Review Summary: Neal takes us on a seamless journey through history, spirituality, and proggy goodness.
The concept album is a nearly extinct art form. It’s hard to believe we live in the same world that at one point saw albums like Thick as a Brick and Wish You Were Here hit #1 on the Billboard Charts. Even when it is attempted by the likes of mainstream rockers like Black Veil Brides and, most recently, Skillet, it is done in the most radio friendly, no-risk-taken approach of portraying the life of a teenager. Listen, kids, if you want a concept album, leave it to the pros, the pretentious prog rockers.
Neal Morse has been progging since the early ‘90s with the neo prog heroes Spock’s Beard. That’s right, Spock doesn’t even have a beard and they don’t care. They’re just that confident in their prog. Neal Morse’s claim to fame is probably with Transatlantic, a supergroup featuring the dexterity of drummer Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater and two other guys (who honestly, no one remembers). While Neal Morse wrote his first progressive rock concept album “Snow” (often considered a neo-prog classic) while in Spock’s Beard, Neal went all out when he quit Spock’s Beard to focus on his solo career.
One after another, Morse released the concept albums Testimony, One, Question Mark, and Sola Scriptura. Okay, so he also threw out a couple sappy worship albums in that time frame, but his main works never suffered. While Genesis and Rush took inspiration from English literature and Yes took inspiration from New Age/Buddhist works, Neal Morse takes inspiration from the Bible and Christian tradition. This could have gone very wrong, which is why I praise Neal Morse highly for doing it very right. Though I think he surpassed himself in the heavier, longer, and more complex Sola Scriptura, Question Mark is his first fully enjoyable concept album that keeps the listener interested till the finale.
On Question Mark, Neal Morse guides the listener back in time to the ancient Hebrew temple. People for centuries have wanted to see it rebuilt, and though it is neigh impossible due to Muslim/Jewish relations, Neal Morse illustrates its wonder and majesty with both his lyrics and music. The songs seamlessly flow into each other and key themes repeat. Like any good concept album, Question Mark should be consumed whole.
The opening song “The Temple of the Living God” opens a scene for the senses that describes the throng of peoples that have come from afar to see the temple. Throughout the album, Neal tries to be as accurate as possible given the historical texts we have about the temple. On the flip side, this is a very personal journey. Neal takes the role of a wide-eyed foreigner, feeling bewildered, lonely, but eager to see what he has been told about and longing to meet with God. He finds out the symbolic meaning behind the temple and how it relates to himself and all mankind.
A story this historical in scope and spiritual in its emotions requires attention to detail, and it is not fumbled by the musician’s department. It will please prog fans that Neal Morse employed an all-star cast. Mike Portnoy, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett of Genesis among others display their talents here. I will say that Mike Portnoy doesn’t showcase his complex prog metal rhythms to his full capability like on Scenes from a Memory or even Neal Morse’s next album Sola Scriptura. The album stays on rather straightforward 4/4 beats, slowing down here and there, and then changing to 3/4 time for three songs starting with the epic choral piece “The Glory of the Lord.” Great fills and all but it isn’t one of his strongest performances. On the other hand the guitarist, keyboardist, and even bassist show off a delightful feast of winding riffs and solos throughout the album, bringing back memories of ELP, Genesis, and occasionally King Crimson on a few jazzier numbers like “The Temple of the Living God” and “Solid as the Sun.” Overall, Neal Morse sounds more like Pink Floyd or Genesis in that he gives his prog room to breathe and knows when the music calls for a good chorus or a piano interlude.
Highlights would be the opening song, the keyboard/guitar solo fest “In the Fire,” the best stand-alone track “Solid as the Sun,” and the last two songs that conclude the album with a mouth-watering harmonized guitar duel and epic reprise of “The Temple of the Living God.”
This album is quite a cerebral journey that isn’t too hard to follow or too long (sorry Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). With the final chorus:
And now that it’s done
the heart of everyone
can be the temple of the living God
You’ve taken a journey quite unlike any other. That’s how a concept album should be.