With lots of strong tunes, thoughtful content and consummate musicianship, as with all Morse’s work, this rock opera is a project well worth exploring.
Label: Frontiers Records
Time: 25 tracks / 110 minutes
Morse’s last three albums have been so good that two have been among the best releases of their years. But how would this compare, being a progressive rock opera, rather than a collection of songs?
Morse is plainly no stranger to concept albums – his past releases have included a work about God’s glory, his own story (twice), Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (twice again, as if a double album isn’t long enough!). But this is different, as it includes a rock choir and a lot more characters in conversation to tell the story. But isn’t the concept of a rock opera a bit 1970s?
One of the great things about this is that it is one of the few rock operas about Jesus to be written by a Christian, and that gives it a real integrity and a depth of content – instead of a clown or a superstar, Jesus is fighting evil and death. And this time we get resurrection.
All the musicians, as usual, are exemplary. His regular band holds it together and anyone who has seen his live shows knows how multi-instrumentalist each player is. Here guitarist Eric Gillette plays drums in the absence of Mike Portnoy. Taking Gillette’s place is Carl Palmer Band guitarist (and Dave Bainbridge collaborator) Paul Bielatowicz, who fits in seamlessly.
Over its first few tracks, I feared that the story-telling might scupper the album, as some of the dialogue seems a bit forced into tunes, but the project takes off during "Jesus' Tempation" as Jesus and Satan confront each other (played out by a guitar/synth dual).
It embeds that quality when relative newcomer Talon David powerfully sings "The Woman of Seven Devils" against a dirty, bluesy riff (it reminds me of Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart teaming up), before Bielatowicz takes it up a gear further with the sort of fervent soaring solo that has electrified earlier Morse works.
The strength of David’s singing is that she almost straddles two different genres to portray the woman both as demonised and then released in the tremendously soulful “Free at Last.”
That variety continues throughout the album, as Morse expresses the story through appropriate styles. Of course Prog rock dominates, but prog is eclectic by definition. “There’s a Highway” is very accessible classic rock; “The Madman of the Gadarenes” features the sort of intricate à capella vocal interplay that Gentle Giant made their own (different parts for different demons); you can imagine “He Must Go to the Cross” being played by Queen; a couple of tracks are riffy; there’s a bit of marching band for the Pilate song, and “Love has Called my Name” is a terrific ballad with a must-join-in chorus. It climaxes the project twice.
I may have had my doubts at the start, but the end leaves me wanting to hear that song all over again.
And not just that one. Always happy to give a nod to other musicians’ work, this time he borrows his own track, adapting the Transatlantic classic “We all Need Some Light” on the earworm “Hearts Full of Holes,” reprising it on “Gethsemane.”
With plenty of strong tunes, thoughtful content and consummate musicianship, this is yet another release that keeps Morse at the top of the prog league. And it just gets better with every play.