Neal Morse has never been afraid to take bold musical steps. Over the years the veteran progressive rock musician/vocalist/songwriter has charted his own course, first with his ground-breaking and highly influential band Spock’s Beard in the latter half of the 1990s, through to his inspirational, faith-based solo career that has seen him release more than two dozen albums under a number of different configurations.
All of this has solidified his reputation as one of the most gifted, prolific and respected prog musicians on the planet.
Although he has collaborated with fellow prog master musicians Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs) and Randy George since the turn of the 21st century, it’s only over the past few years that Morse has opened up his approach to music, developing a truly collaborative band – especially since the addition of bassist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette.
The Neal Morse Band released its first album under that moniker, The Grand Experiment, in 2015. The follow-up is a breathtakingly ambitious double disc concept album called The Similitude of a Dream, which will be released worldwide on Radiant Records via Metal Blade/Sony on Nov. 11. It is a work of truly epic musical and thematic proportions, inspired by the classic Christian book Pilgrim’s Progress.
“I have done a lot of music in my life I guess and I always seem to have different melodies and motifs and musical ideas flying around in my head, although not all of it is worth noting, not all of it is any good. But, really, making an album, especially now that it’s the Neal Morse Band, my part of it doesn’t take that much time. I could probably do everything that I did on this new album in probably about six weeks, with writing and tracking and everything. So that does leave quite a bit more time for thinking about musical ideas,” said Morse, who was speaking as he and his wife rode in an RV from Memphis to Nashville on a short family vacation.
“I wanted to create a more band-like atmosphere; I really felt it was the way to go. I am always praying and feeling out for what I should do next; what is the next direction to go. I hear a lot of suggestions and I know it’s been suggested by some of the guys in the band like ‘hey, why don’t we do this.’ So I thought about that and I prayed about it and I really felt like it would be a fruitful thing. Like anything else, it was an experiment and we didn’t know how it was going to go. You don’t really know much of anything until you try it. We just took a shot. But I think the proof of the success of the idea is on the CD. I can confidently say that it’s been a successful venture.”
Portnoy and Morse have been friends and collaborators for many years, with Portnoy coming on board first as a fan of what Morse was doing in Spock’s Beard.
“When I quit Spock’s Beard and wrote my Testimony album [in 2002] I felt like I should ask Mike if he wanted to play on it. But I wasn’t sure that he would want to because Testimony was pretty in-your-face Christian. But he told me to send him the demos and then he said ‘yeah, this is awesome,’ and did it. He is always very supportive and I am very thankful for that. It goes back a few years before that. He called me around 1997 and he was a Spock’s Beard fan and I thanked him for all the good press he was giving that band. I was reading some of his interviews and he was always talking up Spock’s Beard even though he was doing an interview about Dream Theater, which was really weird but for us,” Morse explained.
“So I talked to him on the phone and he said he was interested in doing a side project with me and, at the time, Jim Matheos of Fates Warning. But none of that ever materialized and after about a year we started talking about getting somebody else. So I pulled in Roine Stolt [Flower Kings] and Mike pulled in Pete Trewavas [Marillion] and we created Transatlantic. But it’s funny, I didn’t actually meet Mike physically for the first time until we met in the lobby of the recording studio where we recorded the first Transatlantic album [in 2000].
“Obviously Mike is an extraordinary drummer, but he is much more than that. He is very wise about a lot of different things, especially things that I am not. I suppose with any kind of good collaboration you provide what the other person lacks. He is very good about taking an overview of things, like the overview of a project or an album. He is very much involved in a lot of logistical things and the little details that many don’t think about, like the merch artwork and the flow of a concert. He is very good with that. And I think that’s because he thinks like a fan so he can help construct a set that is very good for the audience, adding things I would never think of. And also he is a really loyal and good friend and I appreciate him a lot.”
Transatlantic released four albums in all, the most recent in 2014, while the trio of Morse, Portnoy and George released two more albums together as, well, Morse, Portnoy and George.
Portnoy is the only non-Christian in the Neal Morse Band, and while Hubauer and Gillette share a passionate faith with Morse, they all share a love of music and superior musicianship and songwriting abilities
“Randy and I have been playing together for years. He first contacted me in the period between when I quit Spock’s Beard and when I put out Testimony. He drove down all the way from Seattle to audition for my Testimony band and I think it was in a pretty rinky dink car at the time. At first our relationship was a little weird but over time he has become a major part of the whole operation, because he deals with a lot of things on the business side of the band. He is an incredible help on all kinds of levels and he is one of the most amazing musicians you will ever meet. Bass is just one of the things he plays well. He is actually an incredible keyboard player and guitar player also,” Morse said.
“Bill and Eric are among the best possible musicians in the world, and I really believe that with all my heart. Their playing is through the roof. Eric Gillette auditioned on keyboard and guitar but he is also a great drummer. Bill and Eric also have great voices and Bill plays the sax and clarinet as well. It’s just the sickest band I have ever been in. And on the writing side of things, they bring so much to the table, especially Bill. He really made a huge contribution to both the Grand Experiment album and The Similitude of a Dream record.”
