Hearing the voice of Neal Morse again

Neal Morse (middle) with recording partners Randy George (left) and Mike Portnoy (right).

By Will Romano

The Good Book teaches us that out of the whirlwind, God speaks. For Neal Morse, former frontman for the celebrated modern prog rock band Spock’s Beard, this proverb is not mere Biblical allegory: it’s ancient wisdom that’s shaped his life.

Arguably, Morse’s professional career has been built upon a series of tumultuous experiences from which his faith has delivered him. Morse has survived alcoholism, the doldrums of the music business and the rock and roll party lifestyle, in large part, through his belief in a higher power.

There was a time, however, when some fans, in confusion and anger, questioned the wisdom of Morse’s belief in God’s plan. After all, in the early 2000s, The Man Upstairs had plucked their favorite keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist/songwriter from two of the leading prog bands on the scene today (Spock’s Beard and supergroup Transatlantic) when their popularity was growing exponentially.

Neal Morse also trusts in the spritiual power of his live shows.

Exiting Spock’s and Transatlantic was not an easy decision for Morse, who prayed for months on the matter. Morse had no idea if fans – and his record label – would even remain loyal and supportive in his new musical endeavors. Ultimately fans would flock to hear Morse’s musical sermons, but it was a painful episode in the songwriter’s life, and one he told in great detail with his popular 2003 double album “Testimony “— the songwriter’s first solo record and major spiritual declaration since leaving Spock’s.

“Testimony” was such a popular effort as well as a glorious celebration of spiritual awakening and a mission from God that it’s little wonder that Morse is, at press time, finishing its follow-up, titled “Testimony II.” “There was a lot that was left out of the first Testimony record,” admits Morse from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “For example, my daughter [Jayda] was born with a large hole in her heart. She had a miraculous healing from the Lord. I didn’t say anything about that in the first Testimony album. I just didn’t think the time was right — until now.”

“Testimony II” was a work in progress when Morse spoke with Goldmine (former Dream Theater drummer/leader Mike Portnoy had just finished recording drum tracks and Randy George, of Ajalon, was laying down the bass as this interview was being conducted). However, Morse did divulge some tentative song titles, which include: “The Truth Will Set You Free,” “Chance of a Lifetime,” “Mercy Street” and the closing section, “The Crossing,” among others.

Each song explores a different aspect of how God dealt with Morse during his gradual spiritual transformation. “One of the things that happened to me in 1998 was, I was playing keyboard in the Eric Burdon Band,” says Morse. “It was the first consistent money I made, but I was on the road a lot. Well, for me, it was a lot. This all happened when my kids were little. After about a year and a half, I thought I needed a change. Finally, I got on my knees at the Days Inn in Boston and prayed. You know, ‘Jesus, if you’re real …’ putting him to the test … ‘if you’re real, would you get me off the road?’”

\It seemed impossible at the time: Morse and his wife, Cherie, had just bought their first house and had mortgage payments to make. “We had really just stepped out financially,” says Morse. “But they say that if you step out in faith, you can do miracles. Maybe a week later I received a fax out of the blue from Metal Blade Records making an offer on the Spock’s Beard catalog. I took that as a sign that I could quit the Eric Burdon Band. I talk about things like that on the record — different ways the Lord has helped me and drew me closer to himself.”

Though snippets of song ideas had been swirling around Morse’s head for months, the writing process for “Testimony II” was completed at a cyclonic pace, partly to meet his intended release date of May 15, 2011. “I felt the hand of God in it,” says Morse. “When I started to really look at the ideas and put them together … [it was] about November, 5 [2010]. I had the whole thing written … pretty much by December 1. Then I had to start demo-ing it so that Mike [Portnoy] and Randy [George] could have something to listen to, which they didn’t get until around December 12 or 13 … Then I knew I’d better get the foundation laid. I e-mailed Mike and he said, ‘I can come next week and record …’ It became this kind of crazy thing.”

Though “Testimony” is now considered one of Morse’s best solo records, at the time, it was a risky commercial venture. Morse had just left Spock’s Beard, the celebrated modern prog band he formed with his brother Alan and versatile drummer/vocalist (and current Spock’s Beard frontman) Nick D’Virgilio in the mid 1990s, after the release of the successful “Snow,” a conceptual double album that’s part Jesus Christ Superstar, part Joseph Campbell-styled hero monomyth.

