No bait-and-switch musical evangelism here – this rock opera is the real thing…
Jesus Christ – The Exorcist
Artist: Neal Morse
Label: Frontiers Records
Double disc CD package
Disc 1 - 63:25
Disc 2 - 46:41
It seems as if all roads in Neal Morse’s career have been leading to this: the ultimate prog/rock opera about the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neal’s progressive rock pedigree is without question, his passion for the subject is obvious, and his performing, instrumental, and writing chops have won him a world-wide audience of devoted fans on both ‘sides’ of the Christian issue.
The Neal Morse Band has become a recognized standard-barer for hard-edged yet often symphonic prog masterpieces, most recently culminating in a re-telling of the classic John Bunyan story, Pilgrim’s Progress – an effort that spanned no less than two double-disc studio albums and one (so far) live recording! Obviously, telling a classic story through songs is pretty close to being a rock opera even though the distinction is little more than semantic – still, it was a story being told as opposed to a story being portrayed. Even as those live performances took on a more theatrical bent, Morse still had not tackled the rock opera format – that is, until Jesus Christ – The Exorcist.
Growing up in the generation that saw the emergence of concept rock albums like The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who’s Tommy certainly planted a seed. The Broadway/rock fusion of Jesus Christ Superstar and the more recent operetta/pop of Les Mis has informed the musical taste of a generation - a generation that also connected to the operatic tendencies and melodrama of some of prog and Metal bands. No doubt, Morse’s musical imagination took in all of these elements as fertile ground for the expression of his relatively-recent turn to God. It took little more than a phone call from a friend in New York in 2008 to start Neal off on what would be a nearly decade-long trek to Jesus Christ – The Exorcist, a project that would no-doubt be the first musical interpretation of the story of Jesus told in this particular format to be written, produced, and overseen by a believer with bonafides in the legitimate rock community. No bait-and-switch musical evangelism here – this is the real thing…
Many of the names of the performers should be familiar to those who have followed Neal’s work through the years: Randy George delivers his trademark rock-solid bass lines, holding down the songs with style, finesse, and the occasional startlingly melodic run; Bill Hubauer’s keyboard work permeates the project with walls of texture and break-out solo lines; Eric Gillette completes this triad of members of Neal’s ‘regular’ band, although here he’s behind the drum kit (mostly) delivering powerhouse fills and intricate patterns that would no-doubt get a thumbs-up from the Neal Morse Band’s usual drummer, Mike Portnoy. Joining the instrumental engine of this project is none other than Paul Bielatowicz, whose emotional, but lightning-fast fretwork adds a dazzling flourish whenever it’s called for.
Of course a strong cast of vocalists was called for, and Neal made some great choices. Ted Leonard did a fine, nuanced job as Jesus. Talon David sang the part of Mary Magdaline - and, for me, was a highlight. Her performance was emotionally convincing, perhaps because of some rough edges, which is fine. A more polished vocal would show less humanity. This isn’t to say that there was anything lacking in her delivery – her vocal timbre and phrasing occasionally reminded me of Olivia Newton John, and I mean that in all of the best possible ways. Nick D’Virgilio’s vocalization of Judas was tempered, strong, and emotionally potent, evoking a measure of sympathy for the doomed disciple. Fans of CCM will hear another side of Rick Florian, who sings the role convincingly, with an edge that wasn’t as evident in his days as lead singer of the popular Christian band, White Heart. Matt Smith (John the Baptist), Jake (son of Kerry) Livgren (as Peter and Caiaphas), Mark Pogue, Will (son of Neal) Morse, Gabe Klein, and Julie Harrison all do fine work in a variety of supporting roles. Neal himself sings the parts of ‘Disciple 1,’Demon 1,’ and a well-nuanced, conflicted Pilate. A couple of interesting side-notes: Petra veteran John Schlitt portrayed Caiaphas in the live debut performance of the piece but was not available to reprise the role in-studio. Livgren’s version makes it easy to hear what Schlitt’s raspy hard-rock interpretation might have sounded like. Also, with Jesus Christ – The Exorcist being released on Frontier Records, that makes Morse a label-mate with Stryper – one can easily imagine Michael Sweet’s rock-operatic voice contributing to the project. Wouldn’t that have been interesting?!
Additional musicians and vocalists: Female ensemble vocals: April Zachary, Amy Pippin, Debbie Bressee, Julie Harrison Male ensemble vocals: Wil Morse, Jake Livgren, Mark Pogue, Neal Morse, Michael Jackson Trumpet: Steve Patrick, Dominique Caster French horn: Holly Smith Trombone: David Cooper Saxophone and flute: Gabriel Collins Horn and string arrangements, string bass, cello, viola: Gideon Klein Violin 1: Jake Tudor, Gideon Klein Violin 2: Jake Tudor, Jose Weigand Viola: Grace Laminack.
There are too many emotional and/or musical highlights on Jesus Christ – The Exorcist to detail here. This is somewhat of a landmark project – not because it hasn’t been tried before, but because it has never been done this successfully before, and certainly never performed before by such a respected troupe of artists. The instrumental passages are stunning and evoke images of elaborate choreography and potential staging. The characters truly come to life – the confusion, zeal, conflict and regret of Judas comes across in a relatable way, as does the passion, devotion, and longing of Mary Magdalene. Two ‘show-stopping’ numbers are, in fact, the bluesy, burlesque-inspired “The Woman of Seven Devils” and the disarmingly worshipful “Free at Last.” The contrast of the before-and-after of Mary is a powerful moment in the story, and “Free at Last” is possibly one of Morse’s best, most accessible songs ever, and will certainly move anyone that hears it in the context of this project.
Also worth noting – “Hearts Full of Holes” – a powerful ballad from Judas’ point of view, “the very theatrical ‘Gethsemane,” the tour-de-force “Jesus Before Pilate and The Crucifixion,” which – near the end – has one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching guitar solos you’re likely to hear any time on any album.
If there’s a weakness here it might simply be the title, which might ‘put off’ some of the potential audience as being a bit sensational and weighted in the wrong direction. Still others might be drawn to Jesus Christ – The Exorcist for the same reason – either way, Neal had his own logic for choosing the title, based on his observation in the scriptural events. Written and produced by Neal Morse, Jesus Christ – The Exorcist, is indeed a milestone project. The uniqueness of being a ‘rock-opera’ puts the work into a unique and not-overly-populated category where ‘over the top’ is the expected performing technique. Neal and his cast delivers the goods.
4 ½ TOCKS
To see Bert Saraco’s concert photography, which features several of the artists mentioned in the review above, go to: