Gig Review: The Neal Morse Band + Beardfish at Islington Assembly Rooms, 7th March 2015

Saturday night’s concert is one that has been met with a lot of controversy already. Mike Portnoy fell ill during the day, was taken to hospital, posted a controversial Facebook update, and played the gig without having medical attention. It’s taken me until now (a couple of days later) to appreciate the whole story; when I was there I just wanted the gig to go ahead, nothing else. I can see how it might be taken that Portnoy’s message was rude and diva-like, but whatever you think, the man is dedicated and a trooper. He played that show note perfect with as much enthusiasm as I’ve ever seen him, even though he looked in pain the whole way through and was even wearing thermals. So Mike Portnoy, you have my approval for that gig.

Anyway, onto the actual review.

The beautiful London weather, while obviously not a good omen for things to come, was an absolute blessing to be queuing in. I like to get there early to chat to people and get to the front and in the past I’ve been miserably dripping in the rain, but not last Saturday. It put everyone in a good mood, even when we were told about the delay. The gig was 45 minutes late, but there didn’t seem to be any restlessness among the crowd, and Beardfish were met with a resounding roar. They began with three tracks from their latest album +4626-COMFORTZONE (yeah, I dunno) which I think blew me and most of the crowd away. Their on stage presence is so fun, especially the bassist – a Viking-type guy who seems to glide around the stage on his socks – and the singer, effortlessly switching instruments and dynamics.

They played a couple of older tracks and finished with the amazing ‘Ludwig and Sverker’. The song deals with the singer’s stillborn children – I don’t know how he manages to sing it without breaking down – and is potentially their best. It was a blinding performance and left a lot for the Neal Morse Band to live up to.

Still nervous about Portnoy, which was only exacerbated by the shaking heads and glum looks of the road crew, I really wasn’t sure how the gig was going to go. But as the lights went down, the band took to the stage, and the first few bars of ‘The Call’ rang out through the hall, I knew we were in for a special time. Like I said, Mike looked visibly pained but listening to his performance you wouldn’t have believed there was anything wrong. ‘The Call’ is a vocally demanding song from most members of the band, but it was executed perfectly, and the entire thing was possibly the best opener to a concert I’ve seen.

They followed it with the quirky ‘Leviathan’, complete with a sneeze from Portnoy, and ‘The Grand Experiment’, the first single from the new album of the same name. The album has definitely grown on me – I think it could be one of his best, bar ‘Agenda’ which they didn’t play – and the songs translated really well live. The audience seemed to be well versed in all the lyrics and had a great time. Some people behind me were dancing for the entire show.

After an amazing performance of Spock’s Beard deep cut ‘Harm’s Way’, Bill Hubauer – amazing multi-instrumentalist – was put briefly in the spotlight for an impressive keyboard solo in which he teased the next (and possibly best) song: ‘The Creation’. This is easily one of my favourite Neal Morse songs and it’s always been a dream to see it live. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It’s a 20 minute tour-de-force of progressive genius, twisting and turning, with a massive epic ending. It’s pretty much perfect and everyone played impeccably. I was stood in front of Eric Gillette who was really impressive to watch throughout the show.

Things took a turn for the mellower as Neal was left alone on the stage to play a song solo, which according to Mike he just learned in the car to the hospital. He’s been playing a different song each night of the tour, and we were treated to ‘Shine’ from Transatlantic’s latest Kaleidoscope. It was a special moment and the whole crowd helped out on vocals. The others then joined him for a lovely performance of ‘Waterfall’. Bill Hubauer really shines on this track with his clarinet solo and rich vocals.

The last song of the night (they were running too late to play the usual encore) was the obligatory epic from the latest album: Alive Again. While ‘The Creation’ may be a slightly better song, this was the performance to end all performances of the night. Complete with a middle instrument swap section where Eric played a shredding drum solo and Randy George showed off his guitar and keyboard prowess, in which even Mike pulled himself from behind the kit to take over bass duties. It was a great moment and it was clear that these guys are really doing it because they love playing. The ‘Man Inside’ section with Bill on lead vocals segueing into the final epic crescendo was the highlight of the night for me and an amazing end to an amazing gig.

Neal himself was on absolutely top form throughout, both vocally and stage presence wise. He’s a compelling frontman and, backed with this band, definitely one of the best artists out there.

