Neal Morse – Sola Gratia
From the first notes of “Sola Gratia” to the last, this album has everything Neal Morse is known for and more, and contains some of the “freshest” sounds we’ve heard from him in quite some time. To start, let’s clear some things up: this is a Neal Morse solo album, not a Neal Morse Band album, so although Neal Morse Band members Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette have contributed some small parts (you’ll immediately recognize the latter’s blistering solo during the finale), you won’t hear them sing on this album, and apart from long-time partners Mike Portnoy and Randy George delivering the drum and bass parts, everything you hear is written by Neal.
The album’s build-up is as we know it from most of Neal’s recent concept albums and starts out with a short prelude: just an acoustic guitar, followed by an acoustic 12 string melody. As with anything Neal Morse, it immediately sounds familiar yet new, and as soon as he starts singing the opening words, I have goosebumps. This reprise of the ending of “Sola Scriptura” (‘The Door’) goes right through me. Then the Overture kicks off, bringing all the themes from the album together.
I won’t spoil any other specific reference to “Sola Scriptura”, by the way, as discovering these was one of my favourite parts of listening to this album. Safe to say that fans of this album will find references in pretty much every song.
Like most of Neal Morse’s solo albums, this album is a testimony (for those unfamiliar with the term – the story of how someone came to his faith) but a very different one than most others. Sola Gratia tells the story of Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle, traditionally regarded as the writer of 13 of 27 books of the New Testament. As we hear in ‘In the Name of the Lord’, he, as matter of fact, persecuted early Christians. The song’s brooding main theme, which recurs a number of times throughout the album, conveys exactly the right feeling for this part of the story. The chorus is also fittingly anthemic, and portrays Paul as a truly devoted persecutor.
Neal Morse – In the Name of the Lord (click here if the video does not play)
Speaking of catchy choruses, ‘Ballyhoo’ comes well equipped here too. It’s not as cheesy as ‘Vanity Fair’ off “The Great Adventure” or ‘The ways of a Fool’ on “Similitude”, but it comes close. The lyrics are some of the most funny and memorable on the entire album and will have you thinking: how does he come up with this stuff? “Hellfire in megatons”?! I’ve caught myself singing this song multiple times and had to smile every time. Classic Neal Morse pop song!
For ‘March of the Pharisees’ we go back to the more brooding atmosphere we had before. ‘Building a Wall’ suddenly bursts into arena rock, complete with a hey – whoa – yeah chorus – literally! This is Neal himself drumming on this song by the way, but since he’s using the same drum kit Mike Portnoy always uses, it doesn’t sound out of place. For those of you with a “More Cowbell” related fever, this song is surely the only prescription. Here, Saul, the Pharisees and a group of other Jews confront and subsequently stone Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr. Then comes the ‘Sola Intermezzo’, as the title says, this is an instrumental song reprising some of the themes from both Sola albums. If you can spot which part of “Sola Scriptura” is referenced here on which percussion instrument, let us know in the comments and win my eternal respect for your listening skills.
Neal Morse – Building a Wall (click here if the video does not play)
‘Overflow’ is the ballad of this album, and probably the most “Transatlantic” song ever to appear on a Neal Morse branded album. The feel is very comparable to the softer parts of ‘Stranger in your Soul’. It segues directly into ‘Warmer than the Sunshine’, which describes Stephen’s death directly.
After Stephen has been killed, still convinced that he must persecute more Christians, Saul sets off to Damascus, with the blessing of the Sanhedrin to bring the Christians there to justice (‘Never Change’). This song again portrays Paul’s steadfastness.
The second single also returns to the brooding atmosphere of the first one, but the almost industrial vibe of the synth melody throughout the verses is something we haven’t really heard from Neal before. This song has Paul think back to the stoning of Stephen, struck with wonder by the depth of his faith – still not agreeing with him but noticing he was ‘Seemingly Sincere’. Like ‘In the name of the Lord’, this song’s chorus is classic Neal Morse stuff. My favorite song on the album apart from the finale.
Neal Morse – Seemingly Sincere (click here if the video does not play)
‘The Light on the Road to Damascus’ is mostly instrumental. As mentioned before, Paul is still on his way to Damascus (according to Neal, “way down south”, maybe he held the map upside down?) when he has a vision of Christ and is subsequently struck blind. He has to be led into Damascus by the hand and doesn’t eat or drink for three days.
Throughout his career, Neal has certainly written his share of all-out epic, climactic album closers, but the final two songs of this album combined almost take this to a new level. The “formula” is simple here, start with a relatively simple but heartfelt melody, and build it up until, I imagine, even the most grumpy listener will begrudgingly wipe away a tear. Then add some references to the most emotional parts of “Sola Scriptura” sung by the choir in the background, and I don’t know about anyone else, but it certainly had me.
So there we have it, another brilliant concept album by the man responsible for more prog rock concept albums than any other (that I know of). I personally can’t find any fault with this album or well, maybe one: This album is musically and thematically quite heavy, and Neal’s high gain guitar sound just isn’t the best, though his playing is impeccable as always. People who have problems with the Christian lyrical content of previous albums will likely find this album too much as well, though in this case it is simply part of the story (I’d challenge anyone to make a concept album about a story in the New Testament without mentioning Jesus or God) so I would definitely recommend to give it a try.
Until a couple of years ago, I too was convinced I would hate Neal More solo albums based on the lyrical content, but A: you can tell that Neal is truly passionate about this, and there is a conviction in his singing that many could never convey regardless of subject and B: the music is just. that. Good.
- In the Name of the Lord
- Ballyhoo (The Chosen Ones)
- March of the Pharisees
- Building A Wall
- Sola Intermezzo
- Warmer than the Sunshine
- Never Change
- Seemingly Sincere
- The Light on the Road to Damascus
- The Glory of the Lord
- Now I Can See/The Great Commission