The first time I ever heard of Neal Morse was when I made the fortuitous decision to purchase Transatlantic’s debut release ‘SMPT:e’ early in the year 2001. It was not a great time for me, I had moved back to my parents house after a particularly painful relationship break up and needed something to get me out of the doldrums and give my life some colour and less of a drab, grey outlook.
I’d read a review of the album and found an independent record store advertising in the back of ‘Classic Rock’, one phone call later (this was before the days of buying on websites had really taken off kids!) and I had a 3-5 day wait for this new musical gem to arrive. Arrive it did and I put the disc into my CD player and was entranced for the next seventy-seven minutes by the classic progressive rock brilliance that seemed to be brought bang up to date by these prog-rock supremos.
I duly bought ‘Bridge Across Forever’ and then ventured down the lane signposted Spock’s Beard to find even more delights that could be attributable to Mr Morse. There was a touch of discord when I listened to his solo releases like ‘Testamony, it’s follow up ‘Testamony 2’ and ‘Sola Scriptura’. I wasn’t totally enamoured with the religious heavy overtones but the music was still rather good so I put this down to my reluctance to be drawn on matters to do with God and Jesus Christ, my agnosticism if you like, and put it behind me.
The tide started to turn with Transatlantic’s third release ‘The Whirlwind’, oft mooted to be a Neal solo project that then became another band release, and the increased emphasis on Neal’s new found belief in Christianity. It just seemed to be ‘instead of’ rather than ‘as well as’ the music, if that makes any sense. I still loved the musical concept of the album but the tide had been turned, and not for the better.
Fast forward to 2014 and the uniformity and lack of progression of ‘Kaleidoscope’, the ‘much too pop heavy for my tastes’ Flying Colors project and the banality and blandness of his solo singer/songwriter release ‘Songs for November’ and I was beginning to think Mr Morse’s star had begun to lose its brightness.
So, it will come as no surprise that, when I heard about the new The Neal Morse Band album ‘The Grand Experiment’, I was not overblown by enthusiasm. However, always being one to give something a chance, I did not dismiss it without any further ado. It would only fair to give it a listen and then form my opinion, rather than making assumptions due to the past lack–lustre offerings that, in my opinion, Mr Morse & Co. had given us.
The band consists of Neal’s long time collaborators Mike Portnoy (drums)and Randy George (bass) and relative newcomers Bill Hubauer (keyboards and vocals) and Eric Gillette (guitar and vocals) who all add their not insubstantial skills to Mr Morse’s keyboards, vocals and guitar.
The first track, The Call, begins with a gospel like vocal introduction, which I hope is not too much of a precursor of what is to come, nice though it is. Then a superb seventies influenced keyboard takes over before the delightful guitar of Eric Gillette intrudes politley with a signature motif that continues to run through the rest of the song. Very progressive influenced, you can hear touches of Transatlantic (as you’d expect) but these are expertly melded into Neal’s solo style to produce something quite intrinsic and just damn good. The harmonised vocal sections are well executed and, despite the definite religious overtones that pervade, I am suitably impressed. Randy George’s distinctive bass playing and Mr Portnoy’s ever elegant drumming play their parts to a tee, aiding and abetting the distinctive keyboards as the track continues to excite. There are different time signatures, different keys and hallmarks of the great progressive classics on this thoroughly enjoyable romp and I continue to be impressed by Mr Gillette’s fret board finesse, he is a find indeed. What does amaze me, as the song comes to a glorious close, is that any thoughts or consideration of the religious side of it is thrown out with the bath water, it is just a very good song period!
Where the previous track was ultimately progressive in nature, title track The Grand Experiment takes on the veneer of a tongue in cheek hard rock track. Take the superb majesty of Queen and add in some the balls out fury of AC/DC and you won’t go far wrong. The introduction is an absolutely full on blast to the sense and you just can’t help smiling. The fruity edged heavy riffing is superb and the drums seem to be hewn out of granite. The swirling keyboards scream seventies flares and decidedly long (and bad) hair at you and the vocals, especially on the chorus, are as pomp and circumstance as it gets. I may be repeating myself but this is just thoroughly enjoyable music, forget any undertones that may or may not exist, that leaves you gasping for breath and laughing hysterically as a scorching solo is fired across your bows. It’s only major fault as it comes to classic hard rock close? It is too damn short!!!
