NEAL MORSE - Jesus Christ The Exorcist


Jesus Christ The Exorcist – just the title alone heralds something different, something extraordinary. Neal Morse doesn’t need an introduction, and most who are going to be interested in this work of musical art are already keenly aware of what Neal has accomplished during his progressive rock career with Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors and his own solo band. So, the natural question (for me at least) is what can he still bring to the table that we haven’t heard already? I confess that his latest work The Great Adventure fell just a bit flat on my ears. Naturally, I was skeptical if something released so quick on the heels of that release would shine. Furthermore, The Exorcist was something Neal has been working on for many years but never completed. That always makes me wonder, “Oh, maybe the creative engine has given out, so its time to pull out the ‘demo’ material.”

I can confidently say, after multiple listens, that nothing could be farther from the truth. Not only does this release cover new ground, it does so in a manner that is both refreshingly “different” compared to most of the past two decades of Neal Morse music, and satisfyingly “old-school” big stage musical production (as in Broadway) in character. Rather than lament yet another 2CD/3LP epic concept album, fans can rejoice that Neal has released something very special – a Biblically accurate, Broadway-style, contemporary rock opera portraying Jesus Christ and His work on earth during the time from His birth, through His baptism, His betrayal and trial, and finally His redeeming sacrifice on the cross and triumphant resurrection.

The Music

Musically, this is prog rock (lite) mixed with theatrical/musical pomp and elements of both contemporary praise and traditional hymn/choral worship music. There is a much greater emphasis on the vocal contributions (a great diversity of vocalists this time), and never before with Neal has the text/lyrical content eclipsed the instrumental complexity to this degree. Fortunately, as with any successful “show,” there are still a great number of instrumental passages and performances along the way. Neal takes a back seat vocally (appearing only a few times) and Eric Gillette plays the drums in place of Portnoy. Bill Hubauer (keys) and Randy George (bass) play their usual parts but are joined by Paul Bielatowicz (Carl Palmer Band) on guitars. The band provides a familiar sound yet one with enough variation to keep things interesting and engaging.

In Ayreon/Avantasia fashion, Neal employed the help a quite a few talented vocalists. For me this vocal diversity is one of the aspects that makes The Exorcist exciting and more compelling in some ways than anything he has ever attempted previously. Ted Leonard (Spock’s Beard) is absolutely brilliant as Jesus – his voice quality the perfect balance of authority and compassion. Talon David (who I have never heard sing previously) is also spectacular as Mary Magdalene – her performance stunning, especially on “The Woman Of Seven Devils” and during the final sequence of “The Greatest Love of All.” Nick D’Virgilio perfectly portrays Judas, and Rick Florian (White Heart) nails Satan. Of course, my two favorite vocalists on this project are Matt Smith (Theocracy) and Jake Livgren (Proto-kaw). Smith’s John the Baptist is so powerful on “Gather the People” – definitely one of the most upbeat and hardest rocking tunes on the entire set. Likewise, Livgren breathes life into the character of Peter (“Better Weather”) but is even more impressive as Caiaphas on Act Two tracks like “He Must Go To The Cross” and “Jesus Before The Council.” The rest of “The Cast” does a great job as well and I just can’t say enough about the excellent quality of the vocals (clearly the highlight) on this release.

The Lyrics

Lyrically, unlike Neal’s other works, which have often either been inspired by his own personal spiritual journey or by the revelation and inspiration of fellow believers, The Exorcist dialog/content is directly pulled from the Bible and is undeniably Christian. All of the highlight events are covered in detail, and then there are a few surprises, like the highly theatrical showstopper “The Madman of Gadarenes” where Neal and fellow “demons” appeal to Jesus as the “holy one of God” in Queen-like fashion! This kind of artistic interpretation of Legion and the confrontation with Jesus is handled in a clever, yet truthful manner and is a testament to Neal’s commitment to excellence and creativity as a Christian musician/artist. Similarly, the expanded description of Mary Magdalene in “The Woman of Seven Devils” is typically not emphasized by most Christians, but the reality of her beginnings is essential to showcasing the power of Jesus to redeem, and Talon David perfectly depicts Mary’s pre-salvation mindset with sultry smoothness. And then there is the development and fleshing out of the character of Judas. In Neal’s interpretation we are treated to a much broader picture of his story. “Hearts Full Of Holes” goes straight to the mind of Judas where we are treated to insights that might have led to his deception. We then see his betrayal of Jesus in “Gethsemane” and then his ultimate demise at the hands of Caiaphas on “Judas’ Death.”

