The Neal Morse Band – an extension of Morse’s voracious wellspring of musical expression – comes back strong after their solid studio project, The Grand Experiment and the live recording, Alive Again, with a return to the concept album format with The Similitude of A Dream. The two-disc project is a musical adaptation of John Bunyan’s allegorical tale popularly known as Pilgrim’s Progress, a shorter (much shorter) name than Bunyan’s original title, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. Morse wisely went with a shorter, and intriguingly ‘proggy’ version of the official title for the band’s ambitious take on the story.
Over the space of two CDs full of seamless transitions, high energy playing, rich vocals, and intricately-arranged themes, Neal (keyboards, guitars, and vocals), Randy George (bass and vocals), Mike Portnoy (drums and vocals), Bill Hubauer (keyboards and vocals), and Eric Gillette (guitar and vocals) unfold the spiritual journey of the main character through a series of musical landscapes and evocative lyrics.
Those familiar with Neal’s work – especially the autobiographical albums and other ‘themed’ albums – certainly have an idea of what kind of massive prog epic to expect with ‘Similitude,’ but there are significant differences this time around thanks to the input of the rest of The Neal Morse Band as co-writers, making this a true collaborative musical effort. This is a story of a spiritual journey and, as such, shares thematically with Testimony and Testimony II – in fact, it would be impossible to tell any redemption story without similar aspects of doubt, hope, faith, loss, redemption, etc. Even the great old hymn “I Love To Tell The Story,” declares, “and when, at last, in Glory / we sing the new, new song / ‘twill be the old, old story that we have loved so long…” – injecting new songwriting blood into these familiar themes has served to make Similitude (forgive me for shortening even Neal’s title) an engaging and varied prog masterpiece filled with more surprises than you’d expect.
Clocking in at over 100 minutes, there are too many musical high points to cover in this review, but the whole album is peppered with spectacular playing in a variety of prog flavors. Themes are established and repeat effectively as the story progresses. “Long Day,” a main vocal theme and the introduction to the whole work, has Morse, backed by strings, singing, “it’s been a long day, But I feel I must travel,” and travel we do – right into the “Overture,” – a furious, multi-part piece of prog-rock, with driving bass, dueling keys, shredding guitars, fierce drums, and heavy riffs. And speaking of heavy… there’s no shortage of heavy, hard rock infused into the music. “City of Destruction,” is a pounding juggernaut of a rock assault with desperation embodied in wonderfully dissonant guitar effects. ”Draw The Line” comes at you like a locomotive before transitioning to some really sweet jazz-rock near the end. Listen for the outright nasty entrance of Gillette’s guitar solo in “So Far Gone,” and the Led Zeppelin-inspired riff featured in “The Man In The Iron Cage” (there’s a nice moment at about 2:30 that reminds me of Mountain in their prime).
Mike Portnoy seems to be channeling Keith Moon in the impressive “I’m Running,” which also includes some absolutely stunning, stupefying bass playing from the impeccable Randy George (who cannot be too highly praised for his fine work throughout). Portnoy’s playing on this entire project is powerful and expressive as always and, I think, even more nuanced than ever before. “Confrontation” is a drum-lover’s delight and a well-constructed piece that revisits several musical themes. Sounding exactly like the title, “The Battle” is a melodramatic, fast-paced effort that conjures up visuals of theatrical staging if this should ever end up as a stage production.
As on other massive concept projects, there seems to be at least three spots that sound like a big ending, culminating in “Broken Sky” and “Long Day (reprise),” which really is the ending – and a grand, majestic ending it is, starting with piano alone, adding voice, then organ, then drums, guitar and bass – constantly building until the full band gets involved by about the two minute mark. It’s one of several very effective big ballads that grow in emotional as well as musical intensity on the project. Of particular note is the prominence of Eric Gillette as a very effective vocalist. His clear strong voice has excellent range and is nicely featured to great effect on the final track. Bill Hubauer’s distinctive vocals are also given more space on Similitude – especially on the exceptional attention-grabber, “The Ways of a Fool,” a Beatle-eque slightly-sinister soft-shoe with an ingenious arrangement, layered vocals that flirt with Queen-style fast, tight harmony phrases and even some subtle Beach Boys sounds. It’s sardonically humorous but with layers of subtle messages and a killer tour-de-force instrumental break in the middle.
Of course, Morse is at the heart of the project, his emotional and flexible vocals delivering his lyrics with conviction and passion. Obviously, the versatile artist is a proven master of multiple instruments and shares guitar and keyboard duties with Gillette and Hubauer throughout the album.
Over-all, The Similitude Of A Dream is The Neal Morse Band making a very strong case for this new direction of more diversity of musical direction and certainly of the vocal landscape in Neal Morse’s work. There’s still no mistaking this project for anyone other than Neal being at the helm, but with the exquisite talents of Portnoy, George, Hubauer and Gillette being more involved in the creative process, the extra musical textures are a welcome addition
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