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Neal Morse - Jesus Christ The Exorcist CD (album) cover


Neal Morse

Symphonic Prog

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5 stars Back in the 1970s there was Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, but as far as I'm aware no one has written a rock opera based on the life of Jesus since then. Until now, when along comes Neal Morse with Jesus Christ The Exorcist, and in my opinion it stands up well beside its famous predecessors. Unfortunately it's unlikely to become as well-known, which is sadly the nature of things with modern prog. Still, for those of us who love Neal's music this is a must-have album.

Jesus Christ The Exorcist is unusual for a Neal Morse prog release for two reasons. First, Mike Portnoy isn't involved (due to other commitments) but Neal's regular guitarist Eric Gillette steps in to demonstrate that he is also a more than competent drummer. Secondly, Neal doesn't feature much vocally, instead he casts guest singers in the major roles. Notable amongst these are his two successors in Spock's Beard, Nick D'Virgilio and Ted Leonard as Judas Iscariot and Jesus respectively. However the award for best newcomer must go to a young girl from Nashville named Talon David, who excels as Mary Magdalene. Listen especially for her belting out the blues on "The Woman of Seven Devils", then following on by showing that she is equally at home performing a ballad like "Free At Last".

Musically the album is a mixture of prog, pop, metal and musical theatre. The second CD (Act 2) has considerably more of the latter than the first, which is more song-based. The story kicks off with Jesus' words on the cross before flashing back (via the obligatory overture) to John The Baptist preparing the way. The 10 minute "Jesus' Temptation" is a highlight, with Rick Florian making a convincing Devil. Following this we have the first of several "earworm" type songs, "There's A Highway", where Jesus invites all the rank outsiders and lonely losers to follow him. Two of the next three songs feature the casting out of demons which the album title refers to. I have already mentioned Talon David's performance as Mary Magdalene, but the second incident concerns the madman of the Gadarenes, who famously was possessed by a legion of devils. To illustrate this Morse uses one of his favourite techniques of multiple voices singing acapello against each other (think "Thoughts" or "Author of Confusion"). Then we have Neal and Nick singing a duet "Love Has Called My Name" which is another catchy pop type song. The CD ends with Peter's confession of Christ and then Jesus' determination to go to Jerusalem, leading to the Black Sabbath influenced "Get Behind Me Satan."

Act 2 begins with a Queen - like heavy song "He Must Go To The Cross" which leads into some more musical theatre type singing. A highlight for me here is Gethsemene, which features some great Hammond organ playing in the middle section. There is also "A Heart Full Of Holes" sung by Nick D'Virglio which is worth mentioning. After the crucifixion (a reprise of the first song on CD1) Talon David returns to sing the emotional "Mary At The Tomb" followed by "The Greatest Love Of All", a duet between Mary and Jesus. Finally the album ends with a reprise of "Love Has Called My Name."

This is another great album by Neal (how does he manage to be so prolific without losing quality?) and I would love to see it performed as a stage musical. Eat your heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Report this review (#2233108)
Posted Monday, June 24, 2019 | Review Permalink
4 stars I do believe it won't be an exaggeration if i say that "Jesus Christ | The Exorcist" is probably Neal Morse's best solo album. Before delving into the music, i would like to talk about the line-up a bit and why it makes the key difference between his other records. Probably the most devastating for the fans will be the fact that this album does not feature out beloved Mike Portnoy and instead, behind the drum kit, we have the young talent Eric Gillette. Odd decision, since Gillette excels in Petrucci-styled guitar fretboard excursions, but it seems like he is equally good pounding the drums. The usual suspects - the keyboard magician Bill Hubauer and Randy George on bass are presented as well. Another fresh idea - there are 12 total vocalists, and that serves to maintain the interest throughout. Of course, it can't be Neal Morse if there is no instrumental virtuosity, so, to the fans that are tired of the needless, over-the-top wankery, in some of his last albums, i will say: the symphonic and orchestral arrangements outweigh the Dream Theater-esque moments. Most of the times there is a strong, cohesive idea, melodic-wise, which the listener can get lost into, and easily follow.

