July 28, 2021

A breath of fresh air after two double concept albums…

There’s a shift in approach detectable in the first spin of Innocence & Danger, the fourth and latest album from The Neal Morse Band (NMB). The compositions seem to arrive from a different angle – not wildly different, but enough to notice – and the resulting work has more of a full band feel than in the past. I don’t know the ins and outs of the making of those older albums, but I’d be surprised if the guys didn’t agree this one was more collaborative overall. I’ve pondered whether NMB would even go by that moniker had this been their debut release (my own choice would have been ‘Neal Morse’s Norse Meal’, the cover showing the band at a Viking feast… but I wasn’t consulted).

Not to suggest Morse himself isn’t all over this record, he most certainly is – and his playing has never been better – but it’s refreshing to hear him as a more equal member (a la Flying Colors) than the dominant figure he naturally tends to be on his solo albums. Listeners may be familiar with Morse/Portnoy collaborations, this latest being at least their twentieth studio platter of original material together (that number skyrockets when live releases are considered). But the other members seem to come to the forefront more than ever. There’s no one ‘star’ here, but if forced to choose, my money’s on Eric Gillette, who lets loose with some jaw-dropping playing, and the impressive power of his crystal-clear voice that lifts these tracks to new heights. But truthfully, all five members nail it. Randy George’s bass playing and tone are sublime. He fluently grooves in any style required, and anchors the songs beautifully, locking in with Portnoy for both tricky and simpler bits with the same apparent ease. Bill Hubauer colours the tracks with his unique voice and playing, taking more lead vocal opportunities and remaining the vital component he has been since the group’s inception.

Despite the intention to produce a single album, the sessions proved so fruitful that it ballooned into another double. But this time around, there’s no grand concept, overtures, lengthy bookends, or characters to keep track of, and the lyrics are more nebulous and open to interpretation than in the past (no overt messages here)… in short, blueprints were tossed out the window. Innocence & Danger is simply a collection of songs that work brilliantly as a full album listen, but can just as easily be plucked from their grooves without seeming out of place.

This format will be a breath of fresh air for those who may find even the best sprawling concept albums a bit daunting… if not downright exhausting. They are rewarding listens for those willing to devote the time and attention required, but sadly that’s a dwindling demographic in this day and age. And after all, while sometimes you may be up for a deep dive into Topographic Oceans, other times you just want to rock out to your favourite tune from Fragile.

Some will be familiar with the album’s first two cuts and leadoff singles Do It All Again and Bird On A Wire. Both of these showcase Gillette’s striking vocal prowess and catchy earworm choruses, and both have been warmly received. Bird, with its fiery playing and killer tradeoff solos, is a sign of things to come, but the next track changes gears. Your Place In The Sun is a decidedly different approach with its sunny 70s pop-rock vibe, bouncy piano, and lead vocals divvied up between Morse, Portnoy, Hubauer, and Gillette. It becomes quickly apparent that such sharing is a common practice on this album, and it’s all the better for that variety.

Oddly enough, Another Story To Tell also recalls 70s pop-rock, and I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out who it reminds me of. Is it Toto? Hall And Oates? Foreigner? Nah… every time I get close to pinpointing it, it’s gone just as quickly because the track keeps drawing my ear. Its chorus is more traditional NMB fare (with a Spock’s Beard-ish bridge), and the song has such a natural feel that it’s over before you want it to be. An atmospheric Yes-like passage blends into the elegant The Way It Had To Be. Leisurely drifting into Floyd’s ‘Breathe’ territory, Gillette’s vocals are casual and breezy, with Hubauer switching things up on the bridge and a tasteful Gillette solo rounding out this ‘lazy summer day’ track.

This stuff should prove monster live material…

Morse returns to the spotlight for his Steve Howe moment with the squeaky acoustic guitar instrumental Emergence, a nifty little piece that reminds us of his skill, and which eventually leads into Not Afraid Part 1. The three part harmonies throughout the dark verses of this track are particularly arresting (Morse always conveys this mood effectively) and are balanced by the triumphant chorus. The piece exhibits more conventional NMB album closer tendencies, but the actual closing track here on disc one is a most unusual choice indeed…

Anyone familiar with the Cover To Cover series (by 3/5 of NMB) will be aware of their penchant for bashing out some of their favourite cuts from their youth. But it’s an especially bold and brave move to cover a piece as revered as Bridge Over Troubled Water, particularly when turning it on its head as they’ve done here. In the same way that Yes took America and expanded it into their own huge prog epic, NMB have spun this classic with complex playing and full band arrangement – including a jazzy funk section in the intro! The song body is kept reasonably intact (though still a far cry from Artie Garfunkel crooning along to a piano), and the vocals from Morse, Gillette and Hubauer are passionate… but this one will surely divide opinions. Some will love the fresh, unorthodox approach while others will lament such a sacred piece being monkeyed with. One thing’s for sure: it’s an ambitious undertaking, and there can be no denying the band’s obvious love and respect for Paul Simon’s legendary and moving song.

The album’s second disc is where things begin to shift more in the direction of previous NMB releases, with two everything-and-the-kitchen-sink epics totaling 51 minutes. Now, there have been a lot of epics recorded under the Morse umbrella. I will hold my hand up and admit that I thought I knew what to expect with these – and to a point, I was right – but these are not routine prog-by-numbers epics; the band is firing on all cylinders. The first, Not Afraid Part 2, contains passages so engaging and so utterly joyous, I felt like jumping out of my seat to applaud. There’s a reason judging books by covers is deemed unwise; this ended up my favourite track on the entire album. Absolutely fantastic.

The final seven-part piece Beyond The Years clocks in at over half an hour, and should prove a monster live piece as well as many listeners’ favourite. Surely to quench the thirsts of prog-heads who can’t get enough of this stuff, it runs the gamut with countless mood and tempo shifts, peaks and valleys, alternating sections of dreamy and dazzling, and outstanding playing from everyone (… that Randy and Mike duet! That’s going to get some major attention) before the album concludes on a typically majestic note.

Someone or something must have lit a fire under these guys while making Innocence & Danger. It’s overflowing with impressive moments, it offers up some fresh new ideas, and it truly commands attention (background music, it ain’t). Where it eventually settles in listeners’ hearts and minds in relation to the other albums remains to be seen, but it’s certainly their most diverse effort so far, and proof positive that they don’t necessarily need elaborate concepts to succeed. These five guys need only convene, compose… and captivate.

Innocence & Danger is released 27 August.