I discovered Neal Morse by way of Mike Portnoy, the founding drummer of prog metal group Dream Theater and one of my very favorite drummers of all time. Over the past 20 years, Morse and Portnoy have collaborated on plenty of albums over several projects, from the prog super group Transatlantic with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt and Pete Trewavas of Marillion to Flying Colors, a prog pop-rock group with Steve Morse and Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and vocalist Casey MacPherson, to numerous solo efforts of Morse’s that tend to be more religious in nature. These two guys get around, and many consider them (with good reason) the Lennon and McCartney of modern prog rock. Their newest project, the Neal Morse Band, brings in longtime collaborator bassist Randy George (who’s worked with these two guys performing a number of covers, sometimes under the banner of Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles-oriented cover group, and otherwise simply as Morse Portnoy George), and two welcome newcomers in keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette, both of whom are excellent vocalists as well.
Their first effort under this flag, 2015’s The Grand Experiment, showcased some fantastic prog with touches of religion here and there, and while there were a couple of missteps (Agenda, primarily, or at least its music video), there were touches of brilliance in the 25-minute epic Alive Again, the 10-minute opener The Call, the more religious-themed New Jerusalem and Doomsday Destiny (which gave us a taste of Bill Hubauer’s substantial vocal chops), and their sweeping cover of MacArthur Park that signified that there was more greatness to come from this band. And that’s exemplified in The Similitude of a Dream. Based on the first several chapters of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the extended title of which lends this album its somewhat florid title, The Similitude of a Dream is the sum of its parts — and then some. A concept album packed with religious symbolism but decidedly tighter than 2007’s Sola Scriptura and catchier than 2003’s Testimony, Similitude can truly be enjoyed from both a secular and religious standpoint, and is really just some fantastic prog.
Similitude begins humbly and delicately with thirty seconds of a string quartet introducing us to one of the more pervasive musical themes on the album, the “Long Day” theme. Morse portrays either a worn out Christian, the protagonist of Bunyan’s work, or Bunyan himself, who delivers his entire story under, well, “the similitude of a dream.” As the opening continues, Morse depicts a true sense of longing and need, with the final words “I’ve got to go” bringing us directly into the sweeping overture. The overture, as is to be expected, is instrumental and introduces many of the other musical themes we’ll be hearing over the course of the album, perhaps the most easily identifiable of which are the central musical conceits of The Slough, Slave to your Mind, and The Battle. The overture is, simply put, a gorgeous display of musicianship, especially on the part of Portnoy, who seamlessly navigates the ride, splash and hi-hat, and Hubauer, whose various keyboard parts (perhaps there’s some of Morse himself in there as well), some of them nearly siren-like, tie the whole piece together and help to bring it to an exceptional swell of a conclusion.
The Dream sets up Bunyan’s character (and indeed Bunyan himself) with an almost Steven Curtis Chapman-esque acoustic melody interplaying with Morse’s vocals. While perhaps not as exciting as the overture before it, The Dream sets up well the journey to come, simply depicting Bunyan’s “dream” and shifting the focus to the character of Christian and his learning of what he must do. This continues into the rollicking City of Destruction, which finds Christian in distress and dismay, emphasized by muted chords and stamping feet. Christian laments that “my family thinks that I’m insane” as a voice (ostensibly Bunyan’s Evangelist) calls him to leave his home and travel to the Wicket Gate. This voice is represented in the chorus by Eric Gillette’s excellent, John Elefante-esque vocals. City of Destruction is the album’s central impetus, doing for Similitude what The Temples of Syrinx did for 2112 — introducing us to our protagonist and his dilemma, while setting him up for the journey ahead and providing an excellent, tight piece of music to boot.
We Have Got to Go is another lighter, acoustic tune (to begin with) that shows Christian unsuccessfully attempting to convince his wife and kids to come with him on his journey. We never directly learn that he fails to do so, but it’s quite obvious that he has by the repeating, tortured-sounding musical theme that follows and becomes more complex thanks to Hubauer’s synth riffs as it continues. Shortly thereafter, Christian departs, and recounts how “the awakening dead” (ie. his neighbors) come and laugh at him while trying to convince him to stay in the City in Makes No Sense. Realistically, Makes No Sense serves as a sort of filler song in a narrative sense, but gives us the welcome vocal addition of not only Eric Gillette, but also Bill Hubauer, whose soaring vocals are more than a little reminiscent of Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, making this song hearken back to some of their early progressive work, especially Selling England by the Pound. I’m not complaining — and one of Similitude’s greatest successes is the utility of all of these guys as vocalists, because they’re all very, very good.
