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Neal Morse - The Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment CD (album) cover

THE NEAL MORSE BAND: THE GRAND EXPERIMENT

Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

3.77 | 265 ratings

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Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars `The Grand Experiment' of the title is not only Neal Morse's personal reference to his Christian lifestyle in the track of the same name, but also how this disc, technically his twentieth studio release (yes, really!) came to be composed. The musicians involved entered the studio with no prior written material and recorded their results in a short time, meaning that this experimental approach was a true group collaboration. Billed here as `The Neal Morse Band', the core line-up of keyboardist Morse's solo albums including bass virtuoso Randy George and master drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater's loss turned out to be a gift for general prog fans!) were joined by Eric Gillette on extra guitar and vocals and Bill Hubauer on additional keyboards, clarinet and flute this time around, and it's wonderful to discover the group came up with a very punchy and concise work in the end. While some of the five pieces here still, of course, follow some of the usual Morse format, there's a freshness and a variety of sounds and styles not often found on his prog albums, no doubt due to the new song-writing approach of the others and their additional influences.

The ten minute `The Call' is a classic Neal Morse opener, all spiralling keyboards, frantic drumming, pulsing bass and wailing guitars to be found in the lengthy instrumental runs, yet never forgetting to incorporate catchy melodies and a winning chorus. Relentlessly upbeat and up-tempo, the aggressive guitar grunt and delirious synth noodling just before the six minute mark is especially tasty, the joyful and slick AOR vocals are easy to enjoy and there's just a dash of country to the harmonies here and there as well! The title track `The Grand Experiment' is a heavy guitar driven plodding rocker with a catchy chorus, and as often with Morse, some of the multi- layered sighing honey-dipped harmonies recall retro-rocker Matthew Sweet, and `Waterfall' is a warm and dreamy acoustic ballad with a reflective, pleading spiritual lyric and sublime group harmonies.

The tongue-in-cheek `Agenda' playfully alternates between heavy slab-like guitar verses and falsetto psychedelic pop choruses, the chest-beating lyric delivered with great self-pride and a wink in the eye! This is Morse cheerfully sticking it to his critics and giving them the middle finger...well, as politely as a Christian can! But it wouldn't be a Neal Morse album without at least one lengthy epic (Hey, it's prog - size matters!), and `Alive Again' runs just short of twenty-seven minutes. Reaching victorious electric guitar runs deliver a collection of grand symphonic themes and big dramatic builds, with a strong mix of muscular heavy workouts and softer thoughtful breaks, some fleeting classical pomp, even an addictive funky horn break, and the powerful recurring `I can see the light, burning in my soul' chorus truly soars.

Is this one of his Morse's best prog releases? `Sola Scriptura' and `One' definitely tower over it, but `The Grand Experiment' is certainly one of his warmest, most relaxed and fun. The quick turnaround of writing and recording means some of the lyrics occasionally come up short by falling back on awkward rhyming words (and the 'She's like the secret sauce' line in the title track is a particularly awful clunker!), but the material Morse and company came up with is exciting and yet more evidence of his keen melodic skill and ability to surround himself with other talented musicians to deliver it. It's also refreshing to see a 52 minute vinyl length release from him (excluding the wealth of extra outtakes, demos and covers across a range of deluxe and expanded editions), making the album more focused and compact with none of the bloat that sometimes pads out his other solo and Transatlantic works, and the shorter running time will also mean the disc gets plenty of replays and becomes more familiar quicker too. This particular line-up has proven especially fruitful and rewarding, so let's hope The Neal Morse Band gets another outing in the future!

Four stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |

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