Sola Gratia – Neal Morse
I have to admit I have lost track just how many albums Neal Morse has made and put out since he left Spock’s Beard around 2002 and I am pretty sure he had a couple of solo albums out before he left the band and if you were to count his Christmas album that would make another one. Since leaving the band he has put out god knows how many Christian albums and a complete rake of studio and live albums under his own name and with his band besides all the other bands and projects he’s worked in.
I have the biggest majority of his solo albums and the ones he has put out with his band and there was a time when I honestly praised him for his song writing especially in the field of prog-rock. Though I have to confess that since he released Momentum back in 2012 I rather think that things have started to become a bit more stale and I found the last 3 albums I brought The Grand Experiment, The Similitude Of A Dream and The Great Adventure started to speak too much of the same language in that it was all too much of the same thing so I never even bothered buying his last PROG! album Jesus Christ The Exorcist.
I know that Morse is very much devoted to his faith and Christian beliefs and I have nothing against that. I also know he’s a very good songwriter, but at the high rate he churns out music it can be a bit too much food for thought at times and the food in some cases is getting stale before it reaches the table so to speak. It will also cost you an arm and a leg to keep up with it although to be fair I have always found his albums very reasonably priced and they do offer value for the buck.
It was very much the title of this release that caught my eye and made me go out and buy it. The reasoning behind that is because his 2007 album Sola Scriptura has always been my favourite album of his, and the title of this new album Sola Gratia was ringing out to me in the way that it could be a sequel to that album. My second favourite album of his came out a couple of years earlier in 2005 and that album was simply titled ? as in a question mark.
In total I have 14 of his studio albums and those two albums have always been my GOTO! albums of his. Personally, I don’t think anything that came after them is on the same level of par and it’s been a bit too much of the same thing. The question is does Sola Gratia live up to its predecessor or are my expectations too high? Before I go any further let’s take a look at the packaging and artwork per usual.
Packaging & Artwork…
The Limited Edition comes with a bonus DVD and both the CD & DVD are stored in a 3-panel cardboard DigiPak that has plastic trays to hold the both discs. It also comes with a 20-page booklet that contains all the lyrics, credits and linear production notes which can be stored neatly in the left-hand side of the Digipak.
Overall, it’s a very neat well-made package to which I got at a very good price of £12.99 from Amazon UK. I pre-ordered it on the 5th August and it arrived a day after its release which is quite good considering it comes from America and it arrived earlier than expected. The album is also available on vinyl and has been pressed onto 2 x 180-gram black vinyl LP’s priced around £24.99 and it also comes with the CD. There is also a CD (only) edition that comes in a standard jewel case for £10.99 and I dare say a Digital Download of the album for not much less.
The artwork and Design layout were done by the German graphic designer Thomas Ewerhard who also done the cover for Sola Scriptura and many other Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard albums. He mainly does the artwork for metal and prog bands and his work is very impressive and I particularly like the artwork he’s done for the German supergroup metal opera project Avantasia. The artwork he has done here is well apt and fitting for the sequel to Sola Scriptura.
The Album In Review…
Neal Morse’s latest studio album Sola Gratia was released on the 11th September 2020. The album contains 14 tracks and has an overall playing time of 65 minutes, 40 seconds and it runs along like a non-stop Rock Opera. I do find that over the more recent years that Neal likes to get more involved in the act for his live concerts and tries to act out the parts. He even adds in the odd stage prop and dresses up to try and look the part of the many concept story albums he writes.
The one thing I do admire about him is that he always puts his heart and soul into his live performance. However, I do find that he’s perhaps going a bit too over the top with his costumes and props 😁😁😁. I also find that the only way you can get to hear and enjoy his concerts are on DVD and not at the concert itself. Because they are played at ridiculously high-volume levels that goes beyond the level of distortion and will bounce off walls all around the arena.
Sola Gratia is indeed a sequel to its predecessor he wrote back in 2007 and the whole idea was ignited by a misunderstanding and of him not quite catching on to what his wife was saying during a conversation they were having at the time. She was asking him if his next album was going to be a solo album and he thought she said “Sola” and thought that would be a good idea hence the reason why we now have a follow up. There are in fact five solas so we may very well see other sequels arrive later.
Sola Scriptura translated to English is “scripture alone” and is a theological doctrine held by some Protestant Christian denominations that the Christian scriptures are the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice.
