V at XV: Neal Morse’s Prophetic Art

Retrospective on Spock’s Beard, V (Metal Blade/Radiant, 2000).  Produced by Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard.  Tracks: At the End of the Day; Revelation; Thoughts (Part II); All on a Sunday; Goodbye to Yesterday; and The Great Nothing.

All tracks written by Neal Morse except Thoughts (Part II), written by the Morse brothers; and Revelation, written by the Morse brothers, NDV, and Okumoto.

Even the cover is brilliant, foreshadowing Neal Morse's forthcoming moment at Damascus.
Even the cover is brilliant, foreshadowing Neal Morse’s forthcoming moment at Damascus.

I was haunted continually by the cruel irony of it all; I had a gift to give to the world, but no recipient to pass it on to.

–Neal Morse, TESTIMONY (the book)

Two days ago, I posted my reflections on hearing Transatlantic’s SMPTe for the first time.  I treasure those memories.  At the time, I’d only been married about a year and half, I already had a one-year old son, and my wife was VERY pregnant with child #2 (who has grown up a serious Neal Morse fan).  I was also in my second full year of college teaching, and I was working on my first biography.

It’s hard if not impossible for me to separate my love of Morse’s art from my own professional life.  I’m pretty sure I was the first person in Bloomington, Indiana, to purchase THE LIGHT during graduate school, and Morse’s music has remained a constant soundtrack to all my writing—whether books or lectures.  My entire family shares my love of Morse’s music, and my wife and I eagerly await joining in the celebration at Morsefest 2015.

And, as I mentioned in the previous post, Transatlantic’s SMPTe has hardly aged.  Indeed, it sounds just as grand today as it did fifteen years ago.  I ended that reflection of SMPTe thanking Transatlantic for introducing me to The Flower Kings.  But, there’s more.  So much more.  It’s not just Transatlantic that came out of the year 2000.  There’s Flying Colors as well, all of Neal Morse Band releases, Yellow Matter Custard, and the list goes on. . . .

And, yet, I’m not sure I should express any surprise that Morse has produced so much since Transatlantic’s first album.  Think about the years between the release of THE LIGHT and SMPTe. In just one half of a decade, Spock’s Beard released five albums in five years, a cd of rarities, and four live albums.  And, Neal Morse released a solo album.  Morse is nothing if not full of energy.  Ceaseless and abundant energy.

Equally impressive, just think about the astounding maturation of the sound of Spock’s Beard.  It is nothing short of startling.  Of course, THE LIGHT is a classic.  But, compare it objectively to V.  Spock’s Beard is a band that grew decades rather than years between 1995 and 2000.

Last night, I went back to look at the views of “V” from the time of its release, and I was rather surprised to see lots of criticism—that is, of the negative sort.  SB is doing nothing new here.  The band did this here or that there.  Blah, blah, blather, blather.  Not to be too rude, but give me a break.  There was almost no discussion about the beauty of the album or Morse’s ability to evolve so quickly over such a short period of time or the excellence of NVD’s drumming or. . . the list goes one.

Bizarre.

V is, at least to my years, pretty much perfect.  Whereas THE LIGHT was angry and angular, V is humble and organic. THE LIGHT is fascinating, but V is gorgeous. Suffice it state, I love both albums but for very different reasons.  If someone asked me for the best Spock’s Beard album over the first five, there’d be no question that V would be it.  I would proudly introduce them to this as the best of the first five SB releases as well as a masterpiece of third-wave Prog.   I thought this in the year 2000, and I think it even more in the year 2015.  V is a masterwork at every level.  It’s playful without being childish, and it’s innovative without being quirky.  Every musician gives his absolute all, and Morse ably mixes rock, pop, country, classical, and even some Latin.  Yes, SB fans, fear not.  Señor Valasco lurks somewhere around the corner of several passages.

V is the fulfillment and culmination of everything that came before it.  And, in its textures and language, it is an intense and stunning thing.

I will also freely admit that no small amount of nostalgia makes me like this music from 2000.  At age 47, it’s hard not to divide the world into pre 9/11 and post 9/11.  The world before–at least in the U.S.–feels much more innocent. Compare the innocence of V with the rather angsty feel of SNOW or “We All Need Some Light” from LIVE IN AMERICA vs. LIVE IN EUROPE.  The song might as well be an entirely new one after the horrific events of 9/11.

