but it has quickly become a favourite. It builds from modest foundations into something much more grandiose, symphonic and genuinely euphoric, topped off by a beautiful lead guitar solo where Mr Gillette manages to make the guitar truly sing. It’s a truly fitting way to end the first half of the album.
And, naturally, the second act has several highlights as well.
It begins with some classic prog rock key sounds from Hubauer before building in intensity and exploding with plenty of exuberance. ‘The Man In The Iron Cage’ is equal parts moody and groovy, with an up-tempo hard rock vibe which contrasts starkly with ‘Sloth’, which as the name suggests, is an altogether slower proposition. Slower it might be but it contains some sumptuous melodies to dive into, including a return to the ‘Long Day’ theme. It is a track that ends with a demonstrably neo-prog edge but importantly, it bathes me in a warm glow every time I hear it.
Bill Hubauer is given centre billing on ‘The Mask’ which is essentially a solo piano piece for the most part, only joined by vocals after two minutes and then exploding with real voracity towards the end of the intense and dark track. ‘Confrontation’ on the other hand is a much more frenetic composition that sees a reprise of ‘City Of Destruction’ within it as well as a more pronounced multi-vocal delivery.
‘The Battle’ is an all-out fast-paced instrumental prog piece that packs a lot in to its relatively short life – it’s the kind of song that you listen to if you need a shot of full-on prog rock but you only have three minutes to spare.
However, as is perhaps fitting, it is left to the final track to steal the show. Entitled ‘Broken Sky/Long Day (Reprise)’, it concludes the story and delivers the epic climax that an album of this nature demands. By this point, the now familiar melodies are beginning to become etched on my mind and as such, they become all the more powerful. I could listen to the guitar solo over and over again and the same is true of the vocal melodies that make the whole thing so much stronger. But the way in which it all comes together is a work of art, building from calm and sensitive, to an insanely brilliant crescendo that is symphonic, majestic, compelling and utterly sensational in every way. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to focus on how the music makes me feel. Well, as I listen to this finale, I get goosebumps and shivers as my senses are almost overwhelmed.
It is way too early to say whether ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ will eventually stand alongside the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘The Wall’. However, despite the occasional flaw and my discomfort with the lyrical content, there can be no denying the fact that this recording is a magnificent achievement and deserving of high praise. To my mind, ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is definitely one of the musical highlights of 2016 and a masterclass of progressive rock.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:
Memoreve – Insignia
Enbound – The Blackened Heart
Blind Ego – Liquid
Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
Hammerfall – Built To Last
Testament – Brotherhood Of The Snake
Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze
Riverside – Eye Of The Soundscape
Hanging Garden – Hereafter
Theocracy – Ghost Ship
Arkona – Lunaris
Oddland – Origin
Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour
Edensong – Years In The Garden of Years
Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep Of Reason
Alcest – Kodama
Opeth – Sorceress
Negura Bunget – ZI
Epica – The Holographic Principle
Amaranthe – Maximalism
Eye Of Solitude – Cenotaph
Seven Impale – Contrapasso
DGM – The Passage
Pressure Points – False Lights
In The Woods – Pure
Devin Townsend – Transcendence
The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness
Evergrey – The Storm Within
Dream The Electric Sleep – Beneath The Dark Wide Sky
Periphery – ‘Periphery III: Select Difficulty’
Karmakanic – Dot
Novena – Secondary Genesis
Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
Eric Gillette – The Great Unknown
Tilt – Hinterland
Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight
Wolverine – Machina Viva
Be’lakor – Vessels
Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Big Big Train – Folklore
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld