The Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment

The prog polymath tries something completely different…

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This is one that could’ve gone either way.

The Neal Morse Band entered the studio for The Grand Experiment with no prepared material. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Sweet FA. “I wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions,” explains Morse in the accompanying press release, adding: “It was quite a risk!”

This course of action was quite out of character for the former Spock’s Beard vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player, accompanied once again by Transatlantic cohort Mike Portnoy on drums, plus bassist Randy George, guitarist/vocalist Eric Gillette and keyboard player Bill Hubauer. Some past Morse-Portnoy collaborations (Flying Colors and Transatlantic among them) have flown by the seat of their pants, with each band member bringing skeletal ideas to the sessions to be expanded upon before hitting record. However, Morse has been a stickler for scrupulous levels of preparation when it comes to his own work.

The biography merely skims the surface of the creative process, so how many of these five tunes are the result of genuine jam sessions is unknown. What’s more likely is that they were penned on the same day of their recording. Regardless, The Grand Experiment remains a Herculean effort. Following hot on the heels of the singer/songwriter-based strains of previous record, Songs From November, and you’d never guess its seat-of-the-pants roots if you didn’t know about them. It’s a sumptuous banquet of progressive rock.

The most expansive of four shorter tracks, Following The Call begins with a delicious a cappella intro before soaring off into a Transatlantic-style riff. Its 10 minutes simply fly by before you know it. Harder hitting and featuring some impressive shredding from Gillette (which Morse mocks mercilessly in its video) ,the title track is formulated around

a hook-line of pure gold, and encapsulates the album’s apparent mood of pressure-free spontaneity.

Next up, Waterfall overturns musical dexterity in favour of beautifully melodious vocal interplay. If indeed it was created in a morning, the participants should be proud of themselves. They then juxtapose Waterfall’s fragility with Agenda, a hard-hitting, hook-laden rock anthem. And yes, of course there’s also a truly epic piece. _Alive Again _lasts for almost half an hour but to the band’s credit sounds nothing like the results of a fragmented jam session glued together in a fit of desperation. The Experiment is a success… with knobs on!