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Album Review: Neal Morse – The Grand Experiment (2015)

I have to admit, after the music Neal Morse has put out over the last few years, I wasn’t as excited for The Grand Experiment as perhaps I should have been. This isn’t, however, a comment on the quality of the music (which has been generally ridiculously high), but rather the sheer amount of it. Flying Colors’ Second Nature, Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope, a solo singer-songwriter album, and numerous tours with all his bands don’t leave much time for a new solo prog album, which given the circumstances has come around alarmingly quickly.

I also felt that his last prog album, Momentum, while being a very good album, did not quite reach the highs of such albums as One, Sola Scriptura, or ?. I’m starting to wonder if it was good not coming in with huge expectations, as the album may have disappointed me slightly. As it wasn’t the case, I’m impressed with the album and while it still doesn’t rank amongst his best, it’s a solid prog album and one that shows that Morse isn’t afraid to venture into new territory, and that he certainly hasn’t stagnated.

The main difference between this album and his other prog efforts is that this is the first Neal Morse Band album; it features musicians Bill Hubauer, Eric Gillette, as well as ol’ faithfuls Mike Portnoy and Randy George. For the first time, Neal Morse went into the studio with little to no material pre-written and The Grand Experiment is a wholly collaborative effort. I feel that this brings both advantages and disadvantages. It’s very refreshing to hear new voices in the music, and Hubauer and Gillette are both given a lot of air time, leading whole sections of songs. The harmonies, too, sound much better, much fuller. Maybe it’s because I’m too used to Morse’s style, but the instrumental sections in the longer songs haven’t wowed me as much as they have on other albums, but I’ve not listened to the album enough to be able to pick up on the little nuances and I’m sure they’ll grow on me. Maybe seeing them live will help. This isn’t to say that they aren’t impressive, though. The musicianship on the record is astounding and Portnoy, who I also feel has stagnated somewhat when it comes to prog music, genuinely shines on the album. He has a tendency for, as my dad puts it, ‘too much drumming’. But I feel on this album there is just the right amount, and it’s creative, different, and at times mind-blowing.

‘The Call’ opens the album in a slightly unconventional manner with a rich, harmonised acapella section. This section is repeated again towards the end of the track, which is one of my personal highlights on the album and harks back to ‘Thoughts Pt. 2’ from Spock’s Beard’s V. ‘The Call’ is a solid track and a great album opener, almost bookending the album along with obligatory epic ‘Alive Again’. I was wary of the epic track because of the formulaic and over-long nature of World Without End, but perhaps with the help of new resident band members, ‘Alive Again’ feels fresh and doesn’t follow ‘epic’ convention as some are wont to do. All members are given a chance to shine, instrumentally and vocally, and this will surely be an amazing way to close a concert. The middle three shorter tracks have some of the strongest and weakest moments. First single and title track ‘The Grand Experiment’ is a punchy and catchy rock song and my favourite of the three. Unfortunately ‘Agenda’ doesn’t grip me as much and is clearly the weakest track on the album. That said, it’s very very catchy and I already find myself humming it, so maybe it’s not so bad. ‘Waterfall’ is a beautiful ballad, one which will fit snugly into Neal’s back catalogue, alongside ‘Cradle to the Grave’, ‘We All Need Some Light’, ‘Children of the Chosen’ et al.

I’m very much a prog listener of the modern generation; I’ve never properly got into Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant…the big prog names. I was introduced to prog through Marillion, Dream Theater, Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard. That said, many comparisons have been made to Neal Morse with these older prog bands, and that ‘retro’ sound is definitely clear to me on this album.

All in all, this album may not be Morse’s best, but it’s not his worst, and it’s made me thoroughly excited to catch him on his upcoming tour. It’s also worth noting the second disc of the special edition features the amazing track ‘New Jerusalem (Freedom is Coming)’, and live versions of ‘The Creation’ and ‘Reunion’ from One, recorded at MorseFest which are definitely also worth a listen. These last two, unfortunately, remind me just how good Morse can be at his best.

Standout tracks: The Call, Waterfall, Alive Again

7.5/10

Album Review: Flying Colors – Second Nature (2014)

Flying Colors’ debut album in 2012 left me with very high hopes for their second release. It was refreshing to hear prog institutions Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy attempt something a bit more mainstream, and to be exposed to great musicians I’d never heard before such as Casey McPherson. As much as I loved the 12-minute ‘Infinite Fire’, it was the shorter, poppier tracks like ‘Kayla’, ‘The Storm’ and the ballad ‘Better Than Walking Away’ which really made that album special to me. Looking at the track listing for Second Nature, I noticed that the songs, for the most part, were above 6 minutes (with two songs around 12 minutes) and I was worried that Mike and Neal had had more of an input to make the album proggier. I love prog as much as the next man (well, depending who the ‘next man’ is…) but having loved the different side of Flying Colors in comparison to Dream Theater and Transatlantic et al. I went in with apprehension.

