Those into progressive rock should need no introduction to Neal Morse, but for the rest of us, some introduction would be helpful. First off the presence of Steve Morse (Deep Purple) on many of Neal’s projects instantly made me curious being a longtime Deep Purple fan and then when you add in Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) also being involved in many of Neal’s projects, you start to get a picture of why the progressive rock tie exists and also the quality of people Neal can bring in. If we go back to 1992, Neal formed the prog rock band Spock’s Beard which went on to some acclaim followed by Transatlantic and after Neal’s conversion to Christianity, he formed several bands with Portnoy including Yellow Matter Custard, Flying Colors, and the Neal Morse Band. Neal has released several concept albums about Christianity and Christian themes starting with Testimony (2003) and more recently, Jesus Christ the Exorcist (2019) and Sola Gratia (2020). Prog rock aficionados will likely have also heard of Morsefest which started as a weekend festival at Neal’s local church in Tennessee and continued virtually through the Covid years and will be held live again this year.
For The Dreamer, Joseph pt. 1, Morse chose to cover the story of Joseph, who has quite the epic in the Bible (Genesis 37-50). Joseph was the most beloved of Jacob’s sons and his jealous brothers sold him into slavery, where he ended up in Egypt but through remaining faithful to God gained the favor of his master only to be accused of attempted rape by his master’s wife after Joseph spurned her advances and ended up thrown into prison which is where Part 1 ends. Part 2 will be released in 2024 and will conclude the story with Joseph gaining favor from Pharoah, essentially saving Egypt from starvation and also being reunited with his family when they come looking for food. To create such an epic, Morse brought in a variety of vocalists for different parts such as Ted Leonard (Spock’s Beard), Matt Smith (Theocracy), and Jake Livgren (Kansas, Proto-kaw). For some guitar help, Steve Morse and Eric Gillette join in on some tracks.
Being new to Neal Morse but hearing the prog rock tag assigned to him, I went into this thinking of Dream Theater, so you can imagine my surprise with the funky bass and keyboard driven first track, “The Dreamer Overture” which reminded more of mid-70s rock than anything metal like I was expecting. The overall structure of the song lends itself to extended solos and there is some good guitar and keyboard work on the track to fill that. I especially appreciate the Hammond keyboard in the track being a longtime Jon Lord fan. The song goes through a number of twists and turns, starts and stops and includes wide variety of instruments and musical themes, making it a great introduction for what is to come.
“Prologue – Before the World Was” is when we get to hear Morse’s vocals which come through cleanly with a warm, somewhat rough tone, working well with the music which is slower and emotionally powerful especially with the gospel chorus backing vocals and good Steve Morse guitar solo toward the end of the song. Morse again makes good use of the gospel chorus in “A Million Miles Away” which adds a funky element to the mostly acoustic track. By now it’s clear how well produced and mixed the album is as instruments and vocals come through with surprising clarity allowing the brilliance in the performances to shine.
“Burns Like a Wheel” is when the guest vocalists first make an appearance with Ted Leonard and Matt Smith. The story of Joseph is progressing at this point and really could be a stage production, especially with the guests coming into provide their part of the story, which does make it almost like a musical versus a concept album.
Interestingly, looking at the Spotify plays, there are decreasing plays for each track since the first until you get to “Like a Wall” which also happens to be one of the videos from the album and as of this writing is the most played track by far. From the opening guitar riff and gruff vocals and drums, one can’t help hear Bryan Adams in this track. Morse’s vocals work really well and once you get past the opening riff and verse, some of the elements first heard in the “The Dreamer Overture” come into play and keep the song from being completely out of place as a pop rock track. “Gold Dust City” follows up strongly as a bluesy hard rock tinged track with bits of ZZ Top guitars coming through to my ears when the gospel choir is not stealing the show. “Slave Boy” gives Talon David a chance to shine vocally playing the part of Potiphar’s wife and the slower tempo wah-guitar driven rock track has that epic, over-the-top feel of an older era.
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and “Wait on You are two of the tracks that feel as if it was pulled straight out of a musical for the stage and while important for the story, and because of that don’t really resonate with me. Toward the end of the album is “Heaven in Charge of Hell” which also has a video and coincidentally is the second most played track on the album. The orchestral intro quickly gives way to guitars and reminds me a bit of how Ritchie Blackmore worked with orchestras in his Deep Purple/Rainbow days. Add catchy hooks, saxophone and guitar solos, great chorus, and the Hammond organ and it’s easy to see Morse’s brilliance in songcraft coming through as well as the talent in the performers.
Neal Morse has pulled together a collection of tracks that tell a story as told through his progressive rock lens. Performances are very strong, and the compositions work really well to convey the message. Yes it does border on stage musical at times, but the standout tracks on the rest of the album more than make up for that. Make no mistake, this is not a simple album to listen to in passing, as the more you become drawn in, the more you hear, the more you appreciate, the more you enjoy.
Written by John Jackon
- The Dreamer Overture
- Prologue – Before the World Was
- A Million Miles Away
- Burns Like a Wheel
- Liar, Liar
- The Pit
- Like a Wall
- Gold Dust City
- Slave Boy
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind
- Wait on You
- I Will Wait on the Lord
- The Dreamer Overture Reprise
- Ultraviolet Dreams
- Heaven in Charge of Hell
- Why Have You Forsaken Me
Joseph – Neal Morse
Judah – Ted Leonard
Reuben – Matt Smith
Potiphar’s Wife – Talon David
Slave Driver – Jake Livgren
Simeon – Wil Morse
Jacob – Mark Pogue
Warden and Prison Guards – Matt Smith, Mark Pogue, Wil Morse, Gabe Klein, Chris Riley
Release Date: August 11th. 2023
Record Label: Radiant Records / Frontiers Records
Video for “Like a Wall”
Video for “Heaven in Charge of Hell”