|Musical Style: Progressive Rock||Produced By: The Neal Morse Band|
|Record Label: Radiant||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2015||Artist Website: Neal Morse|
|Tracks: 5||Rating: 90%|
|Running Time: 52:44|
To progressive rock devotees, Neal Morse is the reigning king. His work in Spock’s Beard garnered him initial acclaim, having recorded six studio albums between 1995 and 2002 as lead vocalist and keyboardist of the quirkily named group. Later forming Transatlantic, Morse went on to release four more studio albums and five live albums with the multinational super group encompassing members from Europe and the United States. It was during this period that Morse introduced the ‘mega epic’, a 20 to 30 minute piece (or longer) made up of multiple parts, which he perfected on his solo material. Starting with 2003 debut Testimony, Morse has released seven progressive rock solo albums that accent his lengthy songwriting abilities, with Sola Scriptura (2007) breaking down 75 minutes of music over 4 songs and Question Mark (2005) featuring a single 56 minute piece made up of 12 sub-tracks. One (2004) included 8 songs and 80 minutes of music, while Lifeline (2008) approached 70 with just seven songs. Testimony 2 (2011) was a two-disc set that came in at close to two hours.
The Neal Morse Band is the most recent progressive rock project from the artist. The Grand Experiment, the groups February of 2015 full length debut, finds Morse once more aligning himself with long-term solo album stalwart’s drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) and Randy George (Ajalon) along with newcomers guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer. As the albums namesake suggests, there is an experimental feel at hand, which manifests itself in how Morse, unlike his solo projects, entered the studio without having written a single song. The artist sums things up best in his press material: "I wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions. It was quite a risk! I used to be rather paranoid about whether things would turn out in the short space of time we had available... so I would fill all the space in advance! I made a lot of room for the other guys to create and express themselves and the result is outstanding! We wanted to experiment, do something a bit different, and see what everyone is capable of... we found out in SPADES!"
Obviously, one cannot help but express concern over an album in which the artist does not have any material pre-prepared. That being said Morse could easily have gone the write-all-the-songs-and-then-bring-the-band-into-the-studio route and the result would have been… another Neal Morse solo album. While by no means a bad scenario, such is not the case here. Rather, The Grand Experiment comes across as a collaboration of five seasoned musicians, each of which breathes their unique personality into the project. Therein lies the albums strength in that instead of material featuring the input of one musician, The Grand Experiment stands on its own as a true band effort- and sounds like it. In other words, the moniker at hand is The Neal Morse BAND (with emphasis added).
Yes, The Grand Experiment delivers everything you would expect from Morse. The artist’s penchant for lengthy songwriting persists, revealed in how the album includes over 50 minutes of music but only five songs. As expected, several trademark progressive epics were composed, one in the ten-minute range and other encompassing half the albums length; in between are three shorter pieces between four to six minutes each. The upshot being that if into any of the previous projects in which the artist has participated then The Neal Morse Band should also be up your alley. One reviewer that correspondingly suggested The Grand Experiment as sounding like Styx, Genesis, Rush and Alan Parsons Project rolled into one band had the right idea (I might have also mentioned Kansas and Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
“Agenda” reveals a heavier edge we have not heard from the artist since Sola Scriptura, which attributed to guest guitarist Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X). Newcomer Eric Gillette puts in every bit as captivating performance in lacing the song with his unmistakable hard rock guitar riffs. Otherwise, “Agenda” proves strongly pointed and curtly driven in giving rise to an almost anthem-like arena rock feel. Yet, at the drop of a hat, it can also drift into lighter and airy passages that reflect a psychedelic quality not unlike The Beatles.
Albums title track is another showstopper. “The Grand Experiment” features its share of heavier guitar edges as well, albeit at the slower tempo and interwoven with Hammond B3. The song also serves to highlight The Neal Morse Band strength of tightly woven but swirling vocal melodies. Refrain, accordingly, would not sound out of place on any mid-seventies Kansas album. Gillette returns with a stretch of lively lead guitar that proves he is one of the better new talents to hit the scene in recent years (lets hope Morse keeps him around!).
Lone ballad “Waterfall” maneuver its length to delicate acoustic guitar mixed with hints of piano to create quite the warm and smoothly flowing effect. Viola and clarinet add to the orchestral feel at hand. Of note is how Morse shines with his crystalline vocal abilities. Randy George’s bass also smoothly punctuates the backdrop, which is testament to the uniform production at hand.
