NEAL MORSE – Jesus Christ: The Exorcist

Back in the 90s, Neal Morse was one of the most talented people to emerge on the prog rock scene. With elements of Gentle Giant and Yes mixed with the Morse Brothers’ distinctive own style, Spock’s Beard gave prog a real kick up the arse with their first three albums. Their third album ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, especially, marked the band as one of the new breed of greats since it blended some great proggy ideas with the pop charms of Jellyfish and Crowded House to create a record that mixed excess with a truckload of melody. It was a disc they would never better. In the early 2000s, Neal found religion and left the band for a solo career. His albums from then on featured some reasonable music but divided fans due to some very heavy handed and preachy lyrical concerns.

Albums like ‘One’ (2004) and ‘?’ (2005) felt too evangelical and for those who didn’t fancy being smacked repeatedly with a savior-shaped sledgehammer were pretty much unpalatable. However, they’ve got nothing on this double set from 2019. With ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’, Morse ignores the theories that, perhaps, religious beliefs are personal and are best not foisted upon others…and sets about delivering a near two-hour musical sermon with an iron hand. A rock opera – supposedly ten years in the making – this concept piece reunites Neal with his old bandmate Nick D’Virgilio (later of Big Big Train) and that can only be a good thing. In fact, it’s one of the only good things about this, since lyrically it makes ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ seem like a light romp and the early works of Stryper appear positively agnostic.

An imaginatively titled introduction (‘Introduction’) opens with a rumble of kettle drums and a world of parping keys on loan from the ghost of Keith Emerson, except the first minute makes even ELP’s worst excesses seem tasteful. Moving into softer acoustic moods, a vocal delivers messages about forgiveness and soul bearing, before stooping to the clichéd “Father, forgive them” as its main lyrical hook and with Neal borrowing Bible quotes in record time. The bloated 70s prog of ‘Overture’ shamelessly rips off rhythms from ‘Tarkus’ but at least shows off some great guitar work, even if the bombastic tune shows no real imagination, before a dual vocal drives ‘Getaway’ through a few light prog moods that hark back to a couple of old Spock’s Beard numbers at first, before a choir-led chorus hints at ‘Squonk’ by Genesis, albeit sang by the cast of Joseph and His Progtastic Dreamcoat. Again, soaring guitars are the highlight, even if they can’t rise above sounding like second division Steve Hackett cast offs. Worryingly, the climax of this track has such a grandiosity, you’d have to wonder if Neal has already had some kind of orgasmic epiphany and everything’s peaked after just five minutes. In terms of reaching for the big, let’s be frank, Morse has nowhere else to go from here…and the album still has about an hour and forty minutes left.

‘Gather The People’ sticks rigidly to a melody that’s already been established while the choir sounds like a bunch of brainwashed Sunday School teenagers and Ted Leonard (ex-Enchant/Spock’s Beard) belts his lungs without shame. While this might quite work quite well at the theatre – assuming that religious rock operas are your bag – listening to it in your living room without any visuals seems quite, quite pointless. Into the meat of the first act, we then get a couple of songs about the baptism aand temptation of Christ (appropriately, ‘Jesus’ Baptism’ and ‘Jesus’ Temptation – although, please note how Morse has chosen US-centric punctuation: in proper English, the missing “s” should denote multiple Jesuses – or should that be Jesii? – and should not merely apply to words just ending in s). Both of these tracks reach for the most obvious, sugary, happy-clapping theatrical junk. Leonard does his best singing as Jesus – he was always great in Enchant and is doing a fine job as a sometime Beard-man – but the best vocals in the world never get around the trite melodies and the feeling that Morse has just tapped into some really obvious musical theatre moods instead of truly reaching within himself for some originality. Stretching to almost eleven minutes – or what feels like half an afternoon – ‘Temptation’ already wavers towards musical filler, with plenty of moments that feel like bits and bobs cobbled from Morse’s back-cat, although the dark grooves within the intro provide a brief highlight despite being interspersed with Neal’s much loved homages to Gentle Giant. It’s huge and bombastic, but prog fans who love huge sounds augmented by synths that sound like tortured moggies might soil themselves with glee. On the plus side, there’s a fantastic orchestral arrangement on parts of this epic – a shame therefore that any good music is sullied by religious trappings and the sort of vocal melodies that sound like a cross between Andrew Lloyd Webber cast offs and the most saccharine Disney-esque bits of Dream Theater’s ‘The Astonishing’ (which, for the record, was astonishing…ly embarrassing too).

