Issue 2003-041: Neal Morse - Testimony - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Release Date : 23 September 2003
PART ONE (41:08) : The Land Of Beginning Again, Overture No 1, California Nights, Colder In The Sun, Sleeping Jesus, Interlude, The Prince Of The Power Of the Air, The Promise, Wasted Life.
PART TWO (31:38) : Overture No 2, Break Of Day, Power In The Air, Somber Days, Long Story, It's All I Can Do
PART THREE (12:06) : Transformation, Ready To Try, Sing It High
PART FOUR (28:19) : Moving In My Heart, I am Willing, In The Middle, The Storm Before The Calm, Oh To Feel Him, God's Theme
PART FIVE (10:33) : Overture No 3, Rejoice, Oh Lord My God, God's Theme 2, The Land of Beginning Again
The Progressive community was somewhat rocked by last year's announcement that Neal Morse and Spock's Beard had parted company, casting doubts on the future of both. Neal's decisions also putting an end to the Transatlantic project and to a certain extent any further ventures in his musical career. Fortunately 2003 has dispelled the greater part of these misgivings, firstly with the release of Feel Euphoria from the Beard's and now Neal Morse has himself has returned to the fold with a solo work Testimony, a personal and autobiographical, double concept album. Perhaps all is not so quiet in the Transatlantic camp too - but for now we will have to satisfy ourselves with the forthcoming Live in Europe DVD/CD releases.
Neal will also be performing Testimony live in the UK, Holland and Germany during November of this year with Mike Portnoy guesting. For further details of the tour check out Neal Morse's website. So things are once again looking rosy in the Prog garden - to find out what the DPRP team made of Neal Morse's latest offering we have compiled this special Round Table Review.
Well, I’ve got to say that hearing about this album a month ago was a surprise – after all, hadn’t Neal Morse left Spock’s Beard in order to turn his back on music and concentrate on all matters Christian? Cynicism aside however, its great to have him back – such is Morse’s all-pervasive dominance of the prog scene in recent years that it seems like an age since he left the scene, when in actual fact it was only a year ago – a mere blink of an eye if you were going by the time it takes many bands to put out an album.
Normally, I wouldn’t start a review by writing about the lyrical content, but here it can’t really be avoided – it will be no surprise to those who’ve followed the reasons for Morse’s departure from SB to discover that the main themes on Testimony are God, redemption, spirituality – the whole Christian ethos, in fact. I know to some that this will be a big turn-off. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Christian rock bands, many of whom seem to be trying to thrust their message down your throat. However, that’s not what happens here. The album basically tells the (autobiographical) story of Morse’s struggle through the wilderness years as a jobbing musician, the low-points he reached, and the salvation he found through God. It’s certainly true that Morse wants to share his message with his audience, but he doesn’t ram it down people’s throats, and therefore, although I don’t necessarily share Morse’s beliefs or experiences, I can empathise with what he’s saying here.
Musically, Morse has made no secret that this is first and foremost a PROG album, and I think its fair to say that any Spock’s Beard fans disappointed with the new direction shown on Feel Euphoria (I don’t include myself in this description, by the way!) will be in seventh heaven (no pun intended!) on hearing Testimony – this is very much the natural successor to Snow. Personnel-wise, fans will be pleased to hear that drums are handled by the mighty Mike Portnoy, so no worries there. Kerry Livgren, the Kansas guitarist, also guests on the album. Morse himself plays all other ‘conventional’ instruments, and handles everything with his customary enthusiasm and skill – although I feel that Dave Meros’ fluid bass playing is missed on occasions. However, there is much more than conventional instrumentation on show here – not only has Morse engaged a horn section (familiar from V and Snow), but he’s also gone the whole hog here and engaged the services of both an orchestra and a band of gospel singers. Its got to be said that this was an inspired decision; no doubt not a cheap one, but they really add an extra dimension to the music presented here.
Roughly speaking, the two discs can be divided into (a) Morse’s darker days, where he begins to realise something is missing from his life but can’t put his finger on it, and (b) finding salvation through God, and celebrating this fact. This is a very rough division however, as the themes overlap consistently, particularly on the first disc. What is perhaps more true is that there is a greater mix of quiet, contemplative moments and more up-tempo tracks on the first disc, whereas the second disc tends to concentrate more on uplifting material.