“The Call”, the shorter of the two epics, boldly opens the album. You will encounter vocal melodies and Hammond B3 at the start of the song but an uplifting demeanor moving forward, with a carefree and riveting tempo in which piano aligns with warm undercurrents of rhythm guitar and buoyant refrain that flows with the best of them. Occasional slower moments hint of the ballad like. “The Call” proves equally adepts from an instrumental standpoint, as all The Neal Morse Band players receive the opportunity to shine (as complementary bass, keyboard and guitar solos attest).
Twenty-six minute magnum opus “Alive Again” succeeds with its ‘songs within a song’ approach in logically flowing from one part to the next to form a complementary whole. In other words, those into other mega epics from Morse will feel at home from encountering the same high level of sophistication. Consider how “Alive Again” brings a similar diversity to the table, including upbeat and heavier rocking moments, others taking a ballad-like approach, some acoustic based, multiple instrumental portions (which almost account for half the songs length) and climactic closing that ties everything together in moving fashion. The Neal Morse Band ranks with a select few possessing the technical aptitude to pull such a work off.
The 3 Disc Special Edition Digipak with a bonus CD featuring 3 unreleased studio tracks and 2 live tracks comes highly recommended. Latter were recorded this past fall at Morsefest and feature rousing (if not worshipful) version of One compositions “The Creation” and “Reunion”. Former in no way fall under the second best category often relegated to bonus material; rather they are on the same level as the songs making up the main disc. My favorite is the Jimmie Webb cover “MacArthur Park”. Musically, it presents with 11 minutes of laid-back and keyboard driven progressive rock highlighting a grandiose milieu. Piano and flute round out a piece on the ethereal side of things. “New Jerusalem” is another reserved piece, although heavier with its crisp rhythm guitar underpinnings. Atmospheric keyboards play a lead role, aligning with guitar feedback and Portnoy’s precise drum performance. Refrain never fails to inspire. “Doomsday Destiny” gives rise to the more energetic aura with its up-tempo flavorings. The group’s trademark vocal harmonies play a lead role, as does the commercial melody hook. Some monster bass work also stands out, particularly for the jazzy instrumental moments.
Lyrics, while not presenting with the forthright feel of Morse’s solo material, come across subtly spiritual in still reflecting his faith. “The Call” proves aptly entitled in this capacity:
Leave it all behind you
Time to let it go
Free the chains that bind you
Let your heart go and follow the call
With every beating of my heart
Every moment of my soul
Like the air surrounds the earth
I’m engulfed in who You are
As does “Waterfall”:
There by the waterfall
Sweep my troubles
There at the riverside
Every tear I’ve cried washed clean
Please take my sorrow far from me
“Alive Again” makes the strongest statement of faith:
Now he’s on the run
Because the King of angel armies
Has come to bring the dead to life
And quench the darkness with the light
Now I feel like I’m alive again
Spread my arts upon the open wind
Yeah, I feel like I’m alive again
Never going back to where I’ve been
I can see the Light
Burning in my soul
I can see the Light
I know that I must go
I agree with the decision by Morse not to bring any pre-prepared material into the studio: He wanted this to be a true band effort and encouraged the input of each The Neal Morse Band member in order to create a work living up to it’s The Grand Experiment moniker. That it proves such a rousing success attributes to the creative ability of the musicians at hand. In looking ahead, I hope that The Neal Morse Band not only maintains the same stable line up but also releases new material on a consistent basis.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing (Main Disc): “The Call” (10:13), “The Grand Experiment” (5:28), “Waterfall” (6:31), “Agenda” (3:45), “Alive Again” (26:45)
Track Listing (Bonus Disc): “New Jerusalem (Freedom Is Coming)” (7:30), “Doomsday Destiny” (5:27), “MacArthur Park” (11:07), “The Creation” (18:40), “Reunion” (9:42)
Neal Morse - Lead Vocals, Keyboards & Guitars
Eric Gillette - Guitars
Bill Hubauer - Keyboards & Clarinet
Randy George - Bass, Bass Pedals & Bodran
Mike Portnoy – Drums
Chris Carmichael - Strings
Jim Hoke - Saxophone
David F. McKee - Industrial Loop