Nowadays I approach a new Neal Morse album with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. His music is always interesting (if formulaic) but too often the lyrics have me reaching for (a) a sick bag or (b) the collected works of Aleister Crowley. Prior to last year’s “Testimony 2” I was always able to wash down the overtly Christian lyrics with a spoonful of sulphur. The song ‘Jayda’ from that album was too much to swallow though, a lyric in which Neal attributes the healing of a hole in his daughter’s heart to a miracle from God. This, and the subsequent sermon which preceded it when played live, left me in a state of crisis with Mr Morse’s music. The supergroup project, Flying Colors, tided me over – a superb high octane mix of prog and classic rock, it was a relief to have God pushed to the sideline for a while and fall in love again with Neal the musician.
“Momentum”, I am happy to report, is much less evangelical than “Testimony 2”. I haven’t read the lyrics as I don’t want to ruin the album for myself which is a fine collection of tracks. The usual elements are in place. Epic symphonic prog with twisty turny passages and kaleidoscopic Gentle Giant harmony vocal pastiche. Once again Mike Portnoy is the sticksman of choice. It’s difficult to think of another drummer who could interpret Morse’s music and infuse it with such excitement and voracity. From Flying Colors to Transatlantic to Morse’s solo albums, Portnoy is the perfect partner and no matter what problems I encounter with Morse’s preaching, the music these two create together is always miraculous.
The title track does what it says on the tin. A propulsive, driving track with plenty of widdly keyboard parts, it would sit happily on a Flying Colors or Transatlantic album and Portnoy is an absolute powerhouse as ever. ‘Thoughts Part 5’ is the latest episode in the saga begun in 1997 on Spock’s Beard’s ‘Beware of Darkness’. If you’ve heard any of the previous parts of this song cycle you’ll know what to expect – serpentine riffing and seemingly impossible time signatures. Each part pays homage to ‘Knots’ from Gentle Giant’s seminal “Octopus”. Knots/Thoughts, geddit? Multiple vocal lines sing in canon to create a bewildering tapestry. It’s all very cleverly done but on the fifth part the joke is wearing thin.
‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is a ballad which is well-programmed as a palate-cleanser from the prog excesses of ‘Thoughts’ and is followed by ‘Weathering Sky’, a more straightforward rock song. ‘Freak’ features a George Martin-esque string section (think ‘Eleanor Rigby’) which lends a forward …ahem… momentum to the track which is otherwise mired in in-your-face evangelism.
The album closer is a catchy 33 minute ditty entitled ‘World Without End’. This is Morse doing what he does best, stretching ideas out over a good ol’ prog epic, revisiting themes and adding variations along the way. For all my distaste at his preachy lyrics I can’t deny that Neal is the master of long-form symphonic prog and has been since his Spock’s days. This is a wonderful track and rounds off a great album. It’s good to be able to enjoy Neal’s music again after being offended to the point of walking out of his last solo gig. I suspect my love-hate relationship with his output will continue for some time. If I hated ‘Jayda’ I love “Momentum” and I hope you will too.