I’m not going to do a track-by-track analysis, but I think a brief description of the first three tracks gives a good flavour of the sort of material on offer. It’s got to be said that the opening couple of tracks really do lend to comparison with the beginning of Snow. Opener The Land Of Beginning Again is a sort of prologue, a gentle piano-led ballad in the vein of Floyd’s Pigs On The Wing, Morse’s warm tones immediately endearing themselves to the listener. This segues into the now almost obligatory Overture (the first of three), a real tour-de-force that will have Spock’s fans grinning from ear to ear; great keyboard melodies, wonderful swooping strings, the horns section in full effect, not to mention some fine lead guitar, all melding together to create themes which crop up throughout the record - this really whets the appetite for the musical feast ahead. California Nights shows the singer-songwriter side of Morse, a laid-back, bluesy MOR style-track which really does evoke 70’s west coast LA, and tells the tale of Morse’s days of roughing it in seedy bars, playing ‘terrible Eagle’s songs’. The strong lyrics are given extra power in the delivery later on when a gospel choir is introduced, a soulful and very effective addition to the sound which, as I’ve stated earlier, really works well in tandem with Morse’s own vocals throughout the album.
The rest of the first disc is just as strong – a real tour-de-force. Morse mixes things up nicely, with some catchy pop-rockers (Colder In The Sun is magnificent, in the same vein as Day For Night and sure to be a great hit live, whilst Prince Of The Power Of The Air has a breezy, upbeat feel, and features some wonderful accapella vocals and some fine classical Spanish guitar familiar from At The End Of The Day) presented side by side with slower, more melancholy material, such as the wistful, tender Sleeping Jesus, the passionate Wasted Life and more downbeat tones of Sombre Days. Throughout, we have the familiar (and entirely welcome) Spock’s-style musical interludes – Tony Banks-esque keyboard solos, guitar/Hammond duelling, wonderful guitar solo’s – they’re all here in abundance. These disparate elements also gel together extremely well, due primarily to the constant introduction and re-introduction of certain music themes and motifs, a trick used on both of the Transatlantic albums. Some may say this shows Morse stretching a few musical ideas too thinly, but I’d disagree (at least as far as the first disc is concerned), as whilst the same melodies may be used more than once they are always presented with a new twist - such as Power In The Air, which uses the same melody as Colder In The Sun yet has different lyrical content and an added urgency in the (heavier and faster) delivery.
Disc 1 ends with the noticeably subdued It's All I Can Do – its obvious Morse won’t be leaving the story on this downbeat note, so it’s on to Disc 2. I must admit that, much like Snow, I found this second disc less rewarding – especially the last half (Part 5). The first half of the disc works itself into what appears to be a conclusion, with a big, pull-out-all-the-stops ending on Affirmation – and then things just continue, with the main musical themes now being rehashed once too often. Morse also seems to have run out of constructive storyline, with this latter part being a basic celebration of God – fine, but this is by now a little wearying.
I don’t want to be too critical however, as there’s still some fine songs on this second disc – particularly the Tom Petty-esque Ready To Try, which could get Morse some radio play, especially in the US, and the Sing It High / Hoo-Haw Jam sequence, which has strong (and unexpected) echoes of The Byrds' circa Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. In fact, the whole of this second disc is enjoyable listening – it just doesn’t reach the standard of the first CD in my opinion.
Overall, this is as strong a ‘comeback’ album as could have been expected. Morse has created an album which is bound to please the majority of Spock’s Beard fans, whilst also satisfying his own desire to tell his personal story. The addition of an orchestra and gospel section is very positive move in my book, and gives an added dimension to his trademark sound. As I’ve stated, I feel a bit of pruning would have made a stronger set (and for this reason it doesn’t get the very top marks), but as it is this CD is full of wonderful musicianship, superb songs and thought provoking lyrics. Recommended then, and I look forward to seeing how these songs translate in the live environment.
Neal Morse continues his musical career with his first post Spock's Beard album Testimony, an autobiographical account of his 'search for enlightenment'. Considering the almost total control Morse had over the writing and arrangement of Beard material (his dominance and reluctance to change reportedly going some way to explain the split), just how different from Spock's Beard is Testimony? The answer is not all that much, although Morse does seem to have pushed aside any constraints or compromises he might have felt within the band format and added a greater variety of shades to his musical palette. Real strings (arranged and conducted by Chris Carmichael), horns, a choir and some great, if rather unused (or at least too far back in the mix), female backing vocals certainly provide more scope than on previous releases. But the Spock's sound is still prevalent, primarily evidenced in the Gentle Giant inspired vocal gymnastics on such pieces as Colder In The Sun and The Prince Of The Power Of The Air and the liberal smatterings of Hammond organ found throughout the album.
