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Neal Morse - ? [Aka: Question Mark] CD (album) cover

? [AKA: QUESTION MARK]

Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.19 | 581 ratings

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Neu!mann
Prog Reviewer
3 stars My apologies in advance for any snide remarks, but the evangelical music of Neal Morse has always elicited strong reactions, both pro and con. Too many of the latter on this web site are hidden behind the camouflage of a ratings-only single star, so allow me to play devil's advocate (so to speak) in reviewing his otherwise nameless 2005 solo album, identified by title only with an enigmatic question mark.

A less charitable critic might say it's about time someone pulled the curtain away from this charlatan. He abandoned SPOCK'S BEARD at a critical moment in the band's career, claiming his newfound Savior had other plans for him. Nothing wrong there: we should all heed the councils of our inner nature. But has anything really changed in his music since then? Take away all the heartfelt but artless preaching, ignoring for now his ongoing series of CD worship sessions (as they rightly should be, at least in this forum), and what's left are the same pile-driver Neo-Prog gestures, employing awesome musical skills to be sure, but often played with all the nuance of a superstitious bull in a cheap china shop.

His subject here is The Tabernacle, that mystical nomadic temple, usually depicted as a tent of sorts in a neatly fenced yard, toted around the desert by the Jews after their Exodus from Egypt. Legend recalls it as a place of cabalistic ritual and symbolism...the perfect setting, in other words, for a Progressive Rock concept album, illustrated musically by an uninterrupted, 56-minute cycle of typically histrionic but spirited Retro-Symphonic sermons, divided into twelve linked chapters (the number apparently carries arcane significance: see below).

Once again, Morse is recycling riffs and melodies wholesale from his own extensive musical archives. But I have to admit he's playing as if truly inspired, and with enough creative energy to sway even an outspoken skeptic like myself. A stellar guest list makes the project even more attractive. Ace drummer Mike Portnoy invited his DREAM THEATER comrade Jordan Rudess to the sessions, and Morse finally plugged a weak spot in his roster by enlisting brand-name guitar talent, including superstars Roine Stolt and Steve Hackett. The latter has a solo spot at around the 37:00 mark that compares favorably to anything from his own laudable career, in GENESIS or afterward.

So the album deserves four unconditional stars for musical chops, despite its frequent moments of overwrought ostentation, as in the full orchestral bombast (complete with choir) inflating chapter seven, "The Glory of the Lord". But the strictly one-star banality of the libretto almost spoils the experience, at least for listeners old enough to recall the more diverse spiritual aspirations of the same Golden Age Prog that continues to influence Morse's better music cues.

Of course Progressive Rock has always suffered under the burden of occasional lame-brained lyric writing, dating back to when mountains first came out of the sky, and stood there. All Neal Morse did was elevate the same metaphysical quest to a higher, much narrower plane. Let me repeat: it isn't his religious convictions that undermine the album. It's the retrograde way the newly-minted prophet from Van Nuys drags his primitive theology around like a gold-plated ball and chain.

Consider the song "Solid as the Sun". Unless "Sun" is a poetic twist on the word "Son" (of God, of course), it's worth remembering that our local star is really just a bloated mass of plasma and hot air: not the best metaphor in a Born Again prog-rocker's playbook. And his occult embrace of numerology is just plain silly. "Twelve makes a day / Twelve tones in music / Twelve months a year / Do you think it's an accident?" (No, Mr. Morse, it's called a meaningless coincidence, and in the real world twenty-four makes a full day...)

A majority of the lyrics merely quote verbatim from biblical scripture, dutifully citing (and in one instance actually singing) the chapter and verse ("Leviticus 21:18!") And it requires nearly 2,000 words before Morse finally arrives at his point. But it's a point worth making, even to an irreligious dissenter like myself: we are each, if we choose, a vessel of that Holy Spirit he reveres. The Temple of the Living God he sings about is actually a living, flesh and blood shrine, multiplied by the population of earth into uncounted variations of belief. When seen like that, it hardly matters if the deity itself is a fiction.

I doubt if Neal Morse would accept the olive branch of that interpretation, extended from a kindred Proghead across an unfathomable gulf of irrational faith. And his album isn't likely to save any wayward souls here on terra firma. But when Morse finally reaches the Pearly Gates he could certainly teach his Heavenly Father a thing or two about the guilty pleasures of Neo-Prog overkill...provided, of course, that his god is actually a fan of Progressive Rock (given his track record, I tend to imagine the Almighty as more of a Punk). What H.L. Mencken once famously wrote about the prose style of President Warren G. Harding applies equally to this musical effort: "...it drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. But I grow lyrical..."

To which I can only add an enthusiastic (but entirely secular) "Amen."

Neu!mann | 3/5 |

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