New albums from ex-Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse are flying thick and fast at the moment, with his last studio offering Sola Gratia released in September, and the double-album studio version of Jesus Christ The Exorcist in June last year. The latter is now seeing release in its original live format as Jesus Christ The Exorcist – Live at Morsefest 2018. The evolution of this ambitious rock opera is quite complex, with Morse saying he wrote the first draft over ten years ago, subsequently shelving it. One of the headaches of hosting your own annual festival though, the weekend-long Morsefest in Nashville, Tennessee, is deciding which material to perform, the Neal Morse band usually playing one of his albums in its entirety. So for 2018, Morse dusted off his Jesus project and re-wrote it from start to finish, performing the whole 2-hour project in a lavish show complete with orchestral string section and choir, recording it for posterity at the same time. He then took the whole ensemble into the studio to re-record it in its entirety, but as it happened, a new deal with Frontiers Records saw the studio version released first. Now, over a year later, the original Morsefest performance is being made available in a 2CD + DVD digipack, and on Blu-Ray. The result is that many fans will already be familiar with the material, having copped a copy of the studio version or read reviews in the press at the time.
For those who are not familiar though, what we have here is a retelling of the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, presented as a two-hour rock opera. It’s a prog concept album, performed by some of the most technically-gifted musicians on the planet and sung by a stellar cast of guest stars. The musical score and arrangement is as ambitiously complex as anything out there, and played tightly and pretty much note-perfect considering the incredible number of musicians involved. There are no appreciable differences in the content between the live and studio productions, although the instrumentation is adapted in places to suit the environment. The only difference in the cast of singers is that John Schlitt of Christian rock band Petra sings the role of Caiaphas the High Priest in this live production, but he is absent from the studio version, his role being sung by Jake Livgren, (nephew of Kansas star Kerry Livgren), who also doubles as the apostle Simon ‘The Rock’ Peter.
In contrast with Rice and Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which presents a fairly loose interpretation of the last week of Jesus’ life, Jesus Christ The Exorcist tells the whole of Jesus’ adulthood, from just before his presentation for baptism at “about 30 years of age” onwards, and tries to stay as close to the Biblical narrative as possible, within the confines of the genre. Morse chooses to begin the story at the end, with Jesus, performed by fellow Spock’s Beard alumnus Ted Leonard, uttering his final, weary words while hanging on the Cross. The brutal agony of his death is not portrayed; only a weary and intense sadness as he begs the Father to forgive the actions of his persecutors, and commits himself to God as he expires. The scene then rewinds about four years, and the story is told, as it were, in flashback.
The first of the big vocal highlights is when Jesus, after his baptism, heads off into the wilderness to face his arch-nemesis The Devil in a battle of faith and integrity. Satan is sung with relish by Rick Florian from White Heart, and as we can expect, he rocks it up while Jesus is shown as the calm, self-possessed and ultimately incorruptible victor. The guitars rasp and howl, and for some reason Charlie Daniels’ The Devil Comes Down To Georgia keeps springing to mind, as ‘a band of demons joins in and it sounded something like this…’
Nashville native Talon David, introduced by Morse in one of his occasional spoken interludes as “the local talent”, offers the next big number, The Woman Of Seven Devils, singing as Mary Magdalene, traditionally presented here as a demon-possessed prostitute. She belts out this impressive blues showcase in the vein of Alannah Miles’ Black Velvet, culminating in a screaming guitar solo as Jesus casts the devils out. Talon gets the chance to sing back-to-back highlights, as the cleansed and totally transformed Mary collapses in melodic gratitude and declares her everlasting devotion to her new Lord. The applause for the previous number is still fading out as she sings Free At Last, which could hardly be more of a contrast; an uplifting anthem in Disney Princess mode. They say she stole the show on the night, and we will hear more from her later, but for now Morse comes back to the mic to chat to the audience briefly.
Never a dull moment for the Messiah though, and soon he goes head-to-head with a violently psychotic madman sung by a quartet in complex counterpoint. This is The Madman Of The Gadarenes, better known as Legion, possessed by multiple malign spirits. Morse diverges from tradition here though, as the nasty bunch unexpectedly abase themselves before the Son of God, throwing themselves on his mercy and basically begging him not to hurt them – another screaming, chaotic rock section describes how they are cast into a herd of pigs, which then throw themselves off a cliff in a demonic frenzy.
The closest we come to full gospel is the next number, Love Has Called My Name, with its hippy, acoustic guitar vibe. Imagine ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ for a new generation. A bit cheesy for sure, but it also has the catchiest hook of the night, and the cast will return to it for the big finale.
Act 1, or CD 1 for those who weren’t there, climaxes with Jesus going full Bruce Dickinson heavy metal – he has been gently trying to explain to the 12 disciples why he has to go to Jerusalem and give himself up for execution, but Peter tries to talk him out of it. Ted Leonard as Jesus then launches into the angry diatribe Get Behind Me Satan, far and away the hardest rocking number of the set and also the original album’s lead single, which also incidentally, shows that Jesus can rock as hard as the Devil, who is evidently not the only tough guy in town.
Act 2 begins with the High Priest and his ruling Sanhedrin, religious leaders of the nation and strident opponents of Jesus’ ministry, gathering with a slow, We-Will-Rock-You anthem, setting out their stall as the blackhats in this story. The next highlight though, concerns Judas the betrayer, as he starts to waver in his faith and trust, starting down his route of treachery. But again, Morse treats Judas with humanity and compassion, concentrating on his confusion and bitter disappointment; Hearts Full Of Holes is a sorrowing power ballad rather than a scheming plot, Judas being voiced by another ex-Spock’s Beard singer, Nick D’Virgilio.
The rest plays out according to the biblical text, with the big showcase numbers of the first act replaced to some degree by more of a story-telling narrative. Morse himself takes the mic as Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, to the accompaniment of a military march reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Another shredding guitar solo accompanies the horrifying end as the Son of God is sentenced to brutal execution; thunder crashes in the background as we reprise the scene of Jesus on the cross, giving himself up to death in behalf of mankind.
OK, we all know there’s an elephant in the room; surely the appeal of a Biblical epic like this depends on whether or not one accepts the story of Christ. Well not really. Sure, some die-hard Christians may become hard rock fans due to the theme; some hard-core prog fans will be introduced to Christianity by the realisation that the Devil doesn’t necessarily have all the best music. But what can not be overlooked is that underlying it all is a massive, extraordinary and highly impressive concept album. Its audacious ambition is matched by its flawless performance. If you want to think of it as a concept piece only, then fine, it’s at least on a par with the science-fiction fantasy epics of Ayreon, whose live recording of Into The Electric Castle earlier this year is the only recent comparable work that comes to mind.
The story doesn’t end with the Crucifixion by the way; the final number depicts Mary Magdalene again, on a forlorn journey to Jesus’ tomb to perform the rites of burial – the grave is empty and Mary meets the risen Christ for one final, soaring, tear-jerking reunion power ballad duet, to the accompaniment of a heavenly choir. Devotee or sceptic, Christian, ‘heathen’, or otherwise, be sure to have the Kleenex handy. And you may well find yourself singing along to the reprise of Love Has Called My Name at the end!