The editors of Progarchy and I have an agreement that we will avoid overt discussions of religion and politics.  So, a trigger warning–and a request for forgiveness as I delve into the former.  And, please know that what I offer is only personal speculation and nothing more.

Interestingly enough–and I have no idea how to account for this at any rational level–V turns out to be rather Christian in its feel as well as in its essence. Yet, when V came out, Morse was still 2 years away from his conversion.  I might account for this by Morse seemingly much more comfortable with his own voice and his own failings (and, consequently his own successes) on V.   The lyrics exude charity, honesty, humility, resignation, and Stoicism as well as passion.  V might also be–at least from a Christian perspective–Morse lessening his will and preparing himself for the reception of grace.  I’ve never met Morse, so I have no personal knowledge of any of this.  All of this is merely a guess and a hunch.  But, the prophetic path that Morse lays out is, to say the least, uncannily accurate on V.

You’re doing fine, it’s not too late
To lay your burden down
And walk through heaven’s gate

Try to find a way
Try to say goodbye to yesterday
Goodbye to yesterday, say goodbye

Try to find a way
Try to say goodbye to yesterday
Goodbye to yesterday, say goodbye
You’ve got to find a way to say goodbye

–Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, “Say Goodbye to Yesterday”

And, “The Great Nothing” is a sequel, an answer really, to “The Light.”  If The Light is anger and angular weirdness, “The Great Nothing” is resignation and guarded hope.  Even in failure, doing the right thing is success.  The “Great Nothing” is one of the best rock songs ever written.  It is organic and whole.  The lyrics describe so beautifully the unbought grace of life.

One note timeless
Came out of nowhere
It wailed like the wind and night
It sought no glory
It added no meaning
Not even a reason why

No thought
No need to say something
No message to sell
It played without a buzz or a showing
Out of the great nothing
It came without fail

–Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard, “The Great Nothing”

It’s also interesting to note that Morse was not alone in a transition.  Think about the difference between Rush’s TEST FOR ECHO and VAPOR TRAILS at the same time.  Granted, events threw Peart’s life into pure chaos, but the transitions occurred nonetheless.  Or, more recently, thank about Steven Wilson’s move from Porcupine Tree to solo career.  Morse transitioned from Morse 1.0 to Morse 2.0 between V and SNOW, and he gives full credit to his own conversion and acceptance of grace.  Who are we to deny this?  After all, the evidence suggests this is true, and whatever relationship Morse has with God is a rather intimate and personal one.

I, as one man, thank each profoundly for the gifts bestowed upon the world.  V is a treasure.  And, so is SNOW, TESTIMONY, ?, SECOND NATURE, and so many others.

Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Neal Morse, from Mars, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Heaven’s Gate.

5 thoughts on “V at XV: Neal Morse’s Prophetic Art

  1. Reblogged this on saylordan and commented:
    Excellent look back at one of my favorites. Even though Neal was still a few years away from his Christian music career, you can hear the seeds in the lyrics here, and can almost feel how badly he wanted to tell the world about his beliefs. The impact of the first Transatlantic album’s writing can be clearly heard on this album, which is a marked departure from the previous four Spock’s Beard albums.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really think that SMPTe had a giant impact on the writing of this album, as well as with that of Snow. While the first four albums are filled with excellent music, the quality and complexity of the music really changed with V. I think that Neal’s first collaboration with the other members of Transatlantic is more important than anyone realizes. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brad,
    Thank you for expressing better than I ever could the beauty of this album. It was the first SB album I bought, and it is still my favorite. I picked it up after reading a cover story in Mojo Magazine about progressive rock. SB was mentioned in a sidebar, so I picked up V out of curiosity. I was amazed that someone like Neal Morse even existed and wasn’t afraid to write 20 -minute epics!

    I think your observations about Morse’s faith and how it colored V are spot-on. In the DVD, “The Making Of V”, it shows him about to record his vocals for The Great Nothing, and you can see him give a brief silent prayer before beginning to sing.
    Tad

    Liked by 1 person

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