The Neal Morse Band, The Grand Experiment (Radiant Records, 2015), Special Edition. Tracks: The Call; The Grand Experiment; Waterfall; Agenda; Alive Again; New Jerusalem (Freedom is Coming); Doomsday Destiny; MacArthur Park; The Creation (Live); and Reunion (Live).
Birzer rating: 9.5/10.
“The Call” begins with a multipart gospel/Trevor Rabin-Yes era harmony before breaking into a wild keyboard/drum sequence that is pure third-wave prog. Quickly, all instruments play at full blast. It’s a rather ingenious immersion into the album.
Everything soars with a precision and beauty. “With every beating of my heart. . . I am engulfed in who you are.” Morse is doing for the listener what God’s grace has done for him. As the lyrics suggest, the only thing that prevents disaster of an eternal magnitude is an embracing of “The Call,” unique to each person.
A little past the halfway mark in the song, the Neal Morse Band breaks into a harrowing Transatlantic/Flower Kings moment of dread and introspection. Randy George’s bass, especially, steals the moment as things only slowly resolve into a hyperfrenetic mass of sound.
After Momentum, I had thought Morse had become rather comfortable in his Christianity, thus allowing it to become a part of his art, a foundation, rather than an explosion. That is, Momentum might very well have been written by a seriously religious person whose sensibilities had been shaped dramatically by his faith but who felt no need to proclaim it as though by one recently saved. This album, though, is an explosion of religious enthusiasm and praise. Clearly, “The Grand Experiment” is prog meets worship in a significant way.
Whether the listener will agree with Morse’s religious perspective or not matters little, as the music is so strong and the conviction so real that one can’t help but admire Morse for writing about and proclaiming what he loves most. I might not go to his Church, but he certainly makes his faith look extremely attractive, open, warm, and loving. This is not the kind of evangelicalism that condemns all who do not understand or agree 100% to some form of a brimstone hell. Instead, Morse chooses to critique the world but praise the potential of each individual as endowed by grace.
“The Grand Experiment,” the second track, opens with a more blues-based sound than I’d normally expect from Morse, but it has a strong Kansas, Styx, Allman Brothers feel as Morse almost growls his way through the beginning of the song. This is rather heavy. A short song at only 5 and ½ minutes, “The Grand Experiment” remains very heavy throughout—again, in a 1970’s American prog-gish fashion. Backwards keyboard sounds even swirl from speaker to speaker. It’s with this song that I realize how astounding the engineering, production, and mastering of this album is. An audiophile’s dream.
Tasteful acoustic guitar opens the third track, “Waterfall,” and the intertwining vocals carry a soft Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young folk lilt throughout. “Waterfall” could easily have been a Flying Colors song. Most interestingly, the song morphs into a mid-period Genesis song, something off of Trick of the Tail or Wind and Wuthering mixed with a bit of early solo Sting. The trajectory of this six and ½ minute song is nothing short of extraordinary, and it proves just how brilliant Morse is as a musician.
“Agenda,” the fourth track, is another extremely hard-rock track, though less than 4 minutes in length. Despite the hard-rock elements of the instruments, Morse sings in a sweet poppish way, and the entire song reminds me of the best of Cheap Trick and The Pretenders.
The final sing of the main disc, “Alive Again,” is a nearly twenty-seven minute prog success. In every way, it’s a masterpiece. No hyperbole needed to explain this one. Indeed, the song is hyperbole made manifest! No one in the music world can write songs of this length in the way that Morse can. It is with this song that the Nashville progger reveals not only his brilliance and genius, but his very mastery of and over the genre. Rather than feeling like a series of songs thrust together with interesting bridges, “Alive Again” flows logically from part to part, telling a cohesive and compelling story. It has the structure of a classical symphony, but with all of the rock elements one would expect. The lyrics and vocal harmonies (again, think mid-1970s Kansas) guide, glue, and predominate, while the song never shies away from 1978 Rush-style atmospherics and percussion. Intensely religious, this song carries more respect for creation and the Creator than almost any formal church music produced over the last three decades. The song also features a psychedelic part with one of the members of the band (not Morse; Portnoy, maybe?) singing a testimonial. It works.
The bonus disc has three new songs—“New Jerusalem (Freedom is Coming)”; “Doomsday Destiny”; and “MacArthur Park”—as well as two songs recorded from last November’s Morsefest, “The Creation” and “Reunion.” Each of the new songs is absolutely gorgeous, and I’m not at all sure they didn’t make it as a part of the original, main album. While “New Jerusalem” has a bit of a Relayer aspect to it, nothing on the entire album has been shy about paying homage to earlier bands. Musically, this might very well be the best song on the two discs. There’s a bit more funk in “Doomsday Destiny,” for example, than anything on the main disc, but it would still fit well with the lyrical themes of The Grand Experiment. “MacArthur Park” seems to be an homage, at least musically, to Kansas, Yes, Jethro Tull, and ELP, despite the rather Peartian title.
My advice, make sure you get the entire package—the main disc as well as the special edition. The only reason I’m not giving this release a perfect 10 is simply because the album is confusing with its variations. But, the bonus disc is every bit as good as the main disc, and you’ll kick yourself in the future if you pass up these “bonus” songs. They are, to my ears, absolutely essential.
One last thing. I must praise the individual musicians. Morse might be the leader, the touchstone, and the fountainhead, but he has created a community of artists around him, artists who clearly love Morse, the art, each other, and the listener. No one of the five members of the Neal Morse Band gives only a part of himself. Each gives every single thing he has. George’s bass, Gillette’s guitar, Hubauer’s many, many instruments each boggle the mind.
But, I have to single out Portnoy. I’ve been listening to him since 1992. Since, I have regarded him as one of the three greatest drummers in the rock world, along with Peart and D’Virgilio. Over the past 23 years, though, I would’ve always put the caveat that Portnoy is the best hard rock drummer, lacking the subtly of Peart or D’Virgilio. For what it’s worth, I now officially revise that claim. Portnoy’s drumming and percussion absolutely, completely, and totally blow me away on this album. Holy Moses! The drumming and percussion is just so, so good that words fail me. Portnoy reveals sides to himself that I had no idea existed. On a personal note, he is just three or four months older than I am. I can’t tell you–the reader–how happy I am to see his growth, his desire to become what he is capable of. Thank you, Mr. Portnoy. I bow to your excellence.
Whatever the reason–Morse’s charisma or God’s grace or some mixture of both–“The Grand Experiment” is a true success, an explosion of enthusiasm, a true work of art. Nothing halfway here. This is the real deal. This is what we proggers live for.
To pre-order–AND YOU SHOULD–go here. Make sure to get the full version.
Update, January 18, 2015–Chris Thompson, who works closely with Morse at Radiant, posted this on Facebook: “”The Grand Experiment” was written by everyone in the band. Neal came to the writing sessions with nothing, planning to co-write the entire album, with a piece of each member framed perfectly throughout each song.” Thanks, Chris!