Album Reviews

Issue 2015-011

The Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment - Round Table Review

The Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Inside Out/Radiant Records
Catalogue #: B00QY2LQRE
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 52:52
Info: The Neal Morse Band
Samples: The Neal Morse Band website
Track List:
The Call (10:16), The Grand Experiment (5:31), Waterfall (6:33), Agenda (3:51), Alive Again (26:45)
Nathan Waitman's Review
Neal Morse should be a familiar name to all fans of modern progressive rock music. He emerged into scene as the charismatic leader of Spock's Beard. From that starting point, he has gone on to be involved in several high-profile prog bands like Transatlantic and Flying Colors, as well as having a highly successful solo career. He has built up quite an impressive catalog of releases, all of which showcase his trademark sound in the progressive rock genre. What is impressive to me, is that even despite having created a large amount of music, Neal Morse still manages to sound fresh and exciting and to come up with new ideas.

His latest idea comes in the form of The Grand Experiment, where Neal decided to come into the studio with hardly anything prepared and to collaborate with his touring band in order to collectively create this new record. The big question is, would this experiment work?

Appropriately, this album is credited not just solely to Neal Morse, but to the Neal Morse Band. Joining him are his usual comrades, Mike Portnoy on drums and Randy George on bass. In addition to them, from his recent tours, he has Bill Hubauer on keyboards and Eric Gillette on guitar. The addition of these members to the writing process has added a whole new element to the music. It sets this album apart from those that have come before, making it an exciting listen for those who have followed Neal's career like I have. Another unique element to this album is the use of different singers. Usually in Neal's solo albums, he is the sole lead singer of all the music. On this record, however, Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer get a chance to shine, with both creating beautiful harmonies as well as taking the lead for certain vocal moments. Their voices are wonderful and blend extremely well with Neal's, adding another incredible element to this already incredible band.

The opening of The Call showcases this combination of vocals beautifully, as it starts with a purely a cappella section before the band kicks in for a full-on prog workout. Within its ten-minute length, this song showcases all that I love about progressive rock music. I love the instrumental section in the middle, that begins with a striking bass line before the band kicks in. What follows is a wonderful jazzy section, before the vocals from the opening a cappella section return, with triumphant music behind them. This leads to the epic conclusion that is certainly soul-stirring and magnificently beautiful in its execution.

The title track is a shorter prog number that seems to hearken back to the days of Spock's Beard. It is playful, fun, and hard-rocking and manages to sound in parts like classic rock bands Styx and Kansas.

Next up is the disc's ballad, Waterfall, which I feel is one of Neal's best. The beautiful vocal harmonies are what lifts this song up to transcendent levels. It sounds like the best of Crosby, Stills and Nash amongst a backdrop of beautiful Genesis-style 12 string guitars. This is one of the prettiest sounding tracks that I've ever heard from this set of musicians. It is just stunning. This leads to the oddball track of the album, Agenda.

This is a short, catchy, hard rock track unlike any other under the Neal Morse banner. Due to its uniqueness, I have found this track to be quite charming, and a welcome inclusion on this album. The final track of the album is the epic, near 30 minute, Alive Again.

It wouldn't feel like a proper Neal Morse album without an epic, and I wouldn't want it any other way. In my opinion, Neal has perfected the epic, beyond any other musician.

First we are introduced to the main theme, a triumphant melody repeated throughout the song to wonderful effect. After some exciting playing by all the musicians, the main chorus of the song is introduced. A wonderful, life-affirming statement, it brought me immediate goose bumps upon first hearing it. After a triumphant guitar solo, we are led into a section full of big brass and wah-wah guitar. It is bouncy and fun, in a way that only Neal can do. After that comes my favorite instrumental section of the album with a full-on classical interlude, before a head-banging riff is introduced where guitar and keyboard solos are fully highlighted. It has an incredible groove and funkiness that is irresistible. We are then treated to a slowed -down section sung by Bill Hubauer, whose voice sounds excellent. As I would expect, the track comes to its epic conclusion with a repeat of the triumphant melody and chorus from the beginning, now even bigger and more magnificent in its impact. I can't help but be incredibly moved by the passion and intensity displayed by all musicians in this soul-stirring conclusion, to what is an incredible album.