The first 5 songs float seamlessly one into another and create an epic 16 minute prog tour-de-force, encapsulating the essence of Morse's music. It starts off with 1 minute bombastic symphonic arrangement introduction and the first thing i notice, are the drum fills, and overall punchy sound. They are so heavily reminiscent of Portnoy that he really doesn't feel missed. Then, Ted Leonard(Enchant, Spock's Beard), portraying Jesus Christ himself, joins with his emotional, soft vocals, leading to another instrumental part, this time feeling more dynamic. 1 minute in, and we hear Bill Hubauer's 70's oldschool, Purple-ish Hammond, leading to a really memorable keyboard melody, up to be reprised a lot later, sounding positive and uplifting, later joined by brass section, fitting surprisingly well. The overture ends in the vein of Dream Theater - Paul Bielatowicz shines with his tapping and sweep picking and Gillette shows his double bass turbulent drumming. "Getaway" introduces Mark Pogue's classic rock vocals, reminding us of Steve Lukather a bit, and Wil Morse's rasp-y vocals, contrasting well and creating that "dialogue" feel. The song ends in classic neo-prog vibe, with soaring guitar and keyboard unison. "Gather The People" features the incredible Matt Smith (Theocracy). The song alternates between his vocals and beautiful choral arrangements, symbolising Jesus coming to the people. Pretty happy atmosphere. "Jesus' Baptism" feels pop-y, with really catchy vocal lines by Ted and Matt, culminating into another heavenly choral section. Basically, that formula is applied to the whole album, with some exceptions. There is really well-thought and articulated "vocal battle", lyric-wise also, between Ted and Rick Florian's wailing high vocals in "Jesus' Temptation" - another highlight, feeling rather dramatic. Of course, there are some kind of fillers here and there, but that's inevitable given the lenght of the musical. Like "There's a Highway", which is just pop rock song on a moderate beat with acoustic accompaniments, and could've been on Rush's Counterpart for example. Absolute favourites for me are "The Woman of Seven Devils" and "Free At Last" featuring the stunning Talon David, carrying the female blues and jazz vocal style. A pleasant surprise. And just before we thought we lack craziness, we come to "The Madman of the Gadarenes", which just screames Gentle Giant, for the atonalities in the beginning, but mostly for the bizarre vocal harmonies, interweaving 4 vocalists. "Get Behind Me Satan" is heavily influenced by Rainbow, or some other classic 70's hard rock band. Another highlight is "Gethsemane", reminding of "Jesus' Temptation", since it features again the "devil" theme.

All other tracks are just revisiting themes, reprises, but that structure is what makes Morse's songwriting distinct. To sum it up: crystal production, the sound of all instruments feels more organic than ever, big amount of incredible vocalists, instrumental virtuosic parts are not everywhere, but only when they serve a purpose. Will be enjoyed by any symphonic prog fan, not minding some occasional cheesiness.

Report this review (#2243120)
Posted Sunday, August 11, 2019 | Review Permalink
4 stars (I'm not a big fan of musicals, and I already got a Neal Morse album this year that I have thoroughly enjoyed, so I really thought I would sit this album out. Only by chance did my wife want me to try her new set of headphones and put something she thought I would like on to try them out. Of course just five minutes was enough to get me totally hooked, and I ordered it that night.)

Have you ever wanted to hear what it would sound like if Neal wrote an extended piece himself (as opposed to the everybody writes model he often uses now) but without him doing triple duty in the vocal and instrumental roles? That's about the best way I can sum up this album.

There are some truly excellent moments to be found JC the Exorcist, and it is really enhanced by the choral arrangements. It's almost like a cover band or composer taking existing Morse material and reworking it just enough so that it sounds interesting to those who were familiar with the earlier pieces. Structurally this strikes me as most similar to Neal's Testimony albums, which involves more single-length songs arranged into larger acts. Then you'll hear clear call backs to Spock's Beard here and Sola Scriptura there. I mean, come on--the Love Has Called My Name chorus is a crystal clear rework of Wind at my Back, complete with NDV hitting the high harmony. When you're as prolific as Neal, self-plagiarism is going to happen to some extent. I'm totally fine with it for the most part here, because the choral elements make those eyebrow raising moments just different enough from where I've heard them before, but if this has turned you off from Neal before, it's highly likely to happen again here.

Highlights: Jesus' Temptation, Woman of Seven Devils, He Must Go to the Cross, the Crucifixion. Given my discussion of similar themes above, I do have to point out that there are also many, many moments of pure, delightful, originality. Special shout out to Rick Florian as the devil in a Dio-esque performance. Talon David really delivers as Mary, and her duet with Ted Leonard to close out the album is flat-out beautiful (and that's a compliment coming from me as I'm not a sappy ballad guy).

