As the founder of neo-prog legends Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse
carried the torch of ’70s-styled progressive rock throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
In the face of the ever-changing currents of punk, hair metal, grunge, alt-rock
and, finally…ugh…boy bands and pop divas…Morse led his merry pranksters through
a series of albums, both conceptual and otherwise, that championed songwriting,
instrumental virtuosity, and erudite literary sense over the loutishness of
power chords and the glitter of pop-cult celebrity.
When he left Spock’s Beard to sojourn out on his own after becoming
a born again Christian, Morse had a personal crisis of faith that resulted in
brilliant recordings like Testimony and One, the artist lyrically exploring
his newfound faith in a decidedly prog-oriented musical landscape. With Lifeline, Morse’s ninth solo effort and his
fifth original studio album since breaking with his former band, Morse has
attempted to craft a collection of songs that matches the extended instrumental
compositions of Spock’s Beard with his personal fondness for Beatlesque pop and
his life-affirming, contemporary Christian lyricism.
It’s a shaky tightrope that Morse is attempting to balance on
here, but Lifeline manages to deliver
without the need for a safety net. With the help of his long-time pals, bassist
Randy George and Dream Theatre drummer Mike Portnoy, Morse mixes his
still-fervent faith with brilliant songcraft and skilled instrumentation. Lifeline is, perhaps, the most overtly
autobiographical of Morse’s work, quite a feat considering his penchant for
confessional lyrics, but it’s also a document of his lifelong journey from the
dark to the light.
Throughout it all, Morse never comes across as “holier
than thou,” instead sounding joyous and thankful to be making music on his
own terms. Words aside, Lifeline is
Morse’s most animated collection, musically ranging from the almost-metallic
“Leviathan,” a humorous sea-serpent tale with screaming guitarwork
and oddly funky blasts of horn, to the lushly-orchestrated “Fly
High.” The spry folk-rock of “The Way Home” mixes soaring
harmonies with decidedly late-60s Brit-folk acoustic guitar play to create of modern
version of Genesis or the Strawbs.
The cornerstone of Lifeline,
however, is the twenty-eight-minute-plus masterpiece “So Many Roads.”
An epic song-suite that displays many shades of fanciful coloration, the
backing soundtrack zig-zags from classically-styled keyboard romps and swelling
choruses of grandeur towards folkish lyrics and full-bore rock jams, Morse
masterfully taking the best elements of Yes, the Beatles, Pink Floyd and, yes,
Spock’s Beard, and imbuing them all with his own unique musical vision.
As prog-rock continues to grow in popularity with audiences
searching for something other than label-manufactured rock bands and
cookie-cutter singer/songwriters, Neal Morse stands at the forefront of the
movement as a true believer and a trailblazer. When he first brought Christian
themes to progressive rock, there was no little uncertainty as to how prog fans
in the U.S., Europe and Asia would accept Morse’s good intentions. Better than
half-a-decade later, Morse is flying higher than ever, creating music that
incorporates the best of both prog-rock and CCR, reaching fans in both camps in
Standout Tracks: “Leviathan,” “So Many Roads” REV. KEITH A. GORDON