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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Neal Morse

Testimony 2

Review by Grant Hill

According to Bill Evans Media (http://billevansmedia.com), Neal Morse is the best selling solo progressive rock artist since 2003. Whether it’s been as an outstanding solo front-man or as the insightful founder of two of the most creative and talented bands to grace the genre, Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, Morse continues to advance his already world quality writing and musicianship to superior levels. This year’s release of Testimony 2, a 2 CD epic follow-up to 2003’s Testimony, is a musical history and introspection into Morse’s life since the formation of Spock’s Beard and his landmark decision to simultaneously leave both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic.

Rooted in Morse’s conversion to Christianity, the decision was prompted by the spontaneous healing of his daughter’s congenital heart problems, a miracle attributed to divine intervention, but precipitated by prayer. No natural source of the healing could be found by the young girl’s doctors, so one can only imagine the profound impact this has had on the lives of their family. Whether you believe or not, we’ve all been the beneficiaries on the musical side of the equation! CD 1 reflects the story, while CD 2 is more a reflection of the inner workings of faith in Morse’s life.

Morse’s lyrics on CD 1 sequentially weave through the emotions, feelings, facts and situations during the dawning of the neo-progressive era. Progressive rock fans enjoy the deep integration of this style of music into their own lives, so the story is both marketable and compelling. It also connects the Christian and progressive genres, which gets Morse’s message to both churched and secular audiences. Pertinently, Neal’s autobiographical book, also aptly entitled Testimony, was released this year, too, a fact which only lends to more opportunity for the story to be told and the music heard. I will attempt to expound upon what my own ears have experienced. My broad, sweeping generalization is that it is, indeed, a masterpiece of epic proportions. It is the apex of consistently integrated composition in Morse’s prolific writing career thus far. For those who haven’t heard this CD yet, it’s worth every cent you’ll pay for a legitimate copy and much, much more! Bravo, Mr. Morse! The scope of this work should not be ignored in the larger musical community. In my opinion, along with Spock’s Beard’s X, this is one of the finest recorded works, any genre, thus far in this century.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Mercy Street

The album opens with a sensitive piano melody, dramatically restated by the rhythm section with strings, transitioning to the entire band introduction with the melody carried on the mini-Moog. Morse’s vocals enter. The song is bright, inspirational, proggy and clearly positive with its Christian theme. It’s a superb theme, poppy and catchy. This song could easily have been accepted as a vintage Spock’s Beard song. It’s a perfect opener.
Overture No. 4

The song majestically introduces the idea of compositional orchestration and the virtuosity of Randy George’s bass and Morse’s multiple layered keyboards. Textures and sounds lead to the introduction of the pulsating, string and guitar accented theme. I love the epic feel. Portnoy’s double kick adds tension, then George’s sixteenth note driven syncopations drive it further, and Morse jumps in with his synth doubling off George’s playing. Featuring nice changes and fills and a great bass solo, in unison with a superb guitar feature; this is exciting stuff! Dramatic concluding statements move directly to the next number without a break, but transitioning reminiscent of the ideas from Snow.

Time Changer

This really is my favorite number on the release. George’s sixteenth note ride is impeccably groovy and clean. The punchy melody line is very cool at Morse’s vocal entrance. This is the song that I really think will resonate with prog fans. This is such a cool, edgy piece! Great solos and features are included and I love the electric violin! It only gets better as it progresses, and the acapella vocal ensemble with the Spock’s Beard members is totally, totally over the top! This is a must listen for all neo-prog fans!

Jayda

Named after Morse’s daughter, this is the heart wrenching but finally jubilant joyful story of her “broken heart” and subsequent healing. The strings sell the story with as much emotion as the finest of Hollywood soundtracks. This is wonderful!

Nighttime Collectors

A total stadium rock number, this just, well, rocks! Morse really has done an incredibly fine job of integrating diversity throughout the album, and this one opens with vintage classic rock. The articulate guitar work reminds me of Walter Becker. The song is brilliant. There are nice meter changes midway through. It then rolls into yet another theme with great drum work by Portnoy, plus crunchy guitars and B3.

Time Has Come Today

This song seems to reflect the wonder and triumph of Jayda Morse’s healing, and the thoughts in Morse’s mind as he ponders the path to take given what has transpired. How can he do God’s will and still maintain his musical integrity after working so hard? It’s an upbeat, syncopated groove throughout. Complicated changes abound. This is very nice.

Jesus’ Blood

The song reflects Morse’s humility in committing his life to Christ and making a conscious decision to change the ways of his past life. It’s a soulful moment of decision and desire to make things better, something Christians often struggle with in the course of living in a world where Christian values are hard to maintain. It’s beautifully written, rather Pink Floyd-esque in tempo and feel, and more so upon the entrance and developing fullness of the background vocals. This is dynamically wonderful with fabulous phrasing.