To be perfectly honest I myself am not into all this GOBBLEDEGOOK! and quite often in the world of prog-rock the lyrical content is meaningless and all written about mythical fantasies more than anything else. It’s the music and the way the words are expressed are all that really matters to me and when it comes to reality you will find a lot more sense in the song “He Died At Home” that he wrote for his Life & Times album a couple of years ago than what you will ever find here.
When it comes to Christianity and common sense you will also find more logic listening to Stephen Fry talk about religion and he’s a lot wiser man than the likes of Solomon and the Three Wise Men 😁😁😁.
Like all his studio albums they are mostly recorded at his own studios at his home and he started work on the album towards the end of January this year, the recording was done between February – June. Being the highly talented multi-instrumentalist he is, he laid out all the tracks for the demos by himself including playing drums on all tracks and then sent them over to both Mike Portnoy and Randy George for them to play their parts.
As a rule, Neal likes to have the musicians in the same room but due to the Coronavirus this was not possible and it’s the first time he’s ever made an album and had to work this way. All three musicians are the main core on the album though both the other couple of musicians from his band also get to play a few parts and there are also a few string players and backing vocalists that also contribute to it.
The Limited Edition comes with a DVD that shows the making of the album and this bonus feature is something of a norm with all the projects Morse works on and he films everything. It would not surprise me if he takes his video camera with him when he pops down to the grocery store 😁😁😁. So, lets now take a look at the DVD.
The DVD plays immediately when you insert it into your player and the only way you can access its main menu (as seen above) is by either waiting for the DVD to end or via the Top Menu button on your remote. As a rule, Neal mostly films and documents much of the recording progress for his studio and live albums and you can at times get many hours of film footage on them.
This however, was one of the rare occasions where he hardly filmed anything at all and some of the footage he even recorded after the process to make up the 66 minutes you get here. I find these making of the album very interesting and in this footage, you even get to see how he recorded some of the ideas with his voice on his mobile phone before he had written the music, and him putting those ideas into fruition.
You also get to see Mike Portnoy and Randy George recording some of their parts at their homes along with the string players recording their parts in Neal’s studio plus hear a song that never made it on the album. The one thing you do not get is a 5.1 mix of the album tracks. Though to be perfectly honest from the attempts I have heard in the past done on his live DVD’s and the other projects he’s been involved in you would only end up being hugely disappointed 😁😁😁.
The picture quality is basic but to be expected when filming yourself on video and I have nothing to complain about especially as the DVD you are getting for practically nothing with the price, I paid for it. I would also say it’s worth getting the Limited Edition especially if you like to see the production side of things. The video editing was done by Randy George.
Musicians & Credits…
All songs Written & Produced by Neal Morse. Recorded between February -June 2020 at Neal’s home studio. Mixed & Mastered by Rich Mouser at The Madhouse. Pasadena US. Strings recorded by Gabe Klein. Drums tracks Engineered by Thomas Cuce. Artwork by Thomas Ewerhard. DVD Edited by Randy George.
Neal Morse: Vocals – Keyboards – Guitars – Percussion – Drums (On “Building A Wall”)
Mike Portnoy: Drums (Voice Mow only on “Building A Wall”)
Randy George: Bass.
Bill Hubauer: Piano & Aha Moment.
Eric Gillette: Guitar in “Overture”. “In The Name Of The Lord”. Big Solo on “The Glory Of The Lord”.
Gideon Klein: Cello – Viola – Stringed Bass.
Josee Weigand: Violin – Viola
Backing Vocals – Wil Morse, Debbie Bresee, April Zachary, Julie Harrison and Amy Pippin.
The Album Tracks In Review…
Sola Gratia or “grace alone” which it translates too is actually the third Thesis that was written and not the second of the 5 Solas so regarding the sequel side of things Neal may have got his wires slightly crossed. Basically, it’s from the book of Ephesians in the bible that was supposedly written by God and by the Apostle Paul’s hand and can be found in chapter 2 verses 8-10.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
In layman’s terms it’s basically saying that we were saved for our sins by grace alone and the grace was a gift from god in offering his son at the alter for us. Although it might not appear that way in the way that it is written in the King James version of the bible (above). But there are several versions of the book and many different interpretations of it which is why there are so many different religions.
The bible was never written in a straight forward way for you to understand and try and decipher. Many songs are also written in the same way and many people will have their own interpretations of them. In the case of songs, I personally think that’s a good thing, but surely if there was a god out there, he would not of given you a book of riddles to lead you up the wrong garden path so to speak, or perhaps he was the author of confusion has Neal mentioned on his One album back in 2004 😁😁😁.
