NEAL MORSE – Smoke And Mirrors
Nashville, Tennessee-based progressive musician Neal Morse organised studio time to occur towards the end of January 2012. Neal, drummer Mike Portnoy (Adrenaline Mob / Flying Colors / OSI / Liquid Tension Experiment / ex-Dream Theater / ex-Avenged Sevenfold), and bassist Randy George (Ajalon) grouped together at The Morse House in Nashville to cut September 2012 Neal Morse solo full-length Momentum, the resultant effort consisting of six compositions.
“I talk about that a little bit in the liner notes on the album,” Neal augments. “In January 2012 I was back from holidays, and tried to figure out what to do next. I don’t like to just be on the music business spinning wheel so to speak, where you make a record, you go out, you tour, you wait awhile, you go out to do another record, and you tour. I wanna make sure that I’m really inspired to do the things that I’m doing. I sat around, prayed, and just really sought… I turned on the TV, and this guy talked about momentum. It was Brian Houston from the Hillsong Church in Australia. He gave a talk on momentum, and that’s what the first verse is about lyrically. He said ‘If you’ve come to a change of a season of life, keep going.’ He told a story about this woman being on a pedestrian walkway like they have at the airport, and how she was afraid to get off. All these people were behind her, and so all these businessmen piled into her. He used that as an example of if you have some momentum then keep going, because otherwise you might be getting in somebody else’s way (laughs).
“I feel some momentum really from God. I don’t know what’s gonna happen in my career, because nobody has a crystal ball. I hope for good things, but I mainly just wanna do God’s will. That doesn’t necessarily mean your career’s gonna go really great. I felt like we had some really good momentum from 2011 though; Testimony 2 (May 2011) and my book came out (August 2011’s Testimony), and a lot of good things happened like Transatlantic live (October 2011’s More Never Is Enough: Live In Manchester & Tilburg 2010). We had a lot of good things happen in 2011, and I began to feel like I should make a solo album. That’s how we started the Momentum album.
“It was written very quickly, and then we changed it a lot when we got together. I think I wrote it really in two weeks, and then we did all of the tracking in five days. For a lot of my albums, I spent much more than that writing and recording. So yeah, it was pretty quick. I think that’s what gives it a real freshness.”
Commercial success isn’t a concern for the vocalist. “We do what we can to try to get the music out there to as many people as we can,” he muses. “After that though, you kinda just have to give it away, hope for the best, and just trust the Lord. I’m very happy and very blessed with all of the good things in my life, my family and everything. Music is just such a wonderful thing; to be able to work in music is a total blessing. It’s great.”
During the early 2000s, Neal adopted the Christian faith. “I had an experience in God,” he recalls. “It was a bunch of different things. It wasn’t like one thing; it was like a series of events, really. My daughter was healed of a heart condition when she was born, and that was ’98. In ’99 I prayed and asked the Lord to help get me off the road with Eric Burdon, and I felt like he answered that prayer. A lot of things happened that made me feel like it was the thing to do. I had this experience in church one day where I just felt like God was really calling me. I just felt like it was real, it was for me, and he wanted me to come to him. Jesus was a reality and so I gave my life over to it, but it took me some time (laughs).”
Faith oriented material forms part of the mainman’s discography, though he doesn’t feel his overall work occupies separate strands. “It’s generally all together,” he reckons. “Everything that I do, I pray about. I feel like it’s what God wants me to do. They’re different kinds of music; sometimes I make worship albums, sometimes I make concept albums, and sometimes I make other kinds of albums. I write different kinds of music, but my faith is the same.”
Neal’s musical relationship with Mike Portnoy spans across a multitude of records. “I don’t know how many albums we’ve made together now…,” he confesses. “Like ten or something? I don’t know (laughs). It’s crazy. We’ve made a lot of records together, and it’s great. It’s better than ever. We have such a good time. He just played drums on this Christmas album that I’ve been working on, which is going to be called A Proggy Christmas by The Prog World Orchestra. It’s coming out in November. Mike was here doing drums on that… We just have the best time.
“He’s a producer though, really. A producer, an arranger, and a writer. He hears chord changes… There were some chords on ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ on Momentum that he didn’t like. He said ‘Can we change some of these chords?,’ and he started to sing bass notes to me. I tried to figure out what chords he was hearing. The thing that’s great about working with Mike is that I don’t really have to produce him; I don’t really have to worry about it, because he’ll listen to everything and make sure it’s happening.”
