Progressive rock is often about creating ambitious pieces, and there’s a certain degree of ‘one-upmanship’ involved in creating longer and more daring pieces. So when the Neal Morse Band reconvened last year, carefully carving time out of their busy schedules for writing sessions, it was faced with the challenge of following up on their acclaimed 2016 double album ‘Similitude of a Dream’. I reached out to multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse to chat about the genesis of their latest record, ‘The Great Adventure’ and he walked me through the making of the album.
Creating the album
Morse had written a few pieces that felt to him like a potential follow up to ‘Similitude of a Dream’, but the rest of the band wasn’t keen on the idea. “(They were) not into it, didn’t want to do a double and didn’t want to do a follow-up”, he recalls. With that in mind, the band gathered everyone’s material, and added tracks they wrote together and came up with a single disc album. “It was really good”, he says, “but somehow, something in my gut said it wasn’t everything it needed to be, but I didn’t have the pieces to the puzzle.”
Drummer Mike Portnoy was keen to finish the record in March of 2018, with the perspective of having that window of opportunity in his busy schedule closing quickly. Bolstered by his conviction that the album wasn’t what it could be, Neal Morse put on his band leader hat, and called in the rest of the band. “We had a Skype call together”, he explains, “and I just said, ‘I think it needs more time, I think we need to sit with it a little while longer”.
With Portnoy now unavailable, it looked like it might take a few years before the album would be completed. “That was really disappointing for everybody, I think” admits Morse. “But I’d rather wait and have an album that I feel will really deliver.” The driving force behind Morse’s insistence was the confidence he felt in the previous album. “’Similitude’ spoiled me a little bit. When we were playing it live on that tour, I realized that the piece delivered every night: by the end, people would be crying and on their feet. I felt like God really anointed it and I didn’t want to come out with anything less than that.”
So Morse went back to the material, and the album’s theme locked into place when he decided to write from the abandoned son’s perspective. “I took everything we’d written together in January”, he explains, “and I started cutting it up and adding things and putting things in that I had written in the past for a ‘Similitude’ follow-up. That became this two-and-a-half-hour version of ‘The Great Adventure’, so there’s a lot of different versions of this album.”
An Adventure in recording
By April, the rest of the band, was on board and they finally reconvened for a week last August when a hole in Portnoy’s schedule appeared. “Everybody flew in to do a whole new session in which we cut and pasted and rewrote ‘The Great Adventure’” Morse recalls. During that session, the album was cut down to its final form, clocking in around one hour and forty-five minutes long, but it wasn’t easy to achieve.
“We barely made it”, Morse readily admits. “I mean this thing was completed just right on the wire. We were getting together in the morning before Mike gets up and making some changes and rewriting things and rearranging things. Mike would show up and make his comments and maybe we would change it then he would track his drums to it. There was a moment when it was like 12:30, and Mike was coming at 1:00. Bill and I were trying to just get the section that’s between ‘Freedom Calling’ and ‘A Love That Never Dies’. We were trying to get that all sorted out, and we did not get it until, I think, down to like five minutes. Five minutes, man. We had a click track and acoustic guitar or something, just enough for Mike to be able to track to, and me going dah, dah, dah, dah. We didn’t have time to play it really, so it was just crazy but sometimes that’s how it goes. The bottom line is I’m really happy with how the album turned out.”
Working under pressure turned out to be a positive thing as it pushed the band to reach their ambitions for the album and not overthink things. “I think Mike put it really well when he said, ‘works of art are not ever finished, they’re just abandoned’” he says. “We can keep working on things forever. I mean, I always hear things that could be better, things that I would change but that’s all part of the process too. A lot of times you’ve got to give things up and let things go. Everybody had little pet parts that they had to let go of on this record. When you’re ready, you’ve just got to trust the team.”
