You would think that an artist who was involved in 3 studio albums, 2 tours and 2 festivals in one year would take some time off. But Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy are not like the rest of us. They continue to churn out album after album. As music fans, we have grown accustomed to them always being there with new music. But what never fails to amaze is the high quality of the music. Never is there a letdown in songwriting or musicianship. They never phone it in. And for that they must be applauded.
For near a decade, the two, along with bassist Randy George, have worked together on all of Neal Morse’s solo prog releases. This time they are not alone, as it is billed as the “Neal Morse Band” with recent tour members and contributors Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette as official writing (and lead vocal) partners. For those who saw this group on the Momentum tour, you know how capable they are as musicians so it is not a surprise that they excel on this album as well.
There is something so reliable about Neal’s work as a solo artist. You know he will provide moments of brilliance, emotional and uplifting orchestral sections along with a 25 min epic or two. It is his ability never to put out the same thing twice and find ways to take chances that makes each album an adventure all its own. With the latest “The Grand Experiment” Neal provides no shortage of what fans desire and adds what they didn’t know they wanted to hear.
“The Call”, the disc’s opening track, doesn’t start off with a string section and build up to a crescendo, rather it surprises with a vocal harmonies by all members that almost recalls “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen. And then the roller-coaster ride begins as the band kicks into full gear with an instrumental overture. The song is uptempo and only for a brief moment allows the listener to take a breath. Eric Gillette shows off his lead guitar skills and he is certainly no slouch. Portnoy’s skillful precision and tastefulness is as fresh as ever, always finding ways to make what he does stand out amongst a barrage of notes. The payoff in the track is the end which brings full circle the opening vocal passage in full bombast. It is as joyous a moment on a Neal cd as I can remember and immediately jumps this song to one of his best. In only a few days, I found myself listening to this song seemingly 100 times.
There are, of course, the spiritual and religious undertones but it is done in the type of manner that allows the listener to find his or her own meaning in the lyrics. It is to some degree what separates Neal’s music from his contemporaries. Whether you are religious or not, it is the conviction and pure emotion within each track that makes this music the experience it is.
Lead single and title track “The Grand Experiment” is a hard rockin Prog single. It provides all the necessary Prog-rock moments and in a concise 5 and half minutes. The opening guitar riff is memorable and the chorus is arena rock ready. It is a great introduction to the album as the first single and for anyone not familiar with Neal’s solo work.
The lone ballad “Waterfall” is one of the best ballads from the past solo albums. Eric Gillette provides some great high vocal parts on this one which really stand out. The ending is an homage to “Entangled” from Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail. “Agenda” is a left turn for sure; a hard rock track under 4 minutes. A song like this shows Neal’s ability to stay current musically and to not allow his albums to get repetitive. While a whole album of these would not please his fans, having it on the album actually elevates the collection as a whole. The falsetto chorus happens to be very catchy as well.
Of course, no Neal Morse album would be complete without the long epic track. “Alive Again” begins very subdued before kicking off with a drumbeat only Portnoy can fit into a song with such ease. The verses are carried by Randy George’s bass and has a sound like something from a Spock’s Beard album. There are a number of twists and turns leading to the biggest surprise on the album, Bill Hubauer’s turn as lead vocalist around 17 minutes into the song. Bill has quite the range and his part adds a bit of a Transatlantic flair to the song. All this before the big epic ending where the group just shred. Eric Gillette takes lead on a couple of parts in the song as well as the end vocals and adds an element we didn’t know was missing from previous efforts. And not to deny fans, the ending orchestral section closes out the album as only a Neal Morse epic can do. This track is about as epic as it gets. Again, this group has outdone themselves.
Neal has perfected the 25 minute song. It used to be a novelty a band here or there would try and outside of “Supper’s Ready” or “Change of Seasons” often not succeed as well. But he has made it a staple of his music and made it acceptable for any Prog band to try. Yet, he remains the master here.
The bonus disc contains some great moments as well, especially the track “New Jersualem” which could have been performed by Peter Gabriel or Sting. And for any that missed the Morsefest event, there are 2 live tracks from that as well. The vibe on this album is one of positivity and it has a freshness to it that is evidently due to the band writing this together from scratch. This is no doubt destined to be one of the best albums of 2015 and it is a great way to kick off 2015.
Released on Feb 10th. 2015 via Radiant Records
Key Tracks: The Call, Alive Again