It is clear from the first part of ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ of the Morse influence particularly: it’s reminiscent of one of his longer tracks with a soaring, harmonised lead section. It does quickly take another direction, when Casey starts to sing, and definitely sounds like Flying Colors. That said from the short instrumental sections it seems that this album is going to be proggier than the first. That’s not such a big deal, I guess with the amount of Portnoy/Morse albums compared to the amount of Flying Colors albums out there I wanted something a bit different. Objectively judged as a track, however, ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ is a good, uplifting song, if not slightly forgettable amongst the swathes of 10-15 minute tracks on my iTunes.

Portnoy makes his presence very clear on the next track ‘Mask Machine’, actually a very good song, and the first single from the album. Yet I feel that in recent times, Portnoy has accumulated a select bank of drum fills which he pumps out wherever possible. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if they were used in moderation but at least once per album he cranks them out and it’s starting to get a little bit tiresome and predictable. He’s one of the best drummers in the world technically, but it seems like he’s run out of imagination a little bit. Casey McPherson really gets to shine on ‘Mask Machine’, particularly towards the end where he sings the final verse with extraordinary frenziness, completing a vocal crescendo which permeates the song.

As I’ve listened to the album a few times, the next run of songs, despite all having a distinct melody, seem to blur together. They’re all nice songs, but to me seem somewhat average compared to some of the songs from their debut. It’s strange, because when I listen to them on their own I enjoy them a lot more than when I listen to them together on the album. The problem with a lot of them is that they’re slightly too long, so that by the time the end comes I’ve forgotten that they were a lot better at the start. ‘One Love Forever’ is a perfect example: the beginning of that song is fantastic; it’s different, folky and catchy, but the ending goes on for far too long. ‘Bombs Away’ has a great chorus, but again I think it could be a minute shorter, the same with ‘A Place In Your World’ – I feel like the chorus is overdone a bit.

‘The Fury Of My Love’ is a good one, it’s a lot more Casey-driven and has a strong chorus. This is me having just listened to it on its own, but in the album it definitely feels somewhat forgettable. This is a strange experience that I’ve never really had with an album before; usually I like to listen to albums in their entirety to get the full impact of the music but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Second Nature. I’ve listened to all the songs on their own spread throughout the day and they are actually all worth getting into. Maybe I’m alone in feeling this, but if you feel the same, I’d recommend sticking with them.

The last two tracks ‘Peaceful Harbor’ and ‘Cosmic Symphony’ are definitely the standouts on the album. ‘Peaceful Harbor’ definitely feels like it wouldn’t be out of place on a Neal Morse solo album, but I have such a soft spot for a good Morse ballad that it’s more than welcome on this album. It’s also a fact of life that all the best songs have a gospel choir at the end (‘Unwritten’ – Natasha Bedingfield, anyone?) and it makes this wonderful song twice as elevating. The final track, despite starting in almost the exact same way as ‘Lost Without You’ (I think unintentionally because it serves no musical purpose), seems quite unconventional for a longish prog song which I like. That’s what I liked about ‘Infinite Fire’ and they’ve done it again.

When I listen to the individual tracks on this album, I’d probably give it a 7 or 8 out of 10, but based on the expectation that I went into it having and the album as a single entity, I don’t think I can award it that highly. There are some great moments, and the musicianship is fantastic. Steve Morse and Dave LaRue (guitar and bass) are the understated heroes on the album, knowing when it’s their turn to step forward into the limelight. Unfortunately Mike Portnoy has a huge presence (as usual) on this album and sometimes that can detract from the song. On the best tracks, namely the last two, he is playing drums to fully compliment the song which is infinitely more effective.

Standout tracks: Mask Machine, Peaceful Harbor, Cosmic Symphony

6/10

Album Review: Haken – Restoration [EP] (2014)

“Escaping the past
By embracing the future.”

I, as I’m sure like many others, really got into Haken last year with the release of The Mountain and then made my way through Visions and Aquarius – two albums which I actually prefer to The Mountain (which isn’t to say it isn’t mind-blowing). I absolutely love Haken and was ridiculously excited when I heard they were releasing more music, even just a 3-track EP. Three tracks which in this case roughly equate to 34 minutes of music. My anticipation was high, and as it turns out, completely justified.

