“What do you think? Who do you say I am?” Ted Leonard may never have imagined that one day he would be portraying Jesus in a rock musical, but indeed 2019 finds him singing these lines to the Apostles in the brand new release from Neal Morse called Jesus Christ the Exorcist. Yes, Morse has finally taken on the Jesus story and he has done it in exemplary Morse-fashion: as a double album filled with a multitude of musical styles from prog to metal to ballads to blues to ensemble choral pieces. Famously praised and criticized for shifting his direction to Christianity after leaving Spock’s Beard, Morse hasn’t had an easy go of it with some of the public for the past 18 years. For some reason, prog fans have little issue with songs about serial killers or travesty, but when the lyrical content shifts towards spiritual upliftment or – even worse – the use of words like “God” or “Jesus”, they bemoan that they are being preached to in a heavy handed way and they freak out. Fortunately, the genuine sincerity and musical brilliance that Morse has consistently maintained has won over a host of less knee-jerk-reactive fans and he now counts a good number of atheists, agnostics and believers of a vast array of faiths as his supporters. Indeed, the irony is that his prog career has become less and less Christian-specific in the past many albums. Even two albums based on a classic Christian text “Pilgrim’s Progress” are surprisingly written in a style that can be embraced by any belief system, or just enjoyed for the story-line that they provide.
Understandably, there is nothing subtle about an album named Jesus Christ the Exorcist and this obviously won’t be a starting point for fans who have a hard time with Morse’s religion. Still, the strength of the songwriting and performances are such that many will fall in love with this album regardless of their spiritual or religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Christians, of course, will have all the more reason to adore this double-album. Why use the term “The Exorcist”? As Morse explains, “I was really attracted to writing about Jesus and his activity of casting devils out of people. It just kind of happened naturally. And I guess I thought maybe it would be a little bit jarring, which might be good.” Started in 2008 over a three-month writing period, Morse only released select demo excerpts to his Inner Circle fan club even though he had written two and a half hours of material. In 2018 he was inspired to revisit the project and began the re-writing and editing process. While his initial intention was to perform the entire musical at his annual Morsefest festival in Nashville, a curious coincidence of timing led to an album contract with a Frontiers Music specifically for this material. Thus, once the 2018 Morsefest show was complete, work began on a polished studio version which is now ready for release.
“Father, why have you forsaken me? Behold your son, you have been with me all of my life.” These are the first words we hear as the album starts out in a dark place with Jesus on the Cross, which of course is also reprised toward the end of the album. Sandwiched in between are the many stories and tales of Jesus’ life, and we can watch the rise and fall of this Messiah even by reading the song titles. We begin in traditional Morse fashion with an instrumental “Overture”, featuring many members of the Neal Morse Band including Randy George on bass and Bill Hubauer on keyboards. Eric Gillette is also present but not in his usual role of guitar genius. Rather, he has taken over the drum kit in Mike Portnoy’s absence and is astonishingly brilliant at it. Amidst many themes of the album, a fiery guitar solo is performed by Paul Bielatowicz who also solo’s on a few other pieces on the album (aside from one other solo by Gillette, the rest of the album’s guitars are played by Morse). Fans of Morse’s prog overtures will instantly feel right at home as it feels like you are experiencing a brand new Neal Morse Band album. However, the scope of this project is much broader as we soon discover, for Morse is NOT one of the main vocalist in the musical he has written. Mark Pogue, Wil Morse (Neal’s son) and a choir are the singers in “Getaway” which gives the lay of the land – literally – describing the oppressive control that Rome has over the land of Israel. Next enters Matt Smith (from the band Theocracy) singing the role of John the Baptist. Smith’s role, though brief, has some of the best melodies of any of the vocalists – evidenced here in “Gather the People” – and Smith delivers them powerfully. As Smith declares in a stirring verse, “Look! The man who will bring us in!”, Ted Leonard comes forth as Jesus, ready to be baptized by John. Leonard of course has the key role in the entire musical, and was picked by Morse for the range and power of his voice. After a beautiful duet between Leonard and Smith, even “God” appears for several verses, represented by a full choir of angels singing.
The sequence thus far has taken seventeen minutes as more or less one continuous piece of music. We now take our first pause between tracks before the longest single song on the album, “Jesus’ Temptation”. Morse flexes some of his prog muscle in the beginning of this piece, with Gillette pounding the skins and Hubauer firing off some Patrick Moraz-style synth soloing. But the bulk of this piece is a standoff between Jesus and the Devil, played by Rick Florian (of the band White Heart). After introducing the Devil’s orchestrated theme, Leonard and Florian have an extended vocal duel/duet with Morse playing talk-box guitar in the background. It’s an engaging vocal battle. Jesus overcomes the temptations of the Devil of course, but Florian defiantly declares, “You‘ve eluded me this time, but the masses are mine. I’ll battle you for all time.”