Act One

The musical is split in two acts (Disc 1 and 2 – CD version). Thankfully, even though there is the typical instrumental “Overture,” it is preceded by the wonderful acoustic “Introduction” where the foreshadowing of events on the cross by Christ sets the stage for what is to follow. I love how nicely all the tracks blend together (even on the vinyl version where there are no track breaks!). It isn’t hard to imagine experiencing this on the big stage in the theater venue. The flow of songs is exceptionally good, with a nice diversity of style and pace from one to the next. “Getaway,” which follows ‘Overture” has that typical “include the entire cast” expansiveness as the Israelites look to the coming of the Messiah, their short-sighted hope in freedom from Roman rule the subject matter. Act One works its way through John the Baptist, Jesus’s Baptism and the introduction to all the main players in this story. Among the many highlights, “Jesus’ Temptation” – the epic 10 minute prog tune from Act One – stands out. Not only is this one of the most densely instrumental songs here, the fleshed-out encounter between Satan and Jesus is probably the best musical and lyrical interpretation of this event I’ve ever heard. The piano near the middle section, just before the symphonic break, reminds me a bit of the debut Saviour Machine – dark and gothic. In addition to the other songs about the Madman of Gadarenes and Mary Magdalene (see the lyrical section above), the first Act closes out with the tandem of “The Keys To The Kingdom” where the entire cast once again joins forces and we are treated to God’s voice (which is a multi-voice ensemble that sounds like a traditional church choir!) which is followed directly by “Get Behind Me Satan” – a reminder that amidst the rejoicing, the Devil is always right there waiting to strike back with conviction. While it would have been “tempting” to end the first Act curtain fall on the positive, I love that Neal (as a foreshadowing of the darkness that would fall) chose to close it out with the words of Jesus – “Get Behind Me Satan!”

Act Two

I applaud that the Act Two opener is not yet another overture instrumental. Instead, we get slammed in the face with the priests and scribes belting out this Kiss-like anthemic chorus against Jake Livgren’s Caiaphas ranting that “He Must Go To The Cross.” This is followed by “Jerusalem” – has that definite Broadway vibe – where the multi-layered vocals once again capture the spotlight. The remainder of Act Two follows through the events of the final week. As mentioned previously, there is quite extensive contribution from Nick D’Virgilio as Judas – the balladic “Hearts Full of Holes” probably his best performance here. “The Last Supper” begins with a classical run, once again steering in the theatrical direction. The Upper Room discourse runs true to Scripture, yet I’ve never heard a better musical rendition of these events. Likewise, “Gethsemane” which follows is equally excellent – musically has a definite Kansas vibe, especially that outrageous keyboard sound. “Jesus Before Pilate…” represents the culmination, epic track on Act Two, and it doesn’t disappoint, Neal’s Pilate dialogue with Leonard’s Jesus the highlight. My only complaint about this track is that the crucifixion seems a bit down-played in comparison to everything which has preceded – musically not quite as intense as I would have expected. Still the singing guitar wailing solo is a nice touch. I do appreciate how the acoustic tune from the introduction reappears during Christ’s final words. “Mary At The Tomb” follows – Talon David once again showcasing her amazing vocal power. Where “Free At Last” from Act One was just a bit too Disney-sounding, this song is dark, passionate, powerful and perfectly segues into “The Greatest Love of All” – the finale – which is essentially a soft duet between Jesus and Mary. The reprise of “Love Has Called My Name” closes out the set with a full cast participation. My only complaint is that the ending is very short and lacks a bit of the power and punch I might have liked to hear, especially after the very light quality of the two preceding tracks. Overall, The Exorcist feels like an “old-school” musical and plays out that way all the way to the end.

