neal morse grand experiment, pick of the monthThis is an album that demands a physical reaction (in my case: air guitar, air drums and random punching the sky) but it is also chock-full of a spiritual power and musical excellence. Virtually guaranteed a place in the 2015 best-ofs and surely a career best for Morse? In many places it's virtually perfect.

Label: Radiant Records
Time: 5 tracks / 53 mins.

Before going into detail, I need to declared my Neal Morse experiences. I never really felt excited by his rising-to-fame band Spock's Beard, which seemed a little dull and samey to me. Transatlantic also struck me as somewhat ponderous. His initial solo Christian albums were great, particularly Testimony and ? (especially live), before getting over-heavy with Sola Scriptura.

So let this early wariness underline my exhilaration at this release. Since his time with Flying Colours and recently releasing the more soulful Songs for November, he seems to have discovered new colours and conciseness. Everything here shines like the sun in close-up. The work is so tight and packed with melody that each track leaves you hungry for more, rather than less.

With only five tracks, we can look at each in turn.

The Call: About leaving everything else behind in order to follow the call, initially this is a strong piece, while not a standout. But after a Rickenbacker bass riff from Randy George and an inspiring verse from Morse, a Mellotron-laden instrumental breaks out and builds into a jazz-rock piece where the guitar and Wakemanesque synth trade impassioned lines and lead into a harmony-rich climactic vocal section.

The Grand Experiment: A real riffy stomper, this is classic straight Morse, celebrating the precious, random honour that is life "It's a grand experiment... / There it comes, now there it went... It's a grand experiment / A well planned bizarre event." It features rockier vocals (Morse shares out the duties here). An added bonus is the speaker-swapping a capella treated vocal section.

Agenda: Like a cross between the Newsboys (their humour and poppiness) and punchy American '90's style AOR bands like Toto, this tongue-in-cheek song lightens the mood, but keeps you thinking that there is still some serious thought going on here. It's those fascinating Steve-Taylor-like lyrics that work so effectively.

Waterfall: This gorgeous acoustic ballad must be inspired by Genesis' Entangled. Its guitar lines and the keys sound at the end are strikingly similar. A song about letting go of sorrow, it is blissfully quiet amongst a vibrant, energetic set. Virtually perfect, this hooky, melodic spine-tingling piece is topped with some jazzy clarinet from the excellent keys player Bill Hubauer (as elsewhere, these extra woodwind and brass accents are the final gleam from the polish).

Alive Again: the inevitable 20-something-minute epic, full of light and shade, this one has all the elements you expect and more: a couple of interweaving motifs, more Mellotron, more jazz-rock keys, more shredding from guitarist Eric Gillette, some chamber strings – and, wait for it, a punchy brass section (in a prog epic!!) which all celebrate another Testimony-like lyric from Morse, who describes moving from despair to real life:

"Now I feel like I'm alive again / Spread my arms upon the open wind

Yeah, I feel like I'm alive again / Never looking back to where I've been 

I can see the light burning in my soul."

Recalling Genesis (on steroids) again, this is like a serious riposte to that band's brilliant, but sarcastic, "Supper's Ready" as it builds, via some sumptuous pitch-bends, to a prolonged ecstatic God-centred climax.

Throughout this album, the sound is pristine and packed full of instrumental colour that I've rarely heard from Morse before. The teamwork has really paid off. I cannot think of anyone anywhere who has made just five tracks so different, while still cohesive as a release and with each track brilliant in its own right. After Bainbridge, this is a second masterpiece involving Randy George in a few months.

Enough words. Let me just put it this way: The Grand Experiment could be the best Christian album of the last few years. Period.


Derek Walker

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