Neal Morse has an extensive and respectable history, in progressive rock. His first album was Spock’s Beard’s The Light, out in 1995. After many other albums, he also went as a solo artist (1999), founded Transatlantic (2000), Morse Portnoy George (2006), Flying Colors (2012), and, most recently, The Neal Morse Band (2015). In total, he’s now behind 25 studio albums (and that’s without counting his worship and exclusive albums). His progressive rock compositions, especially after leaving Spock’s Beard, have a very characteristic sound to them, recognizable among many.
The latest in his long line of releases is the long-awaited concept double album The Similitude of a Dream, officially out on November 11th, 2016. This album features the talents of Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer, and Eric Gillette. At more than 106 minutes long (1 hour and 46 minutes), it’s even longer than Spock’s Beard’s Snow, making it the longest album he’s worked on, if you exclude the bonus discs of many Transatlantic releases.
Now, all willing Prog Talk admins will write here a short review of The Similitude of a Dream, written independently as to not influence each other. Prog Talk is a collective, and we are proud to have different admins with different tastes. Therefore, Prog Talk itself doesn’t have an official view, but each admin has. The best we can muster is a consensus, if all or most admins feel the same, but there will be nuances in everyone’s point of view. If your opinion differs from ours, let us know! We’d love to know it and argue in a civilized manner about our snobbish musical tastes. Enjoy reading!
I’ve repeated, on numerous occasions, that Mike Portnoy’s wildest claims might be, even if heartfelt, untrue (see the screenshot further down). It’s clear that his sentiments towards The Similitude of a Dream being the best album of his career is genuine, but it’s emotional, rather than rational. If you’ve ever written music, painted something, or generally made anything yourself, your first feelings will be pride. You’ve created this, and it’s the best thing that humanity has ever laid eyes upon. It’s safe to say that, generally, most humans will react this way. However, after a few weeks, months, or years of hindsight, you’ll find flaws, imperfections, and will then find your work much less awesome. That’s the main reason why I was skeptical about Mike Portnoy’s early claims.
With the release of the lyric video for ‘Long Day/Overture’, I was relieved. Yes, this is very much prog, and it sounds amazing! Oh, boy! That album is going to be wild! But, as the eternal cynic that I am, I reminded myself that Neal Morse’s overtures are almost always a collection of themes from the album or song which they open. Then, surely it will sound prog and be amazing! It worked well on Transatlantic’s ‘The Whirlwind’, for example. The 78-minute song, although feeling more like a suite than a continuous track, has some truly outstanding moments sprinkled throughout. On The Similitude of a Dream, the only interesting moment is the overture itself.
I should’ve seen it coming, as the singles were, one after the other, a disappointment of rehashed, unoriginal, barely-prog, ‘dad’ rock tunes. Naive as I was, I convinced myself that ‘Those are the singles, surely they’ll put the most radio-friendly songs out and keep the true prog on the album!’ However, as more radio singles kept piling up, I grew suspicious of the album bearing any prog song at all (aside from the aforementioned overture). The songs almost all follow the same structure and fail to surprise, or even satisfy, even the slightest.
The songs on the unending, almost 2-hour album are unoriginal, poorly written, and fail to evoke even the semblant of an emotion. Instead, the band seemingly decided that releasing clichéd, derivative, and innocuous compositions was the best vessel imaginable to convey their concept. They’ve also included many nods to prog classics, sometimes crossing the blurry line between homage and ripoff. The Similitude of a Dream doesn’t feature a single track over 10 minutes, which is rather surprising, coming from Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Even The Grand Experiment featured a 27-minute track. The range of variety goes from the Americana/roots music ‘Freedom Song’, to the biker anthem ‘The Man in the Iron Cage’, to the prog instrumental ‘Overture’, but mostly stay within safe boundaries, as to not make too much waves. It’s really disappointing…
If The Similitude of a Dream is the album of their career, they must’ve somehow forgotten about all the other, actually decent, albums they created, or, as I wrote earlier, they are still too emotional about their latest creation. A third choice would be that it was only a marketing strategy designed to create hype for the album and get as many pre-orders as possible on the product. However, this would imply that Morse and company flat-out lied about their impressions on the music, which I don’t believe is true. As in most things in life, the answer probably lies somewhere in-between.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”…
To say that I’ve had a “rocky relationship” with Neal Morse’s output would be somewhat of an understatement. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the odd Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic album here and there, but for the sake of cutting right to the chase, I’ll just say that my history with the majority of albums bearing his name made it so that I didn’t have the highest hopes for The Similitude of a Dream
Nonetheless, as the album kicked off, I was actually pleasantly surprised by what I was hearing. The strings on the intro ‘Long Day’ were a great compliment and far from overpronounced, leading into a lively and exciting ‘Overture’ which seemed to set up an incredibly strong presence for the rest of the album. Even the first major single, ‘City of Destruction’ was very promising towards the album’s overall stature, with a moody, marching bass beat immediately gripping the ear and a solid chorus complimented by guitarist Eric Gillette’s fantastic backing vocals.
