By Vic J Giol
Prog’s heavy hitters have all contributed excellent music in what is likely to be an unmatched year of new music in a genre that has really raised the bar of not only quantity but quality over the last several years. 2021 continues to cement itself as the top year of modern prog music — and to no one’s surprise, two of the genre’s cornerstones, Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, who have already delivered top-notch albums earlier this year, once again join forces along with Randy George, Bill Hubauer, and Eric Gillette on The Neal Morse Band’s fourth studio album, Innocence & Danger. The quintet, now branded as NMB, have delivered their most collaborative effort to date which is reflected by the stylistic versatility of the different songs. Following the success of consecutive double CD concept albums, The Similitude Of A Dream and The Great Adventure, NMB return with a collection of great stand-alone compositions. While this results in their third consecutive double CD, the members explain in interviews the material which came together naturally lent itself to more than one CD. These musicians are able to deliver another effort with over an hour and a half of high-level music. You can listen to Portnoy’s summary of the writing sessions in the Ultimate Neal Morse Album podcast.
Innocence & Danger has the daunting task of following two of NMB fans’ most popular, emotional, and beloved albums. The first disc titled ‘Innocence’ is comprised of “shorter” songs, that cover the broad spectrum from heavy, upbeat, and chock-full-of-chops rockers, to more pop-centered mellow and acoustic selections. The second CD, ‘Danger’, brings 2 epics totaling almost 51 minutes. There is something for every prog music fan. Also to not be understated, the band’s sixth member behind the mixing board, Rich Mouser, gives the perfect presentation of power and clarity to the album.
The first two songs, “Do It All Again” and “Bird On A Wire”, which have been released as videos, both showcase the more traditional prog rock side of the band that we have come to know. The opening track recalls one of NMB’s classic tracks “The Call” from their first album. “Bird On A Wire” is an uptempo prog rocker with an arena-rock flair. As previously experienced, Portnoy and George establish the foundation, with Gillette’s guitar prowess and Hubauer and Morse’s keyboard mastery rounding out the sound which is very familiar, while maintaining a fresh approach. The vocal duties are shared with Morse typically taking the verses, Gillette taking the choruses, and Hubauer taking the bridge sections. This comes across very naturally in the material. Of course, the chops are aplenty and intense instrumental segments with tasteful solos from the guitars and keys are the flavor of the moment.
The next three songs show the versatility and variety of styles that characterize Innocence & Danger as NMB’s most expansive collaboration. The group’s pop sensibilities are obvious in “Your Place In The Sun” with a great melody and chorus. “Another Story To Tell” has a really cool groove with great vocal harmonies. Both songs recall elements of ELO, Toto, Supertramp, and bands of that ilk. Meanwhile, rounding out this section is the Pink Floyd-ish “The Way It Had To Be” (a leftover track from The Great Adventure), where Gillette’s lead vocals are highlighted in a very mellow and groovy setting.
Morse then injects some acoustic guitar goodness in “Emergence” as it prepares the setting for “Not Afraid Pt.1”. This section recalls the days of Spock’s “Chatauqua” and “Distance To The Sun” where Neal’s acoustic guitar chops are showcased as well as The Grand Experiment’s “Waterfall”—all classic acoustic moments in which thick vocal harmonies deliver a great performance. Disk 1 is brought to a close with a bombastic prog-version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. Fans familiar with the group’s rendition of “Macarthur Park” should except something just as grand and epic.
For the lover of prog epics, disk two serves as the main course after disk one’s appetizer. “Not Afraid Pt. 2” is the ‘shorter’ epic that begins with a haunting piano and quickly builds in typical NMB fashion. Portnoy’s playing is showcased during the following instrumental section. The first 3.5 minutes are solid instrumental prog magic. Then melodies are introduced, expanded on, and reprised, climaxing in the usual NMB manner with the customary powerful ending. But just when you catch your breath after such a killer ride—comes the epic finale “Beyond The Years”.
This 30-plus minute masterpiece will likely rise to the top of Morse-composed epics. Starting with a classical string arrangement and the trifecta of Hubauer, Morse, and Gillette vocals trading off lead lines (in the style of Kansas), NMB weave through challenging instrumental segments and the introduction of different themes. The band comes in full force with Portnoy joining in the vocal contribution. At about the halfway mark of the song, the mood relaxes and Hubauer establishes the next musical melody which the band expands on with Gillette delivering another master solo. The climax of the song begins at about the 21st minute where the rhythm expertise of the musicians are showcased one more time. Leading to the final presentation of prior themes then transitioning to the final lead solo which fades into the calming starting theme to bring the album to a close.
With this album, NMB successfully bring a little bit of everything ultimately delivering another excellent album. They have maintained a familiar sound with a slightly different and more collaborative approach resulting in a breath of fresh air. NMB joins elite company when you consider how this talented band has now amassed four exemplary progressive rock albums. The question to ask: What is your preference? Innocence or Danger?
What a terrific time to be a modern prog fan! This is sure to be on the 2021 top albums list.
Released on August 27th, 2021 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: Do It All Again, Bird On A Wire, Not Afraid Pt.2, Beyond The Years
CD 1 (Innocence):
1. Do It All Again 08:55
2. Bird On A Wire 07:22
3. Your Place In The Sun 04:12
4. Another Story To Tell 04:50
5. The Way It Had To Be 07:14
6. Emergence 03:12
7. Not Afraid Pt.1 04:53
8. Bridge Over Troubled Water 08:08
CD 2 (Danger):
1. Not Afraid Pt.2 19:32
2. Beyond The Years 31:22
1.The Making of Innocence & Danger(1:00:33)
2.Bill Hubauer Studio Tour(05:00)
3.Randy George Studio Tour(04:14)
4.Eric Gillette Studio Tour(05:06)
Neal Morse / vocals, keyboards, guitars
Eric Gillette / guitars, vocals
Bill Hubauer / keyboards, vocals
Randy George / bass
Mike Portnoy / drums, vocals
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