NEAL MORSE – Jesus Christ The Exorcist

When it comes to progressive Metal and Hard Rock, both my knowledge and interest is somewhat limited. Within that genre, there are only a few acts that I really find interesting and good enough to listen to regularly. That’s why I’m not overly familiar with singer Neal Morse. He used to be the singer for Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, two bands I have heard very little of. He’s also a member of the band Flying Colors which also features Mike Portnoy (The Winery Dogs, Sons Of Apollo, ex- Dream Theater and a million other projects and Ex Kansas and Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse, now in Deep Purple. I totally adore Flying Colors. He’s also a solo artist within his Neal Morse band, a project I have heard literally nothing of. I’m not writing this to diss Morse, just to let you know I don’t have that much to compare this record to. That Morse is an amazing vocalist isn’t even under discussion.

About this record – its subtitle – “A Progressive Rock musical by Neal Morse” – reveals that it’s not just another record we’re being handed here, it’s a huge, mastodon-project about the life and adventures of Jesus Christ. As most of us know, Morse became a born-again Christian back in 2002 and left both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic immediately after that. But he never left music and Hard Rock/Metal so I guess he never became one of those “rock is the Devil’s music” evangelists. This project started back in 2008 when a friend of Morse’s convinced him to write a musical about Jesus’ life, like a modern version of Jesus Christ Superstar and together with a whole list of friends/ musicians, Morse has created a musical on a subject that is really close to his heart. For me personally, the whole Jesus Christ saga is an interesting and entertaining one even though I’m not the slightest religious, so I really looked forward to hear what Morse had come up with here.

The whole projects opens with an introduction called, well, “Introduction” actually. With nothing but vocals, the intro says “Father, why have you forsaken me? Behold your son, you have been with me all my life” which goes right into “Overture”, an instrumental that’s bombastic, symphonic and progressive and that sets the tone for the musical, it would turn out. “Getaway”is softer laden, somewhat proggy where the choral singing really brings the feel of a musical. It’s a grandiose song with symphonic undertones but also hold a smooth vocal-melody. A very good start, indeed. “Gather The People” starts out acoustically and stripped in a slow pace but soon continues on a bigger scale with a grand vocal arrangement. It holds some heavier parts and ends with a keyboard that holds ground for a fine-tuned guitar solo. The first four songs have all been tied together and it’s now the first real “pause” comes in, awaiting the next part.

“Jesus’ Baptism” is a slow and soft ballad, full of strings and symphonic undertones and an arrangement that screams musical. Grand backing vocals brings the chorus to the front, making it big with an infectious melody on top. The song brings us in to the album’s longest track, the 9-minute plus epic song “Jesus’ Temptation” where the good vs. evil story makes an appearance. It starts out heavy and progressive where rhythm-changes appear before a softer, symphonic passage that’s also stripped featuring only vocals and piano, comes in.  The song then turns dark and heavy, bringing along a vibe of Prog-rock meets Classic Rock where Deep Purple seems to have been a big influence. The tune then morphs into some kind of smooth Melodic Rock balladry before the Classic Rock vibes returns for some swinging grooves. At the end, the song goes into ballad-territory again, leaving me wanting more. A grandiose and challenging tune – brilliant.

“There’s A Highway” is an uptempo and melodic Hard Rock tune, pretty straight-forward with a main melody reminiscent of Flying Colors – and what’s not love about that? It was the first outing of the record and the way the big chorus sticks, it should have been a real single complete with a video because it has all possibilities of getting some airplay. Great tune. “The Woman Of Seven Devils” is a groovy and bouncy blues-rocker with musical-theatre arrangements added. It’s a quite down-to-earth kind of tune, somewhat stripped and raw but also containing a really catchy albeit not hitty refrain. Good stuff! “Free At Last” is a slow ballad that includes a big and beautiful arrangement and a smooth and very memorable vocal melody. It’s quite a cozy tune with a feel-good vibe all over it, like snuggling with a silk blanket of music.

“The Madman Of The Gaderenes” is a funked up prog-rock tune, complete with horns and a juicy groove that later goes into a vocal-only acapella romp with drums added later on but the song goes back to its groovy self. The tune ends on a softer, ballad-like note to take us into the next track, “Love Has Called My Name”, an acoustic guitar laden, ballad-like tune with softer arrangements that also comes with a groovy rhythm and multi-layered vocals. It takes an uptempo route with big pop-vibes and brings on a superb refrain, amazingly catchy, that will have you humming it for days. “Better Weather” is a shorty, only one and a half minute long, a pop song that’s upbeat and quite straight-forward with lots of hooks and a refrain that grabs a hold immediately. It also makes me think of Flying Colors, melody wise, so it’s not a no-brainer that I dig it a lot.