Coming out of the wilderness Jesus’ ministry now begins, as displayed in “(For the low) There’s a Highway” which is a Great Adventure-style upbeat song and the first single off the album. Here Jesus declares that he is here for the humble and pure, and that none are too low to be saved, “Bring me your sick outsiders that you’ve cast away, tell all the lowly losers God has made a way…for the low there’s a highway.” He is then challenged in this task by a woman who is tormented by demons in “The Woman of Seven Devils”. This is Mary Magdalene, played by Talon David who was the surprise star at Morsefest with her stellar performance. With a stomping blues progression at its foundation and Morse’s slide guitar accentuating devilish licks, this is a standout track. It’s a climactic piece which then leads to transformation in “Free At Last”, a lovely ballad where David again gets to shine. Jesus is called to be an exorcist once more in “The Madman of the Gadarenes” which employs one of Morse’s favorite vocal techniques inspired by the band Gentle Giant where multiple vocals cascade over each other in a complex acapella romp before coming together for key lines. In this case, the voices are the various demons that have possessed a man and driven him to insanity. The delivery is not without a sense of humor, and the performance of this song at Morsefest was truly remarkable. Another standout track! Morse also gets points for originality because many of the Jesus stories that he has chosen – like “Madman” – are not ones that usually are written about in other Biblical musicals, making “The Exorcist” unique and fresh.
The hits keep coming and “Love Has Called My Name” is one of the best short anthems that Morse has written since “Wind At My Back”. This is largely a duet between Morse (who is playing the role of a disciple) and Nick D’Virgilio (playing the role of Judas). Any chance to hear these two friends sing together is a treat, and this is no exception with a concise and powerful arrangement that will raise the listener’s spirits. One verse even includes a reference to Morse’s own “miracle” in having his daughter’s heart inexplicably healed. Leonard comes into the mix at the end singing “You are the ones I’ve chosen to be here” and for a moment we have not only the Biblical story at hand, but all three lead singers of Spock’s Beard together in one song. The celebratory energy continues in the short but uplifting “Better Weather”, while story-telling is more at the heart of “Keys to the Kingdom” though there are no shortage of catchy melodies to keep the story-line engaging. The first album concludes with stinging rocker “Get Behind Me Satan” which evokes classic rockers Purple, Sabbath and Heep. It’s a hard-rocking way to end the first album, with Gillette‘s drums coming to the fore, George’s bass doubling the guitar riffs and Hubauer jamming on the Hammond organ as Leonard gives a commanding vocal performance. The listener will surely need to take an intermission before album number two, as this first hour has provided an onslaught of choice songwriting and performances. But there is still much more of the story to tell…
Album two launches with heaviest song on the recording. “He Must Go To the Cross” is a metal-tinged anthem as if “We Will Rock You” were performed by AC/DC, complete with foot-stomping “Whoaaaa” choruses. Jake Livgren astounds in the role of Caiaphas as he gleefully plots the demise of Jesus. There’s almost a darkly comedic edge as he inserts little phrases like “We’re gonna put you down” before closing with a non-more-metal scream “He must go to the croooooooooooooss! Yow!” For fans of Morse’s heavier side, this will be a highlight of the album. “Jerusalem” is a solid song that follows, but the transition to community choir singing is a little drastic from the previous song, even while singing in a foreboding minor key. Had Morse been afforded a little more time for re-writing (which he didn’t have, as he was in the midst of Great Adventure re-writes and recording, too), this is one area that could have benefited from an improved transition as we approach the D’Virgilio ballad showstopper “Hearts Full of Holes”. This piece chronicles Judas’ internal conflict from a place of longing and yearning. As in the song “Carie” on the Snow album, Morse has written a piece that brings out the best of D’Virgilio’s incredible vocal range and delivery. Yet another top song on this two-disc set.
