I liked a few Spocks Beard albums when I was a teenager, probably right around when I started posting here in the first place, but I had largely forgotten about them over the years and was always put off from diving into Neal Morseís other stuff because of the ďChristianĒ label. But then I checked out the new Transatlantic album on a whim and was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it, so I was inspired to satisfy my curiosity and check out everything the guyís done. Well almost everything. He has several covers albums which I didnít bother with, and he also has some conventional praise and worship albums which I also see no reason to listen to (and clearly neither do most of his fans since they aren't even available on torrent sites).
My star ratings are all relative to his own discography, btw. So feel free to mentally deduct stars overall based on your personal taste and tolerance for this cheesy-ass prog bullshit with lyrics about Jesus.
--- Spocks Beard ---
The Light (1995) ****
The thing with Neal Morse is that while you can dismiss him in the same way as you could dismiss most of post-classic-era prog artists for just ripping off Yes and Genesis ect, now that i've done this deep dive into his music I donít think I can bunch him in with the other modern prog acts quite so easily. Obviously the classic prog artists are his biggest influences and those influences are completely obvious (no friggin shit) but Morse absolutely has his own style of songwriting and a signature sound that is completely his own which does set him apart.
The band is still finding their sound here, but the title track is deservedly one of their signature songs. The other epics are a bit awkward (the FU/Iím Sorry portion of The Water is infamous of course) but even though they dont all hold together perfectly well thereís still a charm here that would be lost on Nealís solo records after heíd really figured out how to make a seamless epic. Easy to see why they garnered so much hype among prog fans so quickly when this came out since what else was sounding like this in 1995?
Beware of Darkness (1996) ***1/2
The proggified George Harrison cover is great, The Doorway is one of their best songs, and Gentle Giant tribute Thoughts is cute (though "Thoughts part 2" on V blows it away), the album drops off a little after that making this the weakest album of the original SB run by a small margin, still good though. This was also one of the last albums that Kevin Gilbert worked on before he died which is a neat bit of trivia.
The Kindness of Strangers (1998) ****
Man i really love June, the perfect kind of cheesy ass singalong bullshit that just hits me right every time. The Good Dont Last is the kind of upbeat uplifting feel good stuff that they really did well. Why do so many prog bands write overly serious songs about D&D-type bullshit and avoid making happy music? Morse is great at writing happy music. the short songs are all pretty solid. the epics more or less figured out now and flow pretty nicely, though I think the melodies in the shorter songs are a bit more memorable overall.
Day for Night (1999) ****
This and V were the two SB albums I had when I was a teenager, and so I definitely retain some nostalgic fondness for both. I used to think some of the more normal songs and ballads dragged this record down, but maybe itís the nostalgia talking but I have no problem with them now. The 20 minute epic is not the best song on the album but has more than enough memorable ideas in it to fly by pretty quick. Title track and Crack The Big Sky are fun mini-epics both with that happy uplifting vibe. Gibberish is another fun Gentle Giant-inspired tune.
V (2000) *****
The best SB album no doubt. The Great Nothing is the best epic they ever did, The End of the Day is right up there with it and all the short songs are interesting. Hooky melodies everywhere, and ultimately an extremely uplifting positive feel-good vibe to the album that just makes me super happy to hear every time. Even the dorky pop song and the ballad in the middle of the album are good ones!
Snow (2002) ****1/2
I thought this album was a bit overkill the first time I heard it, but it really grew on me a lot with additional listens. Itís obviously a metaphor for Nealís conversion to Christianity, but veiled with a dorky rock opera type story. I wasnt sure if the huge number of short songs rather than the mix of epics with a couple shorter tracks the other SB albums feature would ruin what the band was best at. Does every song really need to be here? probably not, but Neal is just cranking out tons of great tunes, and every time I play the record I find something new to like. Really comes together as a whole quite nicely and takes you on a journey over the course of its runtime. I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I did.