To answer my earlier question, yes, I could not call this experiment anything but a massive success. I think it is abundantly clear through my review that I am a huge fan of Neal Morse and his music, so I come in with a huge amount of bias. But, to my ears, this music has a freshness that Neal's music hasn't had to this degree in some time. This, I believe, is because of the different manner in which the music was created. Bringing in different creative minds has added a new element to music that was already fantastic to begin with. This is an incredible achievement and I would be doing this music a disservice if I didn't take the opportunity to highly recommend it to everybody. This is progressive music at its best, and on the same level as was played by the progressive giants of old. I would hope that everybody would check this album out and celebrate in the success of the grand experiment!
Marcel Hartenberg's Review
With a lot of Neal Morse albums sounding like they all spring from the same mold, it was interesting to hear what would come out of this Grand Experiment. Would it sound samey-samey or would it be quite the different platter?

An a cappella intro that reminds me of Venice sets the mood, in the opener Following the Call. Just as the a capella part finishes, there is a typical Morse extravaganza prog part. Mike Portnoy bangs away like only he can on the drums, with the keys and guitars speeding in a musical battle and the bass pumping all along. Then it all changes to one of those Morse signature guitar lines. The maestro is at work. Still, there is an energy to the song that these ears haven't heard in a Morse tune, in a long time. Obviously, there are the typical Morse trademarks, yet in the second part of the song, the duels between guitar and keyboards are of a fervour that matches Rainbow more than it would Spock's Beard. The song therefore has extra vitality. The lavish chorus at the end of the track still reminds me of the days of his former band.

The title track opens with a fierce riff and a gritty vocal by Neal, before it goes into Beatles mode. Whenever Neal combines both melodic and heavy parts in a song, the contrasts work pretty much in his advantage. Just listen to around the 2:50 mark of this song. This one also features a great Eric Gillette guitar solo.

Waterfall may be the most gorgeous acoustic track Neal has ever written. Sure, because of its build, it does remind of June by Spock's Beard. Yet the guitar playing is far more intricate and delicate, and the choruses are far more subtle. That makes this song an outstanding ballad in Neal's oeuvre. The final part of the song has a sweet touch, in it's evoking of the spirit of Genesis'Ripples. The saxophone adds even more to the atmosphere of the song.

Agenda might have started off as the band jamming to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir and is really the odd one out here. One moment it sets out to be heavy, then on second thought you think Neal may again have been visited by John Lennon's ghost. You either totally love this song or you hate it. I crank the volume up every time this tune comes on.

Alive Again is the album's pièce de résistance. In over 26 minutes the band treats us to a mix of hard rocking riffs, jazz, medieval music and strings and a horn section. All this is under the supervision of the King of Melody, Neal Morse himself. Eric Gillette shreds with full vigour and vim and melody at the same time, as if he is auditioning for the lead guitar part with Savatage. Around the nine-minute mark the song quietens down, while percussion and keys underline that the song has all but stopped. Then, just after the 10-minute mark we get a crazy, jazzy interlude with a horn session. Variation is the song's middle name. The choruses in this part remind of Styx.

The approach resembles the quirkiness of the different parts of yet another Spock's Beard tune, Thoughts. Neal gets most of the vocal duties, yet, around the 17:00 mark Bill Hubauer gets the lead vocal. He does so, to great effect. His voice works in fine contrast with Neal's. Still, his singing only commences after the medieval section of the song, which by that time, he has led us through in virtuoso style Sadly this section gets brutally interrupted by Eric Gillette's relentless shredding. Here, particularly, he sounds like Michael Romeo of Symphony X fame. This closing song might as well have been chosen to be the title track, as the album breathes vitality from the a-cappella intro to the fading out of the closing song. True, the album holds diverse Morse trademarks. Still, the songs seem to have sharper contrast between heavy and melodic parts, which was never so apparent before. You can hear that the instrumental parts spring from different sources. and are not all Morse-penned. That makes this album truly a band effort, as Alive Again might show the most.

Both Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer get to shine in their respective roles, and the power-house rhythm section of Randy George and Mike Portnoy adds subtlety to the programme, like they do throughout the album. Neal, Eric, Bill, Randy and Mike may rightfully be proud of the proceedings and of the outcome of the experiment.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
This is the latest offering from the ever-prolific Neal Morse and friends. This time those friends are Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Eric Gillette and Bill Hauber, who entered the studio late last year to completely and spontaneously create and record new music together. This album is the fruit of those labours.

On paper this is a bold and possibly ridiculous idea, as Neal is well known for his painstaking pre-work on any project to which he lends his name. However sometimes you have to fly by the seat of your pants, and that's what they've done here. That said, these are all skilled and consummate musicians who have played together many times, so in that respect, they know each other's musical DNA and can adapt accordingly.

