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The Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment Review

Posted on January 27, 2015 at 7:25 PM

Neal Morse? A prolific progressive rock icon, writer and performer? Has a rocking horse got a wooden d**k?



 

It’s actually quite staggering when you sit down and look at the Morse discography since his departure from American proggers Spock’s Beard in 2002 to follow a path of spirituality. Not only has he produced progressive music of the highest quality under his own banner and continued to prove he has the knack of composing said music in the time honoured and inspirational way, yet it remains the tip of the iceberg. Solo stuff, worship stuff, Transatlantic, Flying Colors and live material from the various projects – the output is phenomenal. Maybe in the prog world, only Marillion have a cottage industry churning out product which is more active.

 

Plus there’s his ‘Inner Circle’ of followers who receive monthly emails, updates and exclusive content (including Neal’s ‘spiritual section’) AND a bi-monthly CD/DVD of outtakes/making of’s/live material plundered from the Morse archive.

 

Maybe the path of enlightenment has given him extraordinary superpowers which make him a musical prog God? That’s my theory, as let’s face it, the man can do no wrong. A classic example of the Midas touch as everything with which he is associated results in a highly acclaimed crock of prog treasure. Whatever, 2015 starts with a new record, his first since 2012’s Momentum which in Morse terms might seem a lifetime. It also sees a subtle change of name so that instead of a Neal Morse album, we get the Neal Morse Band. Joined as usual by longtime collaborators and general mates in bass man Randy George and the omnipresent Mike Portnoy, together with drafting in Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette from his last touring band there was also a signifivant change in MO for the recording sessions. For once approaching the studio with no music prepared as opposed to having an album mainly written and waiting to be recorded, the whole band became involved in the writing process, earning the right to become the Neal Morse Band as opposed to the solo name moniker.


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So, does it work is the crucial question. The track sequencing is archetypal Morse, possibly even formulaic, but if it ain’t broken why fix it? Begin with a healthy ten minuter, slow it down with some shorter tracks including something a bit quieter and reflective maybe with a spiritual message or content, and then build up to a balls out finish with a full on ‘proper’ prog track which clocks in at something approaching a half hour. A recipe for success if ever there were one and it works to a tee.

 

However, within a few seconds of the opening, you might be mistaken for thinking you’d popped on a record by The Eagles – sounding very much like the harmony vocal warm up they used to do with Seven Bridges Road, it takes just a few moments for the usual cascade of combined keys and guitar to kick in, sooth the brow and rest assured The Call is in familiar Morse territory. Carrying a message of destiny and of “let your heart go and follow the call” it builds to a distinctive crescendo of uplifting harmonies – a lyric of leaving things behind, letting go and finding peace as you follow the path led by your heart - it might be accused of being a tad soft lyrically but when it comes to writing music which evokes an emotional response, this is it - truly inspirational, plus a glorious final two minutes with a Portnoy drum fill to end all drum fills; it just wouldn’t be the same without Mike’s distinctive touches.

 

With a start like that, some might think that the title track which follows may have been a better option as a more immediate album opener, but hey, sure it will be the gig opening song in any case. Morse aficionados will be mentally picturing him arriving spotlit and cranking out one of his more heavy riff before the first of his many classic triumphantly raised hands poses as the band kick in and Mr P making his drum roadie earn his wages swinging his vocal mic back and forth. A heavier verse arrangement, apparently Mike Portnoy’s suggestion, and another bout of mid song vocal trickery and a prog classic full of fire and enjoyment in five and a half minutes.

 

After the stunningly gorgeous acousticity of Waterfall – all early Hackett-like gently picked guitar and a mental image of being written in the English countryside with some startling Crosby, Stills & Nash styled harmonising again, all roads lead to the suitably ambitious album closer with the epic Alive Again. Pushing the half hour mark but not quite getting there, it uses the extended format to head off into the usual various stages of crescendos and mid-song quirkiness cum pseudo classical interventions. Celebrating the feeling of literally being alive again amidst references to the King of Angel armies bringing the dead to life, somehow you know he’s not singing about zombie sleepwalkers but rekindling the fire of the spiritually undead. If I’m not mistaken there’s another voice (or two) taking the lead towards the end during a simple acoustic passage, but it all adds to the ‘band’ feel rather than it being Morse and his backers. Of course it’s all stirring and uplifting stuff.

 

Reflecting the album title Morse has commented that “I wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions. It was quite a risk! We wanted to experiment, do something a bit different, and see what everyone is capable of." The results are a glorious celebration of prog virtusosity and indeed everything you’d expect from a zealous Neal Morse, full of the fire which lights his spiritual path. He may not come clothed in a purple shellsuit a la David Icke with a strange philosophy to sell, but for many the second coming gathers momentum and the grand experiment truly pays off.

Words: Mike Ainscoe 

Categories: CD REVIEWS

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