Dream of Reality?
The Similitude of a Dream might best be described as a modern day interpretation of the first segment of Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. It is not a literal “telling” of the story per se, but rather Neal’s perceptions of what the main character’s (could be you or I) journey might look like in the world of today. Unlike Neal’s early solo works which were more personal “testimony” and revelation, most of his more recent work (particularly since forming The Neal Morse Band) has been less forwardly evangelical and more “this is how I express my faith through great music and lyrics.”
2015’s The Grand Experiment was extremely enjoyable because it wasn’t just Neal doing his thing any longer. Songs were more collaborative. Freed up from the confines of a “concept” piece, the band wrote some of their most memorable singles. When I first heard this was going to be another concept album I was a bit skeptical, and for sure we have in Similitude another epic concept composition — one, which in some aspects, hearkens back to Sola Scriptura. However, I would say these lyrics/scenarios are more widely applicable because they explore not only Biblical principles but also principles of everyday living. In that regard, I find The Similitude of a Dream much more universally appealing, the truths herein more directly relevant to all of us in our life’s journey.
Instead of a summary of theological convictions, this plays out more like a treatise on “how then should we live?” Put yourself, then, into the world of “Christian” and ask yourself what you would do when faced with his perils and moral dilemmas. In essence, Neal has effectively removed the “fantasy” aspect (even though the story still takes place in a dream) and made this a much more visceral real world experience.
Not only does Similitude differ on a lyrical level from Neal’s prior concept pieces, the overall structure and presentation is fresh. Yes, the core style remains firmly entrenched in old school prog (with new school mix and production values), but the songs are shorter — with less prolonged instrumental jams — and there is a smooth flow song to song. While each song still stands independently, the overall cohesiveness works extremely well in a fashion conducive to a great live show. Furthermore, the instrumentations are quite diverse. In addition to the multitude of guitars, keys, drums handled by the band, we have all manner of strings and saxophones, a trumpet, a marimba and various other percussion. These instruments often carry the melodies/rhythms and aren’t just added to provide a surplus of sounds for the “jam.”
The vocals are more widely shared as well. Morse, Portnoy, Hubauer and Gillette share responsibilities “acting” and singing out some of the different characters which definitely imparts more depth and realism to the story/composition. For those not familiar with The Neal Morse Band don’t expect to hear any one player dominate the mix as these guys gel as a unit. Yes, Portnoy has flamboyant moments throughout, but don’t expect a ton of solos and virtuoso performances on this disc. Randy George really shines through on bass and there are, of course, a plethora of guitar and keyboard leads and solos (this is prog!). However, I really like how The Neal Morse Band is all about the melody, the groove, the message and not just technical prowess. We heard this on The Grand Experiment and they’ve taken it to a whole new levels on The Similitude of a Dream.
Disc 1 opens with “Long Day,” a soft introspective prelude which sets the stage/context for the dream. “Overture” is pretty typical stuff for these guys as tight prog rock is served up as an introduction to where this album will lead us musically/stylistically. The dream sequence not surprisingly begins with “The Dream,” a short interlude lead by acoustic guitars and “dreamy” Pink Floydian keys. This quickly transitions into “City of Destruction,” one of the heaviest and most aggressive (almost metallic) songs in the set. This song features Evangelist’s urgent call/warning to Christian and sets in motion everything that is to follow. I like how the spoken parts near the end find Christian trying to make sense of his dilemma.
“We Have Got to Go” is a transitional plea to his wife to leave the City of Destruction. In “Makes No Sense” (one of the strongest compositions here) friends try to sway Christian to stay in the city, but he can’t see the rationale of living a life in stagnation in the daily grind only to “gain the world and lose the soul.” The 70’s era Kansas strings really carry the melody while simultaneously trading off with the guitars. And if that was not enough, “Draw the Line” delivers the funk groove in a big way. Portnoy sings with a smooth voice as “friends” try to pull Christian back into the “old” life. The jazzy middle section echoes the allure of the “city” yet Christian pushes on and pursues his call right into the mire of “The Slough” of Despond. Musically, this Kansas jam/jazzy instrumental interlude is a bit more vibrant than I might have otherwise expected at this point in the story. Nevertheless, it represents a rare moment of instrumental indulgence (Bunyan might call it a “sleep”).
