The Lamb Lies Down 

Local musician Neal Morse continues his prog-rock explorations with spiritual-themed solo disc Testimony

Local musician Neal Morse continues his prog-rock explorations with spiritual-themed solo disc Testimony

As polarized as classical music and rock might seem, they met head-on in the late ’60s, when the forward-thinking studio work of The Beatles inspired a contingent of bands to expand rock’s parameters by incorporating not only classical devices but also elements of jazz and English folk. The best-known practitioners of what would become progressive rock—Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Moody Blues and the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis—created a standard definition that still holds: basic rock instrumentation (sometimes augmented by winds and the symphonic emulations of the Mellotron), synthesizers, free-form song structures featuring extended instrumental passages and grandiloquent lyrics that run from philosophical to fantasy-based. Expanding minds wanted to know, and the music remained commercially viable until the mid-’70s, when it headed underground.

The advent of prog-related Internet sites has since prompted a renaissance of several generations of prog acts, all doted on with Trekkie-like intensity by cultish fans who bicker about what it means to be progressive. Ironically, it often has little to do with progress, as many prog devotees favor the genre’s more arcane ’70s manifestations. Should the music stray too far from its home base—or anywhere near public acceptance—it risks audience abandonment. No one is more familiar with this conundrum than Neal Morse, a 40-ish resident of Middle Tennessee by way of L.A. who, until recently, fronted one of prog’s most acclaimed modern bands, Spock’s Beard. “Certain people started to turn on us when we got too popular, even though Spock’s Beard wasn’t really known in the 'real’ world,” Morse says.

Though Morse’s affection for components of mainstream rock offended some purists, he notes that such influences were present at prog-rock’s birth. “During the ’60s, there was a lot more experimentation,” he says. “On the same album, you’d have loud, soft, classical, jazz, whatever. If you listen to what most people consider classic prog, most of it is in 4/4 time and has a good chorus.”

With Spock’s Beard, Morse created sprawling, intricate pieces with tightly written melodic payoffs scattered like Tootsie Rolls throughout a labyrinth. But if the prog police frowned upon Morse’s stylistic “violations,” those paled next to the unwritten spiritual code he would break after leaving the group in 2002 and making a solo album called Testimony. On the double disc, which recounts the story of Morse’s halting journey into Christianity, he doesn’t simply allude to a benevolent but generic Source of Infinite Light—a prog-rock standby—but openly connects God with the Jesus of the Bible. The move cost Morse some fans, but a recent tour proved successful, and Testimony, which amply exhibits his kaleidoscopic musical sensibilities, is selling respectably on his label’s Web site, radiantrecords.com.

Morse hasn’t used his musical platform to evangelize listeners, but rather to share his personal transformation while making it as artistically valid as possible. “I got a little tired of putting a veil on [my lyrics],” he says. “You write from your heart, and my heart had changed.”

—Steve Morley

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