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Neal Morse - The Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment CD (album) cover


Neal Morse


Symphonic Prog

3.76 | 296 ratings

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2 stars I had a very odd year with Neal Morse in 2014.

He's always been a bit of a divisive figure in many circles, and he even retains his divisiveness within me, when I go ahead and call 2005's Question Mark one of the best albums of modern symphonic, and at the same time point out all four Transatlantic albums being the reason modern symphonic gets a bad reputation. 2011's Testimony Two is a solid album that overstays its welcome a bit, but 2003's Testimony couldn't even pull 30 minutes of solid material out of its two- hour runtime. And most confusing part about all that is the fact that most of those albums pretty much sound the same. Morse straddles the line of crap and good so close that even a slight wobble to one side will make an album great or terrible, even if the ingredients within it are more or less the same. And this peaked early last year with Transatlantic's Kaleidoscope, an absolute mess of ridiculously cliched ideas and recycled songs, and while it wasn't the most awful thing in the universe, I can honestly put it quite high in the list of the most uninspired albums I have ever heard.

I thought that it was just Morse's time to fade into obscurity. Like his good friends in Dream Theater, what he's doing never really changed, he basically just ran out of melodic ideas, and his ambition (or lack of) to make the exact same set of songs every few years meant that his songs wanted to be grandiose and epic but fell flat every single time, to herald the emotional and compositional depth of a cheap pop tune. Morse would continually put out records and with each one more and more people would say "meh, I'm not even going to bother with the next one". But we know what happened next.

Second Nature. The surprise of the year 2014. As much as I did like the first Flying Colors record, I knew that Morse had lost a lot of his flair since then, but this was stellar. Absolutely phenomenal. The elements from all the members came together brilliantly to create what is without a doubt the best album of Morse's very ancient career. And when someone releases both their worst and their best album within a calendar year, you really do start to wonder what's up. Obviously, Second Nature wasn't a Morse solo effort, and neither was Kaleidoscope. I could then pit the success/failure, on the other members, but there was a distinct feeling on a track like "Cosmic Symphony", that we could finally hear what Morse had been aiming for for so long.

Now, we have his first solo album since 2012's Momentum. Um, well, sort of. The Grand Experiment has been advertised under a new moniker - 'The Neal Morse Band', and has credited the rest of his group, featuring regulars Randy George and Mike Portnoy, as well as live members Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette (whose solo album I did quite enjoy) in the composition and arrangement of this album. So my interest was slightly piqued once more - perhaps this is what Morse needs to pull himself out of this rut. Even though these "new members" have been in the Morse camp for ages anyway, this is the first album they've had any real say on anything, and that could be a good thing.

Is it a good thing? Well, I honestly can't tell, because show this album to me blind and I'd call it as yet another Neal Morse solo album. Any contributions the "new" band have made have been incredibly stuck to the Morsian blueprint of how to make uninspired but occasionally good slabs of cheese. The format is the same as well - three of short pieces, bookended by two long ones, one of them being at least 25 minutes (for some reason). It's like old Neal just doesn't want any form of change, whatsoever.

And honestly, aside from "Waterfall", this is possibly his worst album yet. Kaleidoscope was uninteresting and uninspired, but rarely was it honestly bad. And while this still isn't bad, there are far more moments of poor composition here than ever before. On previous solo records he's been able to pull out a handful of deliciously catchy choruses, even on the most recent Momentum, but here there just aren't any. Musically, there's not much that has changed, but I quite honestly cannot think of a single moment that I enjoyed, because any remotely good parts are dulled due to the fact that they are almost all note-for-note rehashes of previous Morse songs. "Waterfall" is actually a pretty great piece, and single-handedly saves this album from being absolutely terribly, but with the gospel touches thrown into it, all the delicacy of the subtle instrumentation is undermined by some really cheap pseudo-emotional undertones. But I really like the violin in it, and even the solos are pretty well placed

The bad here? "The Call" is pretty damn embarrassing, I must say, although I can't tell how much of it is actually bad and how much is just bad because it sounds like so much else. The a cappella vocal section in the intro is quite frankly sickening, from the cheesy lyrics to the uninteresting melody to the cheap as anything sus4-to-major chord resolution that is just so overdone, the only thing that tops that cheese is 10 seconds later when the dreaded organ shows up, or maybe the quite terrible solo at the 6 minute mark. The title track is just as bad, with a riff that sounds straight out of a post-grunge album, with the inclusion of the standard Morse cheese organ. "Agenda" has been the subject of much talk, and although I can agree that it's poor, I do still prefer it to the first two. It reminds me a bit of the last few Muse songs we've got, when we are asked to question Matt Bellamy's sanity. But hey, at least the song is slightly different.

I suppose I should talk about "Alive Again", considering it's 27 minutes long, and on most albums that would make it a bit of a centrepiece. It's another Morsian exercise in excess and length and achieves absolutely nothing on its journey. "Agenda", although that song blows, is a far more interesting piece. The middle section of the song, with the horns and the great chorus is pretty solid, but that's about three minutes in 27, and doesn't really make the sea of genericism worth swimming through.

No doubt one of the weakest albums of his career, but at the same time it's not too difficult from before. I'm not ready to fully write of Morse yet, because with Second Nature he proved that he isn't completely spend as a composer, but this album nearly pushed me there. A forgettable, overlong piece of the same old stuff, The Grand Experiment on the whole isn't worth anybody's time.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 2/5 |


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