Neal Morse is one of modern progressive rock’s leading lights whose work in the field has led him to collaborate with various members of Dream Theater, most notably Mike Portnoy who graces the kit on this double live DVD set and with whom Neal has worked on a number of occasions across the years. His early career, as a member of Spock’s Beard saw him rise to prominence alongside Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater and his own side-project, Transatlantic, as part of a progressive movement that has remained popular to this day. Neal’s subsequent conversion to Christianity, however, in some ways began to overshadow his musical abilities and although Neal’s solo albums have featured some prodigious talent, not to mention some stunning musical works, the lyrical themes became uncomfortable ground for some. ‘Live momentum’, however, does a good job of showcasing a relaxed Neal at his best – performing in front of a partisan crowd with a top-notch band, and this well-shot show, recorded at The Highline Ballroom in New York in 2012 goes far to reminding those who have drifted away from Neal’s work in recent years just what a stunning song-writer he is.
With thirteen songs spread over two DVDs (the second disc also features a tour documentary for those who want to go behind the scenes) neither Neal nor InsideOut have skimped on the material and the audio options thankfully include a 5.1 mix which does much to allow the multiple instruments to shine through the mix. The band open with the driving rock of ‘momentum’ which sounds like a neat cross between a lighter Dream Theater and Supertramp, The melodies are carefully crafted to stay lodged within your cranium whilst Mike Portnoy excels behind the kit, reminding the listener why he is so revered after a year or so of foundering following his acrimonious departure from Dream Theater. That is not to say that the rest of the band are not of note – Neal’s music necessarily demands the best and the line-up also includes long-time collaborator Randy George on Bass and vocals; Adson Sodré on guitar and vocals; Eric Gillette on guitar, keyboards, percussion and vocals; and Bill Hubauer on keyboards, violin, sax and Vocals. It’s an impressive ensemble and they set about doing Neal’s music justice with quiet professionalism over the course of the show. ‘Weathering the sky’ sees the music gain a heavier feel, Neal’s guitar adding depth and bite to the sound, and while those honeyed melodies return for the chorus, it’s clear that musically Neal has lost none of his edge – indeed progressive rock fans will find themselves in rhapsodies over the track selection (including an old Spock’s song) as Neal and his cohorts unleash technical masterpieces such as ‘author of confusion’ which blends searing guitar work with a central vocal harmony part that would challenge all but the most dedicated of live acts to perform with any degree of success. With Neal, of course, it’s note perfect. With the Spock’s classic ‘the distance to the sun’ getting one of the largest cheers of the night, the lengthy ‘testimony suite’ follows neatly with Neal’s stunning acoustic work gaining nods of approval from his own band, let alone the over-awed crowd. It’s a huge undertaking – one that leaves Neal substantially choked up at the end and the musical accomplishment is phenomenal in the truest sense of the word.
Having recovered from his emotional response to the ‘testimony suite’, Neal and his band launch into the blistering ‘thoughts (part 5)’, which juxtaposes heavy guitars, impossibly jazzy time signatures and vocal harmonies that once again demonstrate Neal and his band’s mastery of the art. Meanwhile the guitar work that kicks off in the latter half of the song makes you realise just why Neal’s reputation as a master of the progressive art remains steady. The man is a legend, and his outwardly calm demeanour masks a rampaging spirit that revives itself for another appearance on the brilliantly heavy ‘The conflict’ which marks the highpoint of the first disc’s material and also its conclusion.
The second disc offers up a further six tracks, opening with the suitably massive ‘question mark suite’, it’s clear that the band remain undaunted by the lengthy works Neal has constructed and the result is a nigh on perfect moment of progressive music, where the musicians lock together for a piece of music that melds metal, jazz, pop and more into one seamless blend that is gloriously complex without alienating the listener. In contrast ‘Fly high’, from the ‘Lifeline’ album, is what Neal jokingly terms a “normal length” song and it has a strong Porcupine Tree feel to it with its piano intro laden with lush strings and Neal’s voice at its best. After so short a song it’s clearly time for an epic, and songs don’t come much more epic than ‘Momentum closer’ ‘World without end’ – if this was any other band they’d end here, having reached the heights of progressive perfection that few other artists could match. It’s a hard-rocking, multi-faceted and brilliant work that is worth the price of the DVD alone and it’s hard to imagine another artist not only crafting so beautifully a complex piece but also playing it on stage with such relaxed verve. As the audience seem desperate for more (“we’ve found our people!” Neal quips), remarkably the show continues with three more songs in the form of an encore and, as a particular bonus, ‘crazy horses’ sees Neal take to the drums (which is cool) and Mike Portnoy grabs the microphone (which is a dubious pleasure at best). It’s a surprisingly fun track in a set dominated by the more serious musings of Neal’s new-found spirituality and it sets the audience alight as the guitars squeal and wail over the Osmonds’ errr ‘classic’. It’s business as usual, however for the acoustic ‘sing it high’ which gives way to a massive jam as Neal brings each of his musicians out for extended solos before ‘king Jesus’ rounds things out leaving the audience and band alike exhausted by so lengthy a set.
Neal Morse by focusing on religion in so much of his solo work has arguably stayed true to his own beliefs and ideals, which is undoubtedly laudable, but it can make some of his work uncomfortable and difficult listening. For those not of faith the dividing line will be how far you can separate music from its lyrical content and thankfully much of Neal’s lyrics are intelligently written and oblique enough to avoid sounding preachy. Nonetheless for those opposed to bands spreading a message through their music it can get a bit much and some caution is advised. That caveat aside what you have here, lyrics notwithstanding, is a master class on progressive song writing that frequently inspires with its complex musical work and stunning musicianship. That Neal is also a deeply personable host, generous towards his band mates and audience alike, makes the concert surprisingly easy watching given its length and the production values throughout are as near perfect as you could want from a release of this size. For Neal fans this is an essential purchase that draws together the musical highs of his solo career and presents them in the company of a world-class band. For the merely curious checking out the ‘momentum’ album first is highly advised. Consider ‘momentum live’ first and foremost a generous gift to Neal’s many fans, performed by a master of his art and you will most certainly not be disappointed by this comprehensive set.