September 22, 2020

For those of you feeling like 2020 has been a rather apocalyptic year, Neal Morse may have the answer to your prayers. On 11 September, he released a solo album on Inside Out Music, entitled Solo Gratia, meaning “Only Grace”. Fans of Sola Scriptura (the story of Martin Luther) will be familiar with the format. It is the story of the apostle Paul, whose challenges seem an apt and appropriate subject for a year full of difficulties. Although his bandmates Eric Gillette (guitar) and Bill Hubauer (keyboards) made instrumental contributions to this album, neither participated in writing (or vocal work). Stalwart companions Mike Portnoy (drums) and Randy George (bass), as well as Gideon Klein on strings round out the musicians. The production of the album by Rich Mouser is tight, and allows for the sleek but expansive orchestrations that we’ve come to expect from Morse. This is even more remarkable, in my estimation, given that all of the tracks were recorded remotely secondary to the ongoing pandemic. Mouser clearly understood Morse’s vision for the piece as a whole, and brought the whole into a cohesive work.

The cover art is reminiscent of the tarot card “The Hermit”, with a sole figure holding a lamp in a bleak landscape. The background is hilly and dark, and the figure is leaving an obvious path to find his own way – moving forward guided only by the light he holds.

The album contains 14 tracks, which tell the tale of the life of Paul. For those unfamiliar with the story, Paul was a born into a family which practised devout Judaism, and had close connections to the Pharisees (a conservative sect which believed in literal translations of the Torah). His conversion to Christianity was marked by an episode of blindness, lasting 3 days. He joined with Jesus’ followers, and traveled around the Meditteranean region to teach and preach the story of Jesus. He was ultimately martyred in Rome. For prog fans who are not of a religious slant, understanding the backstory to the album’s inspiration may be a useful place to start. But faith-based issues aside, the music on this work is compelling and (like the vast majority of Morse’s work) beautifully executed.

Overture, the second track, is a wonderful instrumental piece, which leads you into its core with a fab guitar line. In The Name Of The Lord, the third track, has lush harmonies which complement the overall composition. Halfway through, Sola Intermezzo gives you the sense of change in Paul – perhaps the quiet moment of reflection leading to his conversion. Then we follow Paul’s travels and revelations, with music that (in true prog fashion) reflects increasingly complex and interweaving themes. The final track, Now I Can See/The Great Commission, brings the vocal and instrumental pieces into a complete package, with the feel of a classical fugue in its complexity. It tells the story of Paul’s ultimate conversion (and the return of his sight) with musical resolution.

If you’re a fan of Morse’s inimitable musical style, this album is for you. If the religious theme seems strange or off-putting, I would recommend giving the music a chance to speak to you – consider the story to be mythologic, or an allegory for overcoming adversity in difficult times. 

Track listing:
1. Preface (1:28)
2. Overture (5:59)
3. In The Name Of The Lord (4:27)
4. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones) (2:43)
5. March Of The Pharisees (1:40)
6. Building A Wall (5:01)
7. Sola Intermezzo (2:10)
8. Overflow (6:27)
9. Warmer Than The Sunshine (3:22)
10. Never Change (7:52)
11. Seemingly Sincere (9:34)
12. The Light On The Road To Damascus (3:26)
13. The Glory Of The Lord (6:17)
14. Now I Can See/The Great Commission (5:17)