A Proggy Christmas undergoes issue on November 6th via Radiant Records. “It’s mostly instrumental Christmas music,” the guitarist discloses. “Some of it’s kind of funny; it’s progressive rock Christmas stuff mostly, but I did some straight ahead songs as well. There was a lot of writing outside of the actual songs, so some of it isn’t very recognisable (laughs). It’s really cool though – I think you’ll like it. It’s got some crazy, good stuff on it. Variations on ‘Joy To The World’, and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. There’s ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)’ with a very nice fretless bass solo. We did ‘Silent Night’ with ‘We All Need Some Light’, and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) and Pete Trewavas (Marillion / Transatlantic / Edison’s Children) are both playing on it.
“Many people got involved in it; Roine, Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis), Pete, Steve Morse (Deep Purple / Dixie Dregs), Paul Bielatowicz, Mike Portnoy, and Bill Hubauer (ApologetiX). Bill actually had a great idea for… We actually did some of his arrangements and things too, so… Yeah, it comes out in November and it’s called A Proggy Christmas by The Prog World Orchestra.”
Momentum’s liner notes accredit Neal as producer. “Producer really means overseer,” he explains. “It means that you have the final decisions, and you’re overseeing everything. It doesn’t mean you’re actually doing everything yourself. It means you’re like the director of a film, that you’re in charge of it and you’re making decisions but all the other people are doing all of their work as well. That’s what it is. I’m the one who makes the final decisions on everything. One of the things that you do is you decide who’s going to work on it, what parts you need, who you’re going to get to play them, and all that kind of stuff. You make decisions about the songs, and the arrangements. Producing can be very deep or very light; some producers are very involved with every aspect and some just show up for the mix, so it just depends. But yeah, I’m a pretty hands-on producer.”
“I had never worked with a real producer until Flying Colors when I worked with Peter Collins. It was very interesting, very different. It was very interesting to have this English bloke on the other side of the glass making comments about your take and stuff, because I’ve never had that before. It’s a whole different kettle of fish.”
Flying Colors is a progressive rock supergroup consisting of the keyboardist, Mike Portnoy, vocalist Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev), guitarist Steve Morse, and bassist Dave LaRue. “Years ago someone suggested that I get together with Steve Morse, and I always remembered that,” he recounts. “When my friend Bill Evans then suggested that Steve and I work together, I jumped at the chance. For me it started with that, with me wanting to write with Steve. Steve and I got together and wrote the music. I went down to his house in Florida many years ago now. I suppose it’d be three or four years ago now, and we wrote some songs and some music that actually became the framework for some of the songs on the Flying Colors album (March 2012). Bill had this idea to have this muso, progressive kind of band but more commercial with more regular songs, and so that is what we set out to do. Mike came onboard, and then of course Dave LaRue is Steve’s main bass player. Mike then found Casey McPherson, and we just felt like it was the right thing. We booked dates, got together, hashed it out, and made an album.”
At the time of writing, a second Flying Colors outing isn’t in the pipeline. “Nothing is planned at this time, but anything’s possible,” Neal stresses.
Momentum is inaugurated via its title number, the track featuring Mr. Big / Racer X guitarist Paul Gilbert. “We did a project with Mike Portnoy several years ago called Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles tribute,” the frontman remembers. “That’s when I met him. I emailed Paul. I wanted to have Paul play on a bunch of stuff on the album but he was too busy, so that was the only one he got to. I asked him if he would do some solos. I sent him some music, and he sent me back the solos. After I picked my jaw up off of the floor, I commenced to tell him ‘Nice work’ and put it on there. I think he did a great job.”
‘Thoughts Part 5’ includes a notable contribution courtesy of Randy George, meanwhile. “He brings a lot,” Neal enthuses. “Randy brings a lot to the table, man. He’s not just a great bass player; he’s got a lot of great musical ideas, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist as well. He just knows a lot about music, and what’s cool to do in prog. He really understands prog really well. In fact, the whole outro to ‘Thoughts Part 5’ was all Randy’s baby completely. Randy came out a few days early in January to write with me, and we sat down to write. ‘Thoughts Part 5’ is what came out. The ‘Thoughts’ series of tracks just have more to do with thoughts in your head while you’re dealing with life and dealing with people. How your thoughts are going, and thinking all of these crazy things. It’s kind of more of that.”
A slower pace denotes ‘Smoke And Mirrors’. “My friend Chris Thompson gave me some words and it took me quite a long time to get around to looking at them, like about eight months actually,” the singer admits. “I took a look at them, sat down with a nylon string guitar, and started to play that riff and sing the song. It just blossomed – it happened very quickly. I think I wrote ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ because most of the words were already written, so I think I wrote it in about 45 minutes.”
‘Weathering Sky’ occupies fourth position on Momentum’s track listing. “‘Weathering Sky’ is a really cool, pretty simple kind of rock song with a good, strong kind of power pop chorus,” Neal critiques. “Its lyrics are about somebody who’s on a spiritual search and wants all that God has for him.”