Split into five parts, respectively dealing with his early days as a singer/songwriter, a dark period of unhappiness, a transformation leading to leaving Los Angeles, marriage and spiritual enlightenment, and finally a summation and conclusion, the album is a very honest and open exploration of Morse's life, emotions and beliefs. As well as being lyrically very personal, it is also a very individual musical statement. Morse, as well as producing and arranging the album, plays the majority of the instruments supported only by Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) on drums and Kerry Livgren (Kansas) on additional guitar and keyboards.
The album does contain a few surprises, the most obvious of which is the countrified 'hoedown' of The Hoo-Haw Jam, which develops out of some excellent acoustic guitar playing in the very catchy Sing It High. Emerson, Lake and Palmer-like classical piano sections in Piano Solo and In The Middle tracks, followed by the musical mish-mash that is The Calm Before The Storm (how audacious is it to start a track with a piano solo, run it into a trumpet and sax blow out, bung in a slice of progressive rock and end with a string quartet?) also provide moments that one would not necessarily expect to have heard on a Beard album.
Although I suspect many people may be put off by the album's overtly religious nature, the lyrics are not at all 'preachy' or sermonising, undoubtedly because of the first-person narrative. There are some stunning musical moments on the album although, as is the case with a lot of solo material, the natural editing brought about by working with a band has resulted in a certain degree of over-indulgence, something that Morse could be accused of even when he was in Spock's Beard. However, saying that, Testimony is a remarkable achievement and a testament to one man's musical vision. Personally, I found Testimony more enjoyable than the less than convincing Snow (which I suppose must count for something coming from a die-hard athiest!) and I have no hesitation in recommending this album not only to fans of Spock's Beard but to anyone who enjoys good, well-played and well-arranged progressive rock.
It was quite a shock when Neal Morse announced that he had left Spock's Beard. Seemingly he had been sent on a 'mission from God' to go and do something else. In the meantime the band continued and recorded the recently released Feel Euphoria, which showed the enormous impact of the lack of Morse but sounded refreshingly different at the same time. After all, the whole Spock's Beard and Transatlantic sound had become far too predictable over the years.
And then Morse suddenly announced that he was working on a new prog album, soon after followed by the news that Transatlantic buddy and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy had joined him for this project. As someone said to me: 'God must love prog music. A shame really since there are too few good songwriters like Neal and too many born again Christians ... like Neal'. The enigma was soon uncovered when it turned out that Testimony, Morse's new album was a 2CD concept piece about his (re)discovery of the Christian faith. The idea of this alone was enough to make my atheist skin crawl. I could live with the hidden symbolism on Snow but this was just too much. I had heated discussions with a DPRP team member about this 'cheap abuse of prog music as a means of religious propaganda'. As far as I'm concerned anybody can believe anything he wants as long as they don't hurt anybody and don't try to force their beliefs on others. These things of course have happened far too often.
It probably won't surprise you that I really disliked the album listening to it for the first time with this state of mind. What's more, the album sounded exactly like you would expect a Spock's Beard album to sound, with the only possible exception being the lack of Meros' fat Rickenbacker bass playing. One could even say that this CD could have easily been titled Snow Part 2, since it is basically build up of lots of 4-7 minute songs. 'Mor(s)e of the same', I thought, 'But this time with unnecessary religious content.' The only song that would not have been out of place of Morse's more mainstream and poppy previous albums - which were fine releases I should mention - was Moving in My Heart.
Curious as to what had driven Morse to his 'temporary insanity' of leaving his band and continuing making the same music, I listened to an interview with the man on the Delicious Agony website. And it was only after hearing this that I realised that Testimony wasn't meant as an attempt to convert other people to his beliefs. It wasn't preachy at all. It was just that: a testimony. A rather tedious one I have to add since it takes Morse one CD to describe his miserable life in LA prior to his 'illumination' while the whole second CD describes his 'spiritual resurrection'. As such Neal has broken another record: he's written the most boring concept album of all times.