The first notable thing I noticed regarding the sequel is that the material for this album was written over a lot more tracks than its predecessor and they are considerably a lot shorter in length. Most of the shorter tracks also make up the first half of the album and I would even say that Sola Gratia is a bit like listening to an album of two halves with how the material flows along. So, let’s take a closer look at the album.
Track 1. Preface.
You could say that the preface part of the book lets you know that it’s a sequel to the first book or album and it does so BEAUTIFULLY! with a lovely little acoustic version of “The Door” from the 2007 Sola Scriptura album. I totally love what Neal has done here and even though it’s only 1 minute, 26 seconds long it is one of the best tracks on the album. You will also hear parts of it pop up and reoccur in the backing vocal sections throughout the album, but here it’s just Neal’s voice and his 6 & 12 string guitar and it really is GORGEOUS!
Track 2. Overture.
After it’s GORGEOUS! opening the album then EXPLODES! into action with this instrumental piece and this is by far the most PROGMATIC! track on the whole album. Neal quite often likes to BIG! things up with his overtures and has done several times in the past on his other albums and they generally contain some really GREAT! musical interplay with the instrumentation and run along some sophisticated time signatures and transitional changes that weave in and out of each other. It’s something he does best and there is no exception here.
This is actually one of the only longer tracks to be found in the first half of the album and besides the 3 main core musicians Morse, Portnoy and George it features his other two band members Gillette and Hubauer and both string players Gideon Klein and Josee Weigand that play their role in beefing up the orchestration very well. It’s also my personal favourite track on the album and merits the albums TOP SPOT AWARD!
Track 3. In The Name Of The Lord.
It’s time to ROCK! things up and this one even throws in some Metal to add a bit more weight to it and could quite easily be seen as the single release from the album. Although without the rest of the story behind its concept it’s lyrical content might very well give people the wrong impression about Neal himself, and that is exactly what it did when I shared the official video with a small group of friends in private group on Facebook last Friday and this is how one person in the group described it.
“Definitely motored right along with some ‘Nasty’. By the sounds of it…he ain’t a fan of Jesus and more the other guy. I enjoyed this you ole Devil”.
The lyrical content is often the reason why so many songs from concept albums do not make good single releases even though musically this would be more fitting for a single release and you will get that impression from the official video that was put out on the record labels Tube channel.
This particular song does also have quite a bit of an Alice Cooper influence and there is a couple of songs on this album that do feel more like Cooper songs rather than Morse.
Regarding the lyrical content it could easily come across like it came across to that person in the group and many more especially, if you know very little or nothing about Neal Morse and to be honest this is a group where I post more songwriter based songs and very little in the way of prog-rock and I only posted this cause it is a rock song.
The fire and anger in Neal’s voice will also give people that impression but he does like to put himself into the right frame of mind and picture of the times he is portraying in the story, and the story is based upon the times where even an apostle like Paul would fear for his own safety talking about Jesus and back then you could even get stoned for uttering the word.
“In The Name Of The Lord” does have more of a commercial rock feel to it which is why I could see it like a single release. The fact that I do like Alice Cooper also makes this appeal to my taste and I do see this song has one of the highlights of the album and it’s a contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
Track 4. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones).
More influences are coming out of the woodwork here and this a song that is structured around the piano and its vamping style gives it that BEATLE-ESC! feel. It’s quite a jolly up-tempo little song even if the lyrical content is kind of celebrating in an evil way 😁😁😁 and the word “Ballyhoo” is associated with a lot of noise and activity, often with no real purpose behind it.
I suppose you could describe it sort of like making a lot of fuss out of nothing and that is what the chosen ones i.e. Saul and the Pharisees are bragging about here on their road to Damascus. But then again, the Pharisees were seen as hypocrites of god by god.
Track 5. March Of The Pharisees.
This is a short instrumental interlude and this piece is structured more or less around a continuous bass line that pumps its way along to the beat of the drums very well allowing space for the hammond organ and guitars to build it up and add some power to it.
There is quite a bit of TASTY! guitar work on this by Morse and the way the guitar echoes out in parts and is panned between left and right to good effect puts me in mind of “Dogs” by Pink Floyd. Even the way it marches along also reminds me of “Dogs Of War” by them too though the lead lines very much speak differently and this a GREAT! little interlude.
