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Stereoboard Albums Of The Year: The Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

Thursday, 17 December 2015 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: John Zocco

Nothing inspires fear quite like having to compile an end of year list, except maybe choosing my numero uno album. Critiquing individual records is one thing, but whittling down my favourites, which run a gamut of styles and deliver a divergent selection of sonic pleasures, fries my brain.  After much soul searching, some night sweats and hours curled up in the foetal position, here's how I ended up choosing The Neal Morse Band's 'The Grand Experiment' as my favourite record of 2015.

Isn't it bloody marvellous when albums arrive out of nowhere and work their magic? I'm only a casual Morse and prog-rock fan so wasn't eagerly awaiting this release. In fact, I wasn’t aware of its existence until the title track was posted on an oft-visited music forum. It was a 'holy shit' moment and then some, bettered only by subsequently immersing myself in the whole record, knowing I'd stumbled across something quite brilliant.  

That said, it wasn't an immediate pick for my album of the year. Toto's 'XIV', Walter Trout's  'Battle Scars' and Steven Wilson's 'Hand. Cannot. Erase' all captured my heart, while WASP's 'Golgotha', Zac Brown Band's 'Jekyll & Hyde and Iron Maiden's flawed, but strangely seductive, 'Book Of Souls' provided strong competition. So much quality, but which to choose, and how to decide?  

After entering a deep, and rather pretentious, state of self reflection and analysis, I concluded that great albums imprint themselves on every fibre of your being, stand up to analytical scrutiny, reveal more of their charms with every listen and deliver strong emotional and intellectual stimulation. The aforementioned beauties mostly fit that criteria, but this is why Morse takes the crown.

I find 'The Grand Experiment' perfect on virtually every level. I love how it resembles my favourite Pink Floyd album, 'Wish You Were Here', bookending three shorter and pleasingly varied cuts with two mind blowing epics, all of which satisfy many of my musical cravings.

The stomping Beatles-infused title track gets to my fondness for feelgood, groove-laden hard rock a la Kansas and Styx, while injecting delightful instrumental flavours to keep things fresh and unpredictable. The ethereal acoustic folk and heavenly vocal interplay of Waterfall, meanwhile, taps into both my adoration of pained troubadours like Nick Drake and the spine tingling vocal harmonies of the Eagles. Agenda's glam-pop bounce is a celebratory ball of perky fun with touches of my first musical love, Queen. And then there's the epics.

The Call and Alive Again effortlessly weave together so many ingredients that give me a thrilling rush of butterflies in my chest, as well as setting my brain on fire with their technical sorcery.  Both progressive behemoths – an impressive 10 and 26 minutes respectively – are texturally rich compositions where cinematic soundscapes flood my mind with wondrous imagery, their ever-evolving musical passages whisking me along on a journey through numerous styles and moods.

Best of all, they're bulging with the kind of melody and hooks that mean the world to me, with layer upon layer of exciting, heartfelt passages spilling from the guitars and keyboards. To ice the cakes, each is abundant with soaring, angelic refrains that provide recurring moments of pure exhilaration and anchor the tracks to a heartfelt core.

I'm a guitar man. I worship the instrument and its finest exponents. Handling six-string duties on this record is Eric Gillette, an incredible young player and a real find. Mike Portnoy – whose typically immense drumming gives these tracks so much character and energy  -  says he reminds him of one of my most revered axe men, John Petrucci, and Eric certainly possesses the same clinical ability and soulful touch. This record has given me a new guitar hero, too.

My cream of 2015 possess many attributes that beguile, but 'The Grand Experiment' is the most well rounded, complete and, thankfully, uplifting. Whereas most of the other releases are considerably darker and, dare I say, more representative of the world we live in, Morse's unabashed spirituality makes 'The Grand Experiment' a positive and optimistic ride, drawing its energy from an unwavering belief in the power of catharsis, redemption and a brighter, more vibrant future.

As an agnostic I've often found Morse's religious lyrics unsettling and corny. This time out, he never specifically references God. It's more subtle, so when singing about 'leaving chains that bind and following the call', he could be referencing anything that holds us down and prevents us from pursuing our desires. He's obviously singing about his faith, but there's enough ambiguity to apply to my current situation, which is crucial.  

I find my most cherished records are those that resonate with my state of being at the exact point I experience them, and it's actually a surprise that 'The Grand Experiment' has done just that.  You see, I love bleak, moody and tormented music.  Any other year, Toto, Wilson or Trout could easily be my top pick, but this has been a difficult 12 months with - small violins at the ready - health problems, family struggles, a deep sense of feeling lost and periods of depression and hopelessness.  

Combine that with events from the wider world, particularly the shocking attacks in Paris, and the sentiments flowing through 'The Grand Experiment' are a welcome, almost therapeutic, antidote to an overload of misery. A shining light of much needed inspiration, if you will.  So thank you Neal. Thank you and your ridiculously talented band for making a timeless classic that reinforces the indomitable power of the human spirit and the value of living life to the full.  

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