But the proof is in the output. Quite simply this is a grand album, book-ended by two longer tracks, with three shorter pieces in between.

The first track, Following the Call, commences with an a cappella vocal section (always a favourite trick of Neal's) before a plethora of keyboards and organ, sounding very reminiscent of Left Overture -era Kansas. This is followed by soaring guitar work, before Neal's distinctive tones begin the vocals.

As always with Mr Morse, the epic songs are always interesting and this one is especially so, beginning heartily, but with a quieter passage at the five minute mark, before a funky bass line from Randy George leads headlong into faster section under the guidance of Mike Portnoy. Neal's keyboard solo and a guitar break from Eric take matters up a notch, before leading back to the main riff again. We close gloriously on a wave of keyboards.

The Grand Experiment, which sounds like it should be an epic, is actually a shorter track but this one has definite Styx overtones, primarily from the Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight era, which let me say is no bad thing at all. In addition, it has a great chorus that will just remain "there". This is one of my favourite tracks on the album.

Next up is the more acoustically flavoured Waterfall. It opens with gentle acoustic guitar and features harmony vocals throughout, having a very delicate feel and showing a different side of Neal Morse and co. It is another winning song.

Agenda is one hell of a rocker featuring a brutal back riff and a big belter of a chorus. It also has a solid riff and it rocks hard. This also has a one of those choruses that will stay in your mind forever.

Then we come to the piece de resistance, the epic number that is Alive Again, all 26 plus minutes of it. Neal is a master of taking these multi-part pieces and crafting and creating a lengthy, yet coherent musical statement. Alive Again is no exception. Yes, it has a spiritual slant but it isn't overtly in your face. It is however a slice of highly charged, emotive and imaginative progressive rock.

It also has some splendid musical passages, several of which are quite simply stunning. This song never loses its way or your interest throughout, something that is rendered all the more spectacular when you consider it did not exist prior to these sessions and that the band worked it from the ground-up in the few weeks that they had for this project.

This song has grown in stature, the more I have listened to the album, as has the whole disc. As such I recommend that you give this time to unveil its sonic delights to you.

I would urge that somehow you get to hear this grand album, which is yet another winner from the pen and imagination of Neal Morse and friends. The sleeve is a stunner too.
Martin Burns' Review
I have to start with a confession. This is the first Neal Morse album that I have heard in its entirety. I know, I know, where have I been? I have heard odd tracks on compilations and on internet radio shows. I do have some Morse-era Spock's Beard albums, with Beware of Darkness a favourite of mine. So I have a set of expectations that are probably 20 years out of date, but here goes.

I really liked this from beginning to end. The band, and it feels like a band album not a Neal Morse plus guests album, are Neal Morse (vocals, guitar and keyboards), Mike Portnoy (drums), Randy George (bass), Eric Gillette (guitar and vocals) and Bill Hubauer (keyboards and vocals). Everyone involved is at the top of their game, the energy is phenomenal and so is the production.

I was captivated by the a cappella opening of Following The Call, especially the way it kicks into the stratosphere as the full band comes in. It goes to heavier places than I expected, whilst the vocal harmonies are superlative. The song is brimming full of bright melody, as it races through its yen minutes of twists and turns.

The Grand Experiment starts like a slab of blues-influenced classic rock, before moving into a proper prog-rock pop song of smiling catchiness. The obvious fun the band is having, pours out of the speakers. An infectious guitar solo is broken up by a vocal section that bounces between the channels - a top headphone moment.

Waterfall has the most gorgeous vocal harmonies this side of Moon Safari's Blomljud. Exquisite acoustic guitar playing, leads the voices through a song that has melancholy in its plaintive melody. It evokes the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of the 1970s. It is just beautiful, beautiful, and again, beautiful.

Agenda is another catchy prog-rock pop song, which interrupts its stomping riffs and scorching guitar work, with a high-register vocal interplay section. The melodic invention of the vocal interplay reminds me of Aimee Mann. Though short and a little repetitive, it is good fun. It makes me play air guitar and air drums whether I want to or not. It is eminently hum-able, though possibly a little disposable.

