CD REVIEW – The Neil Morse Band – Innocence & Danger

The Neal Morse Band (now NMB) was formed in 2012, featuring long-time collaborators Neal Morse (vocals, keyboards and guitars), Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals) and Randy George (bass), as well as Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals) and Eric Gillette (guitars, vocals). The band’s discography begins with The Grand Experiment, followed by 2016’s The Similitude Of A Dream, 2019’s The Great Adventure and now 2021’s Innocence & Danger.

Given Neal Morse and this band penchant for concept albums, it’s perhaps remarkable that Innocence & Danger is a series of unrelated songs, but drummer
Mike Portnoy says “After two sprawling back to back double concept albums in a row, it was refreshing to get back to writing a collection of unrelated individual
songs in the vein of our first album.”

Indeed, it would appear that making this album came easy to the band; while the initial inspiration came particularly from Bill Hubauer (keyboards) and Randy George (bass), the ideas flowed from everybody from there on, as George recalls: “I am excited about the level of collaboration that we achieved on this one. We even went in with a lot of ideas that weren’t necessarily developed, and I think in the end we have something that represents the best of everybody in the band.”

So, what we have is a double album by inspiration, rather than design, as Portnoy explains: “As much as we wanted to try and keep it to a single album after having just done two double albums, we wrote so much material that we found ourselves with our third double album in a row! That’s pretty prog!”

There is also plenty in Innocence & Danger to excite we prog fans who thirst for epics, as Neal Morse explains: “There’s one half hour epic and another that’s about 20 minutes long. I really didn’t realise that they were that long when we were recording them, which I guess is great because if a movie is really good, you don’t realise that it’s three hours long! But there are also some shorter songs: some have poppier elements, some are heavier and some have three part acoustic sections. I’m excited about all of it, really,”

The album’s title apparently came from some impromptu guide vocals that Morse sang over some tracks in the studio which the whole band liked because the phrase reflected the diversity of the music. It also seems that Morse found a new freedom in lyric writing on this album, partly because of a recent meeting with the ubiquitous legend that is Jon Anderson: “I did a podcast with Jon and three days later I was writing some of the lyrics for this album and the words just rolled out: so it’s a little more free form, a little more avant garde.” At least he didn’t say away with the faeries!

And so, six years on from The Grand Experiment, Morse is more enthusiastic than ever about the talents and contribution of his fellow band members on Innocence & Danger: “The band is really so extraordinary – and is such an amazing team: Mike’s drums are huge, Randy’s bass playing is an ever-solid foundation and Eric’s vocals are becoming crazy good now: often I’ll sing the verse, Eric sings the chorus, Bill sings the bridge and Eric will bring it home. It seems to work really, really well. And both Bill and Eric’s soloing is amazing: they have really hit it out of the park on this record.

The Innocence side focuses on the dichotomy of staying safe as against following destiny, while the Danger side looks at the journey, having made a decision to go. By now I expect most are familiar with Morse’s overt Christianity and spiritual content, albeit this time round perhaps band influence has led to less openness and a more fluid concept of courage to follow our dreams. Synonyms for fulfilling your destiny abound (“finding your place in the sun,” “finally opening up the door,” “make your way clear to this rising tide“, “I’m coming home,”) with some more overtly Christian ones (“I have a fire burning deep inside/And it only exists to rise higher“)

But, as a Yes fan, from the 70’s, what do I know about lyrics? Focus on the music, I say! Instrumentally, this band is top notch. “Do It All Again” is a signature bombastic theme from Morse that he does so well in all his different guises. Eric Gillette displays guitar mastery here and throughout, and actually deserves an honourable mention for vocals. The accusations of samey-samey are bound to surface, but for me their musical prowess and ability to make complex look simple continues to be jaw-dropping. “Bird On A Wire”, for example, features some superb instrumental sections. We’ve seen them cover as well, so unsurprisingly we get the West Coast-ish “Your Place In The Sun” or the funky re-imagining of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (a la Yes’ America) going all prog de- and re-construction. For variety we can hear the commercial, synth-driven “Another Story To Tell,” the gorgeous beginning and Floydian smoothness of “The Way It Had To Be”, the clever, brief acoustic “Emergence” (anything Howe can do…..) that segues into delightful CSN/America vocal stylings of the power ballad, “Not Afraid Pt. 1.”

Danger may only have two tracks, but both are over nineteen minutes long. I’ll summarise….. “Not Alone Pt. 2” may have little connection to Part 1 but has the most explicit spiritual content about love and destiny: “Come find love that has no borders/the gathering Son, you will be His bride.” Musically dark and light, it’s a powerful, genre busting piece of work, a true journey. “Beyond The Years” is instrumentally rich, reflective and ethereal at times, a recollection perhaps. This band can quite simply digress from and divert between their kind of medieval, folk, 70’s, prog, acoustic, classical, rock-out – you name it. It can transcend time signatures with ease. There’s a sugar-coated dexterous energy. They epitomise ‘tight’. They display multiple talents and push their expertise in diverse and different directions. It all ties and blends into a humungous whole. This is a solid, flamboyant band whose members know their place, are able to step up when required, and make their experience count, becoming much more valuable as a single unit rather than just trying to count the sum of their considerable individual parts.

I imagine I may be innocently in danger of splitting opinion here (see what I did there?) but for me, the band have reinforced their group ethos and minimised the perceived star quality of some members as much as they can. Their instrumental strengths continue to astound, pushing on from the familiar and expected. Their group songwriting strengths shine. Do they deliver? I think so. Will people still think it is Neil Morse solo. Probably. Shame it’s too late for a name change to reinforce the band concept.

Tracklisting

  1. Do It All Again (08:55)
  2. Bird On A Wire (07:22)
  3. Your Place In The Sun (04:12)
  4. Another Story To Tell (04:50)
  5. The Way It Had To Be (07:14)
  6. Emergence (03:12)
  7. Not Afraid Pt 1 (04:53)
  8. Bridge Over Troubled Water (08:08)
  9. Not Afraid Pt 2 (19:32)
  10. Beyond The Years (31:22)

Bonus DVD:

  1. The Making of Innocence & Danger(1:00:33)
  2. Bill Hubauer Studio Tour (05:00)
  3. Randy George Studio Tour (04:14)
  4. Eric Gillette Studio Tour (05:06)

Band

Neal Morse: Vocals, Guitar and Keyboards
Mike Portnoy: Drums
Randy George: Bass
Eric Gillette: Guitar and Vocals
Bill Hubauer: Keyboards and Vocals

Band Links
www.nealmorse.com
www.radiantrecords.com
www.nealmorsefans.com
www.facebook.com/nealmorse
www.twitter.com/nealmorse

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