Now Neal Morse has been involved in some superb slower, ballad like, tracks in his time with Transatlantic, particularly We All Need Some Light (from SMPT:e) and Bridge Across Forever (from the album of the same name) so it comes as no surprise to hear the beginning to Waterfall as the delicate acoustic guitar comes into play. A captivating start is built upon by the superior vocals, delicate and enchanting. A simple yet beguiling song continues to entrance you with its simple and graceful chorus delivered in a lilting note that permeates your very being. For a man who has written some rather exquisite tracks, this one is right up there with the best.
Agenda startles you from the reverie engendered by the previous track with a industrial edged intro (with more than a nod to Led Zep’s ‘Kashmir’) where a coruscating keyboard and pounding drums blow you clean off the face of the mountain. A hard and funky song that is almost an update of seventies glam rock in places, it continues to show that Neal can rock out with the best of them when it comes down to it and the solo, well let’s just say Brian May would be suitably impressed by the nod to his guitar prowess. Once more you are left with a huge rictus of a grin on your face as this brazen track comes to triumphant finish.
Now, I don’t know if it is just me but a twenty-six minute track from someone like Neal Morse is always going to be a progressive epic isn’t it? The question is, is it going to be up there with the best or a waste of virtually half of this album? Well, if the introduction to Alive Again is anything to go by, it is definitely the former! A subtle, intelligent bass begins proceeding in a measured and uniform fashion before the keys and guitar join the little arpeggio and begin to build to the first crescendo and then it blossoms like a progressive flower right in front of your eyes and you just nod to yourself, yep, we’re good! The guitar and drums drive this enjoyable romp from the beginning as the keyboards add the final coat of gloss to a track that unashamedly has one huge foot in the early days of Transatlantic. As the first part of the song comes to a close it is replaced by a note of haste and urgency, frenetic and even a little chaotic in its nature as Eric Gillette is let off the leash to show us his guitar virtuoso persona. Another change of tac and we are slap bang in the middle of Morse territory again, after the obvious joy and humour that has been on show up to now, you are inclined to forgive him a little bit of his preaching nature but, he does fly close to the wind and may leave some people disappointed, not me though, I’m loving it. Neal’s vocal takes on a humble yet earnest feel and when it soars on the chorus, it just transfixes you. A magnificent guitar solo from Eric appears to scale the very heights of Everest and you can feel the fervour that infuses every word and note. The centre part of the song leaves you feeling as if you are in the middle of some Broadway musical as it leaves its lyrical footnote embedded in your brain. Intelligent songwriting always moves me, no matter what its subject matter is and this track is no exception. The addictive and catchy vocals and the scintillating musicianship just carries you along in its wake as the song takes on a bit of a steampunk feel, in collusion with the excellent album cover perhaps, but definitely a Victorian vibe in there somewhere. As the song segues into another display of the incredible technique and dexterity of Eric Gillette seamlessly, you just mentally applaud what these guys can do and have achieved and, above all, you feel the abiding sense of fun that they must have had making this album. The direction that we are led in next takes a more spiritual route without ramming it down your throat, the end is nigh, so to speak, as the song starts on its long road home, one that ultimately seems to lead to redemption for this jaded hack. To me, this final part speaks of joy and hope and it captures the imagination as it builds up into a dynamic and authoritative overture of guitar and drums before Neal takes the lead to bring this compelling show to a close like waters breaking powerfully on the shore leaving peace, quiet and solitude behind them.
Congratulations to The Neal Morse Band, you have delivered a progressive rock album that is a hugely enjoyable overblown and pompous, yet decidedly excellent, piece of music. I’d be lying if I said there were no religious overtones in it but, to me, the music is just so good that they never interfered with my enjoyment of it. If you are undecided, take a leap of faith like I did (see what I did there) and at least give it a try, leaving your prejudices behind and, you just may enjoy it and enjoy it quite a lot!