The closer to the album is the multi-part epic Alive Again. This has everything you would want from a prog-epic: time signature changes, drumming of the highest order, multiple lead vocalists, synth and guitar solos, jazzy passages, a harpsichord solo, a horn section and endlessly inventive melodies. You might argue that this is a bit of a kitchen-sink-approach-to-prog, but when your prog is made by Rolls Royce, who cares! This is fantastic stuff.

So some expectations are met with the vocal interplay and the warm melodies, whilst other things surprised me, like the heaviness of the drums and guitars, as the band rocks out. This is the sound of a band doing just what they want to and not giving a monkey's about what anyone thinks. It might be said, that they are appealing only to a core audience but that core audience has just grown by one. I now have another back catalogue to investigate. Now, where did I put that bank manager's phone number?
Peter Funke's Review
Hypothesis: Neal Morse is one of the greatest prog-rock musicians of our times.

System of reasoning: Experiment. Grand Experiment. An experiment is an orderly procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, refuting, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis (wiki).

Breadboard construction: studio, five guys (Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer, and Eric Gillette) and time. No prepared material at all.

Impetus: come in and play. (Don't mix that up with that famous piece of tactical advice from soccer trainer Franz Beckenbauer: "Go out and play")

Result: evidenced by five tracks.

"I wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions. It was quite a risk!" Neal Morse states.

Artists of any kind like painters, writers, comedians, scientists and musicians normally get their ideas accidentally. They collect them, work on them from time to time, and than finally start to produce the definite output. This procedure enables high quality results, but of course it can take ages. Did I hear somebody mentioning Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel in this context?

The antipole is "live production". But in our prog-hemisphere of music, we don't have that apart from some attempts at live improvisations. So this is the next best thing, and first of all it provides us quite quickly with new music, as they started playing on September 14. So six months from the first idea until 'street day' is cool. But is this quick and dirty?

Not at all. Over 52 minutes of great music is waiting to please you and I am quite sure it will. From the superb first chorus opening, until the climax ending of the magnum opus Alive Again (sorry: I still dislike fade outs), this record will satisfy your desire for fresh and entertaining new music of a very high level.

I believe the method of entering the studio without fixed ideas is the main reason why we get Neal Morse and friends at their best. There were no rules or orders to make something that the world hasn't heard before, and so we are delighted with all the fine ingredients of Morse Music: top melodies, fine harmonies, the breath-taking sounds of keys and chorus singing, and all of this accompanied by the best drumming and bass / guitar playing.

Listen to Following the Call, the opening track, the first 2+2 minutes. The grand a cappella chorus in the opening section of 30 seconds, could lead into anything. A heavy, up-tempo bass'n'drum sound, with a really gorgeous organ and an arising guitar follows and shows direction. This opening provides the main theme and leads directly into the first verse at around two minutes.

Spock's Beard and early Yes are looking around the corner, of course, but after a short, slow part, this track surprises by speeding up, slowing down a bit again, just to start the long, harmonic ending in a coda style. This is a long track but very entertaining and the ten minutes are quite short.

But there is no time to take breath, because without any hesitation, the guitar, organ and the rhythm section are rocking into the title track. This is some kind of a relaxed, but very rocky tune with a catchy hook line. The second half of this track shows some heavy guitar work, suddenly interrupted by chorus stereo singing. The whole track just makes you smile, as you can see the guys having fun.

You should anyway give this record a deep listening, so I just will give you a few hints about the following tracks.

Waterfall is one of those typical prog ballads, in the best "Ripples" vein. Agenda is the shortest track and features fine all-band rocking, in a slower, heavier style, but with a very fine refrain.

The highlight of this album is the 27-minute masterpiece Alive Again. The opening reminds you of Rush's Xanadu, and the intro-section lasts for more than three minutes. Then the tracks speeds up and develops the wonderful main theme of this epic, directly out of a short sequence similar to The Flight of the Bumblebee. The next 20 minutes showcase intensive work on the main theme, interesting breaks, varying tempos and a lot of fine keyboard playing and vocals. But I don't like fade outs!

Neal Morse is turning 55 this year and probably has made himself a present with this "Grand Experiment". I believe that only experienced and well-trained musicians are able to take advantage of that recording situation. Here we have best actors and best results. In combination with the music, we have a high level production which creates a warm and clear sound. This is truly a great piece of music. Enjoy.
Nathan Waitman: 9.5 out of 10
Marcel Hartenberg: 8.5 out of 10
John Wenlock-Smith: 8 out of 10
Martin Burns: 9.5 out of 10
Peter Funke: 9 out of 10
Album Reviews