Feel Euphoria (2003) *1/2
Morse left cus Jesus told him to, drummer Nick D'Virgilio steps up to take lead vocals a-la Phil Collins. This album is terrible, but itís fascinatingly bad. itís everything people were afraid would happen to Genesis when Gabriel left. That didnít happen with Genesis because the other members still wrote the majority of the music, but with Spock's Beard Morse dominated the band so completely that without him they have NO IDENTITY WHATSOEVER. This album is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and NOTHING sticks. D'Virgilio is a good singer in his own right and as a frontman he's a pretty likeable guy, maybe even moreso than Neal Morse (who radiates christian-camp-counselor/corny dad energy), but none of that comes through here since heís trying out different approaches that don't fit his strengths well. A ridiculous mess of an album. (another amusing bit of trivia Nick D'Virgillio actually plays drums on Calling All Stations, an amusing connection)
Octane (2005) *
Not as weird as Feel Euphoria because theyíve settled into a sort of average rock + proggy keyboards sound that they can obviously pull off competently enough. But the songs just arenít here, a total flatline.
Spock's Beard (2006) **
Theyíre finding their identity again. Itís OK. Didnít play it twice though.
X (2010) ***
Their best post-Morse album since they actually have figured out how to write some decent prog music again and there are some memorable tunes on here. Not that any of the post-Neal Spock's albums are essential but if you want to try one of them I guess make it this one. Iíd actually return to listen to this again.
Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep (2013) **1/2
Nick D'Virgilio left the band to join both the circus (his cirque du soleil gig probably paid way more than Spocks Beard so I cant say I blame him) and the band Big Big Train (who I've loved from the small amount I've heard of them and who probably have a discography far more worth exploring than post-Morse Spock's Beard) which means that the band has now entered their Calling All Stations period. This new guy Ted Leonard is on lead vocals, and hes OK, he sounds way more like a ďhired lead rock singer guyĒ in not-such a flattering way, but I can tolerate it. But since the band has more or less figured out their sound in the post Neal-era by this point heís fine. Neal Morse actually does return to collab with the band on some songwriting on a few songs here and unsurprisingly those are highlights. 2nd best post-neal album.
The Oblivion Particle (2015) **
Mediocre but I didnt hate it, surprisingly non-proggy actually. Didnít give it a 2nd listen.
Spocks Beard: The First Twenty Years (2015) ***1/2
A compilation that Neal wrote a new epic for which features every member of the band inducing double drumming sections and all three singers taking lead in different sections. Fun!
Noise Floor (2018) *
Yeah weíre reaching diminishing returns here. Sounds like the last album but trying harder to be proggy again and theyíre reached the point of sounding like any other generic modern prog act (well, even moreso than they already did).
--- Neal Morse ---
Neal Morse (1999) *
Lame generic alt-pop-rock crap. Very late-90s sounding. Completely mediocre songwriting with weak production, all his good ideas went to Spocks Beard during this period obviously. sounds like a bunch of outtakes that werent good enough but he wanted to release them anyway. tossed off with little effort put into making the arrangements interesting.
It's Not Too Late (2002) **
Similar to the self-titled but better in every way. Kinda like Morse doing a Billy Joel type of thing. Some really cringy studio banter left in which doesnít enhance anything but whatever.
Testimony (2003) ****1/2
Really great! Basically itís a concept album about Neal telling the story of how he found God, and I think the concept really works here, because he isnít being preachy heís simply telling the story of his own spiritual journey which he is clearly passionate about and that emotion comes through. Heís clearly inspired by the albumís personal nature to write some of his best melodies. Though the Christian stuff is obviously going to be a deal breaker for some people. Itís a very similar album to Snow, but basically just as good. Some of the songs with the most overtly Christian lyrics are actually among the best ones. When heís at his best he just cranks out good tune after good tune, and he can arrange them pretty well into the prog format. though itís actually pretty diverse touching on a number of different genres, even a Jesus-themed country hoedown (and itís a highlight!) Mike Portnoy from Dream theater plays drums on all his records from here on out, meaning that Portnoy has actually performed on more Christian records than he has on Dream Theater records by a wide margin, which is an amusing bit of trivia. There are no epics here just shorter songs arranged into suites with a lot of little reprises and stuff which helps it be pretty accessible.
One (2004) ****
Still riding high on his creative peak and adding in a harder edge taking advantage of Portnoyís drumming chops to compose some really intense proggy sections. Prog instrumentals tend not to be Morseís strong suit since he usually prefers to take the more songwriting-based approach to things, but some of his best instrumental bits are on here. As with his usually tuneful melodies. Second best solo album Iíll say.