‘Darkest Light’ starts this EP like a aural punch to the face – Haken aren’t wasting any time and they’re not messing around. It is clear from the first few bars that the song is going to be quite dark, which makes sense as the songs from Restoration are based on songs from their early demo Enter The 5th Dimension, easily the darkest of their work. ‘Darkest Light’ begins in exactly the same way as ‘Blind’ from Enter The 5th Dimension and follows a similar pattern for a time, but it is so clear how much they have matured as a band. The musicianship on ‘Darkest Light’ is phenomenal, and while it is probably my least favourite track on the EP, it is an instantly satisfying, complex track that feels much shorter than its 6:44 running time.

If all the crazy, discordant, prog metal madness appeared in ‘Darkest Light’, which I feel is remeniscent of ‘Portals’ from Visions, ‘Earthlings’ satisfies the mellower (I use this word lightly) and more atmospheric side to Haken, as seen on tracks such as ‘Deathless’ and ‘Because It’s There’. The song starts slowly, a complete contrast to the previous one, with a clean, slightly evil sounding guitar arpeggio. Ross Jennings enters, subdued, and really shows off his (and the rest of the band’s) versatility, which is made yet clearer on the next track. The track is reserved and quite long, but never feels as if it’s dragging. There are nifty robotic vocals, and Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths (guitars) make great use of their instruments, while never being over the top. There is no huge payoff to the song, but it doesn’t need one. It fits the tone of the EP perfectly and is a great addition to their repertoire.

Now the track any self-respecting Haken fan has been dreaming about since the announcement – ‘Crystallised’. Oh boy, it’s a good one. I felt like the very beginning drew on Visions; quiet, atmospheric sounds then suddenly the band explodes in with a soaring intro riff. Then, as suddenly as they came in, the tone changes completely. There’s no overture, it’s straight into the verse. It reminds me of Dream Theater’s ‘Breaking All Illusions’: after the epic “searching out / reaching in…” there is suddenly a ‘pixie dance’ section. I love it, and I love Haken’s adaption of the technique. The lyrics in the chorus also feel reminiscent of Visions: “Someone’s calling me / echoes of a childhood memory”.

A classic Haken instrumental section follows a short bridge which makes use of the electronic ‘broken’ drums used on ‘Because It’s There’ to great effect. There’s an incredible keyboard solo and tricky off-beat rhythm guitar parts. They definitely have a distinct sound although it’s clear who their inspirations are – I think every band should aspire to this. Another Haken staple follows – the acapella section. This is where the song really starts to get amazing. The folky, almost mediaeval style guitar part after this is my favourite moment on the whole EP. It’s just damn cool, there isn’t really a more eloquent way to put it, and fits perfectly. The vocal harmonies continue as the music comes in and the theme is repeated, but not overdone. At the risk of comparing to Dream Theater too much, I instantly thought of the little guitar lick in ‘Octavarium’ at around 17:40 (just off the top of my head). The theme continues on into some “las”, which may sound cheesy on paper but trust me – you’ll love it. Ross Jennings is a stunning vocalist and really stands out in this section.

Who would Haken be, though, if they didn’t snap you straight out of that into another amazing, discordant instrumental section? This time every musician gets to stretch their legs and show off their amazing prowess, particularly new bassist Connor Green. I love that Haken can go from deathly serious in a song like ‘Earthlings’ to adding humour into a huge instrumental, flitting seamlessly between styles.

I always anticipate the ending of a huge prog song such as this, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. It’s an absolutely perfect ending; the lyrics are amazing.

“The moon will rise
The night will fall
I hold your hand
But you let go.
The sun will shine
The snow will thaw
All things must pass
Into the unknown.”

Beautiful and so god damn epic. ‘Crystallised’ is easily on a par with ‘Celestial Elixir’ and ‘Visions’ and it is clear that Haken have so much more to give. Bring on album number four!

9/10

Album Review: Dream Theater – Awake (1994)

“I feel elated

I feel depressed”

I thought I would start off by reviewing what could be my favourite Dream Theater album, although Images & Words is a strong contender. For a long time Dream Theater were my favourite band, a spot which in the last few months has been taken over by Marillion (I’ll get to them in another post) and I feel I have a lot to say, having listened to this album probably upwards of 100 times.

As an album, in my opinion, Awake is pretty much perfect. It has a mix of everything and is extremely well balanced which means the listener is never bored. I think this is what I like about progressive music. I find it hard sometimes to listen to a full album of a straight-up rock or metal band without it becoming a little stale.

