Artist: The Neal Morse Band
Album Title: The Grand Experiment
Label: InsideOut Music
Year of Release: 2015
There are some musicians that can be referred to as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and Neal Morse is most definitely one of those. Whether it’s as a solo artist or as part of a band such as Spock’s Beard or Transatlantic, you just know that the results are going to be of a high quality. And, with this latest project entitled The Neal Morse Band, it is very much business as usual in terms of the professionalism and high standard of music that is delivered. This is progressive rock of the highest calibre.
That said, there have been occasions as a staunch atheist, that I have been somewhat put off by some of the overt religious lyrical themes that are explored on some of Morse’s solo work. There’s no doubt that the Morse’s obvious Christian sentiments will have lost a few fans as a result, but equally, will have gained from other quarters too. However, as someone for whom the music is more important than any other factor, I haven’t let the lyrical ideologies get in the way of my enjoyment of Morse’s generally high quality compositions however much of an initial struggle it may have been. Thankfully, despite approaching with my usual caution, ‘The Grand Experiment’ largely steers clear of such topics; at least, without the benefit of printed lyrics, that’s how it appears anyway. If I’m wrong, it must mean that it’s sufficiently hidden. Naturally there are several highly positive messages littered throughout this latest album but to bemoan this would be churlish in the extreme, particularly when the world is filled with negativity these days.
The Neal Morse Band is comprised of some extremely noteworthy names only adding to the sense of expectation prior to release. Alongside Morse himself who plays the guitars, keyboards and sings, fellow Transatlantic colleague Mike Portnoy frequents the drum stool. In addtion, the familiar name of Randy George (Ajalon, Neal Morse) handles bass duties and Bill Hubauer (ApologetiX) takes care of the flute and clarinet as well as additional guitars and keys. Eric Gillette has also been drafted in to provide extra guitars and vocals.
First impressions of ‘The Grand Experiment’ lead me to conclude that the album title is entirely apt. For a recording that bears Morse’s name, the content certainly offers something a little bit different. Of course, much of the material is instantly recognizable as classic Neal Morse, but the album was written much more as a collective band effort. As a result, there are a number of different ideas and flavours to be heard within the five tracks, some of which will have long time listeners both surprised and intrigued.
The album opens up with quite possibly my personal favourite track in ‘The Call’. It is a ten-minute prog rock masterclass that blends a whole host of different musical ingredients into a whole that is instantly likeable but which, over time, only gets better and better. The melodies are very strong and form the bedrock of the track, a fact that’s underlined by the bombastic and anthemic crescendo that draws the composition to a truly rousing and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But in and amongst those recurring melodies, there are flavours from all corners of this band that aren’t necessarily part of the staple Morse solo sound. The up-tempo and vivacious composition references everything from hard rock riffs that have subtle thrash-lite overtones to dexterous synth solos, from heavy and pounding drumming from Portnoy to exuberant lead guitar solos and a whole host of other ingredients. ‘The Call’ is a cracking start to this impressive album.
Track two, the title track, is ushered in upon a driving riff and a classic rock groove, complimented as always by Portnoy’s powerhouse percussive prowess. The chorus takes things down a notch and unleashes Morse’s love of 60s-70s pop and prog to great effect. It’s a definite grower too and I have grown to really like the juxtaposition between the prog, the pop and the groovy hard rock. More of this in future, please Neal.
Next up is ‘Waterfall’ and it offers a complete change of pace from what preceded it. Portnoy is effectively redundant for six or so minutes as a beautiful acoustic guitar takes centre stage alongside some really gorgeous vocals that are hook-laden and properly addictive. Sombre is the wrong word but ‘Waterfall’ is certainly a slightly more atmospheric and introspective piece of music that is an utter delight. The woodwind-led closing segment is inspired too.
‘Agenda’ is an entirely different beast yet again. It’s more of a straight-up, more modern-sounding rock song with a demonstrable pop feel particularly in the choruses and with the more simplistic lyrics delivered with plenty of vocal effects. I didn’t like it on first listen and whilst it remains my least favourite track on the album, my feelings towards it have begun to thaw more than a little.
In proper prog rock style, ‘The Grand Experiment’ closes with ‘Alive Again’, a truly epic 26-minute composition in every sense of the word. As all good epics do, the rich musical tapestry tells a story and it seemingly runs the entire gamut of musical ideas. But, given the quality of the personnel involved, the shifts in tempo, the juxtaposition between light and shade and every subtle nuance is managed in such a way as to maintain an almost seamless and smooth flow. The talent on display means that there’s literally no constraints placed on this composition and even when things take a turn for the strange at around the ten minute mark thanks to a heavily sampled guitar, a brass accompaniment that has ska overtones and latterly a harpsichord-style flourish, it makes a kind of warped sense. Cleverly, it also creeps up on you with remarkable stealth to the point that you don’t immediately realise when things changed. Again, as with the opener, it’s the melodies that pull everything together and on ‘Alive Again’, they are out of the top drawer, providing hooks aplenty to keep the listener entertained from start to finish. The simple fact that the song flies by in the blink of an eye speaks volumes for its undeniable quality.
As with all music of this nature, I always long for an extra track or two. But then, I’m just greedy because at 52 minutes, there’s more than enough music on ‘The Grand Experiment’ to keep us all fully entertained. Fans of Neal Morse, Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic are certain to lap this record up, as will anyone who enjoys genuinely high quality, professionally-performed and intelligent progressive rock music. This one comes highly recommended.
The Score Of Much Metal: 8.75
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld