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Neal Morse

Morsefest 2015: ? and Solo Scriptura LIVE

Review by Gary Hill
In 2015 Neal Morse put together Morsefest. It was a two night event. On one night of the show, he performed his ? album, while the second night they did Solo Scriptura. This set is an amazing document of the event. It includes four audio CDs of all the music. There are also two DVDs, one of each night. For those who don't know, Morse was the main guy in Spock's Beard until around 2002 when he left to pursue his religious fervor by going into Christian prog. Let me just say that if you like Spock's Beard, you will love this. It's quite similar.  I do need to talk a bit about the Christian aspect. Personally, I tend not to be too worried about the type of stuff being sung in music. It doesn't really have a lot of impact on my enjoyment of the songs. I'll say as a non-Christian that there were only two points here where the message did get in the way for me a little. In one case it was an actually preaching section (spoken), and the other was lyrics that got me trying to figure out where Morse's head could be to have such a wrong idea of what non-Christians are thinking. Beyond that, though, this is the kind of thing that will appeal to prog fans regardless of their theological biases.

Getting into some more details here. First, in addition to his solo work, Morse and company performed some Spock's Beard and Transatlantic (another outfit that has Morse as a member) music. For the main band, Morse has the legendary Mike Portnoy on drums, Randy George on bass, Bill Habauer on keys and Eric Gillette on guitar. All of those guys also provide some vocals, while Morse does guitar, keys and vocals. There are some other musicians here including a horn section, background singers and a string section. Additionally, Nick D'Virgilio guests on drums and vocals and Phil Keaggy provides some guitar.


This is a very satisfying and entertaining set. There is a Blu-Ray version, but personally, I think I prefer this one because I'll probably listen to the CDs a lot more than I'll watch the videos. That said, I should talk about the video. This is a classy production. The sound and video quality are top-notch. One complaint I need to make is that there are two bonus features listed, but only one here. The "behind the scenes" listed on the first disc, doesn't appear to be there. It's on the second disc instead of the "prog jeopardy" that's listed on that one. That's more an explanation or description than a complaint, though. Given the quality of what we get, the extra bonus feature is not missed at all.

 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2017  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

 

Track by Track Review
Audio Disc 1

            
Intro

This is a very classical music oriented introductory piece. It is symphonic and grows toward the bombastic.

The Call
An acapella section starts things here. They fire out to some smoking hot prog from there. It has a stacatto pattern to it at first. Then it screams out to something that makes me think of Kansas. It keeps building and pushing forward in style. This is dynamic and diverse seeming to switch direction at just about every step of the way. The vocals come in over the top after a time, and we're in more consistent territory for a time. After this vocal movement, the section that ensues has some amazing bass sounds at the heart of it. The cut shifts out from there into fast paced, intense progressive rock. Then it drops way down for the next vocal movement. After that section we're brought out into another smoking hot prog fam. The next vocal movement has a really triumphant sound to it. It is soaring. The instrumental section that follows again has some hints of Kansas. That section takes the piece to its close.
The Grand Experiment
Hard rocking sounds open this one up in style. The cut powers forward with a smoking hard edged prog rock sound. The cut has some cool shifts and changes. The thing is, it never really loses track of the hooks that hold it all together. This is a great rocker that is particularly effective. I love the unusual arrangement on the drop backed "round" section.
Go The Way You Go
This classic Spock's Beard song gets new life here. It's comes in with a dramatic, rather rocking motif that leads to more melodic stuff. It works forward from there with another killer prog rock jam. It goes through a number of shifts and changes before it drops down to the mellower jam that serves as the backdrop for the first vocals of the cut. It grows gradually upward from there. The journey continues with new sections emerging from there. This has some amazing music built into it. It gets into some pretty unusual, but very effective territory. Then there is a triumphant resolution back into the song proper.
MacArthur Park
The original version of this song everyone knows is terrible. The lyrics are still inane. I have to say that this prog rock interpretation of the cut is pretty amazing. The thing about the original is that the melodies weren't bad. It was just the performance that was so laughably bad. I still don't like the vocals on this song, but the music works well. I really love the jam that ensues around the six and a half minute mark. It's another movement that makes me think of Kansas a bit. This just keeps shifting and changing from there with some amazing prog rock jamming occurring.
A Whole Nother Trip
This piece weighs in at over 24 minutes in length. It comes in with a rather fun loving kind of arrangement. It works into a number of shifts and changes as it moves forward.  A bit more of a mainstream rock sound enters for the entrance of the vocals. The cut is definitely more of a harder rocker as it continues to evolves from there. I dig the scat singing segment that emerges later in the track as it makes its way through a number of prog changes, twisting this way and that. There is even some Latin music built into this at one point. Phil Keagy gets the chance to show off his acoustic guitar skills late in this piece. There is a cool drop back for a bit of a Latin percussion thing with Neal Morse introducing it. As that Latin element is heard further along this road, the cut has some of the most effective vocal hooks of the whole ride. It drops back in an abrupt shift to a piano based movement that has some rather theatrical vocals. The piece grows outward from there with more melodic prog sounds. It continues to evolve through mellower sounds as it works it way forward.
New Jerusalem
There is a bit more of a straightforward rock motif built into this number. It's still got plenty of melodic prog, too, though. This gets particularly powerful later in the tune.
Audio Disc 2
Question Mark intro