Lowlights: There's a Highway, Get Behind Me Satan, Hearts Full of Holes. I love probably 80% of what Neal puts out, which often makes the other 20% so confusing for me sometimes. I understand these songs are here for thematic (and not just musical) reasons, they don't fit in my opinion. No one needed a straightforward, plain Jane Ted Leonard rocker in Highway, or the unnecessary Black Sabbath Paranoid clone in Satan. The previous song ends with Peter saying that he would follow Jesus anywhere, anywhere but the cross. The first song of Act II is called He Must Go to the Cross. It would have been a perfect transition between acts if the Satan song just wasn't on there! And Holes is is a sappy NDV vocal feature, and I never really dug those moments back in the Beard days either.

I would start with 3 stars for this album, mostly from the borrowing from previous material, but then bump it up to a super solid 4 stars when considering the cohesiveness and quality production. It's a beautiful sounding and thematically intriguing (and spiritually inspirational and rewarding, depending on your religious persuasion) album, and it sits right up there with many of Neal's best works.

Report this review (#2266969)
Posted Monday, October 7, 2019 | Review Permalink
kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
4 stars Listening to the introduction had me checking I had put on the right album, as the first minute of this 109-minute- long epic had me convinced I was listening to a new release by Clive Nolan. In recent years Clive has moved away from his more overtly progressive releases into musical theatre, and now Neal has followed the same trend. I grew up in a Christian household, one of my favourite albums as a child was ' Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat', the first musical I ever saw was 'Godspell', and still enjoy 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to this day (I thought the recent all-star cast was excellent, Alice Cooper as King Herod? Inspired). So, this is a musical and lyrical style I am comfortable with, and I was intrigued to see how Neal would approach this. The first thing which struck me was just how little we hear from the man himself, in that he has given himself a few minor parts but that is all. In the two main roles of Jesus and Judas we have his fellow Spock's Beard lead vocalists Ted Leonard and Nick D'Virgilio respectively, and as one would expect they do a mighty fine job indeed, but the biggest change for me is the writing style, which is not what I would expect from Neal at all. Although there are bits and pieces such as the acoustic 'Gather The People' and the dramatic 'The Madman of the Gadarenes' which do remind listeners of his roots and normal approach, overall there has been a dramatic change in how Neal approaches things. Literally.

This is an album which is designed to appeal to people who wouldn't normally know who Neal is, and instead this is a rock musical to be viewed as a logical updated version of 'Superstar'. Consequently, we have music which flows and ebbs, taking the listener with them. Songs such as 'Get Behind Me Satan' are out and out rockers, while others are designed to get the audience clapping in time, others more prosaic and gentler in style. By now Neal has become a dab hand at producing the odd concept album, and this isn't the first time he has approached a Christian story either, but here he has moved further in both directions. This is bound to be listened to by progheads and White Metal fans alike, but really this is aimed at a new audience altogether, namely Broadway as opposed to the Garden.

In 2002 Morse was responsible for what is undoubtedly one of the finest concept albums of all time, 'Snow'. He followed it up the next year with his first solo release since leaving the Beard, with 'Testimony', which is still my favourite solo album. That told his personal story, and I don't think anyone who saw him perform it in London and hear him talk about his daughter Jayda could fail to be moved. She is referenced again in this album, just briefly, but it shows again just how personal this for him and just what it means. Regarding the idea behind the musical, Neal explains, "Sometimes providence comes with a whisper; sometimes it comes with an unexpected phone call. A friend of mine who works in the music business called me from New York one day in 2008 and said, "Hey man, a friend and I were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar last night and were saying, 'Man, somebody ought to do a new rock opera based on the Jesus story'. I told my friend, 'I know the guy!' He went on to tell me I ought to write an epic prog piece based on the gospels. With a New York accent he said, 'Ya gotta do it!' I laughed and said, 'Well, I'm busy right now, but I'll think about it.' Over the next couple of months, I began to feel that "yes" inside and spent a few months writing the first draft. The strong sense that I was onto something continued to grow and the people that sang on the original version were really into it.'

For me, this is an interesting idea, and there are undoubtedly some good songs on it. But there are times when it feels clunky, something I never expected from him. The story is pushed very hard, as one would expect, but sometimes this is to the detriment of the music. On a personal level I have always enjoyed his vocals, but here he is asking to be judged as a songwriter and arranger as opposed to a performer. The result is something which is probably going to gain him a much wider audience than normal for his work, and is a very good album indeed, but from a personal perspective I think I'm just going to go back to 'Testimony' and pass on this for now.

Report this review (#2280647)
Posted Wednesday, November 13, 2019 | Review Permalink

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