“The real reason I left was because I felt … God was calling me out of it,” Morse said in 2008. “It was kind of like God spoke to me in very few words, like, ‘It’s time’ and ‘You know.’ I prayed about it for nine months … I feel like He let me be with the band and let us have our dream together for a while, and then it was time for me to move on.”

You can hear Morse working through his mental anguish on the 2005 CD, “God Won’t Give Up,” which was originally written and demo-ed during the “Snow” era. “While I was grieving and going through this decision process, I remembered when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane … and [The Bible] says that he sweat drops of blood,” Morse said. “I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but I think of that time as being my Gethsemane.”

Some fans wondered if Morse would leave the prog genre altogether. Since “Testimony,” Morse has released 2004’s “One” (which takes a cue from the Biblical parable of the prodigal son), 2005’s “?” (a concept record based on the Biblical Tabernacle, the mobile dwelling place of God worshipped by the wandering Jews after their exodus from Egypt), “Testimony Live” DVD (2004), “Sola Scriptura” (on the life of Martin Luther and his challenge to Christian dogma), “Question: Live” (both from 2007), 2008’s “Lifeline” (created in the mold of Spock’s Beard’s 2000 record, “V”) and the 2-DVD concert/documentary “Sola Scriptura And Beyond,” which walk the line between secular and spiritual progressive rock.

Yes, Morse’s lyrics do cross into evangelizing sometimes, and his Inner Circle Internet music club is thriving (i.e. a monthly fee gains you access to exclusive spiritually oriented releases, such as 2010’s “Mighty to Save” and the originals-heavy 2009 CD, “The River: Worship Session Volume 4”). But the composer’s solo material is as dense and aggressive as ever and certainly more personal than it ever was with Spock’s and Transatlantic.

“Being autobiographical is [a rarity] in the prog world,” Morse says. “I try to make [the lyrics] poetic but also pointed enough so that people know what I’m talking about. I’m walking between those places.”

“Experience gives you so much more depth to the emotion,” says Collin Leijenaar, Morse’s touring drummer, who has the unenviable duty of duplicating Portnoy’s studio performances. “There has to be life in the music, otherwise it’s useless, just math.”

“His energy permeates,” says guitarist Guy Manning (The Tangent, Manning). “Neal is one of the most talented musicians who makes it all sound completely natural, but is very much right there, right in the moment. Neal’s gift is the infused joy you hear in his singing or in his playing.”

Ironically, prog rock, with its bold, sweeping musical statements, is the best vehicle for Morse’s ever-evolving autobiographical musical testimony. What some listeners like about prog is the feeling of romanticism that it stirs in us and the power it has to help us achieve a higher state of consciousness. Morse’s music — and, indeed, the newfangled subgenre Christian Progressive Rock (CPR) — does something similar, bringing to the surface certain ineffable longings, what C.S. Lewis called this “the inconsolable secret,” even as it espouses optimistic Christian themes.

“It’s what J.R.R. Tolkien referred to as the Eucatastrophe,” says Glass Hammer’s co-founder/bassist/vocalist/keyboardist, Steve Babb, who explains that Hammer’s records such as “The Inconsolable Secret” (2005), 2007’s “Culture of Ascent” and 2010’s “If” are based on similar Christian redemption motifs. “Everything goes dark, and then, suddenly, there’s a flicker of light, and you have the ‘joyful turn.’”

Suddenly, I’m reminded of the cover image of Neal Morse’s 2008 solo recording, “Lifeline.” A man, who looks suspiciously like Morse, is drowning in deep waters as a rope, hanging down from the sky, dangles in front of him. “Yeah, that’s God throwing a lifeline,” says Morse. “That’s the way my life has gone. I never get tired of talking about all the good things God has done.”

The New Testament tells us that from an abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Judging by the passion and depth of Morse’s solo output, he’s only begun to testify to the truth.

Read about how Transatlantic’s ‘Whirlwind’ was an appropriate title by clicking here

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