If Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway means anything to you, its more epic and intense second cousin Similitude is essential. If anyone wants to offer a Christian album from the last decade that can touch this, I’d love to hear it.
Label: Radiant Records
Time: 23 tracks / 106 mins
This review has been a hard one to write (I've been brewing it for many weeks), but I promise that I will try – really, I will try – to contain my emotion and be professional.
But objectivity is difficult, when you have not been so enthusiastic about a band’s release since... since their last one. Bear in mind here, that I have been covering folk, classical, jazz and instrumental music in that time, over 70 albums. Jarlath Henderson and Afro-Celt Sound System have put out some great work this year, but neither has the emotional intensity, the sheer musical brilliance and the sustained compositional expertise of this one.
I wrote that the Neal Morse Band’s The Grand Experiment was probably the best Christian album for a few years. Well, this one is even stronger. It makes The Grand Experiment seem like... a very grand experiment in writing as a band and broadening Morse’s sound, while keeping an identity. A hugely successful experiment, yes, but still just a little formative in comparison to this epic.
It’s not just me. Drummer Mike Portnoy considers it the best album he has made. Coming from a man with a career in Transatlantic, Dream Theater and Flying Colors, that is saying something.
He posted, “This is the GREATEST album of my career! It is my/our Tommy meets The Wall...absolutely mammoth and my greatest recorded work.”
Personally, I prefer it to those two and think it sounds closer to the Genesis concept double masterwork The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway - and the synth solo in “We have Got to Go” is straight from the Lamb / Selling England era of that band.
That said (as with Grand Experiment’s assimilation of Genesis’ “Entangled”) there are several other moments that sound like direct tributes to earlier influences. “The Ways of a Fool” starts off as a soundalike to “Mr. Blue Sky” from ELO but turns undeniably (and with alphabetical predictability) into a heavy slab of ELP. The intro to “Makes No Sense” is pure psych Beatles; and sometimes it is just a short spell that reminds of classic albums, such as the echos at the end of “The Dream” and start of “Sloth” that take me straight to Floyd’s Animals. “Man in the Iron Cage” includes both a Led Zepp-inspired riff and Jon Lord-like organ lines.
Beyond such references, there is no point in trying to dsescribe the music. It simply has to be heard - and heard a lot, to let all the themes bed in. Even the tasters do not do justice to the whole (I wasn't knocked out by the trailer tracks overture and City of Destruction). It truly grows with each listen.
As the title suggests, Similitude is based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the scale and construction of the album matches the scale and depth of Bunyan’s project.
It seems such an appropriate vehicle for Morse’s passion, given the culture we live in. The story is of a man who has a dream about leaving the city of Destruction and heading for the Celestial City.
This is evangelism to the prog community, with invitational lines like, “It’s life that awaits you / no one will make you / it’s yours to decide.”
But it is also very personal, with the struggle along the way sounding very much like it feeds from Morse’s own journey.
As a double album, it has a double climax. The ultimate one is great for powerful, sustained guitar work, but the first disc has a glorious ending (so much so, that I have tears in my eyes as I write this).
“With the breath of angels charging up the atmosphere
And all around me is the love that casts out all fear
The hosts of heaven sing along so the world can hear
as the breath of angels drives away every tear.”
Morse’s opus is generally seamless across the two discs, with not only tracks melting into one other, but choruses reprising and themes rising and falling across the project. You can silently ‘hear’ these themes under many of the solos – and there are some fine solos. In the quiet section in instrumental “The Slough”, guitarist Eric Gillette’s tone and technique are highly reminiscent of Jeff Beck.
Like Grand Experiment, this has a broader scope than just prog, with a sax solo in “Shortcut to Salvation,” the bluegrass of “Freedom Song” and the odd soul/gospel backing.
It's not perfect; there are some average tracks. But there are light and shade, strings and all-out riffing, interweaving themes, memorable tunes, harmonies, fun (on “Sloth”) and an overall sense of epic grandeur in this mammoth album. As soon as I stop it anywhere, there are hooks in my head that refuse to fade. Every member of the band performs immaculately and the composition is breathtaking. If anyone wants to offer a Christian album from the last decade that can touch this at any level, I’d love to hear it.