? (2005) ***1/2
This is where Neal starts to settle into a routine of his albums all kinda being the same to one degree or another, and you kind of have to start rolling your eyes a little at many of his signature songwriting moves that he repeats fairly often. This is an album length suite about the Tabernacle (but itís under an hour which is nice). Its pretty digestible, good ideas mixed with OK ones.
Sola Scriptura (2007) ***1/2
Concept album about Martin Luther. Takes a heavier direction on here again, some borderline metal stuff. Not much point in separating out the songs since there are only 4 and the album mostly just plays like one long suite anyway. But there a fair number of good ideas on here like usual.
Lifeline (2008) ***1/2
Inconsistent album with the title track being one of my favorites of his, a spotty 30 epic with some good sections, and some decent shorter songs which remind me of some of the shorter Spocks Beard songs.
Testimony Two (2011) ***1/2
A good candidate for an album sequel since the concept is auto-biographical. has most of the same strengths as the original Testimony, though doesnt have quite the same career-defining heft to it. One of the themes is a total tip off of ďAnd You And IĒ which is a bit annoying. But mostly solid.
Momentum (2012) ***1/2
Similar album to Lifeline with the title track being a highlight and some other solid shorter tracks, with another mixed bag epic. Still i gotta give this guy props for consistency. The Christian stuff doesnt bug me, since I know that's his "thing", and each of these albums hits about the same level of quality. While I doubt any of these will become go-to albums for me, they all had a handful of really good highlights and I didnt feel like my time was wasted giving any of these multiple listens. basically all of these 3-and-a-half-star albums I could see myself returning to at some point, or at least going back to the songs I liked most.
Jesus Christ the Exorcist (2019) **
Iím surprised it took this long in his career to make a Jesus Christ Superstar rip-off but here we are at long last. Obviously itís not as good as Superstar (which had a substantial prog-influence to begin with actually) but thereís some OK songs on here. Neal plays Pilate and gets the other Spocks Beard singers to play the roles of Jesus and Judas which is kinda neat, and they sing one of Nealís beloved Gentle Giant pastiches together which is a highlight. The other roles are done by generic christan singers who Neal is friends with which are competent enough with the exception of the woman who plays Mary Magdalene who comes across like your mom trying to play the sexy seductress role. There isnít much subtext or commentary on the bible story on this project (which Superstar of course, had in spades) itís just a pretty standard story of jesus with Neal Morse music accompanying things. I was expecting this to be awful, but it's not that bad. Still I doubt I'll ever listen to it again.
Sola Gratia (2020) ***1/2
Concept about the story of Paul the apostle. Pretty late in his career at this point, but I continue to be surprised that he hasnít run out of solid melodies. Sounds like all his other albums, and just like his other albums there are a fair number of solid proggy melodies and whatnot mixed with generic proggy sections.
--- The Neal Morse Band ---
The Grand Experiment (2015) *1/2
The Neal Morse Band was his idea of making music under his own name but also collaborating with others at the same time. On this record itís kind of a flop. The ideas the other members of the band contribute are clearly inferior to what Neal normally supplies, and really drag the album down with some pretty bad sections.
The Similitude of a Dream (2016) ***
The Great Adventure (2019) ***
Grouping these two together as they both blur together completely. I feel like I need more time with these two since theyíre both 100 minute long double-disc concept albums inspired by ďThe Pilgrim's ProgressĒ. Thereís a lot of music to take in here and I donít feel completely like theyíre worth dismissing outright, since there are definitely some good ideas, and they are actually really varied and diverse, touching on a number of different styles throughout. My first impression was that the 2nd one is the better of the two but iíd need to listen to them a lot more to get a read on them. these albums are a LOT to digest and are hard to separate from one another. they feel like they do have something to offer that would come out with relistens but if I want to hear a Neal Morse double disc concept album Iíd rather go back and play Testimony or Snow again.
--- Flying Colors ---
Flying Colors (2012) **1/2
Second Nature (2014) *1/2
Third Degree (2019) *1/2
I see no reason to give these separate reviews. In spite of sharing two band members with Transatlantic, Flying Colors feels like the total opposite band. Itís completely competent and conventional rock music with only the sliiiightest prog-lite edge, professionally made and accessible. Instead of the Transatlantic method of cramming in as many ideas as possible they make mostly completely conventional rock songs which ironically makes this bandís music completely forgettable even though the whole premise of this band is to be accessible. This is music made by ďProĒ musicians that could get radioplay if dad-rock radio stations wanted to play modern music. It's completely competent and thatís exactly the problem.