By the time Jeez has been baptised and tempted, Mary Magdalane provides a much bigger titilation on ‘The Woman of Seven Devils’. Charged with playing Magdalane, Talon David puts in a great performance. A heavy blues number, her voice reaches for the kind of thing oft associated with Beth Hart or Janis Joplin (though never as forceful as Diana Fuchs) and she pulls emotion from almost every note. Fittingly, Morse’s assembled band lock into a heavy blues groove with an almost melodic metal edge and the results, while fairly safe, are excellently played – and it’s actually a pleasure to realise that Morse can do other things besides recycle old Beard melodies and Gentle Giant quirks when he really tries. In attempting something different, it’s automatically a highlight of the first act, regardless of its subject matter. Almost a yang to the dark yin, the piano balladry of ‘Free At Last’ lightens the mood, but is a terrible song that sounds like something from an off Broadway musical aimed at children…best avoided, before ‘The Madman of the Gaderenes’ assaults the audience with a bombastic vocal and disjointed music that never feels as if it’ll rise above sounding like an old Spock’s Beard tune with orchestral overdubs. To labour that point, it even has a quirky vocal movement that could easily be the Beard’s ‘Gibberish’. To be fair if you’re a stuck in a rut prog fan, you might still like it, but since these seven minutes value bombast over melody, there’s almost nothing to even attract an audience beyond the Morse fan-boys.

Moving on, ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ has some pleasing melodies at its heart, but the need for everything to feel so huge and pompous all the bloody time renders all potentially enjoyable melodies null and void before the prog and 70s metal hybrid ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ introduces some cracking Hammond organ and puts a better slant on things. At best, it’s a classic hard rocker that shows a love for the style with a band giving their all; at worst, it sounds like something Glenn Hughes might trot out if he were taking the piss. It’ll divide opinion for sure – the prog-heads will surely hate it – but musically, it’s easily this lengthy release’s most exciting tune. Simply put, it’s pretty much this release’s only exciting tune.

Choirs tell us that Jesus must go to the cross before ‘He Must Go To The Cross’ unravels any of the goodwill built up by the previous track. A metal-oriented style struggles to sustain a second track and as a result, this is a heavy handed stomper in every respect. The collection of assembled talents over-sing as if even they can’t believe what they’ve been asked to do…and since they occasionally sound like a satire, why should the audience be expected to take it seriously? To add insult to injury, it remains at a completely leaden pace throughout, making a four minute track drag on and on forever. During ‘The Last Supper’, Morse has resisted temptation to reference the classic prog epic ‘Supper’s Ready’, but it might’ve been more fun if he had… (“A Jesus?”) As before, there are some pleasing orchestral touches but the music is so flimsy and stage-centric that unless you’re particularly enamoured with musical theatre, it’s all very hard going. Still, it’s better than ‘Gethsamane’ which wavers between an old 10cc piece of whimsy and something from a previous Neal Morse record. If you’ve never heard Morse before, there’s a chance you’ll find some pleasure from the music as it unfolds, but if approaching this as a fan, there’s absolutely nothing new here.

The final section of this travesty retells of Judas’s death with some great orchestration, but again, there are just far too many bits and pieces that either sound like a lazy retread of Spock’s Beard circa ‘V’, or display Morse’s frustrations at wanting to recreate ‘Tarkus’. Any musical pleasure that might have brought to the easily pleased would surely be quashed by the most overwrought vocal in the world; an eternity is then spent in the company of ‘Jesus Before Pilate & The Crucifiction’ where Leonard belts his lungs over music that’s equal parts ‘Trick of The Tail’ era Genesis and terrible musical theatre. Cobbled together in Morse’s most obvious style, there are hints of something interesting desperate to escape from beneath the general bloat, but with the best will in the world, the only thing you’ll remember from these eight minutes are a choir braying “Crucify him!” repeatedly. If Neal isn’t embarrassed by any of this, he obviously has no shame… It’s genuinely awful. In the closing moments, Mary visits the tomb and ‘The Greatest Love of All’ winds everything down with a male/female duet that sounds like something from Beauty & The Beast. Even by big ballad standards, it’s particularly sickly and a waste of everyone’s talents. It’s almost as bad as Saracen’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe…and that’s saying something. What were you thinking, Neal? Jesus Christ. This is embarrassing.

If it weren’t for Morse’s previous heavy handed, religiously themed albums, ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’ might even seem like a joke; a tongue in cheek wheeze to gain a reaction. Fact is, though, Morse is serious. Deadly serious…and he wants everyone to know how much he loves the lord. So much so, that this crass evangelical clusterfuck is a full thirty five minutes longer than The Who’s ‘Tommy’ and much less frivolous. There are various adjectives to describe this album; very few of them are positive. It’s bloated, awfully misjudged and ripe for ridicule. It’s bad enough to taint the early Spock’s Beard albums retrospectively. Only Morse’s most ardent fans (or his most foolhardy apologists) will glean any enjoyment from this in the long term. Avoid it like a plague of locusts.

May 2019