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(109:46; Frontiers Music)
Listening to the introduction had me checking I had put on the right album, as the first minute of this 109-minute-long epic had me convinced I was listening to a new release by Clive Nolan. In recent years Clive has moved away from his more overtly progressive releases into musical theatre, and now Neal has followed the same trend. I grew up in a Christian household, one of my favourite albums as a child was ‘ Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’, the first musical I ever saw was ‘Godspell’, and still enjoy ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to this day (I thought the recent all-star cast was excellent, Alice Cooper as King Herod? Inspired). So, this is a musical and lyrical style I am comfortable with, and I was intrigued to see how Neal would approach this. The first thing which struck me was just how little we hear from the man himself, in that he has given himself a few minor parts but that is all. In the two main roles of Jesus and Judas we have his fellow Spock’s Beard lead vocalists Ted Leonard and Nick D’Virgilio respectively, and as one would expect they do a mighty fine job indeed, but the biggest change for me is the writing style, which is not what I would expect from Neal at all. Although there are bits and pieces such as the acoustic “Gather The People” and the dramatic “The Madman of the Gadarenes” which do remind listeners of his roots and normal approach, overall there has been a dramatic change in how Neal approaches things. Literally. This is an album which is designed to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally know who Neal is, and instead this is a rock musical to be viewed as a logical updated version of ‘Superstar’. Consequently, we have music which flows and ebbs, taking the listener with them. Songs such as “Get Behind Me Satan” are out and out rockers, while others are designed to get the audience clapping in time, others more prosaic and gentler in style. By now Neal has become a dab hand at producing the odd concept album, and this isn’t the first time he has approached a Christian story either, but here he has moved further in both directions. This is bound to be listened to by progheads and White Metal fans alike, but really this is aimed at a new audience altogether, namely Broadway as opposed to the Garden. In 2002 Morse was responsible for what is undoubtedly one of the finest concept albums of all time, ‘Snow’. He followed it up the next year with his first solo release since leaving the Beard, with ‘Testimony’, which is still my favourite solo album. That told his personal story, and I don’t think anyone who saw him perform it in London and hear him talk about his daughter Jayda could fail to be moved. She is referenced again in this album, just briefly, but it shows again just how personal this for him and just what it means. Regarding the idea behind the musical, Neal explains, "Sometimes providence comes with a whisper; sometimes it comes with an unexpected phone call. A friend of mine who works in the music business called me from New York one day in 2008 and said, "Hey man, a friend and I were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar last night and were saying, 'Man, somebody ought to do a new rock opera based on the Jesus story'. I told my friend, 'I know the guy!' He went on to tell me I ought to write an epic prog piece based on the gospels. With a New York accent he said, 'Ya gotta do it!' I laughed and said, 'Well, I'm busy right now, but I'll think about it.' Over the next couple of months, I began to feel that "yes" inside and spent a few months writing the first draft. The strong sense that I was onto something continued to grow and the people that sang on the original version were really into it.” For me, this is an interesting idea, and there are undoubtedly some good songs on it. But there are times when it feels clunky, something I never expected from him. The story is pushed very hard, as one would expect, but sometimes this is to the detriment of the music. On a personal level I have always enjoyed his vocals, but here he is asking to be judged as a songwriter and arranger as opposed to a performer. The result is something which is probably going to gain him a much wider audience than normal for his work, and is a very good album indeed, but from a personal perspective I think I’m just going to go back to ‘Testimony’ and pass on this for now.
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