The seemingly tireless progressive-rock veteran Neal Morse is back for yet another Bible-story concept album. This time heading to the book of Genesis, retelling the iconic story of Joseph and his brothers. In my previous reviews of Morse's work, I mentioned the difference between one of his solo projects, and a full-band effort (which includes most notably Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater fame, and lead guitarist Eric Gillette, among others). There is an inevitable decrease in musicianship and boundary pushing without the rest of the band, putting his latest project The Dreamer, Joseph: Part One behind the 8-ball before it even starts. 2020's Sola Gratia was a fine enough solo album, but it seemed like an appetizer when compared to the following year's full-band effort, Innocence and Danger. There is, however, a silver lining to a Morse solo project, in that the lyrics are free to be solely faith-based. Though his lighthearted lyrical approach has never fully resonated with me, it works better here in a Scriptural adaption, over the more abstract, open-to-interpretation messages of most of his full-band work. It should be noted that The Dreamer is set to be a double album, with part two releasing next year, so full expectations should be reserved until the project can be listened to as a whole.
As in most Morse albums, The Dreamer begins with an Overture, a musical glimpse of what's to come. These recurring motifs could perhaps be my favorite part of Morse's music. What sets him above the rest is his ability to string together melodies throughout an album, utilizing them in various ways, that lead to an emotional conclusion. In this theme, however, I found it lacking a singable melody, going instead for a dissonant rock riff, that while enjoyable, doesn't evoke much of an emotional response. The first full track, the power ballad "Before the World Was," is a fairly strong opener, using classic Morse techniques such as background gospel choirs and a rising guitar solo, but it's a song we've heard from Morse many times before. The message of this song is commendable, showing from the outset that no matter what Joseph will go through in his life, God had chosen him for a purpose…"you planted a future in me/before the world was/preempting thought or memory/before probable cause." The bluesy "Million Miles Away" succeeds in giving the road trip feeling the story is going for, noting Joseph's out-of-body experience from Genesis 37.
"Burns Like a Wheel" gives us the first real taste of progressive leanings, with its unorthodox time signature, out of key notes, and various instruments. Also introduced here are guest vocalists who, much like a broadway play, each assume a role in the story. These vocalists (including most notably Matt Smith of Theocracy), are mainly the same cast who accompanied Morse's 2019 production, Jesus Christ the Exorcist. This time around, as seen most strikingly in "The Pit," the guest vocals come across as unpolished, sometimes even being off pitch or using an overly harsh tone, which takes away from the overall production. Lead single "Like a Wall" has some interesting moments, but the main riff is stale, and the lyrics are a bit flimsy. At certain points on the album, it sounded like Morse was riffing on past material, and I found myself unconsciously humming the melody of one of his older tunes a few times.
Any Morse album is sure to run the gamut of genres, but his solo work (at least recently) has been favoring his blues side over progressive rock. "Liar Liar" and "Gold Dust City" lean heavily into blues rock with the latter even including a saxophone solo. The resultant experience may simply depend on which genres the listener prefers. "Slave Boy" introduces the diamond-in-the-rough vocals of Talon David as Potiphar's wife, and, as was the case in Exorcist, any time she takes the mic, the production is elevated. Another highlight is the guest solo by the aforementioned Gillette in "Wait On You," which leads nicely into the most unique of the bunch. The fully choral "I Will Wait On The Lord" depicts Joseph's humble behavior while in prison. It's a surprisingly complex arrangement in its own right, but to even attempt such an eyebrow raising song is to be applauded. One more bright spot is the multi-faceted "Heaven in Charge of Hell," as it's probably the best representation of each element of the album, and seeing Joseph from the guards' perspective is an intriguing thought.
After so many concept albums, one starts to wonder how many inventive ideas Mr. Morse has left. While that remains to be seen, this time around the execution was not as crisp as we've come to expect from his work. There are great moments to be found here, especially the transition between "Wait On You" and "I Will Wait On The Lord." However, for the majority of its hour-plus length, the rehashing of previous material, less than precise vocals, and lack of emotional themes make The Dreamer plateau at simply acceptable. Here's to hoping Joseph: Part Two corrects some of these missteps. If you're new to Morse's music, I'd suggest starting with any of his Neal Morse Band albums, but if you're a fan of his solo work, you should still find a lot to enjoy here.- Review date: 8/13/23, written by Joel Zaloum of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Frontiers Records
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