The Sound

This recording clearly emphasized the vocal contributions. The voices of every participant are clearly discernable in every song and the voices therefore appropriately sit out nicely in front of the musical mix. The bass punch is just a bit lacking from the drums and bass guitar, but for this style of release, it works well. The loudness factor is low and so you can really play with the volume knob, which is a nice contrast to most contemporary digital recordings. I don’t think this is once of Neal’s best albums in terms of dynamic range, but it sounds very good overall.

The Vinyl

Jesus Christ The Exorcist is my first vinyl experience with Frontiers Records. The gatefold jacket is medium weight, but easily houses the 3 180gm LPs and the lyrics/credits are printed on the inside of the jacket. The paper sleeves are a negative, but easily replaceable. As mentioned previously, I really like that the tracks flow seamlessly on these discs. The sound quality of the music is very good on the vinyl, but I am hearing quite a bit of surface noise (despite repeated listens and cleanings). Again, I don’t have a baseline from Frontiers in order to compare, but it does detract from the listening experience in a few areas. It is unusual for me to prefer the CD version to the vinyl on many releases these days, but I think the CD wins out this time. Plus, for this kind of concept album, CD format is so nice because you don’t have to keep interrupting playback to change record sides.

In the end, I love this music and this recording. What was a long time in coming to the surface, and many years in the making, turns out to be one of my favorite works of Neal’s proliferative and storied career.

Frontiers Records

Release Date = 6/14/2019

Track Listing (CD):

Disc 1/Act One

1. Introduction (2:31)

2. Overture (3:19)

3. Getaway (2:41)

4. Gather The People (5:17)

5. Jesus’ Baptism (3:09)

6. Jesus’ Temptation (10:18)

7. There’s A Highway (4:06)

8. The Woman of Seven Devils (5:41)

9. Free At Last (5:05)

10. The Madman of the Gadarenes (7:04)

11. Love Has Called My Name (4:14)

12. Better Weather (1:12)

13. The Keys To The Kingdom (4:18)

14. Get Behind Me Satan (3:23)

Disc 2/Act Two

1. He Must Go To The Cross (3:10)

2. Jerusalem (3:55)

3. Heart Full Of Holes (3:40)

4. The Last Supper (3:50)

5. Gethsemane (7:39)

6. Jesus Before The Council and Peter’s Denial (3:12)

7. Judas’ Death (3:33)

8. Jesus Before Pilot and The Crucifixion (8:14)

9. Mary At The Tomb (2:45)

10. The Greatest Love Of All (5:00)

11. Love Has Called My Name (Reprise) (1:30)

Track Listing (Vinyl):

Act One

Side A

1. Introduction (2:31)

2. Overture (3:19)

3. Getaway (2:41)

4. Gather The People (5:17)

5. Jesus’ Baptism (3:09)

Side B

6. Jesus’ Temptation (10:18)

7. There’s A Highway (4:06)

8. The Woman of Seven Devils (5:41)

9. Free At Last (5:05)

Side C

10. The Madman of the Gadarenes (7:04)

11. Love Has Called My Name (4:14)

12. Better Weather (1:12)

13. The Keys To The Kingdom (4:18)

14. Get Behind Me Satan (3:23)

Act Two

Side D

1. He Must Go To The Cross (3:10)

2. Jerusalem (3:55)

3. Heart Full Of Holes (3:40)

4. The Last Supper (3:50)

5. Gethsemane (7:39)

Side E

6. Jesus Before The Council and Peter’s Denial (3:12)

7. Judas’ Death (3:33)

8. Jesus Before Pilot and The Crucifixion (8:14)

Side F

9. Mary At The Tomb (2:45)

10. The Greatest Love Of All (5:00)

11. Love Has Called My Name (Reprise) (1:30)

#NealMorse #FrontiersRecords #Progressiverock #JesusChristTheExorcist

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