Prog rocker NEIL MORSE has made giant strides both musically and spiritually, since he decided to go solo in 2002. He spoke to Steve Best.
When Cross Rhythms last spoke to California's Neal Morse (CR71) he was still fronting Spock's Beard, the progressive rock band whose tireless touring and stream of critically acclaimed albums had earned them a large "cult following" of discerning rock buffs. But an awful lot has happened in the three years since we spoke. Neal has now taken the solo route and with two magnificent albums 'Testimony' and 'One' the singer/guitarist/producer has again demonstrated that he is one of the most thoughtfully creative figures in the whole rock pantheon. Both albums have also demonstrated that his new found Christian faith is now an essential driving force and lyrical focus of Neal's music.
"'Testimony' was my story. 'One' tells the story of all mankind," Morse explains the concept on which his new work is based. "The album tells the story of the lost song: God and man are together - man leave him - he will be separated form him and thus getting moe and more unhappy. God sends his son to lead mankind back to him, and at the end there is a wonderful reunification."
'Testimony' received huge acclaim from Christian critics. Neal though was not sure that my suggestion that it was "an unqualified success" is accurate. "I don't know if it was an unqualified success.that depends by what standards you judge. I felt it was a success with the Lord. I tried not to think about a follow up; I tried to pray and ask, 'Lord, what do you want? Do you want me to make an album?' And I felt compelled to make and work on it.and when you feel inspired, and the Lord's wind at your back.you know he is going to help. We can do a lot of things on our own. But I'm looking for the 'magic' that can only come from him. And when I feel that wind at my back from him, I just know it's going to work out well. I felt that with 'Testimony' and 'One'.
I asked Neal to describe the extraordinary musical journey that is 'One'. "Well, you start out at creation, and hopefully get a sense of the joy and exhilaration of walking with God in the cool of the day.a picture of being like-minded and working with him. And then you'll feel this sadness. For me, on 'Testimony', I wanted people to feel my heart much of the time. On 'One', I'd like for them to feel God's heart, if there's any way possible. God says, 'Children, where are you?' And the reply is, 'The man is gone to make his way alone/You don't seem to want me around/So I'll be on my way.' I tried to capture the feelings of sadness and the pain.of being separated from the Heavenly Father. I sing about feeling the need to come back home.three times. I want people to feel the need for more of him. At the end, I sing about God sending his son, Jesus, to reunite fallen and separated man. And of the party and the joy of being back together.
"The Bible says there's a party in Heaven every time a sinner repents.I've felt that celebration in my heart. I talked about that in my letter of explanation that I posted on the Spock's Beard website. I tell the whole experience: Basically, I felt the Lord compelling me to go in a new direction. And when I followed that direction, I felt this joy in my heart; I felt clear instruction. And then immediately started doubting. So, I had to pray a lot.so it all lined up with God's word. I prayed for a long while, and I think that was important. I kept reading Jesus saying, 'He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.' That encouraged me. At certain points in your work with God, you'll feel his pleasure in your soul and spirit. And when you feel it, you just want to feel it more, because you want to be in that space. I'd like listeners to feel that celebration; but before they feel that, to see the laying down of the self and giving to him."
Drummer Mike Portnoy has been working with Neal since 'Testimony'. I asked what effect working with such outspokenly Christian projects may have had on him. "I don't know how it has affected him, other than he really enjoyed it.and that we really enjoyed working together. As far as in spiritual sense, you'd have to ask him."
I asked Neal about another musical compatriot, Randy George. "Randy George is an interesting cat. My introduction was him just cold-calling me through a mutual friend; he asked me to sing on a project of his. His record was very bold and I was impressed. So, we started to do some things together. He's very bold in the Lord.though he's not pushy. Randy wrote some of the lyrics on 'One', such as, 'Now that we can come back as priests and kings.' He wrote that whole verse. I thought it was awesome! He's really tuned in and really fun to work with. And he does a great William Shatner impression."
Another master musician on 'One' was Phil Keaggy. Enthused Neal, "It was great having Phil play and sing. I was so glad that it all worked out. For awhile, it was looking tenuous. We didn't know if there would be time for him to do it. And then.at the final hour, three or four days before the album was due, he was able to do it. I'm so glad! A lot of it wasn't planned. His vocals, for example.I just asked him, 'Hey, you wanna sing something?' And we ended up doing 'Cradle To The Grave' and 'What Is Life?' together."
I asked Neal whether he felt the upfront Christian lyrics for 'Testimony' and 'One' may have put old Spock's Beard fans off? "People, for the most part, don't seem to be too set off by the lyrics. But when I was doing it, I didn't know what people would say. What a great opportunity to give the message to the unchurched."
I ask him whether he was glad he hadn't signed with a Christian record label. "I'm really not concerned with labels. I prayed a lot about whether to continue with the same people I'd been working with. Essentially, these new albums ['Testimony' and 'One'] were for the same kind of listener. I began by testifying to the audience.not just communicating an understanding, but imparting a genuine feeling of what was happening to me. With 'One', I'm going further.I'm taking an overview of the message of God and man. Yes, it makes sense to go to the Christian audience. But I'm still mainly addressing the audience I've had for years now."
More recordings from Neal are in the pipeline. "I'm currently putting vocals on a song-oriented Christian album for future release. Also, I'm considering making a children's album with my kids. And, I'm considering coming over to Europe and doing some kind of solo/gig worship service in some churches."
Despite his new found passion for Christian themes Neal hasn't lost his enthusiasm for mainstream music. The special edition in digibook format on 'One' contains a 40 minute bonus disc which, apart from five songs by Morse, contains four covers. "I'm Free" by The Who, "Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2, George Harrison's "What Is Life?" as well as "Day After Day" by Badfinger. Said Neal, "We had a studio day left and wanted to have a little bit of fun. So everybody got a cover song to arrange jus as they liked, and one we did together."
My final question to Neal was whether he ever had a desire to play the old Spock's Beard favourite "Gibberish" again. "Yeah, I've done it at my [recent] solo gigs. It's just a bunch of gibberish, but it's interesting, musically." Neal laughed long and loud.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.