Draw the Line introduces yet another vocalist in Mike Portnoy, giving him one of his few moments to shine vocally, portraying the character of Obstinate, who comes to at first plead with, then to berate Christian, once again portrayed by Morse. Indeed, Mike Portnoy’s vocal work here is actually quite good, and as a drummer myself I recognize how difficult it is to sing and play at the same time. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times we hear him on Similitude, and while understandable, it’s still a tad disappointing, as I do quite like his vocal work (check out Flying Colors’ Fool in my Heart). While Portnoy’s Obstinate is unimpressed, his companion Pliable is more, well, pliable (Bunyan was either completely void of creativity or an allegorical genius), and seems to be portrayed by the whole band at once in a sublime harmony, with some of the higher bits being tackled ably by Gillette alone. Unfortunately, Pliable’s journey with Christian is cut short by the Slough of Despond, and the instrumental track The Slough serves essentially as a short-form version of the overture, with the keyboard work once again being a highlight, especially about halfway through the song when it switches from a synth to a piano proper for one of the more serene moments of the first half of the album.
Back to the City shows Pliable’s angry return to the city, this time played mostly by Morse, who insists that this first hardship is a bad omen for the continued journey. Christian, unsuccessful in his attempts to convince his companion to stay, is despondent, and the mournful and desperate riff repeated by the guitar and keys (first seen near the end of the overture) exemplifies his struggle in the mire. Hubauer gets another shout-out here for his excellent vocals representing Pliable’s excitement to return home. The theme from The Dream briefly appears here as Christian nearly meets his end in the Slough before being saved by an unnamed companion (whom we know from the book to be called — wait for it — Help). Following is The Ways of the Fool, a spectacular track which borrows from Queen and ELO quite extensively, especially Turn to Stone. Hubauer is the lead vocalist here, and the track almost seems to glide along thanks to his piano and lilting vocals as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who convinces Christian to go a different way, insisting, “trust me, I know I’m right.” Well, Mr. Worldly Wiseman turned out not to be right after all, but The Ways of the Fool is still one of the best songs on Similitude. The song ends with Christian reassuring himself that this new path is a good choice, and slows down into a gentle and somewhat dangerous-sounding rendition of the main theme of the album first introduced in the overture.
So Far Gone is next, and begins with a similar guitar riff to the one from City of Destruction, and gives Eric Gillette the reins again as lead vocalist, who does an excellent job showing Christian’s turmoil and disbelief that he managed to mess up as badly as he did by following Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s advice. So Far Gone is mostly straightforward rocking, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, and gives Mike Portnoy a chance to expertly utilize a cowbell. Luckily for Christian, Evangelist returns at the bridge, slowing down the piece and having Hubauer explain that he’s not, in fact, too far gone. Morse returns to the role of Christian, somewhat in disbelief that he can still find the right way, but luckily he gets back on track and reaches the Wicket Gate by the end of the first disc.
Breath of Angels closes the first half of the album with the most gospel-sounding tracks here. It’s pretty straightforward, swelling gratuitously throughout with a full-on gospel choir near the end, but it’s no less an enjoyable track that signifies the end of the first part of Christian’s journey as he walks through the Wicket Gate onto the house of the Interpreter.
Slave to your Mind opens similarly to The Slough, but ends up as one of the most musically and lyrically complex pieces on the album, as it chronicles Christian seeing various “emblems” at the house of the Interpreter. First among these is a room full of dust into which a woman brings water, followed by a fire, with one man attempting to put it out with wet blankets, and another hidden behind it feeding it with oil. Understandably, these symbols aren’t necessarily expounded upon in the song, but the general gist, as Hubauer recounts from Bunyan’s point of view (“I saw in my dream …”) is that the man attempting to put out the fire is the devil, the other god, both of whom use the phrase “slave to your mind” in different ways (one discouraging, the other encouraging). The middle of the song features a fantastic keyboard solo, and Randy George’s bass work, while ever diligent, shines specifically in this track as well. At this point the album diverts a ways from the book for obvious musical reasons, and Christian leaves the house of the Interpreter and continues on down the road.
