I have to admit, after the music Neal Morse has put out over the last few years, I wasn’t as excited for The Grand Experiment as perhaps I should have been. This isn’t, however, a comment on the quality of the music (which has been generally ridiculously high), but rather the sheer amount of it. Flying Colors’ Second Nature, Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope, a solo singer-songwriter album, and numerous tours with all his bands don’t leave much time for a new solo prog album, which given the circumstances has come around alarmingly quickly.
I also felt that his last prog album, Momentum, while being a very good album, did not quite reach the highs of such albums as One, Sola Scriptura, or ?. I’m starting to wonder if it was good not coming in with huge expectations, as the album may have disappointed me slightly. As it wasn’t the case, I’m impressed with the album and while it still doesn’t rank amongst his best, it’s a solid prog album and one that shows that Morse isn’t afraid to venture into new territory, and that he certainly hasn’t stagnated.
The main difference between this album and his other prog efforts is that this is the first Neal Morse Band album; it features musicians Bill Hubauer, Eric Gillette, as well as ol’ faithfuls Mike Portnoy and Randy George. For the first time, Neal Morse went into the studio with little to no material pre-written and The Grand Experiment is a wholly collaborative effort. I feel that this brings both advantages and disadvantages. It’s very refreshing to hear new voices in the music, and Hubauer and Gillette are both given a lot of air time, leading whole sections of songs. The harmonies, too, sound much better, much fuller. Maybe it’s because I’m too used to Morse’s style, but the instrumental sections in the longer songs haven’t wowed me as much as they have on other albums, but I’ve not listened to the album enough to be able to pick up on the little nuances and I’m sure they’ll grow on me. Maybe seeing them live will help. This isn’t to say that they aren’t impressive, though. The musicianship on the record is astounding and Portnoy, who I also feel has stagnated somewhat when it comes to prog music, genuinely shines on the album. He has a tendency for, as my dad puts it, ‘too much drumming’. But I feel on this album there is just the right amount, and it’s creative, different, and at times mind-blowing.
‘The Call’ opens the album in a slightly unconventional manner with a rich, harmonised acapella section. This section is repeated again towards the end of the track, which is one of my personal highlights on the album and harks back to ‘Thoughts Pt. 2’ from Spock’s Beard’s V. ‘The Call’ is a solid track and a great album opener, almost bookending the album along with obligatory epic ‘Alive Again’. I was wary of the epic track because of the formulaic and over-long nature of World Without End, but perhaps with the help of new resident band members, ‘Alive Again’ feels fresh and doesn’t follow ‘epic’ convention as some are wont to do. All members are given a chance to shine, instrumentally and vocally, and this will surely be an amazing way to close a concert. The middle three shorter tracks have some of the strongest and weakest moments. First single and title track ‘The Grand Experiment’ is a punchy and catchy rock song and my favourite of the three. Unfortunately ‘Agenda’ doesn’t grip me as much and is clearly the weakest track on the album. That said, it’s very very catchy and I already find myself humming it, so maybe it’s not so bad. ‘Waterfall’ is a beautiful ballad, one which will fit snugly into Neal’s back catalogue, alongside ‘Cradle to the Grave’, ‘We All Need Some Light’, ‘Children of the Chosen’ et al.
I’m very much a prog listener of the modern generation; I’ve never properly got into Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant…the big prog names. I was introduced to prog through Marillion, Dream Theater, Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard. That said, many comparisons have been made to Neal Morse with these older prog bands, and that ‘retro’ sound is definitely clear to me on this album.
All in all, this album may not be Morse’s best, but it’s not his worst, and it’s made me thoroughly excited to catch him on his upcoming tour. It’s also worth noting the second disc of the special edition features the amazing track ‘New Jerusalem (Freedom is Coming)’, and live versions of ‘The Creation’ and ‘Reunion’ from One, recorded at MorseFest which are definitely also worth a listen. These last two, unfortunately, remind me just how good Morse can be at his best.
Standout tracks: The Call, Waterfall, Alive Again