Neal Morse – Sola Gratia (Album Review)

Review of the Neal Morse album – ‘Sola Gratia’ released on September 11th, 2020.

by Victor J Giol

In a year which will be remembered for the pandemic that brought the world to a halt, prog artists are using the unprecedented opportunity of extended home stays to create new music. This is a silver lining for the prog rock community as new music is something which fuels the fanbase of any talented artist, and few are as talented or have as impressive a resume as Neal Morse. This isolation presented an opportunity for Neal to focus on his progressive rock solo concept work, even thought the usual long time musical partners Mike Portnoy and Randy George bring their talents, as well as some guitar and keyboard work from Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer, respectively. Unlike with the Neal Morse Band, they were not involved in the writing or the singing on this concept album. This album was also entirely recorded “virtually” due to the travel restrictions.

Morse has described the album as similar to the ‘?’ and “Sola’ albums, which seems right on point as it has the structural similarity to ‘?’ and the music inspiration to ‘Sola’. This can be heard right from the beginning as Neal’s melody during the “Preface” brings back one of the most memorable melodies from the original ‘Sola Scriptura’ masterpiece. Using this familiar melody over some hypnotic 12-string guitar strumming, he explains “long before Luther wrote his words upon the door, there was a man who forged the way before.” He is referring to the biblical character Paul, who was aggressively pursuing the early Christians before his own conversion to Christianity. A fascinating story put to music (something which progressive rock is tailored for) by the modern compositional prog master Neal Morse with a very broad musical palette the fans became accustomed to in his 2000’s solo releases.

“The Overture” is 6 minutes of terrific music which quickly recalibrate the ears to the deep compositional skills of Morse and the usual chops of Portnoy and George. Melodies and musical passages are exciting and fresh and quickly remind the long time fans of the sound established in the 2000’s after Morse departure from Spock’s Beard. This fades to the first release and video “In The Name Of The Lord”. This is as intense and straight forward rock song that Morse has written within a concept album. The last minute of the song brings some terrific classic prog vibes with the polyphonic lines between the guitar, bass and keyboard. The story continues from Paul’s perspective as “Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones)” leads the listener through his thought process of why he must persecute the Christians.

“March Of The Pharisees” is a short instrumental which leads to the arena-rock-style anthem “Building A Wall”. This will surely bring on a loud audience interaction during a live performance. “Sola Intermezzo” is another short instrumental offering with a great vibe and bringing back the opening riff of ‘Sola Scriptura’. The high energy ending contrasts with the following song “Overflow”. This is the song which lets the listener relax and catch their breath from the first half of the story. A beautiful melody accompanied by piano and strings, is backed by a chorus of voices, flutes, and a great groove from Portnoy and George. Long time collaborator Rich Mouser once again delivers a perfect mix which is the signature sound of any Morse project.

“Warmer Than Sunshine” is a mostly instrumental piece that contains all things which satisfy the prog musicianship of syncopation, dynamics and depth. It’s a great microcosm of the heavy and melodic character of the album. At this point of the story, it is building up to the final conflict. “Never Change” is a terrific song bringing almost eight minutes of Neal’s vocals at their best in showcasing a very soulful and emotional delivery. In the story, this is Paul’s stubborn resistance to the conflict building up inside as he refuses singing “I will never change, I’ll never change!” This leads to the second release and video, “Seemingly Sincere”. As the longest song of the album, at 9 1/2 minutes, this is a highlight of the album as is describes the stoning of Stephen at the hands of Paul. As the song progresses, it has an extended instrumental section with great guitar riffs, keyboard solos, and long awaited Mike Portnoy drum solo. You can’t help but bang your head during the last few minutes of this epic track. Paul’s internal struggle is at a maximum and in “The Light On The Road To Damascus” he is more determined than ever to “go down south and wipe them out”; however, the tone changes as his conversion takes place.

The rest of the album changes it’s tonality as Paul’s persecuting days are done and is forever changed. “The Glory Of The Lord” is an uplifting song which peaks at the offering of an epic Eric Gillette solo on guitar (as Gilbert did on Sola’s “The Door”) as he adds his name to the list of guitarists which have brought their legendary chops to a Morse solo album. The choir closes the song in epic fashion and leads to the finale “Now I Can See/The Great Commission”. As expected, this is your usual Morse epic ending with the feel good ending with a terrific calm conclusion with a solo piano. Wrapping it up as an instant classic.

This latest solo effort comes at a time when Morse has just celebrated his 60th birthday. It seems that is just a number as Neal continues his usual pace of numerous releases. Still at the top of his game and in a short time, he has delivered yet another top level musical adventure which is one of the top albums of 2020. Perhaps the only negative is it only lasts for 65 minutes: however, would any length ever be enough? The album will be performed in its entirety at the [Morse]fest 2020 Lockdown festival in Tennessee, a week after the release date.

Released on Sept 11, 2020 on InsideOut Music

Key Tracks: In the Name of the Lord, Never Change, Seemingly Sincere

Track-listing:
1. Preface
2. Overture
3. In The Name Of The Lord
4. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones)
5. March Of The Pharisees
6. Building A Wall
7. Sola Intermezzo
8. Overflow
9. Warmer Than The Sunshine
10. Never Change
11. Seemingly Sincere
12. The Light On The Road To Damascus
13. The Glory Of The Lord
14. Now I Can See/The Great Commission

Neal Morse – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Mike Portnoy – Drums
Randy George – Bass
with
Eric Gillette – Guitar
Bill Hubauer – Keyboards
Gideon Klein – Strings

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