Shortcut to Salvation is an almost jazzy tune, brought out especially by the vocal harmonies, the delightful saxophone solo, and the piano. Christian comes across two men who evidently “jumped the wall” rather than going the proper way through the Wicket Gate, and Christian reviles their attempts to convince him to “join their merry band.” A simple song, Shortcut is nonetheless quite a fun little track, and shows Christian becoming decidedly more resolute in his mission. Shortly he meets with The Man in the Iron Cage on a track that gives Eric Gillette’s guitar some excellent attention. This man, in Bunyan’s work, is one of the symbols the Interpreter shows to Christian, but here (at least as evinced by the artwork with the album) seems simply to be a wayward soul in the midst of the path. The song follows a similar narrative structure to So Far Gone, with the titular man’s anger shining through with Morse’s vocals and his angst with Gillette’s, providing an excellent counterpoint and showing once again that these men are truly meant to be together in a band. Similar to So Far Gone, the track ends with a quiet bridge in which Christian informs the man that he is not, once again, too far gone, but it does end on a somewhat sour note with Christian ultimately giving up and leaving.
The Road Called Home is almost an instrumental, with the first half giving Randy George some great solo work, and the second half echoing the beginning of the overture’s frenetic synth wanderings. Finally, the song once again reprises the Dream theme, albeit much faster, and shows Christian coming across two men asleep by a mill — Simple and Sloth. Sloth might be the weakest track on the album — which is surprising, because it’s still exquisite — seeming mostly to be a breather in the story wherein the Sloth character slowly and amusingly (“nothing makes me grin / more than sleeping in”) showcasing his pride in his lazy lifestyle. I must admit I probably like this song simply because of Eric Gillette’s astonishingly sublime reprisal of the Long Day theme at the end of the song, with Christian assuring Sloth he has to continue.
Freedom Song sounds almost like a bluegrass track, with some truly great country-esque guitar work backing it up throughout. This track and the next show Christian finally getting rid of the burden that initially set him upon his journey (which in Bunyan’s original work happened immediately after leaving the Interpreter). Freedom Song is a jaunty tune and again shows some gorgeous vocal harmonies, and feeds directly into the more up-tempo I’m Running. This song opens with one of my favorite drum fills on the album, with Portnoy the whole track borrowing more than a little from Keith Moon. Once again it’s a rather simple tune, and the last breather before the climax of the album, but special recognition should be given here to the horn parts that punctuate and liven up the proceedings. Once again, Randy George has a fantastic, dare I say Geddy Lee-esque, bass solo in the middle.
The Mask opens with a fantastic, serene, and somewhat foreboding piano solo from Hubauer which is definitely one of my favorite parts of the album. The song then transitions into a dark, almost scary interplay between Morse’s vocals and Hubauer’s piano, wherein he recounts his journey thus far and explains the threat that he’s about to come face to face with, punctuated by brief moments of chaos where they’re joined by the rest of the band. The Mask bleeds seamlessly into the climactic Confrontation, which, in conjunction with the instrumental The Battle, showcase Christian’s fight with the demonic Apollyon, and also show off some of the finest musicianship, making up some of the best moments on the album from every band member.
The last track, Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise) shows a final culmination and as masterful a conclusion as I’ve ever seen on a concept album since Thick as a Brick. Broken Sky brings out the “I have seen / I have known” theme seen several times through the album, as well as the “broken sky” vocal conceit we’ve been hearing from every angelic figure. Then, Eric Gillette once again brings out the Long Day theme for the last time in a truly beautiful musical moment that feels earned in a way few swells like this have in past musical finales. Finally, Morse singularly closes out the proceedings with a simple vocal part showing Christian’s finality in a way reminiscent of his earlier gospel work.
Simply put, The Similitude of a Dream is a masterpiece. Whether you’ve read the book or not, whether you’re religious or just a fan of good music, you’ll gain something from listening to it a few times and appreciating it for the flowing, sweeping work of art that it is. The Neal Morse Band is more than just another Morse/Portnoy project, with every band member getting multiple moments to shine and being smartly integrated (especially on the vocal front) in the band in a meaningful and profound way. Truly, The Similitude of a Dream isn’t just one of the greatest progressive rock or religious albums of all time, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, borrowing from so many great musicians across all genres, representing a centuries-old work, and creating a new piece of music with something to say while doing so. After you listen to it, you’re sure to be left with something that will be with you from this world to that which is to come … under the similitude of a dream.