Looking at Morse’s history, it’s a surprise it took him so long to make an album telling Paul’s story. And boy, was it worth it!
Label: InsideOut Records
Time: 14 tracks / 66 minutes
“God can change the world with just one willing soul,
Who will stand up for the truth and give him starring role.
And long before Luther wrote his words upon the door
There was a man who forged the way before.”
Right from these opening words, it’s clear that this album is a pairing with Morse’s Luther-based Sola Scriptura – something the album title and artwork also hint at. The verse is a variation on the closing lines from the Luther album, and there are several musical nods to that work, such as the line, “In the name of God you must die.”
With hindsight, it was an obvious album to make. Morse loves telling stories, whether his own (the Testimony series), the story of God dwelling with his people (?), the fictional tale of Snow in his Spock’s Beard days, the aforementioned Luther musical bio and just recently the rock opera about Jesus (Jesus Christ The Exorcist).
So here he tells the story of how Saul of Tarsus turned from persecuting Christians to become Saint Paul, one of the planet’s most famous and influential Christians himself. Both stories have friction and antagonists: Sola Sciptura (“Scripture alone”) is Luther vs the Catholic Church, while Sola Gratia (“Grace alone”) is Saul the Pharisee against St. Paul and the Christians.
In my personal experience of his album I was initially put off by a somewhat repetitive riff in the overture, but that is the only negative and after this, he even adapts that same riff in heavy style for “In the Name of the Lord,” where it has real guts.
There are many standout moments on this album. Morse is so prolific that he is bound at times to sound like previous work (which is why his Neal Morse Band is such a good idea – the other band members stretch the sound). Those players also feature here in places, although Morse does the bulk of the work himself.
“Ballyhoo” is a wonderful track, not least for the title and singable, arm-waving chorus:
“We are the chosen ones; we come with hellfire in megatons,
We are the chosen few, and I will erase all this ballyhoo.”
It morphs into “March of the Pharisees,” an instrumental built on a terrific bass riff, which sounds like he composed it after listening to Floyd’s “Animals” or “The Wall,” Funnily enough, the track after that is “Building a Wall,” where Morse contrasts the Pharisees’ self-aggrandising drive for separation with Jesus’ mission to unite people. He introduces Stephen here – a leading Christian whose murder he was party to – singing a humble and gentle bridge wanting only obedience to God:
“This is all I ask for / This is all I’ve wanted to do / to live a life that’s pleasing to you.”
“Sola Intermezzo” short two minute instrumental in typical Morse style (although it becomes unnecessarily overcomplicated at the end).
Stephen carries on the balladry with “Overflow,” a piece in the same mould as Morse’s band ballad “Waterfall.”
At this point, we get close-up and personal with Paul, seeing more of his personal thoughts, rather than the more public rhetoric of the Pharisees. So “Never Change” is introspective, decorated with a Gilmour-soundalike guitar solo, again bringing out the Floydian tone of this collection.
The pace then ups for the most striking piece on the album, the lyrically clever and sonically explosive ten-minute centrepiece “Seemingly Sincere.” The “Overture” featured a small amount of mellow synth over a classic King Crimson Mellotron sound, but this one runs along on a stream of bubbling synth until the solo comes along, involving a guitar riff that is second only to Mike Portnoy’s drumming in its frenetic intensity.
Morse can do sublime climaxes to these stories, particularly with his band. Here though, the climax is present, but less ecstatic. “The Glory of the Lord” features some call-and-response with a small choir and some cello as Morse offers a sense of resolution. It is as if Paul has come to a place of peace. The lyrics also reprise Morse’s familiar theologically astute theme of completeness: “In the glory of the Lord there is no separation and all of creation is looking toward the way.” Eric Gillette then gives us one of his climactic solos. The calmer final track features layered vocals as Christians celebrate knowing the truth as Jesus calls them to let the world know the good news. The final, almost classical, piano doesn’t quite resolve, as if to say, “The story continues...”
Bonus disc: The deluxe version includes a DVD of the making of this album. It is essentially Morse recording a video diary as he puts the tracks together. It is mostly of use for musicians to appreciate the structure, but fans can also appreciate the bits that got cut out of the final version and the relief Morse expresses when he finds a missing musical link in the story.