‘Freak’ occupies position five. “‘Freak’ is different – it’s rather freaky,” the axeman describes. “It starts off with this string quartet and vocal thing, almost like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (from The Beatles’ August 1966 album Revolver) or something. It goes to places no man has gone before. Lyrically and musically, I think it’s a little bit of an unexpected track. I think it’s really good for the album. I was on a journey when I started writing it, but I didn’t really know where it was going. I didn’t really know what it was about, and then it all kind of came together and made some kind of sense to me. When I came up with that thing about this crazy, homeless guy and about how he’s possibly Jesus, I thought that was a really interesting kind of thing.”
Clocking in at 33:38, ‘World Without End’ concludes Momentum. “This album reminds me of Lifeline (October 2008), or Spock’s Beard’s V (August 2000),” Neal judges. “It has a lot of shorter songs, and then one big, long piece at the end. I think ‘World Without End’ is one of the better big, long prog epics that I’ve done in my life. I’m really excited about people getting to hear that. I think we spent two days arranging that and tracking the drums for that, whereas we cut drums on ‘Weathering Sky’, ‘Momentum’, and ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ all in one day. So yeah, it takes a lot longer because really a 34-minute song is like seven songs all strung together or something. It takes a lot longer to sort it all out.”
As well as the bass of Randy George, Momentum sports contributions from other members of the pianist’s live outfit. “Bill Hubauer played the clarinet stuff and the whole flute things on ‘The Mystery’, which is the fourth section of ‘World Without End’,” he divulges. “Adson played solos on that; I sent him some of the music, and he did some killer solos on there man. The guy’s amazing. What a find. Eric Gillette sang the high part on ‘Thoughts Part 5’.”
In certain instances, Neal doubles his vocal parts. “I usually double my vocals, but not all the time,” he observes. “I think all of the vocals in ‘Thoughts Part 5’ are doubled. A lot of times I use one main one, and then another one just to thicken it up a little bit. You don’t put them at the same level, but mix them up.”
Where guitar work is concerned, the mainman feels he has “more of a bluesy feel or something. I play slower than some of these other guys (laughs), but hopefully with feeling. That’s cool. I’m more of a melodic player. I have lots of influences. Who was I influenced by on guitar a lot?… There are so many different people. I mean, I used to listen to a lot of blues guitar players like Johnny Winter and I liked Humble Pie a lot. I used to listen to Humble Pie when I was young, plus guys like Pete Townshend (The Who), The Beatles. As far as guitar players go though, Johnny Winter was always one of my favourites.”
The usual progressive suspects figure in Neal’s list of keyboard influences. “I’m influenced by all the big prog player guys,” he confirms. “Tony Banks (Genesis), Rick Wakeman (ex-Yes), and Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). I really like Chick Corea too. I like some of the jazz players – I hear some of that. Every once in awhile you’ll hear that, like in ‘World Without End’. There are some parts that sound sort of like Return To Forever, which I think is totally cool. I love that stuff.”
Three music videos were filmed to support Momentum’s release, the tunes in question being the title cut, ‘Thoughts Part 5’, and ‘Weathering Sky’. “The band shots are just footage of us in the studio when we were tracking, and then the stuff in town was my son Chad,” the vocalist downplays. “I just went downtown, walked around, and looked for cool places to shoot. We had a great time, so I really enjoyed that. It was just really fun. We did it in about an hour and a half I think or something, and it turned out really good.”
“I’m a prog artist. We don’t have budgets for anything like a professional shoot (laughs). Record companies don’t give us any money for stuff like that. Chad has this really nice camera and he does a lot of editing though, so that makes it look cool.”
Progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic planned to cut a fourth studio platter during January 2012, but schedules wouldn’t permit. “Pete’s and Mike’s schedules just wouldn’t meet,” Neal laments. “We had been talking about January but it wasn’t to be, so we’re still waiting for that. I’ve got some things. I do have some things that I’ve been saving for Transatlantic, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty. There always seems to be plenty of ideas; we’ve yet to have not enough ideas. It’s almost like we have too many ideas (laughs).”
Other musical endeavours inevitably lie in the pipeline. “I have something called The Inner Circle, which is a fanclub thing,” the guitarist mentions. “I make products for them, CDs, DVDs, and things. I have some Inner Circle projects in the works; Live In Finland is coming out in September, and then I’m not sure what we’re gonna do in November. Probably something live from the Momentum tour in October.”
Momentum was released on September 7th, 2012 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Norway, on the 10th in the United Kingdom, Benelux, France, Greece, Denmark and Portugal, on the 11th in Spain and Italy, and subsequently on the 12th in Sweden, Finland and Hungary, all through Inside Out Music.
Interview published in September 2012. All promotional photographs by Joey Pippin.
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