Neal Morse is well established as a key figure in American progressive rock, a field that—certainly as compared to its British and European counterparts—is sparsely populated. But even if there were exponentially more prog artists operating in the U.S., it’s assured that Morse would still be at the top of the heap.
Morse first came to prominence as a member of Spock’s Beard; he wrote a good deal of the music and lyrics for that group before leaving for a solo career … or, I should say, careers. In addition to making music under his own name (with a strongly faith-based perspective that sets him apart from most everyone else in rock), with international all-star prog group Transatlantic, guesting on others’ albums, and with the Neal Morse Band.
Neal Morse has been staggeringly prolific, with a volume of output that rivals that of Steven Wilson. Morse’s religiously-oriented worldview is a central characteristic of his music; try as one might, there’s really no escaping it. On his solo albums like Testimony (2003), Sola Scriptura (2007) and 2012’s Momentum, Morse chronicles his faith journey both directly and in the form of parable-like stories; Sola Scriptura, for example, is based upon the life of Martin Luther.
Listeners not predisposed to enjoying Christian-themed music may find Morse’s lyrical subject matter not to their liking; while there are long—and quite often impressive—instrumental passages on most all of Morse’s albums, when he sings, it’s pretty much always about his faith. To the converted, doubtless Morse’s lyrical themes are inspiring; even removed from that perspective, his lyrics are objectively good, steering as clear of cliché as one can do when working within the comparatively narrow format of faith-based music.
But before he was a Christian (or art least a born again one), Neal Morse was a progressive rock musician. And he has lost none of the fire and passion for musical adventurism that characterizes the best of that genre. Combining faith-based subjects and ambitious music is in itself a daunting goal, and—again, looking at it from the outside—one at which he has succeeded mightily.
But there are still those lyrics. Lots of story lines about journeys, trials, tribulations and (nearly always) an uplifting ending are what listeners will find. As one of several vehicles for his lyrical and musical ideas, Morse launched the Neal Morse Band in 2015. The group has to date released three epic-length albums: 2015’s The Grand Experiment, The Similitude of a Dream in 2016, and his newest, The Great Adventure. The standard Morse established years ago is adhered to on all of these albums; though he’s a superb musician himself, in this group Morse surrounds himself with fellow top-flight players including Mike Portnoy (drums), Eric Gillette (7-string guitar), bassist Randy George and keyboardist Bill Hubauer. It’s worth noting that all five sing, and quite well.
As I discovered in February 2019, the experience of seeing and hearing the Neal Morse Band live onstage is, surprisingly, not at all like listening to a CD. To be sure, the music’s quite similar: the current tour presents The Great Adventure start to finish, plus an encore of sorts drawing from Morse’s solo work. And the players are the same. But there’s an energy that even Morse’s finely-crafted albums can only hint at. And for that reason, the live experience is the one to have. This is especially true, I should think, for music fans of the non-religious (or other-religious) variety. While Morse puts across all of the same ideas, concepts and messages onstage that he does on record, in a concert setting it’s far easier to allow oneself to get wrapped up in the stunning musical interplay, the sublime vocal harmonies and the general upbeat, passionate energy of the show.
Think of it this way perhaps: if you’re seeing, say, an Italian progressive rock band that features vocals in the group’s native tongue, then you revel in the sound of the vocals rather than the content of the lyrics. For the most part, that’s what I did at the show I witnessed. It’s worth emphasizing that there’s very little in Morse’s lyrics with which most could (or would) take serious issue; it’s positive, life-affirming stuff. And in that way it’s not all that different from, say, Jon Anderson’s lyrics for Yes about astral traveling and universal brotherhood. In Morse’s case, though, you just know it’s all about Jesus and so forth.
And that’s okay, and should be okay, even for listeners who aren’t of faith. The musicians are so outrageously good that in the end, little else matters. Morse writes prog with the values of a pop songwriter, and that’s meant in the best possible way. He knows his way around a hook and a melody, and he’s skilled at the long-form approach, weaving musical themes in and out of extended pieces. In short, the man just knows how to write a compelling rock opera; it’s just that he chooses topics like Pilgrim’s’ Progress as his inspiration. Hey, it beats yet endless recycling of J.R.R. Tolkien.
And the band is jaw-droppingly good. Eric Gillette is the rarest of guitarists: he can shred with the best of them, but he’s supremely melodic, and doesn’t engage in hey-look-at-me pyrotechnics. He sings lead and harmony all the while, which itself is a triumph. Portnoy’s much the same; his command of his big kit is complete, but he never seems like a show-off. Hubauer’s keyboards often seem to melt into the overall sound of the group, but his vocals are a major asset to the group. Randy George has that rock-solid yet thunderous bottom end thing down cold.
And in front of it all is Neal Morse himself, leaping about the stage like a young Ian Anderson, disappearing briefly every once in a while, only to return in a new costume or mask. Nothing too flashy—this isn’t 1972 Peter Gabriel—but his costume changes do get across the points that (a) there’s a story here and (b) Morse is having a wonderful time.
And ultimately, that’s the vibe that comes across strongest. The Neal Morse band isn’t a bunch of dour-faced musos (with the possible exception of bassist George, who gives off a slight hey-let’s just-get-on-with-it air). They’re musicians who are having the time of their lives playing this challenging and breathtaking music. And unless one is irrationally hostile to Morse’s lyrical point of view, that enjoyment is wholly infectious. At the end of the day, I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in the future playing Neal Morse’s albums, but I do know that I will never miss an opportunity to witness him and his band live.