“Back to the City” is definitely another highlight, the infectious chorus extremely catchy. As Christian is left in the mire by his friend, this song emphasizes how quickly we can act to abandon our first calling when we get derailed from our plans and choices to the allure of lights and indulgence. I love the end of this song where Hope comes to the rescue and the echoing outro vocals pay homage to Pink Floyd. Bill Hubauer is featured on “The Ways of a Fool,” a song which shares much pomp and circus and vocal layering with Queen. Once again, the middle section of the song has that 70’s classic Kansas vibe, and in a way this song could easily be a parade of music for our 70’s prog rock heroes. And with the segue into the next song I hear another band (Yes) called to mind.
The band goes Deep Purple on “So Far Gone” as Christian realizes his choice to be “care-free” was a mistake. The “Smoke on the Water” vibe, replete with cowbell groove, nicely drives this song as we hear some of Gillette’s nice guitar leads. The disc 1 finale, “Breath of Angels,” is another highlight. A simple “Gospel” tune leads the way and then gradually crescendos into more ethereal plains replete with the angelic female choir accompanying Neal as Christian receives somewhat of a “prodigal son” welcome from his Father’s kingdom. Sing it brothers and sisters!
Disc 2 opens with “Slave to Your Mind,” a fascinating heavy rocker that depicts the “wall of fire” scenario where the Devil (attempting to smother the fire of faith) basically tries to perpetuate the lie that you can never be free from the doubt and shame the mind repeatedly generates. This seamlessly transitions into “Shortcut to Salvation” where “jumping the Wall of Salvation” is a temptation for those who don’t have the faith and patience to walk the “straight and narrow.”
A bit out of sequence from the original story, “The Man in The Iron Cage” features the man who lost his faith. It is one of the best songs here and features a big groove riff/melody (Led Zep?), tons of organ and a great shred guitar solo followed by a transition to the acoustic guitar drive breakout section and the reassurance that you are never “too far gone” for His mercy. “The Road Called Home” is yet another interlude jam that introduces us to Simple and Sloth. Human nature has not changed much in 400 years unfortunately as “Sloth” dreamily portrays the life of those who have no motivation or urgency to do anything other than appease their own needs.
Despite the somewhat lulling music, Christian moves on and finally loses his “burden” in “Freedom Song” (again somewhat out of sequence), which is a folksy Gospel “big tent revival” tune featuring the pedal steel of Rich Mouser (mixed this beast). “I’m Running” celebrates Christian’s freedom in a “big band” sort of fashion (horns) and then segues into “The Mask.” This elegant piano lead in to this song is a definite highlight for the band as Christian descends into the Valley of Humiliation and the inevitable “Confrontation” with Apollyon commences. Portnoy trades vocals with Morse as the intensity escalates into “The Battle,” an instrumental with more great attacking piano/keys, staccato rhythms and antagonistic melodies.
Disc 2 beautifully closes things out with the tandem of “Broken Sky”/”Long Day (reprise)” which is a nice piano-driven medley of all that has gone before and nicely summarizes Christian’s realizations and revelations up to this point in the journey and nails down his commitment to carry on to the Celestial City … to be continued?!
It is hard to imagine what the band has in store for an encore or follow up to this work of art. After all, they’ve only covered the first segment of Part I of the book, which may leave some “purists” disappointed. The musical doesn’t really finish the story, so to speak. However, if one of Neal’s visions was to musically and lyrically depict what it would look/sound like to take Christian’s journey in our world today then I think he has succeeded beyond expectations. Still, can you imagine what the journey onward would sound like — to the horrors of Vanity-Fair and the final ascent to the Celestial City? We can only hope for a sequel at this point. In summary, The Similitude of a Dream taps into one of the richest literary works of all time, and in doing so challenges and exhorts the listener in an extraordinary manner. And while I may not totally agree with Mike Portnoy that this is the greatest concept piece he (Portnoy) has ever participated in, my initial skepticism – that a large concept piece would derail The Neal Morse Band from building on the momentum they generated with The Grand Experiment – has been replaced with an affirmation that nothing could be farther from the truth. Divine progressive rock. Selah.[Radiant]