Just when you think you have Neal Morse figured out, he throws another curve ball. His latest project is “a progressive rock musical”, and it is unlike anything else he has produced.
First, Neal himself is not a prominent voice here. He only sings the part of Pilate, along with very minor contributions as a demon and a disciple. Second, this really is a musical, where one song flows seamlessly into another. To fully appreciate it, the listener needs to set aside the time to listen to it in one setting. Third, stylistically this is the most diverse set of songs Neal has written. In his own words, “There are touching ballads, rousing ensemble pieces, classical elements, and dramatic Broadway musical type songs, as well.”
The role of Jesus is performed by Ted Leonard, and he is perfect for it – authoritative one minute, combative the next, and achingly tender in other settings. It’s one of Leonard’s finest performances. Another standout performer is Nick D’Virgilio as Judas, where he manages to convey his initial excitement at Jesus’ early miracles, and then his confusion and disillusionment when he realizes his rabbi isn’t going to overthrow the Roman oppression of Israel. His anguish in “Dark Is The Night” is palpable as he sings,
Jesus there must be some other way
Of conquering the enemy
How can you help us
If you are dead and gone?
Speaking of Jesus, Morse’s version is definitely not the same as the Jesus Christ Superstar from the early ’70s. Where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus was the happy, hip leader of a group of countercultural provocateurs, Morse’s is a man of action. As I listened to Jesus Christ The Exorcist, the Gospel of Mark came to mind: to the point, not a lot of parables or theological discussions, but many examples of active ministry. Morse’s Jesus is the one in the title: an exorcist waging spiritual battle against the devil and his demons. In many ways, it’s a refreshing portrait. Morse strips the story of Jesus down to the bare essentials – his baptism, temptation, casting out seven demons from Mary, saving the madman of the Gadarenes, the Last Supper, his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. If someone who had no idea who Jesus Christ was listened to this album, he or she would have a pretty good understanding afterwards.
What about the music? Neal still has the gift of beautiful melody, and “Love Has Called My Name” is one of the catchiest songs he’s ever composed. There are some fairly heavy tracks (“Get Behind Me Satan”, for example), some singer/songwriter songs (the aforementioned “Dark Is The Night”), some blues (“The Woman of Seven Devils”), and some very nice prog (“Jesus’ Temptation”). “There’s A Highway” sounds like it could be blasting out of a late-70s FM rock radio station.
The vocal performances are uniformly excellent, especially Talon David as Mary Magdalene. Neal wrote and produced the entire piece, as well as playing guitar, keyboards, bass, and percussion. Eric Gillette from the Neal Morse Band plays drums (!), and long-time collaborator Randy George is on bass. Paul Bielatowicz plays lead guitar. There’s also a string orchestra, horns, male chorus, female chorus, and a kitchen sink (just kidding!).
If you’re a fan of Neal, you probably already have this. If his occasional flights of prog excess have made you wary of his music, give this a try – it covers more familiar musical territory. Even if you are not a Christian, give it a listen. It’s actually not as “preachy” as Morse’s earlier Testimony albums, and his gift for composing a memorable melody really shines here, making Jesus Christ The Exorcist one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of 2019.
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