Again things start with a symphonic introduction. More prog rock elements emerges as continues to shift and change.

Temple Of The Living God
This comes in from the previous number, working forward with a mellow and rather symphonic element. It works to a mellower prog rock meets folk and country sound for the vocals. It turns hard rocking and a bit crazed as it works forward after that vocal movement. There are definitely classical music elements at play, too. As it turns more rocking for the next vocal section, it really does feels a lot like something Morse would have done with Spock's Beard. This continues to change as it makes its way down the musical road.
Another World
This is a shorter melodic prog tune that emerges out of the cut that came before. It's a powerhouse number that again feels like Spock's Beard.
The Outsider
In some ways the acoustic guitar on this track makes me think of The Eagles. The cut grows out into more of a melodic prog ballad, though.
Sweet Elation
There is some soaring prog rock built into this number. It comes straight out of the previous number and really rocks with a triumphant prog sound and energy.
In The Fire
In a lot of ways this has a more traditional prog rock sound. It's a powerhouse tune with a great vocal and instrumental arrangement. There are some part of this that feel rather like Kansas, but some other things make me think of Yes a bit. The guitar soloing section leans well toward harder rock. Working forward from there, we get some seriously scorching guitar work. The more melodic prog sounds return later with an almost fusion like bit before they power out to some screaming hot progressive rock.
Solid As The Sun
I dig the horn section on this. There is a real old school prog rock sound here. This is another powerhouse tune that just plain rocks. They lose me a bit on the preaching section here, though. And, when I say, "preaching section," it is literally a spoken sermon. Now, when Randy George gets to show off his bass skills after that, it's purely on fire. The horn section fires out in style beyond that point, too. This jam keeps evolving. The vocal arrangement later is great. This is real a powerful rocker.
The Glory Of The Lord
Killer symphonic prog sounds open this and move it forward. The vocals are chorale in nature.  In fact, this is basically a prog rock arrangement of church chorale music. The second half of the song starts nearly acapella with the instruments just serving more as punctuation and enhancement. It does work back out to the earlier section to continue.
Outside Looking In
A mellower prog sound emerges as the cut opens. Morse delivers a vocal introduction to this. This is a classy melodic prog number that works well. It starts mellower and works out to a bit more rocking stuff. I have to admit that the lyrics on this one give me pause. It's hard to wrap one's head around the mindset that sees the world from that particular perspective. Still, the song is strong.
12
Coming in from the previous piece of music, this is a powerful prog rocker. There is some amazing jamming on this thing. The guitar soloing is really screaming and soaring. The keyboard sounds are similarly on fire. All in all, this really has some exceptional instrumental work. There is a cool break into middle-Eastern music, too.
Entrance
More melodic prog rock is at the heart of this. The tune works through a number of changes. There is a good contrast between mellower and more rocking sounds. It's a strong cut amidst a lot of other strong music. It gets particularly powerful later.
Inside His Presence
This comes in with a very mellow motif. Piano serves as the sole backdrop for the first vocals. It eventually works forward with pretty melodies and a slightly rising arrangement. The vocal performance on this is particularly strong. It's around the three minute mark before this really rises up to rocking territory. Before that the tune lives sort of along the lines of power ballad. The prog jamming that ensues late in this track is purely soaring and powerful. It segues straight into the next tune.
The Temple Of The Living God Reprise
This is a powerhouse reprise of the earlier cut. It really serves as a triumphant and effective conclusion to this CD. There is some audience response and spoken stuff at the end of this.
Audio Disc 3
              
Intro

Ambient music with what sounds like Gregorian chant starts this. Some organ rises up after a time, making it feel a lot like a church service. An organ solo really adds to that vibe, but with a definite classical music edge.

