The hour-plus Sola Gratia is technically immaculate and not without its fair share of emotional highlights
14 tracks / 65:43
Prog fans have reason to be excited because we have a new Neal Morse ‘solo’ project to sink our musical teeth into. Even though the title, Sola Gratia, means ‘by grace alone,’ the album isn’t purely ‘sola Morse,’ since the prolific musician once again enlisted the aid of two of his most trusted musical allies, Randy George and Mike Portnoy (playing bass and drums respectively) to augment his own astounding keyboard, guitar and vocal work. Also contributing to the sound-scape (as guest artists this time) are Neal Morse Band regulars Bill Hubauer (keyboard) and Eric Gillette (guitar); Gideon Klein (strings) and a small choir (sparingly used) round out the personnel on this essentially ‘socially distanced,’ remotely-produced prog-opera about the events leading up to the conversion of early Christianity’s most feared enemy - the persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, who became Saint Paul.
No one could ever accuse Morse of resting on his laurels - as a matter of fact, maybe even of resting at all - much of the origin of this project was written by Neal while on a cruise this past January! The question might well be asked: but why is it a Neal Morse solo album? I think that the answer is found by looking at Neal’s solo catalog, for one thing. In his solo work, Morse has generally concentrated on more intense and personal examinations of Biblical themes and faith issues. In fact, Sola Gratia can in some ways be seen as a prequel to Sola Scriptura, since both deal with the rigidity of a religious establishment that persecutes those following a simpler, more grace-based faith. Look at the lyrics in “Preface,” from the Sola Gratia album: “...and long before Luther wrote his words upon the door, there was a man who forged the way before.” Of course that man was Paul, whose dramatic story of being transformed from being an enforcer of the religious law to a believer in The Way that he had been persecuting. Themes and lyrical echoes from Scriptura are strategically placed throughout this new work as a treat for the careful listener.
As you might expect, the performance of the hour-plus Sola Gratia is technically immaculate and not without its fair share of emotional highlights (we’re talking about Neal Morse here, remember?). The tight, concisely played themes introduced in “Overture” are six minutes of prog-rock bliss, leading into “In The Name of The Lord,” where we are introduced to Saul/Paul’s point-of-view as he goes on his mission to root out these Jesus-followers. “In the name of God you must die,” is his mantra (I guess he must have a copy of Sola Scriptura). Listen for the exceptionally beautiful interplay of bass and synth on this track. Eric Gillette also contributed a typically powerful guitar solo.
Paul the persecutor might have also listened to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” before performing “Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones.,” where he declares, “we are the chosen ones - we come with Hell-fire in mega-tons!” - definitely one of the cleverest and most bravado-filled lyrics on the album! Drummers get some real ear-candy as Portnoy plays havoc with the rhythms on “March of the Pharisees.” Looking for a big rock anthem with a gang-vocal hook? Try “Building a Wall” and try not to sing along. “Sola Intermezzo” is an instrumental link between the two main parts of Sola Gratia - Paul’s bulldog-like persecution, and his gradual journey to Grace. The piece is what you’d expect and hope for: heavy, intricate, fugue-like in parts, and very, very prog-rock in nature.
...and that’s just the first seven songs. It takes seven more (the perfect number ...hmmm) for Saul to see the light.
It would be futile to try to really describe each song on the album, but there are many highlights to mention. “Warmer Than the Sunshine” boasts a subtle acoustic guitar intro joined by beautifully melodic bass work. A piano break precedes a fully-instrumental section and the song ends with some lovely vocal lines.
Of course, the crux of the whole conflict here is similar to that of Inspector Javert in Les Miserables who, in the stage musical, famously sings “men like me can never change.” In Sola Gratia, Paul declares he has a “heart made of leather” in the song, “Never Change,” and continues, “And I will never change my mind...” It becomes a slow, tortured prog-blues with a searing guitar solo just after the four-minute mark.
There’s an outstanding synth solo in the album’s longest track, “Seemingly Sincere,” which also features Portnoy playing some runaway-train drum riffs. “The Glory of The Lord” is a powerfully realized theme featuring low strings, a choir echoing Morse’s vocal lines, and a truly stunning guitar solo once again from Eric Gillette.
Throughout all of this, Neal Morse delivers exceptionally well-crafted keyboard work, dexterous, visceral guitar playing, and passionately delivered vocal performances. Morse’s voice is the only featured one on Sola Gratia (another reason it’s part of the Neal Morse solo album catalog) and he uses his vocal flexibility to express everything from Paul’s arrogance as a religious zealot, to his anger as a persecutor, to his perplexity at the seeming sincerity of the martyr Stephen, to his ultimate encounter with Jesus. A wide range to express vocally, but Morse is up to the task.
Sola Gratia is a single-disc project, and I think that was a wise decision on Neal’s part. The just-over-an-hour running time doesn’t tax the listener and the end-point of the story leaves an open door for another prog epic that could explore the Apostle’s continuing adventures as a defender of Grace alone.
- Bert Saraco
4 1/2 rocks
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