The Neal Morse Band
The Grand Experiment
February 16, 2015
Inside Out Music
Of course, Neal Morse is amongst the most gifted musicians amongst us, but I am calling him a scientist for having the fearless wonderment that brings great ideas from thought to fruition. The Grand Experiment is a stunningly good record - it has great, instantly hummable tunes, enlightening and uplifting lyrics, brilliant singing, some of the best ensemble playing you're likely to hear, and maybe most important to me, it is a great sounding album.
The Grand Experiment marks the first time Neal Morse has ever walked into a recording studio with the intention of making an album, but having nothing written, nor prepared. You would not guess that in a million years to hear it, this album is extremely coherent, cohesive, and complete. That being said, this is the Neal Morse Band, and the credit must be parsed out to everyone onboard. Mike Portnoy brings his always exciting rums, and he's singing more and more these days on his projects, and that's a great thing. Randy George, well, he just might be my favorite bassist these days - his tone, taste, and chops always astound me, and he is on fire here. Keyboardist Bill Hubauer is a prog lover's dream, wrapping every tune in a wonderful tapestry of tones, and guitarist Eric Gillette brings some shredding rock skills along to keep things from ever getting too mired in all the pastoral beauty. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, and there is a great feeling of unity, which can be rare in these times of too often short budgets and time restrictions. This feels just right.
Starting any album with a ten minute track is a very bold maneuver, and to start that tune off with 30 seconds of a cappella is especially bold, but 'The Call' quickly catches afire with sizzling instrumental interplay, and to top it off the song is a very accessible piece of pop prog. There's simply nothing not to love - the guitars and keyboards swirl upwards like a helix of sound. Everything I ever liked about progressive rock or jazz fusion can be found here, and it's all in service of the song - a remarkable feat considering how the album was created. A staggering start. Five and a half minutes along, and Randy George starts playing an ominous bass line with the sickest (and I mean that in the best possible way) tone imaginable that leads into a musical interlude that sets off like a devil being chased down a dark alley by a bevy of angels. It's intelligent, soulful, and it rocks - when Gillette goes into his very staccato solo section things go up another notch, and then he brings things down with some trem bar magic that should get the kid a bunch of attention from the world of the guitar mags. Well, it just doesn't stop - the music gets more intense, the vocals build, and it's the electric church in session. Free the chains that bind you, indeed.
'The Grand Experiment' kicks off with Morse riffing hard on his Strat, and the band is in metal mode. Soon enough the melodies, and musical weaving begins and takes this funky romper down the River Styx into the land that Gretchen found out in Nebraska when she may have actually been looking for Kansas, Toto. I'm just playing with words and names here, but when you hear it, you'll both get it, and you'll dig it. Everybody brings everything to this one. Lots to enjoy at every twist and turn.
The acoustic guitars come out for 'Waterfall', and they are joined by some tightly grouped vocals, and we get a respite from all of the intensity, but it's not to say that this track lacks intensity, it's just a bit more ethereal, and a bit less physical. This is a beautiful track that I'd love to hear tackled on the stage. It may be a mellow acoustic outing, but there's still some wonderful playing going on beneath the layers of harmonies.
The band decides to have some fun with the very contemporary sounding 'Agenda' - it's all ostentatious big rock, a hand clap along kind of anthem that has a bit of glam washed into the modern rock madness. If young bands sounded like this, the mainstream wouldn't be such a bad dream. This song wouldn't work on an album like this one if were left to a less skilled group, but these guys transcend labels and genres with flippant disregard - they got it covered. Why can't this be a big hit single?
Then there's 'Alive Again'. Clocking in at twenty-six minutes and forty-five seconds, this cut deserves a review of its own. It shifts quickly and its supple morphing between several sections in the first three minutes leads to a careening downhill race that brings back memories of the days when the likes of Stanley Clarke, DiMeola, and Ponty were filling big theaters and both entertaining and educating the masses with their high minded musical glories. Then comes Morse with a tale of woe, and despair. Then, he's joined by some more angelic harmonizing, and he's reborn into a staccato beat that evokes old Genesis, and I use these references simply as tools to let you know where we are stylistically at ant given point. Morse music sounds like Morse music, of that there is no doubt, but I'm also trying to reach some of the as yet unreached here, and some signposts always help. before you know it, we're ten minutes into the track, and it again jumps into a very funky rock riff that displays the band's great use of textures, tones, and surprising choices in direction. Huge harmonies abound amongst strident and virtuosic displays of technical mastery, but this music never sounds pretentious, nor hard to understand. No, it's more like they've combined a few hundred hit singles among a bunch of incredibly great musical interludes. The track just keeps changing and charging and getting bigger and more intense like the rising force of a spiritual hurricane. You feel better for having heard this music, and how often does that happen these days?
The Grand Experiment is a sensational album. A progressive rock classic. I expected it to be good, but this is great. An album to be listened to from beginning to end. One of those records that we'll still be listening o in twenty years, if we're lucky. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and it comes in many packages. This one is one of the better packages you'll come across in 2015.