nealmorsegrandpick of the monthThe Neal Morse Band is a lean, mean prog machine that's a high-functioning musical unit capable of rocking hard and heavy or playing sophisticated progressive passages incorporating vocal harmonies that Crosby, Stills and Nash would envy.

The Grand Experiment
The Neal Morse Band
InsideOut Music
5 tracks / 52:39

While I try to figure out whether this is the second Neal Morse Band album, or the first Neal Morse Band Album, or simply the first Neal Morse Band studio album, there's one thing I know for sure: The Grand Experiment is musically stunning, immediately accessible, and one of the best progressive rock/pop projects you'll hear this year – and I know it's still just January.

Of course, you pretty much know what to expect from Neal Morse – and this band is the same fine group of musicians that were captured in live performance on Neal's Live Momentum project, with Eric Gillette taking on the lead guitar position vacated by Adson Sodré and doing an outstanding job! The result is a lean, mean prog machine that's a high-functioning musical unit capable of rocking hard and heavy or playing sophisticated progressive passages incorporating vocal harmonies that Crosby, Stills and Nash would envy. The Neal Morse Band is: Neal Morse – Keyboards, Guitars and Vocals, Eric Gillette – Guitars and Vocals, Bill Hubauer – Keyboards, Clarinet and Vocals, Randy George – Bass, Bass Pedals and Bodhran, Mike Portnoy - Drums and Vocals.

When I first read that the concept for creating this album was for the band members to meet with no pre-planned agenda, but to create the music from 'nothing,' I had my concerns. Prog can have a tendency to become over-stuffed and unfocused if things aren't kept in check, and with this much creativity in one spot I thought there was the potential for The Grand Experiment to be a bloated and aimless affair but it is, in fact, quite the opposite.

The first good sign was that the music was all on one disc and that the songs were reasonable in length, even though the last track, "Alive Again," is an epic, multi-part piece that comes in at 26 minutes-plus – still, the song is focused and, despite some delightful musical twists and turns, remembers to give us musical closure in returning to the opening theme. Perhaps it was writing Songs From November (Neal's recent more personal 'singer/songwriter' solo project) or Neal's work with Flying Colors, or maybe it's just the chemistry of this collaborative effort, but it seems like these songs are more economically written than we're used to – and that's refreshing. The complexity, the rhythmic twists and turns, the stunning musicianship – all are still much in evidence, but the hooks are working better and the songs are more memorable and efficiently performed.

"Following The Call" starts the album off with a burst of vocal harmony followed by some powerful riff-driven organ that leads us into a richly textured instrumental section. Randy George (who did such sterling bass work recently on Dave Bainbridge's Celestial Fire project) lays down a funky foundation while the song builds and cooks. At ten minutes and ten seconds long, this is the other 'epic' track on the album, and a little past the half-way mark we get 'part two' introduced by George's bass playing a four note pattern that ushers in a furiously intense section featuring some tandem guitar and keyboard riffs. Eric Gillette takes no prisoners with a fiery guitar solo that displays not only his technical mastery but a real sense of grit and rock and roll chops. A new guitar hero has been unleashed, folks. The power-house ending of the song is preceded by an exciting synth solo. And this was just the first song...

A hooky riff introduces the album's title-track, a hard-rocking song with a memorable chorus and another perfect guitar solo. One of Neal's signature a capella vocal sections injects just the right amount of musical surprise shortly before the song ends. Edgar Winter meets Crosby, Stills and Nash.

"Waterfall" is a strong ballad backed mostly by a pair of acoustic guitars which, by the song's end, are joined by percussion, bass, and some jazzy clarinet. "Here at the waterfall, sweep my troubles all downstream / There at the riverside, every tear I've cried washed clean / And I'll forever know I'm free, I'll forever know I'm free..." - the lyrics, melody and instrumentation are all a perfect match. I'll note here that Neal shares lead vocal chores liberally with Gillette and, on the ballad section of "Alive Again," Hubauer – who each turn in emotional, effective performances.

We're back to some Toto-esque  rock on "Agenda," with heavy guitars, big drums and a very retro processed vocal chorus. Heavy prog-pop coming in at under four minutes!

A droning sound is joined by some melodic solo bass, piano, and guitar – Portnoy's spectacular drum entrance let's us know we're in for something big on the closing epic track, "Alive Again." This song has everything from heavy rock sounds to the expected prog portions, some Latin influence, funk, and even a great horn section! The first five minutes of instrumental work include some wonderful melodic guitar lines, making me think, 'Focus on steroids!' Listening to this five or six-part piece will tell you all about the strengths of the sound of the Neal Morse Band – and the key to that strength is that they always sound like a band!

Hubauer's organ and synth work (check out the great synth solo near the end of "Following The Call") bring a nice earthiness to the music and is an important part of the aural texture in so many places - his vocals on the later section of "Alive Again" are nuanced, vulnerable, and very affecting, making me look forward to hearing more of Bill's vocals in the context of this band. Neal's keyboard/synth and vocals are always a welcome sound and a unifying element. Gillette's guitar work is powerful as his vocals are emotional and expressive. Portnoy sounds more purposeful than ever, delivering power and restraint throughout this album –  there's less bombast and more functionality. Randy George, as dependable as ever, does yeoman's work through the whole project with masterful bass playing.

The Grand Experiment certainly worked. Self produced and co-written by all, the results – not surprisingly – have echoes of the likes of Yes, Kansas, CSN, and various other classic rock bands lurking somewhere in the background. Of course, the ubiquitous Mr. Morse is heard and felt throughout the project – and that's a good thing. And I got to use the word, 'ubiquitous.'

 Bert Saraco