Unfortunately, a good start does not a good album make, as the rest of the first CD spirals headfirst into every single pitfall to ever grace a Neal Morse album, all at once. Generic melodies taken straight from the Prog 101 handbook, incredibly predictable songwriting and song-structuring, tracks which would be fine if they didn’t outstay their welcome, tracks which seem to be filler for filler’s sake… More annoying is that some songs with incredibly promising starts, such as ‘Draw the Line’, ‘The Ways of a Fool’ and ‘So Far Gone’ remove any semblance of personality they present within their first halves and go straight back to the usual 4-chord, prog-but-not-really affair.
It’s a good thing that this trend doesn’t keep up into the 2nd CD (or at least, to not nearly as extreme of a degree). While I’d still argue that there’s no absolutely mind-blowing song on this double album, ‘Slave to Your Mind’ and ‘I’m Running’ are definitely the major highlights of the whole thing; the former a solid hard-prog tone-piece hearkening back to Dream Theater’s Octavarium and the latter a clear homage to The Who’s Tommy, complete with those incredibly catchy arena-rock chords. Additionally, the track ‘Confrontation’ is worth highlighting as a fitting climax, tying together the album’s leitmotifs and giving significant weight to the album’s otherwise understated plot-drive.
On the other side of the spectrum there’s tracks like ‘Sloth’ and ‘Shortcut to Salvation’ which highlight another critical flaw in the album, that being the ballads. Yes, the ballads as a whole. Simply put, every ballad on this album feels incredibly plain, as if playing slow is all the emotion they need to convey. Additionally, the slower nature of these songs give focus to the lyrics on display and… well…
“I… have no need… no indeed… I have no need… for… speed”
“It is no sin. / Nothing makes me grin / more than sleeping in.”
“I yawn and drool / but I know it’s cool. / My debt’s been paid in full”
All of these were taken were taken from a single track, ‘Sloth’, but the issues with making these lyrics the main focus of your ballad are immediately noticeable. The incredibly forced rhymes and rhythms come off as almost childish in execution, and with little of musical interest to back up these lyrics, these ballads simply can’t hold their own for tracks which are usually “emotional centrepieces” for concept albums like this.
So to sum up, The Similitude of a Dream starts off well enough, yet falls abysmally flat with its dull first half, makes up for it with a somewhat solid second half, yet fails to make any sort of emotional connection with key tracks apart from the final ‘Confrontation’, which can often be a death sentence for concept albums of this scope.
If you like Neal Morse and a lot of his output, chances are you will enjoy this too, as it follows all most all of his signature steps to a T. Yet if you’re looking for something a little more adventurous or original than “exactly what you’d expect” with it’s sound, then I’d recommend giving this one a pass. I’d argue that The Similitude of a Dream is slightly better than a lot of Neal Morse and co.’s other recent efforts, yet still falls flat in the overall creativity department, where it all matters. The effort is clearly there, but it just doesn’t work for me.
Well, the least we can say is that The Neal Morse Band‘s newest, highly-anticipated double-LP is not what we expected, or, perhaps, it’s exactly as we expected. The hype-mongering tweets, Facebook posts, and marketing campaign surrounding the release of The Similitude of a Dream has undoubtedly been successful, since everybody’s talking about it, and – as I’m sure – many of you bought into it. Maybe some of you now find themselves with pre-ordered discs they’d rather not have, or they force themselves appreciating lest they admit wasting at least $14 (digital MP3 version), or up to $40 (3 LP + 2 CD)…
What you should take away from our review is that The Similitude of a Dream might please the less demanding prog fans, leave most indifferent, and alienate some (including us). It also demonstrates yet again the crevices of the pre-order and hype cultures, which we are strongly against.
The Similitude of a Dream is a forgettable album.