Overall the record really feels like a band endeavour, with every member contributing to it. Neal agreed, but acknowledged contributions beyond the group of musicians. “Thank God that God never runs out of material”, he adds. “He just blows my mind away, the way He orchestrated this thing and gave important pieces to the puzzle to all the different people in the group. Only He could have orchestrated this amazing thing that happened and (producer) Rich Mouser, he also has pieces to the mosaic that God has created; this amazing work of art that only He can create through us. There’s something special about bands where everybody’s contributing. I mean, a lot of people do a lot of good solo work, but there’s nothing like a good band.”
The Adventure on the road
When we spoke, the band was a good two weeks away from going on tour so I asked him if they’d play the whole album live. “Yes. Oh, yes”, he replied proudly. But with now 5 discs worth of material, how could they still showcase some of their amazing past material? “Yeah, well, that’s going to be a surprise, The Encore”, he replied with excitement. “We’re going to keep that a surprise or else I’ll be in big trouble!” What it is can easily be found on the Internet by now, but I, for one, will keep it as a surprise.
The band is eager to go on the road and play in front of their many devoted fans. “Music isn’t complete without that”, says Morse candidly. “There’s always something sort of sad about working really hard on a piece of music and then it is not really getting heard. I’m so glad to have people that will listen and want to listen to what we’re doing. To have an audience is a wonderful thing and I guess I spent so many years not having one that I’m just really appreciative.”
Neal Morse already has a well filled schedule beyond touring for this record. “I’m doing keyboards on a new Flying Colors (album) that should be out later this year. But don’t quote me on that!” he says with a laugh. “It’s really good, and I’m having a good time working on it.” He also says that Transatlantic will get together later this year to start working on a new project.
He is also particularly proud of a work that he premiered at last year’s MorseFest, a musical with the surprising title of ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’. “As I was writing it,” he explains, “I found that one of the things I was most compelled to write about was how often Jesus is casting out demons. If you read the gospels, there’s a lot of that going on, a lot more than I really noticed before. For example, Mary Magdalene, it said that he had cast seven devils out of her, and so I wrote this song called ‘The Woman of Seven Devils’. Then I wrote this piece based on the mad man of the Gadarene, the man who’s filled with a legion of demons and the demons come out one by one and sing their role in a sort of Spock’s Beard or Gentle Giant way, and that’s one of my favorite pieces.”
It’s not an easy task to find a new spin on a story told countless of times before, especially with easy to make comparisons to the beloved ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ rock opera. “I just started thinking it’d be cool to start off with him on the cross”, he explains, “and then flashback before Jesus even shows up on the scene in Israel. Just painting the scene of what it’s like for the Jews to be living under Roman oppression and that they’re waiting for the Messiah. Then John the Baptist comes and then it goes into this whole three-and-a-half-year Ministry. Whereas ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ just focused on the last two or three days of his life, I kind of go through his whole Ministry and also his trial, crucifixion, and Resurrection.”
“It is coming out in the spring on Frontiers Records” he says. “Ted Leonard is singing the role of Jesus, Nick D’Virgilio is singing the role of Judas, Rick Florian is the devil, Talon David is Mary Magdalene and Jake Livgren is singing the role of Peter, and on and on and on.” Morse himself grabbed the role of Pontius Pilate. “It sounds a little bit more like a musical album should than a prog album”, he admits.
Looking at the musician credits, one will not be shocked to see Neal Morse Band alumni Eric Gillette’s name, but this time, the guitar virtuoso plays drums! “Yes, Eric Gilette is playing drums, Randy and I share the bass duties, Paul Bielatowicz from Carl Palmer’s band is playing guitar. Eric also takes a guitar solo and I play quite a bit of guitar on it also, so we’re the three guitar players and Bill Hubauer plays a lot of keyboards on it, too.”
That initial performance absolutely lived up to the composer’s hopes for the piece. “We did minimal staging and it far exceeded my expectations. The Lord really helped us, and the people were so blessed.”
The Neal Morse Band is currently on tour and will play Club Soda in Montreal on February 18th 2019. Neal Morse has confirmed they will play “The Great Adventure” in its entirety, which means that fans will get an amazing show.