We’re now getting toward the end of Jesus’ road, and that somber knowing is reflected in Leonard’s singing during “The Last Supper”. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas starts to take center stage in this song and the subsequent “Gethsemane”, complete with a reprise of the Devil’s theme. At this point, and for the rest of the album, it feels like we are more in the territory of watching a musical, as the telling of the story takes center stage. Up until now many of the songs could more or less stand on their own, but from here on out the story is the message, and is even reflected the descriptive titles like “Jesus Before the Council and Peter’s Denial”, “Judas’ Death”, “Jesus Before Pilate and The Crucifixion”. Fortunately, there remains plenty of melodic strength and hooks galore, with each song containing enough material worthy of three times as many songs. Livgren’s delivery of Caiaphas is deliciously diabolical as hatred drips off his tongue, D’Virgilio is convincing in his inner conflict and mixed motives, and Leonard is steadfast in his strength and divinity. The fact that Livgren also carries off the role of Peter which in no way sounds like his voice as Caiaphas (where he channels the voice of John Schlitt who sang Caiaphas at the original Morsefest performance) is testament to Livgren’s talent and devotion to this project. Morse himself finally gets a more prominent role as he portrays Pilate, cross-examining Jesus and reaching the desperate rhetorical question of “What is truth???” Inevitably, Jesus is taken away as Eric Gillette unleashes a moving guitar solo that leads us back to the Cross, where the album started. Thunder rumbles as Leonard closes with an emotional “It’s finished now and I’m giving my life up to you.” A climactic symphonic ending then closes the scene, until…
Three days later, Mary Magdalene is at the tomb of Jesus to anoint him one last time. Talon David returns as Mary with her powerful voice expressing her grief and sorrow. When a risen Jesus reveals his identity as Leonard sings “Mary, Mary”, she responds with “Rabbi! Jesus!” in long vowels for one of the most moving moments on the album, which admittedly could have lingered a bit longer to deepen the moment. “The Greatest Love of All” then ensues as the closing duet, which is the kind of song that likely could top the mainstream pop charts. However, it’s a much more conventional song than usually appears on a Neal Morse album and makes for an anticlimactic ending for this listener. Others may feel differently, however, as personal tastes inevitably vary. In the song Jesus states the new relationship between Christ and His people and closes by telling Mary to go tell his brothers that he has risen. We close with a final reprise of “Love Has Called My Name” to seal the musical, eliciting the visual of a final curtain call for the entire cast.
Jon Anderson once recalled reading a review for Close to the Edge where the critic joked that perhaps Yes’ next project would be putting the Bible to music. Anderson’s response was, “Right – let’s show them! We CAN do this!” and he and Steve Howe proceeded to write the divisive double-album Tales From Togographic Oceans. Morse’s own journey and resulting double-album follows a slightly different path. But while there may be some inevitable complaints from the people who are averse to anything Christian, there probably won’t be much controversy about Jesus Christ The Exorcist like there was for Topographic, despite its provocative title. The reason is that the material within is consistently top-notch throughout. Expertly mixed by Rich Mouser, not only is there no filler during the course of two hours, on the contrary there is an embarrassment of riches with more musical ideas and skilled execution than most bands can dream of. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the same was largely true of the two double-albums which preceded it: The Similitude of a Dream and The Great Adventure. If there is any danger here, it is of concept-double-album-fatigue. These three albums have very similar overall structure, as did the Spock’s Beard album Snow before them. While one can hardly complain about such lavish abundance, it will be good to see what new and different formats the Neal Morse Band might choose to explore in their next album. But for now, there is no doubt that Jesus Christ the Exorcist is a triumph. Whether or not the listener considers themselves to be “of faith”, it is apparent that having faith in Morse’s creativity and skill is not to be doubted.
Released by: Frontiers Records
Released Date: June 14th, 2019
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Ted Leonard / Jesus
- Talon David / Mary Magdalene
- Nick D’Virgilio / Judas Iscariot
- Rick Florian / The Devil
- Matt Smith / John the Baptist
- Jake Livgren / Peter and Caiaphas
- Neal Morse / Pilate, Demon 1, Disciple 1
- Mark Pogue / Israelite 1, the Madman of the Gadarenes, Pharisee 2
- Wil Morse / Israelite 2, Demon 3, Pharisee 1
- Gabe Klein / Demon 2, Pharisee 4
- Gideon Klein / Demon 4
- Julie Harrison / Servant Girl
- Neal Morse / keys, guitar
- Paul Bielatowicz / lead guitar
- Bill Hubauer / keys
- Randy George / bass
- Eric Gillette / drums
“Jesus Christ: The Exorcist” Track-listing:
4. Gather The People
5. Jesus’ Baptism
6. Jesus’ Temptation
7. There’s A Highway
8. The Woman Of Seven Devils
9. Free At Last
10. The Madman Of The Gadarenes
11. Love Has Called My Name
12. Better Weather
13. The Keys To The Kingdom
14. Get Behind Me Satan
1. He Must Go To The Cross
3. Hearts Full Of Holes
4. The Last Supper
6. Jesus Before The Council And Peter’s Denial
7. Judas’ Death
8. Jesus Before Pilate And The Crucifixion
9. Mary At The Tomb
10. The Greatest Love Of All
11. Love Has Called My Name (Reprise)
It may seem destined that Neal Morse was always going to write a musical about the life of Jesus. That it is filled with stellar songwriting, arrangements and production comes as no surprise. But what may surprise an open-minded audience is that the material herein can be completely rewarding for Christian and non-Christian listeners alike. Don’t let the title fool you. For progressive rock fans who enjoy influences of other musical styles, this is two hours packed with hooks and creative, melodic twists. A welcome and inevitable addition to the catalog of Neal Morse.