The debut is superior to the other two albums by a wide margin because of the presence of Peter Collins producing which gives it a vibe that is otherwise absent from the Morse catalog. It has some highlights, and makes a good first impression. ďKaylaĒ being the best song, I quite enjoy that one. the band could have just put that song out and quit immediately after and nothing of significance would be lost. The other two albums are self-produced and are just complete in-one-ear-out-the-other nothings. The music equivalent of La Croix.
--- Transatlantic ---
SMPT:e (2000) ****Ĺ
While doing this discog run-through was inspired by my enjoyment of the most recent TA album, I wasnít expecting to go back and find that I actually love most of these albums. But I kinda do! These guys all have a love for prog music that shines through in the music and makes them hold themselves to high standards.
The big factor that makes Transatlantic work so well for me is that all 4 guys are contributing musical ideas, all 4 sing, and all 4 have about equal space in the mix of the band. Each of their personalities comes through in their performances and blends well with the others, making these albums feel like a genuine collaboration between 4 distinct personalities. So their records are pretty much loaded with idea after idea after idea, and while any of them on their own could get a bit samey (looking at you Roine Stolt) when theyíre all blended together it keeps things fresh.
Pete Trewavas is a guy Iíd never have given a second thought to in Marillion but he plays great Chris Squire-esque basslines on all these records, and his humble-british-chap vocals add a nice vibe. Mike Portnoy isnít much of a singer but he holds his own surprisingly well when he pops up. and I just really like how they trade off vocals so much. Gives the band a kind of 4-best-buds hanging out together kind of comradery which is charming.
Debut holds up pretty well I think. All of the Above justifies it's running time just fine I think, and would rank as one of Neal's best epics. My New World is better than pretty much any Flower Kings song, and the Procol Harum cover is really good.
Bridge Across Forever (2001) *****
Probably their best record. Three epics, all of them work. These guys know how to write a well constructed super long piece of music. They did a clever thing of reprising sections of each epic within the others so that the album feels really cohesive rather than just 3 stand-alone epics (and a short song). And I like how focused on writing catchy tunes they are. So many hummable little bits.
The Whirlwind (2009) ****
A bit intimidating as a ďone song albumĒ, but IMO once I got over that it pretty much just plays like a normal album except all the songs flow together and there are some reprises here and there, which isnít really any different from how their other albums are structured. Of course itís cheesy as f*ck but everything Neal Morse touches is cheesy as f*ck so you just gotta accept that.
Kaleidoscope (2014) ***1/2
The weakest TA album, but still I enjoyed it. Into The Blue is the better of the two epics by a big margin, and shorter songs were never the bandís strong suit. But still Iím impressed at the volume of ideas they cram in, they dont all work, but still there are plenty of melodies on here I can hum pretty well. And I find it kind of amusing that out of all of Morse's many projects the most overblown band also has some of the best tunes.
The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life (Abridged Version) (2021) *****
The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) (2021) *****
I was definitely grabbed by the premise of the record which is one of the more unique gimmicks Iíve heard recently. Basically they wrote another album length suite like The Whirlwind but got in an argument about whether it should be one disc or two. So they compromised and did both, purposely making each version of the album as different as possible from the other with different instrumental parts, different overdubs, different lyrics, different melodies, and different song constructions. Both versions are equally good if you ask me. The abridged version has tighter arrangements, fewer noodly instrumental sections, and feels more like 1 coherent hour-long piece of music. While the extended version feels a bit more like a suite of separate songs that segue together allowing different themes to come to the fore. Both versions have stretches of music and complete songs that the other version lacks, and Iíve pretty much just been alternating back and forth with which one I listen to. They're different, yet they're the same. Cool idea guys!
To me this gimmick makes the album feel less like one monolithic block of inseparable music and more like a bunch of modular sections that could be moved around. I could see people making fan edits of their favourite versions like people did with the Beach Boys SMiLE or whatever. But like usual itís helped by just how many ideas these guys throw into the pot, which helps to elevate TA above most of the other albums by the artists on their normal projects.
So in summation: I liked all 6 Morse-era Spockís Beard albums, all the Transatlantic album, and Morse's first two post-Spocks solo records best. But somehow Morse is still pretty damn consistent in his weird little Christian prog niche for the most part.