“The Keys Behind The Kingdom” is melodically a continuation of “Better Weather” but in a ballad-like, slower pace. It’s a down-to-earth tune –  dramatic in a musical kind of way, of course – with some big vocals and melodies that sticks in my mind like super-glue and the Flying Colors reference continues here. I guess Morse is responsible for quite a lot of the vocal melodies and arrangements in that band. Very good. CD 1 closes with “Get Behind Me Satan”, a heavy, straight-forward Classic Rock bouncer in the vein of Deep Purple and Rainbow, but it also holds a slight chunk of Metal, the way Black Sabbath were Metal. It’s a rough and punchy rocker and quite frankly, this record really needed one of those songs after the more laid-back outlook of this CD. Very, very good.

Just like the title (might) suggest, “He Must Go To The Cross” (I think it’s a heavy title) is a heavy number in mid pace that holds a fat and chunky rhythm and a tough beat with a stompy groove. It’s nice that Morse haven’t given up on Metal. Very good. “Jerusalem” sports a musical-theatre tinged arrangement, full of striking melodies. It’s an upbeat track but also grandiose and full of choir-vocals and the song brings us in to the ballad “Heart Full Of Holes”. It’s a slow and soft tune with a big arrangement, full of strings and a symphonic outlook where the main melody is very memorable. Good one. The balladry continues with the atmospheric and emotional “The Last Supper”. It starts with only piano and vocals, stripped and laid-back with a darker twist. But when the band comes in it speeds up some but not more than to a mid-tempo. It also becomes somewhat symphonic and holds a slight groove.

“Gethsemane” is punchy and tough on a fat beat. The sound here is massive and it brings on a symphonic and pompous vibe. There’s also soft and more laid-back passages and the tune moves around the big, pompous arrangements and the softer parts throughout the song. Fact is, the tune is a mini-opera in itself, very progressive laden. The same thing can be said of “Jesus Before The Council And Peter’s Betrayal”, a proggy tune where beats, times and sound changes throughout the tune, beginning to end – very dramatic, theatrical and pompous. “Jesus’ Death” is, of course, dark, heavy and bombastic – a striking tune with an eerie atmosphere yet also with symphonic undertones. “Jesus Before Pilate And The Crucifixion” is a mid paced, prog-laden rocker, quite in-your-face but also with a softer arrangement. The musical theatre vibes makes it bombastic and bouncy and the choir and big vocals makes it a grandiose.

“Mary At The Tomb” is a slow and soft ballad, quite stripped and very atmospheric but it’s also full of strings which makes the vibes of a power ballad more evident. Power balladry aside, this tune also makes me think of Queen in some parts and yes, I really do like this one. “The Greatest Love Of All” is not a Whitney Houston cover, thank you very much, but it sure is a big ballad, more or less a continuation of the last track albeit with a bigger arrangement. If you take an early 90’s power ballad and mix it up with big musical influences, you get the idea of how this one sounds. With lots of big vocals, strong melodies, a catchy refrain and a positive outlook, this tune is a winner. The album/musical ends with a reprise of “Love Has Called My Name”, but this version is a bit more pop-laden with a big choir in an uptempo and it works more like an outtro and as such it does its job faultlessly.

As for the storyline here, it’s not like you’ll be biting your nails down to your elbow in pure excitement – we all know how this story starts and how it ends and what happens in between. As a project, this is a beast – pardon the pun – of an album, big and overblown just like many musicals are and I guess this project must have been lots of hard work for Morse & co. Musically, it do show Morse’s prog-rock past but it’s way more song-oriented with lots of recognizable elements that you often find in musical theatre and very little about showing off musical skills. On the good side, the CDs brings along lots and lots of really good songs but the downside is that many songs are connected in style which makes it hard to separate them and the album needs a whole bunch of spins to make the songs stick – it’s not easy to digest all of this. I really like this even though I get the feeling it’s better suited for a theatre than just for listening. About the religious side of it, it’s an enjoyable piece of music no matter if you’re a true Christian or if you’re like me and take the Bible for what (I believe) it is – a sci-fi novel.

7/10

Tracklist:

CD1
1. Introduction
2. Overture
3. Getaway
4. Gather The People
5. Jesus’ Baptism
6. Jesus’ Temptation
7. There’s A Highway
8. The Woman Of Seven Devils
9. Free At Last
10. The Madman Of The Gadarenes
11. Love Has Called My Name
12. Better Weather
13. The Keys To The Kingdom
14. Get Behind Me Satan

CD2
1. He Must Go To The Cross
2. Jerusalem
3. Hearts Full Of Holes
4. The Last Supper
5. Gethsemane
6. Jesus Before The Council And Peter’s Denial
7. Judas’ Death
8. Jesus Before Pilate And The Crucifixion
9. Mary At The Tomb
10. The Greatest Love Of All
11. Love Has Called My Name (Reprise)

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