Track 6. Building A Wall.
The Alice Cooper influence is back for this ANTHEM ROCKER! of a song though some may even see it has even a Pink Floyd influence regarding its wall. They might even see it has a political influence brought on by the LUNATIC! I chose for the picture here 😁😁😁. However, the wall of separation here was brought on by the Scribes and Pharisees and with Jesus delivering his damming discourse to them as described in the book of Matthew chapter 23 verse 13.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in”.
Neal’s original drums were left in on this song and the only thing Mike Portnoy is doing on the track is one of his funny voice “Mows” in which you can see in the official video that was once again put out on the record label’s Tube channel.
This is yet another GREAT! commercial rock song that would be fitting for a single release and apart from the lyrics. musically both “In The Name Of The Lord” and “Building A Wall” do have the presence of some of Alice Coopers earlier hits. Though even the lyrics on this particular song could easily be interpreted into today’s political affairs and this is another of the albums highlights and strong contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
Track 7. Sola Intermezzo.
It’s time for another musical intermission or in this case an intermezzo which is an Italian pronunciation that is used in the general sense of a composition which fits between other musical or dramatic entities, such as acts of a play or movements of a larger musical work. This also could be seen as a piece to put an end to first part or half of the album and though it’s much shorter than the overture you get some fine interplay and it’s another of the PROGMATIC! tracks on the album.
Track 8. Overflow.
Like I mentioned earlier in some ways this is like listening to an album that has two halves and most of the material from here on does get longer. This is very much a ballad of a song that perhaps gets stretched out longer over its 6.5 minutes than it really needs to be. It’s not a bad song by any means and it also has a nice musical section to break it up. However, I do feel the chorus is overcooked and can be too repetitious.
Track 9. Warmer Than The Sunshine.
You could say this is another instrumental piece with what little words you get here and they are only a couple of short verses that come into play at the end. This is also one of the couple of shorter pieces on the second part of the album though both are approaching the 3.5 minute mark and this one works very well with all that has been put into it.
You could say it does help lift the album back up slightly and once again there is a fine PROGMATIC! touch to it with the interplay between the musicians and instrumentation. It’s also a very well-structured piece of work where the keyboards and bass play more of a dominate role, though the guitars and drums also play vital parts to make it what it is as well and it a GREAT! piece of work.
Track 10. Never Change.
This next song for some reason has me thinking of the “Warrior” by Wishbone Ash in particular with its one haunting ambient note on the guitar that echoes every now and then to the jangly rhythm guitar. Although it’s nothing like that song I find myself singing the words “I’m leaving to search for something new” and I can actually squeeze in the first 4 lines of that song into the intro of this song before Neal starts singing.
This is one of the better songs on the second half of the album and I like how it builds itself up with quite some power to take it into the next track. Neal also plays a very TASTY! lead guitar solo that runs between 4:10 – 5:31 that is very FLOYD-ESC! which has that feel of some of guitar work Dave Gilmour played on The Division Bell album.
Track 11. Seemingly Sincere.
By far the most powerful song of the album and when it comes to energy, I would say that a lot of it has been sucked out of it on the second half of the album and it needed something like this to wake it up. It is quite a synth driven track and the sequenced intro is once again quite FLOYD-ESC! and a bit like “On The Run” from their prolific Dark Side Of The Moon album as you can hear in the official video release.
Though it also has some heavy metal driven into it with the guitars and one hell of a powerhouse drummer to help drive it along too. “Seemingly Sincere” is the longest track on the album weighing in at 9 minutes, 34 seconds and it contains some really GREAT! progression that adds plenty of weight to it all with how it builds up into quite a monstrous song that has all the right balls and grit. It’s very much my personal favourite song on the album and jointly merits the albums TOP SPOT AWARD! along with its instrumental overture.
Track 12. The Light On The Road To Damascus.
This is the second of the shorter tracks on the second half of the album and effectively its like having 3 tracks rolled into one which does not really work that well at all. Talk about being in the land of confusion and I think Neal certainly was when he put this together.
OK! you could say the intro which is the only part that contains some words may have been essential to get the story across and the short-orchestrated section that follows and ends in a bang works too. However, what does not work is having the instrumental part that comes in at the 2:14 mark on the same track and this little small instrumental piece that is used to bring in the next track might have worked better if he further developed it and put it on another track.
Track 13. The Glory Of The Lord.