With the opening drum fill of ‘6:00’ it is fairly obvious that this is a less-than-conventional album; it isn’t going to be something that’s played on Radio 1, and don’t they know it. The song makes great use of samples throughout – something which I love about Dream Theater’s style but which is particularly impressive on this album. The drumming in the album opener really stands out, it’s strong in the mix without being too overbearing and compliments the rest of the instruments brilliantly. ‘Caught In A Web’, despite being one the album’s weaker tracks, makes up for a fairly average verse with a strong chorus and good performance from James LaBrie. I feel like Images & Words and Awake were LaBrie’s ‘golden age’, hitting the F# on Learning To Live and delivering a stunning performance on this album. It’s also interesting to listen to the version from Live Scenes from New York, in which it is merged with ‘New Millenium’ from Falling Into Infinity. ‘Innocence Faded’ is a slight turn away from the previous two tracks – it is a lot more poppy and accessible, which isn’t to say it isn’t as good. The lead guitar hook is more catchy and uplifting and later in the song is one of the best chord sequences I’ve ever heard. LaBrie again delivers on the chorus and I hope I get the opportunity to see this song live one day

What comes next is potentially the highlight of the album – the ‘A Mind Beside Itself’ suite, comprising ‘Erotomania’, ‘Voices’ and ‘The Silent Man’. The first track is an instrumental and serves almost as an overture. The guitar solo which utilises the vocal melody of ‘The Silent Man’ is one of my favourite moments on the entire album. This is Dream Theater doing what they do best: phenomenal, twisting and turning instrumental sections. I feel that ‘Erotomania’ is a vastly underappreciated instrumental track in Dream Theater’s music history. ‘Voices’, my second favourite track on the album, is an amazing 9-minute piece featuring some of my favourite lyrics of all time. Although they are very dark, John Petrucci has not managed to recreate the imagery conveyed since:

“I’m lying here in bed
Swear my skin is inside out
Just another Sunday Morning”

“The old man takes the poison
Now the widow makes the rules”

‘The Silent Man’ compliments the darkness and complexity of the previous two tracks with wonderful acoustic grace. The acoustic open chords and simple structure are well needed and round off the first half of the album leaving the listener feeling almost contented.

Then comes ‘The Mirror’. The heaviest track on the album cuts through the brief silence after ‘The Silent Man’ like an axe to a block of wood with the harsh, unforgiving guitar of John Petrucci. A fantastic track, again with some great lyrics from Mike Portnoy and a hint at the ‘Space-Dye Vest’ theme. While this isn’t truly a concept album, there are repeated themes throughout which I really like. Immediately following ‘The Mirror’ comes ‘Lie’, a track which receives mixed reviews amongst the Dream Theater community, which seems to be split into those who prefer their heavier side and those who prefer their proggier side. I’m in the latter camp, and for a long time I didn’t like ‘Lie’ much at all. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I saw the band on the Along For The Ride tour in Manchester that the song really came alive to me. Perhaps it was the energy of the band and the crowd, but I had so much fun during that song and have preferred it on the album since then.

Much like ‘The Silent Man’ before, ‘Lifting Shadows Off A Dream’ provides a contrast to the almost unrelenting 13 minutes of heaviness of ‘The Mirror/Lie’. John Myung’s bass harmonics introduce us to this ballad, which is lyrically very poetic and vague, and musically sublime and optimistic. It’s definitely one of the standout tracks on the album for me. ‘Scarred’ is another track that took me a long time to get into, again almost until I saw it live. It is a difficult piece of music with a wide range of emotions. This is particularly helped by LaBrie’s vocal performance, from the almost whispered “To rise…to fall”, to the spitted angriness of “Can’t let them rape me again / Your venom’s not family here” to the soaring “Thirty years say we’re in this together / So open your eyes”.

The final track is ‘Space-Dye Vest’, another which has split the Dream Theater community. Some people think it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, others absolutely hate it. Me, I think it’s perfect. Kevin Moore’s final contribution to the band and what a way to go. From the haunting piano, to the low, droned guitar, to the deep vocals and the perfectly structured sample section in the middle, there is nothing wrong about this song. It is easily my favourite song on the album and finishes it off perfectly, reflecting the general dark mood of the album and leaving the listener feeling almost emotionally drained.

Awake takes you through almost every style of music without losing the sound that is classically Dream Theater. I find it very hard to find major faults with the album, every song is wonderfully crafted and serves a vital purpose on the album. It is an incredibly mature, emotional and powerful album and an essential listen for anyone who likes either metal, rock or prog – everyone will take something away.

Stand-out Tracks: Voices, Space-Dye Vest

10/10