Thus began the third phase of getting familiar with Testimony. Accepting it for what it was and trying to enjoy the music without paying too much attention to the lyrical content and occassionally skipping tracks that were just too 'gospel' for my taste (for instance Oh, To Feel Him). As always with Morse projects, when I'm passed my initial loathing and complaining I tend to find the hidden beauty in his work. For instance, the album has some splendid songs which stand up very well on their own outside the concept or songs that just sound amazing if you disregard their lyrical content. Also, the instrumentals and overtures (no less than 7 pieces) are of exceptional quality and feature amazing orchestration with string and brass. Mr. Parsons would be jealous. Also, there's a fair share of violin on the album and some great experiments with Latin (The Storm Before the Calm) and a mixture of Gospel meets Country/Blue Grass (Sing it High). Of course the record has all of the trademark Morse Code features, including The Doorway-like acoustic guitar fiddling frenzies, roaring riffs, marvelous melodies, quality quirky bits, teasing time signatures, celestial close harmonies and tremendous tension building. The drums on Testimony, courtesy of Mike Portnoy, are brilliant with the horrible cheesy drum computer and metronome click-track on It's All I Can Do being the only exception.
There are lots of recurring themes, as you would expect, and God's Theme basically has the same role on Testimony as I'm Dying on Snow since it has been incorporated in most of the songs, thereby being the red thread on the album.
As on many other Morse works this repetition sometimes also turns into a weakness since many songs have a counterpart elsewhere on the album in a slightly different arrangement (e.g. God's Theme 1 + 2, Colder in the Sun + Power in the Air, Break of Day + Long Story, The Promise + The Storm Before the Still, etc). Another let-down is the fact that the song that really sounds like the concept climax, I Am Willing (imagine The Source on Kindness of Strangers), is placed somewhere halfway CD 2. This makes everything that follows sound like an anti-climax, especially the full fifth part of Testimony which adds very little to that which has already happened previously.
All in all, I really dislike the lyrical content of self pitty and religious humbug which fills at least half of the album, there's (as always) a bit too much repetition, there's some really tedious songs (It's All I Can Do, Oh to Feel Him) and the whole thing would have been better if it would have been reduced to a single disc. Come to think of it, if the first disc of Snow and the best stuff on this album would have been combined on a double CD, now that would have made a killer double album! Still, even considering all of these negative aspects there's still so much to enjoy on Testimony that I cannot refrain from recommending the album to any sincere prog rock fan. As before, like a person suffering from fatty degeneration drawn to golden arches, I once again succumb to the Morse Code, no matter how hard I tried to fight it. I am not worthy. Thank God I'm an atheist.
It was almost a certainty that no year in Prog Rock would pass without a new album by Neal Morse … Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard, Solo … the past couple of years were never dull in that way. 2002 was a bit however, as Morse decided to leave Spock’s Beard and this also meant (or so it seemed) the end of superband Transatlantic as well.
On the very pinnacle of his career Morse made his brave and hard decision and it is (almost) ironic. Why I will tell you later. A big shock was felt by both musicians that were close to him and the big following of fans. Where would this lead to?
It was only about a month ago that I learned Neal Morse was recording and finishing a new solo album, a double even! The past year must have been rich in inspiration to come up with a double CD right after Snow.
But how would it turn out? We need not have worried, I can tell you. A big bone to chew, also a given certainty, and it didn’t take long to be relieved. The new path Morse is walking on is still in the middle of our neighbourhood proggers! A perfect mix of Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and solo work is the result and I’m really happy about that, for us the fans but also for the man himself. He took a big risk with leaving Spock’s Beard, the band most close to his heart. Of course he is an experienced enough kind of guy who knows what we like but then walks in the total concept of the album. It would have been easy for Morse to do just another album but this time it was very much a personal inspiration that urged him to make this album and it shows very clearly.
It is rare that an album is this personal. The Great Nothing from the Spock’s Beard album V and some songs from Snow as well, both reflected Neal Morse’s experiences in the crazy world of rock ‘n roll but the whole and total story is Testimony. OK, God and Jesus appear in the lyrics but hey, it ís a true story! We only get to listen to this; a musician pours his heart out and you tell me who does that these days? This is no album to convince us to consider our beliefs and in all honesty, we listen to strange and even abstract lyrics, so there is absolutely no negative side here. Irony has it that Neal had to go through hard times as young musician, being promised big record deals and success and when he actually is at that point, achieved by himself with a little help of his friends, God intervenes and tells him to turn away from that. So I can imagine the struggle he went through making his decision.
Impossible to point out highlights at this point, although I tend to play the first disc more than the second one but that’s for this moment. The first two parts (of five) are on that one, clocking in on 73 minutes almost. The second CD is almost 51 minutes which makes a total time of 124 minutes...hello? Still there...?
So in conclusion; Neal Morse still got it, maybe more then ever!!
Oh yeah; Mike Portnoy plays drums on this album (50% Transatlantic) and Kansas’ own born again Christian Kerry Livgren also did some work, both a nice bonus but not important at all.