The process for what became the new Neal Morse Band record began late last year as Morse began cobbling together some musical ideas with no particular theme, or endgame in mind.
“For maybe three days in December I was just trying to jot down any ideas I had and I was recording lots of little things into my phone. I had some ideas that I thought were really good but I felt that I needed some direction but I didn’t know what. And I remember somebody on the internet suggested that maybe I do a concept album on Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t really know the book and hadn’t read it, so I literally asked Siri to give me the SparkNotes story [for Canadians, the online version of Coles Notes] and so I read it and I just brought up all these ideas. That gave me the initial ideas for several of the songs like City of Destruction and a few, just germs really, for some others and I presented them at a writing session we had in January,” Morse said.
“I basically presented my voice memos from my phone to the band, minus Mike at the time who couldn’t make the session. I think everybody was a bit ambivalent about it, and I was too. I was not sure. I thought there was something there, but I wasn’t quite sure. It was like mining: you see a little bit of gold on the ground but you’re not sure if you should commit to digging. It was kind of an exploration as Bill and Eric and Randy all had little bits and pieces of ideas that we sort of kicked around and the all found a home in this thing as we were just sort of chipping away at it. By the time we were done with that session in January, which lasted about five days, I was sure we were on the right track.
“Then I wrote some more on my own in February and sketched out a lot of stuff for the second disc. But when I say sketched out I don’t want to give the impression that I actually wrote the whole thing, because I didn’t. But I did sketch out a few things and then when Mike came in March that was when we actually wrote the piece for real and then we tracked it also. And that took about eight days.”
The full name for the book, written by John Bunyan in 1678, is The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is to Come; Delivered Under The Similitude of a Dream and is essentially the story of one man’s journey from the so-called City of Destruction to ultimate spiritual deliverance.
“It’s allegorical and it’s about this main character whose name is Christian and he feels compelled to leave the City of Destruction and he is seeking the Celestial City or the City of God. So it is essentially about an inner journey, as I would look at it, from flesh to the spirit or however you want to describe it – from Earth to Heaven. We have left it pretty open to interpretation and I think people can relate to it a lot of different ways. But to me what was cool was the stuff that happens to the guy on his journey. I thought it was really interesting all the people he encounters. Many of them are trying to get him off track, telling him to turn back or telling him to go a different way,” Morse explained.
“And he also meets people who help him along the way too. It is pretty hard to take it any other way than a Christian story. I guess it could be, but I don’t know if anybody reading that book would take it any other way. I guess it depends on the version you are reading. The version that I have has Bible scripture supporting every part of it. So it’s pretty hardcore. And it was written in the Puritan age. For my version I softened some of it and put my own take on it, which is what you do with art. I think I added a little bit more grace perhaps than John Bunyan did, but we all have different things that we accent more, different flavours that we put into things.”
And the journey of making the album The Similitude of a Dream was as fraught with challenges as the story on which it is based. Besides the early challenges in getting band members on side in the January writing session, when Portnoy came on board in the Spring, he was quite hesitant about the project.
“Mike was quite resistant to the story, really. He didn’t seem to get it and he definitely didn’t think it was worth a double album. I thought there’s so much to say about this book. The guy meets so many different characters and goes through a lot of different things and I really wanted to explore it and Mike did not. We really butted heads in a way that we never really had before. We had what I call Miserable Monday and Miracle Tuesday. We really hit the wall on the Monday. In fact, I left the studio and said ‘I am done.’ Then on Tuesday Mike came in with a totally fresh attitude and apologized to everybody. I had gotten up really early that same morning and wrote a bunch of stuff for the second disc, realizing that it wasn’t really good enough and that we needed to put more into it – which we did, as a group. It was incredible and Mike was so energized. Let’s put it this way, by Thursday night, Mike had finished his drums for the whole album and gathered us together and said, ‘guys, I think we just made the album of our careers.’ To me, once we gave up resisting what it wanted to be, things just rolled on. It was amazing.”
Morse sincerely hopes that people are moved by the album, both for its melodic musicality and its message.
“I hope that people are encouraged. I hope that they find themselves at some place in the story. It depends on where you are in your life and in your spiritual walk; you might find yourself relating to it right from the beginning or you might find yourself relating more to things that happen to the main character later on. Ultimately, I just hope it encourages people in their walk with God,” he said.
“We’re not really doing this for the money. We’re not really doing this worrying about the various markets where it might sell. We do this because we love it and we feel called to do it. There’s probably a lot of things we could do that would make more money.”
Morse said the band is planning to tour early in the New Year, with a small number of dates already booked for Canada, including January 30 at the Mod Club in Toronto, Club Soda in Montreal the following evening and Feb. 1 at Salle Jean Paul Tardif in Quebec City.
For more information on The Neal Morse Band and The Similitude of a Dream album, visit www.nealmorseband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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