NEAL MORSE — Jesus Christ the Exorcist (review)

NEAL MORSE — Jesus Christ the Exorcist album cover Album · 2019 · Metal Related Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Some parts of Neal Morse's solo discography are easier to pigeonhole than others. There's the prog albums - either under his own name or, as has tended to be the case since 2015, put out through the vehicle of the Neal Morse Band - there's the worship music albums of much more straightforward Christian music, there's a few singer-songwriter releases and collections of cover songs and so on. For the really hardcore fans, there's also his various fan club releases, including both demos recorded for solo and band projects and more obscure bits and pieces from his personal archives.

Jesus Christ the Exorcist, however, doesn't fit easily into any of these categories. For one thing, it's a musical, one which Morse first drafted in 2008 but was not performed in any form until 2018. Morse has written musicals before - one of the early Inner Circle Club releases was Hitman, presenting the songs from a musical he devised in the early 1990s (a music industry satire about a record company executive who bets one of his peers that he can make a band that doesn't exist world-famous) - but this is perhaps the first time such a project had come fully to fruition.

As the title might imply, it's based on the life of Jesus, so we're definitely in the realm of his more overtly religious material. At the same time, it's a rock opera, so there are some shades of his prog work here - but it's perhaps the first of his prog-leaning solo releases not to see Mike Portnoy behind the drumstool (though his regular sideman Randy George is there on bass).

The end result is something which doesn't quite sound like anything Neal has done before. There's certainly elements of his prog work here, but it's also shot through with flavours of classic musical theatre and worship music. Both of these are genres which Neal has injected into his prog work before, but usually for extra spice or gravitas where it was called for; here, those influences are more prominent, in effect forming the other two legs of the tripod on which the album rests.

Of all Neal's prog peers, perhaps the project this release can best be compared to is the work of Ayreon - not necessarily in terms of musical style, but in terms of presenting a rock opera with a full cast, with a host of singers portraying the different characters. Neal himself gives voice to a disciple, a demon, and the more ambiguous figure of Pontius Pilate himself, and I don't know whether that triple casting is simply reflecting a need to fill out the roles or a genuinely clever move which allows Neal to embody the mixture of saint, sinner, and confused man-in-the-middle that we all find ourselves being at different times in our lives.

Another fun twist with the casting comes with the involvement of Ted Leonard and Nick D'Virgilio, who play Jesus and Judas respectively; Nick took on the lead singer role in Spock's Beard after Neal left, and Ted picked up that spot when Nick left, so you end up here with the three major "voices" of the band all playing roles on the same project.

Giving such an important central role to Ted is a pretty strong statement of approval on Neal's part - even if you set aside the obvious gravitas necessary to play Jesus in a musical written from a reasonably sincere religious perspective, that's the starring role right there! - and perhaps that indicates just how much Neal respects Ted's work. (Neal would provide a guest appearance on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, the first Spock's Beard album to feature Ted on lead vocals, and it's notable that he avoided taking any vocals himself, yielding the spotlight to Ted to give him a clear run at it.) Leonard, for his part, certainly steps up to the plate, and does a fine job with the role.

Still, I can't quite get into this release; I respect what it's trying to do, but it's ultimately taking an approach which isn't entirely to my taste. It's a competent rendition of a story you likely already know very well, and it stands out in Morse's discography more as a result of being different from his usual fare rather than being a cut above his average standards.
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