This song should of really of been the final track on the album and it runs along in similar vein to much of the material you will find on other Morse albums such as Testimony for example. It has some nice rich orchestration to accompany the piano from the string players and Eric Gillette‘s BIG! blistering guitar solo works a TREAT! to spice things up and helps it raise the bar a bit. It’s a GREAT! song and another contender for the albums TOP SPOT!
Track 14. Now I Can See / The Great Commission.
A two-part song to which the first part is really just an extension of the previous song and is like a reprise of it with the backing singers singing it’s title like in the way of a canticle as Neal repeats the words of the first part of the new title to practically the same tune played on the piano.
It then builds up with the orchestration and brings in a transitional change which is sort of like a Gran Finale although it’s not quite over yet has it comes down and he introduces a different melody on the piano for the final part “The Great Commission” to which brings in the final few words and it trickles its way out subtly and nicely on the piano to put an end to it all.
With how the last couple of tracks on the album work he could of easily done away with a track and made the two part song out of the 13th track and titled it as thus “The Glory Of The Lord / The Great Commission“. Though I am sure Neal has his own reasons but I did feel that the album should have ended off with the 13th track.
To sum up Sola Gratia by Neal Morse. I would say it’s a decent enough album and much of the excitement and energy is contained within the material that was written for first half of the album. It is an album of two halves and the second half of the album is not in any particular hurry and its as if all the life and energy has been sucked and drained out of it in relation the first half to a certain degree.
In many respects I could also see those who brought the album on vinyl wearing out the first LP in no time at all. Simply because that is where all the adrenalin has been contained and it is only really “Seemingly Sincere” that really lives up to the energetic pace on the second part of the album.
Though I must stress that the way everything works with the concept I can see why Neal wrote it like this and it does work. The second half of the album is far from disappointing either even if I do have a few little niggles with a couple of the tracks in the way he presented them like he did and my personal highlights from the album are as follows: “Overture“. “In The Name Of The Lord“. “Building A Wall“. “Seemingly Sincere” and “The Glory Of The Lord“.
In conclusion Sola Gratia is a very good fine body of work that Neal Morse has written with all the material that is contained upon it and no doubt he has put his heart and soul into the album. It can be quite exciting in parts and has other pleasurable moments and is quite an enjoyable album to listen to. Though I would not say it was a solid body of work. Though I certainly think it’s a better album than some of his more previous outputs of work he has put out since 2012 and it’s a way better album than Momentum.
As for my question in the introduction of my expectations being too high to live up to its predecessor Sola Scriptura in the way of a sequel. Personally. I would be both shocked and stunned if it did and my expectations were never that high in the first place especially knowing his output of work over the last decade or more. It would take something really special for that to happen and it may never either.
However, in some ways this new album of his has restored some of my faith in him as a writer and I may end up buying Jesus Christ The Exorcist. Though not right away as both this month and next month my music expenses are already tied up with the amount of new releases that are coming out over these couple of months. I also hear that there is also a new Transatlantic album in the pipeline that will be coming out either this year or next year and shall be looking forward to that.
Overall, Sola Gratia is an album that is both PROGMATIC! and ROCKMATIC! and I don’t think it will disappoint many PROGSTERS! especially with its musical content. I can understand some people not being into the religious side of things and this is really a concept about Saul who was blinded by God and later seen the light so to speak on his road to Damascus with the Pharisees.
But as I mentioned earlier. I can take the lyrical side of most prog-rock albums with a pinch of salt as long as the words are expressed well and add to musical side of things to which no doubt Neal can deliver them with ease on that score, because he does have a GREAT! voice and completely throws himself into it like an actor in many respects.
I do think it’s worth going with the Limited Edition that includes the DVD even if the content is not quite up to some of the other behind the scenes in the studio, he’s done n the past. But for it’s price point you are practically getting the DVD for free anyway.
Most Seemingly Sincere…
The Album track listing is as follows:
01. Preface. 1:26.
02. Overture. 5:59.
03. In The Name Of The Lord. 4:27.
04. Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones). 2:43.
05. March Of The Pharisees. 1:40.
06. Building A Wall. 5:01.
07. Sola Intermezzo. 2:10.
08. Overflow. 6:27.
09. Warmer Than The Sunshine. 3:21.
10. Never Change. 7:52.
11. Seemingly Sincere. 9:34.
12. The Light On The Road To Damascus. 3:26.
13. The Glory Of The Lord. 6:17.
14. Now I Can See / The Great Commission. 5:17