The Truth Will Set You Free

The song restates the introduction of “Overture.” I enjoy the layering of tribal style percussion behind the string harmonies. The vocals are dark, deep and mysterious. It seems full of trepidation and a journey into the unknown. The chorus is full, reminding me of the full choir sound underneath Morse’s vocal lead that I’ve heard on some vintage Christ For The Nations recordings. This features great keyboard work and tremendous orchestration. The piece leads to Morse’s act of surrender to Christ in very dramatic fashion. I’m impressed with his ability to articulate this experience musically.

Chance of a Lifetime

This song opens with the up-tempo, proggy riff previously played in “Time Has Come Today.” It’s in three, but syncopates into multiple metered delights. This is superior instrumental ensemble playing, intense, dynamic, and very, very cool. I dig this groove immensely! Vocals enter at 2:14 in another melody that reminds me of the more poppish cuts from Snow. The punchy sax work underneath the vocals is a nice touch, with both Spock’s Beard and Steely Dan qualities. The guitar work over the Rhodes-like key rhythm speaks with solid phraseology to the end of the piece.

Jesus Bring Me Home

This tune opens with acoustic guitar and strings. The vocal seems to reflect the psychological fence straddling of wondering how to trust everything to God, or to stay with Eric Burdon, Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard to work the road to make ends meet. In this case, you can hear Morse’s longing to get out of the grind and be with his family. The music supports the sentiments Morse felt in arriving at this decision. The final minute is chordal, thick, ominous, and reflects the difficulty and strain of the conundrum.

Road Dog Blues

This up-tempo number shows the relief and joy at finally having circumstances shift so Morse could make that break which sent Spock’s Beard and Morse in separate directions. Musically, the song reflects the weight lifted from Morse’s shoulders. The final minute is piano and mellotron based, very soulful and in slow, expressive free time.

It’s For You

This is, according to Morse, perhaps the most popular piece from the CD. Rich vocal sonorities and dynamic control are rendered throughout. This is a song for all musical periods. It would have been a strong number in any of the past four decades. It reminds me of some of the more dramatic numbers by dcTalk or Jars of Clay, but Morse’s rich orchestration and superior dynamic phrasing supersede either. There is a nice, classically organized structure to the song. It’s a wonderful tribute to Jesus’ relationship and gift with any one of us, told through the emotions of Morse’s experience. The guitar and keys before the adagio ending are climactic. The heart-filled vocals at the end offer up the connection that goes with a commitment to faith.

Crossing Over/Mercy Street Reprise

This completes the chronology of the album storyline, and expresses settling into the path of a new life. This is a full, lyrical melody and it’s very touchingly portrayed. I’m sure many songwriters only wish they could reach into their talent pool to write a song, and album, of such rich, fantastic complexity. The sonic colors are among the best I’ve ever heard in a recording. Thematically, the ideas reflected from “Mercy Street” are restated, in perfectly soundtrack-like finality. This has an incredible fully orchestrated ending!

Disc 2
Absolute Beginner

The song rocks out with a Belew-esque vocal opening. The melody line is reminiscent of many current pop Christian artists. It is pretty straightforward in common time, obviously written for mass appeal. While my least favorite number on the CD, if I were in Morse’s place I would probably use a song like this to play to the sensibilities of that particular audience, and that’s what it accomplishes.

Supernatural
This is a full rock power ballad. I like the Mini-Moog theme and underlying guitar chords. The vocal melody is awesome. The harmonies are polished, strong, and the song overall reminds me of Rascal Flatts, Chicago XXX, and CSN. The band, though, is pure Neal Morse and company. This is excellent!
Seeds of Gold

A standalone epic piece clocking in at 26 minutes in length, I love the baroque style opening on piano. It is reminiscent of “The Doorway.” That opening piano theme carries forward into the full band, switching to synths and full power chords from the rhythm section. The tempo changes add to the tension buildup. This is very nicely expressive work with thick writing. The jazz ride of George’s bass and Portnoy’s groove then lay the groundwork for crunchy guitar, which adds some arpeggiated crunch to the mix, restated by synth. This sets the table for Morse’s vocal entrance, which is another solid melodic line. It feels very Genesis-like. The question and answer vocal bridge is nice. This leads to another transitional section sounding like it could have been on Snow. The opening baroque theme is then re-voiced with guitar playing the lead melody line. The bass part is written to support this line incredibly well. The next rhythm section has almost a Red Hot Chili Peppers rhythmic feel, but the melody on top is pure Morse. This leads to a guitar solo fill with very lean, mean playing. The melody restates, followed by a synth solo with lots of B3 support. Then the opening is re-voiced with fugue-like interplay between bass and guitar, then drums and keys. I feel almost like this section is from a Jeff Berlin clinic, and it’s wonderful! Another dramatic transition opens up the palette for the “homecoming” vocal section in three, a vintage Morse vocal rock waltz. The piece transitions again to Steve Morse’s guitar solo, played with passionate phrasing. This cut features beautiful playing and lyrical work, superb, skillful shredding, but it’s never overdone! Crunchy power quarter note chords flow into the synth and string eighth note pattern, then back into the Genesis vocal vibe in climactic triumph. This is one of Morse’s best epic numbers. It’s a nice build to the end with a Chick Corea style cadence and resolution. It’s a fantastic song from a fantastic band!

 
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