The Door
This more than half hour epic powers in with style and bombast. It is a real powerhouse stomper. It has some really crazed shifts and changes. This is really the kind of thing that's worthy of the title "epic." I mean, it's a major adventure. It has some powerful instrumental passages. There are great multiple voice sections. The whole cut travels through a lot of musical territory along this journey. The balance between harder rocking and mellower movements is great. There's a particular guitar solo driven movement at one point in this that's almost pure bluesy hard rock. The mellow section near the end has some particularly evocative vocals.
The Conflict
Running about 28 minutes, this is another epic piece. It comes in with a seriously hard rocking section. It's a real screamer. This is like Led Zeppelin merging with Alice In Chains in some ways.  It's quite a while before this works out into something that's prog. It keeps shifting and changing as it carries forward. Again, it's quite the trip, working from hard edged fast paced stuff to mellow, slow moving material and between. The horns really add a lot to parts of this. There is a bit of a Latin conga vibe to some of this, too. It really does turn toward jazz for a time. The somewhat blues rock based resolution around the 21 minute mark is particularly effective. The triumphant movement at the end is quite strong, too.
Heaven in My Heart
Piano and voice open this. The cut works on that basis as a powerful balladic mode. The arrangement gets more layers later, but the general concept is just enhanced. It works a bit more toward rocker versus ballad further down the road. Still, it's more of a powered up version of the same basic musical concept. This is powerful stuff however you slice it.
Audio Disc 4
          
The Conclusion

Another epic piece, this is around 18 minutes long here. A voice starts this. Then we get a rather weird, but very cool prog jam. It's screaming hot, fast paced and has some left turns. I love how Randy George gets to show off on the extended introduction. Around the three and a half minute mark it screams out into a more mainstream rocking movement for the vocals. After working through a number of varying sections, there is a powerhouse resolution around the ten minute mark. It continues to evolve and carry forward from there. There is a wall of vocals chorale sort of section further down the road. The closing section is a mellow movement reflecting the themes we heard before.

Waterfall

Awesome mellower prog, this has a great vocal arrangement. In some ways that really steals the show. The thing is, the guitar work and other elements bring even more magic to it. This definitely has a lot of folk music built into it. It works forward with very gradual and beautiful building. There are definitely Celtic elements at play here at times.

At the End of the Day
The prog sounds bring this in with style, and it moves forward at a fast pace. There are some killer shifts and changes. Around the five minute mark, it shifts to something that feels almost Latin. Organ comes over the top of this more stripped back movement. It fires out to screaming hot hard rocking prog from there and works through changes from that point working forward. On the screaming hot section between the six and seven minute marks the horns add a lot. There is a mellower movement with a nice mix of voices further down the road. It holds the cut in various forms for a while. Then a guitar soars across the musical tapestry. Before the 11 minute mark it fires out to some screaming hot prog instrumental work. It covers quite a bit of territory as it continues and Mike Portnoy gets a chance to show off his chops. We're brought back into another vocal section before it screams out with prog abandon for another instrumental movement. The next vocal section features some pretty awesome, rather funky, bass work behind it. The cut resolves out from there in a triumphant prog rock movement that's quite powerful. Another instrumental build out after that serves as a crescendo and a voice comes in over the top of that.
Wind At My Back
The audience provides a beat behind the acoustic guitar and voice on this thing. This is another piece with a bit of a folk prog sound in the opening segment. It works out to more hard rocking stuff from there, though. The closing section is a real powerhouse version of the earlier modes.
Whirlwind Medley
The show is closed by a 16 plus minute medley of Transatlantic music. It powers up gradually. It works outward with some soaring prog and the shifts and changes ensue. After a more or less straight ride, it drops way down around the six minute mark for a mellower movement. This number has a lot of peaks and valleys. Phil Keagy gets the chance to shine with some electric guitar later in the piece. I absolutely love the resolution around the 13 minute mark. This tune continues to evolve. Somehow as it ends, though, it feels just a little unfinished to me. Still, it was one heck of a ride.
 
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