“It’s the big joke, bands doing their 15th farewell tour! And I get it… a year or two goes by and you think, ‘You know, I’d sure like to do that again. Why not?’” Neal Morse on the chances of a Transatlantic reunion

Neal Morse
(Image credit: Press)

Neal Morse has returned to the Bible to inspire his latest concept album, The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One. The singer-musician has harnessed the tale of big dreams and redemption woven with sibling rivalry and betrayal and transformed it into a progressive rock epic. Morse tells Prog all about it and also details his second collaborative album with Nick D’Virgilio and Ross Jennings.

Neal Morse is a little hoarse. We catch him the day before August’s Morsefest, his annual convention at his local church in White House, Tennessee; there’ll be another at the Netherlands’ fabled Boerderij club the following weekend.

He and his band – long-time friend and drummer Mike Portnoy, bassist Randy George, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer – have been rehearsing hard alongside their string and horn sections.

“Morsefest has taken on a life of its own,” Morse tells Prog, all rock star-gravelly and looking two-thirds of his 63 years. “It’s this special event for a lot of people and, to use a Christian term, it’s a great ‘fellowship,’ great camaraderie. Everyone’s sharing in the joy of this music they love. I’m blessed to be a part of it, really.”

In the set are pieces from his latest religious concept album, The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One, and they’ll play the entirety of a pivotal record turning 20 this year. Testimony was made in the light of Morse’s conversion to Christianity in 2002, a transformation that saw him leave both Spock’s Beard – the band he made his name with – and, for a while at least, the supergroup Transatlantic.

The grandeur and complexity of his symphonic prog naturally lends itself to big themes, and his faith would inform most of his subsequent work, from 2004’s One (based on the parable of the prodigal son) to 2020’s Sola Gratia, about the life of St Paul. Released on the Frontiers label, his 2019 rock opera Jesus Christ The Exorcist featured fellow Spock’s alumni Ted Leonard as Jesus, Nick D’Virgilio as Judas Iscariot and Morse himself as Pilate. It even hit the Top 100 in the US.

Morse recalls, “Every couple of months after that Frontiers would email saying, ‘Hey, when can we have a follow-up?’ And they were pretty specific about it being another rock opera with multiple singers. I thought of [King] David, or of maybe a second instalment on Paul, or something that wasn’t even from the Bible, like [anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich] Bonhoeffer. But in the end I settled on Joseph.”

A key figure in the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s is a story of many colours. A Canaanite and vivid dreamer betrayed and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers Joseph became a servant to the head of the Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, and was thrown in jail when he refused the advances of his boss’ spiteful wife. But his skills in oneiromancy – the interpretation of dreams – were his salvation, and he become the Pharaoh’s chief adviser, also saving Egypt from famine, forgiving his brothers and founding one of Israel’s main tribes.

“It was a very attractive story,” says Morse, “because of the dreams, and then the betrayal. I like writing these concept albums because you can really dig into the dark side. The main thing that attracts me about the Joseph story is how, everywhere he goes, when he’s done wrong he does excellently toward those who wrong him.”

From its proudly dissonant overture, The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One is a rock musical that takes the listener halfway, from Joseph’s early dreams to his incarceration. Morse is in the title role, and the cast includes his son Wil, Leonard again, and talented young singer Talon David.

With musician guests such as Flying Colors bandmate/guitar god Steve Morse on board, the music is by turns proggy (5/8 rocker Burns Like A Wheel), anthemic (Before The World Was) and pop-rocky (the heavy Liar, Liar and the nicely sleazy Slave Boy). Only the Verdi-lite choral moment I Will Wait For The Lord sounds ecclesiastic – Joseph... is every inch a prog rock opera.

“It’s gotta be prog, right?” says Morse with a laugh. “The thing is, the mainstream Christian person in America has no interest in anything that sounds like progressive rock at all. So as soon as the overture hits for Joseph..., all those mainstream people are going to be out! If you clipped out a single, they might go, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I could listen to that.’ But on the whole this is a prog album, for prog fans.”

For the record, in conversation Morse is never once preachy about religion. He’s good, honest company – a prolific, talented musician who happens to be devoutly religious. He says he doesn’t necessarily feel his God’s guiding presence when writing, but regularly wakes up with ideas, and attributes this to God “giving me music in my half-sleep.”

The first sketch for the song Before The World Was just fell out of him, and he thinks that’s how his Lord often works in life: “You tell Him you’re going to trust Him and walk this way. Sometimes you’ll feel some specific guidance, but it’s not like every moment He’s saying, ‘Now say this, now say that!’”

Say ‘Joseph musical’ to most Brits, and chances are they’ll get a mental image of Jason Donovan or Phillip Schofield in a swirling, rainbow-hued coat, then sing you a few lines of Any Dream Will Do. Surprisingly, Morse has never even heard Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: “I lived on Jesus Christ Superstar on vinyl when I was 12 years old, but I’ve never heard ...Dreamcoat. I need to!

“But when I was writing the blurb for the album I did say – ‘Joseph – you know, the guy with the coat!’ Because when you’re talking about Joseph from the Bible it’s either the guy with the coat, or Mary’s husband.”

Joseph: Part Two is due for release early next year, and also on the slate for early 2023 is Transatlantic’s live set recorded at 2022’s Morsefest. That group – comprising Morse, Portnoy, Roine Stolt and Pete Trewavas – are rumoured to have called it quits this year after releasing The Final Flight: Live At L’Olympia. But could it be that Morse is wavering?

“I don’t think any of us ever want to say anything definitive, because you don’t know what can happen. It’s the big joke – all those bands doing their 15th farewell tour! And I get it – you’ll feel that way when you do it, then a year or two goes by and you think, ‘You know, I’d sure like to do that again. Why not?’”

And as for those ‘mainstream Christians’ deterred by Joseph’s progressive style, there’s always the digestible melodies, tight vocal harmonies and good old-fashioned songcraft of Morse’s trio with Nick D’Virgilio and Haken’s Ross Jennings. Their debut, Troika, was one of the sweeter surprises of 2022 and their second, Sophomore, was released in November.

“That was lovely,” says Morse. “It was very easy compared to Joseph because Nick and Ross are playing and singing a lot of stuff, so my role’s not as major, and the music’s much simpler. The Troika stuff sounds great with just an acoustic guitar, a little percussion and our voices. It’s a very special blend.”

Both albums were recorded remotely, but the three finally got together in person at Morse’s place earlier this year, when Jennings was touring the US with Haken. They made two videos, did a photoshoot, and got to sing in the same room for the first time.

“I can’t say enough about the camaraderie and friendship factor that’s involved,” says Morse. “That’s a really deep part of it, and as I get older I appreciate it even more.

“I haven’t seen the Flying Colors guys for some time, and I miss them. It’s just really good to be together. I think that’s something God cares about very much – gathering people together, and the beautiful things that can happen. It’s a good thing.”

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.