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Neal Morse - Testimony CD (album) cover

TESTIMONY

Neal Morse

 

Symphonic Prog

4.03 | 340 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Say what you will about brother Neal but you have to give him props for staying true to his progressive roots throughout his transformation into a Christian and beyond. Many people who become "born again" drop all ties to their former self and get so conservative, narrow-minded and holier-than-thou that they're a pain to be around, much less listen to. Not so with Mr. Morse. I've been collecting his music in the last few years CD by CD and I have yet to want my money back. There's no American prog artist who is producing better material than he is here in the 21st century and, wanting to investigate his personal journey further, decided to spring for this double disc set and let him clue me in. It was worth every penny.

First off, Neal isn't preaching. He's not out to convert you or scare you with dire warnings of Hell and Damnation. He's just offering up his progified testimony and laying it out there for all to see. (If you're really interested in perusing a rational argument for the Man from Nazareth may I suggest spending time with C.S. Lewis' intriguing "Mere Christianity." I'm just sayin'.)

Morse starts Part One with a lone Rhodes piano and a simple concept that everyone can relate to in yearning for "The Land of Beginning Again," where "no one knows/the bad things that you've done/the past is truly gone." Before you know it he's off and running with the first of three rousing orchestral overtures that are bold and energy-filled. And here, for those who somehow don't know him, MEET MIKE PORTNOY! His drumming is legendary, beyond reproach and he's also a huge reason that this project works so well. "California Nights" is a funky, jazz-tinged track with sentiments that all struggling musicians who are "longing to seize the day/that big record deal in the sky/surely a heartbeat away" know all too well. (I was in L.A. in the late 70s, doing the same thing.) But habits are hard to break and, on the strong rocker "Colder in the Sun," he sings that he steadfastly kept "waiting for the day/I might get that major part/and when things didn't go my way/I did what I did yesterday" i.e. running in circles. The intertwining harmonies and the Who-like interlude are most impressive here. (Neal's Who influence has never been so evident than on this album and that's a big bonus in my book.) After one of many of his deceptively smooth transitions you're treated to the lighter, acoustic guitar-driven "Sleeping Jesus" that features conga and tasteful steel guitar lines before sliding into a furious, Pete Townsend-ish instrumental section. Here he reveals that he "began to feel His guidance/when I was deep in my sin," a predilection I detected in some of his earlier Spock's Beard- period lyrics. "The Prince of the Power of the Air" is, appropriately, an ominous, riff-led rock cut in which he tells you the evil "creep's creepin'" back into his mind. It's followed by the hot Samba feel of "The Promise" where he sings of hope in that "there's a light that we can see/there's a new reality" and where he also shows off his admirable Spanish guitar skills. The segment ends with "Wasted Life," a deep, resonating ballad with a heartbreaking vocal in which he cries "I'd become just another heart without a home/and I was angry that God had left me alone." The atmosphere is sad but the acoustic piano ride is beautiful.

Part Two begins with cellos rumbling under bright synthesizers as Portnoy drives the bus with a lead foot and Morse delivers a scorching electric guitar ride, leading into "Break of Day," a popish but nonetheless well-written song with a smart harmony arrangement that eventually transitions into a cool jazz violin movement. It's one of the highlights of the proceedings. A growling Hammond organ fuels the rockin' "Power in the Air," an obvious reference to an earlier theme (Neal is liable to resurrect melodies at any time, no matter how brief they may last) in which he describes the gut-wrenching struggle going on in his soul. The low-key but powerful "Somber Days" is next with a full, symphonic score that's amazing and where he tells us of "so many somber days I was so unaware/of almost anything but my suffering." The snarling Hammond slaps you in the face with a wakeup call on "Long Story" as he returns to a Salsa groove and guest Kerry Livgren jumps headlong into a fiery guitar duel with Morse at the end. But he was reading the writing on the wall by now. "For fifty dollars I'd play five hours in the desert air/some of us have to hit bottom/before we'll ever see above the ground" he confesses. (I know the feeling firsthand.) "It's All I Can Do" is a solemn ode to futility underscored by a droll Rhodes piano and a pained vocal singing "there's no future that I can see here/the dream has gone away." In other words, there aren't a lot of 35 year olds receiving the "best new artist" title at the Grammys these days. What a drag it is growing old.

Part Three shoots out of the gate with the eyebrow-raising "Transformation," a tumultuous instrumental with thundering orchestration and Mike Portnoy kickin' it hard as if he were John Bonham reincarnated. On "Ready to Try," an aggressive rock ditty with a pop flavor, he tells of leaving behind all but his guitar, dog and tape recorder and relocating to Nashville because he was finally convinced that he had to change his surroundings and start anew somewhere else. To emphasize that drastic change of direction, Neal offers a slice of what I'd call "Prograss" music in the stomping "Sing It High," a lively song of worship wherein he proves he can pick with the best of 'em.

Part Four ensues with a John Entwistle-like French Horn blaring into the short "Moving in my Heart" where he describes getting married and starting a family but still feeling the prideful allure of potential fame and fortune tugging at his mind. "Well, maybe it's not too late," he ponders. (A reference to the success of his involvement with Transatlantic?) What follows is the best tune on the album, the overwhelming "I Am Willing." It draws from all of Neal's talents in one sumptuous track and he delivers what may be his most emotional vocal ever, backed by a gorgeous chorale. Here he's attempting to surrender his will to God's, singing "all I want is the life you have spoken/let the sleeper be awoken. now." Gives me goose bumps every time. But just spouting the words and expecting magic to happen isn't enough as we learn in the jazzy "In the Middle," a very proggy cut with sizzling organ and snappy kicks/accents throughout. He reveals that "there was still more that I was clinging to/that fear you feel/like when you're almost gone/when you want to jump/but you're still hanging on." The album's most complex piece follows, the spicy and mostly instrumental "The Storm Before the Calm" in which piano, trumpet and saxophone join together in a wild blowout and Mike demonstrates what a monster he is. Mind-boggling drum fills abound. A surprisingly subtle string quartet movement leads you to "Oh, To Feel Him," a lush ballad that describes his personal moment of clarity in all its glory. The pretty "God's Theme" ends the segment.

Part Five opens with the ambitious, forceful, symphony-filled third overture of the project, then evolves into the large-scale, freewheeling song of praise, "Rejoice." While you may not share his religious beliefs it's nearly impossible to deny him his infectious, exuberant excitement as he shouts "His glory lives in senssurround!" Just when you think you've heard everything along comes the almost grungy "Oh Lord, My God." (Man, I just love Portnoy's crisp, snapping snare!) I think what Neal wants to convey here is that he came to realize that "the ultimate musician" didn't want to take his music away from him at all but, rather, wanted to enhance it. "God's Theme 2" is a reprise of the same melody except this time it's nothing but symphony and it's great. The short and simple coda of "The Land of Beginning Again" is a fitting, poignant finale.

Not every track is an absolute stunner in itself but, when taken as a whole, the sheer magnitude and scope of over two hours of high quality music, arrangements and production that has no filler ("not a speck of cereal" as Frank Zappa would say) is staggering. Therefore, "Testimony" earns my 5 star rating. I'll admit that sometimes Morse writes some confusing lyrics but not here. This is as earnest and straightforward as any bio you'll ever come across and after it's over you'll have no doubt as to what kind of person he is and where his allegiances lay. I've yet to find anything else quite like it in all of progdom.

Chicapah | 5/5 |

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