Album review: Neal Morse – Jesus Christ: The Exorcist

I’ve never really paid attention to Neal Morse’s worship music. I was more into his prog rock work, and I didn’t feel I was the target of his religious albums. But when he announced a musical on the life of Jesus called ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’, it felt like this could be a bridge between both sides of his creative life.

It also felt like it could be incredibly cheesy, with a title that could just as well have applied to a parody. Of course, coming from Morse, it couldn’t be anything but reverential, but musicals can often be filed under ‘acquired taste’. And a ‘progressive rock musical’? That could be a recipe for excessive indulgence.

From the moment I pressed play, any doubt I had fell away. Neal Morse’s progressive rock musical is just a fantastic musical journey, whether you share his faith or not. I for one do not, but it’s hard not to be moved by the luminous qualities of certain songs, especially ‘Love Has Called My Name’, the clear highlight of the album. ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’ is an ambitious work that draws on Morse’s ability to craft great melodies, and a variety of musical styles to retell a story familiar to many.

The top vocal role goes to Ted Leonard (Enchant, Spock’s Beard), with Nick D’Virgillio (Spock’s Beard) as Judas and Rick Florian (White Heart) as the devil. Nashville singer/songwriter Talon David is spectacular as Mary Magdalene, and one wishes she’d be featured even more. Neal Morse makes an appearance as Pontius Pilate, and Jake Livgren rounds up the main cast as Peter.

The first disc starts with Jesus on the cross, and then flashes back to his baptism. The story follows him through his 3 year ministry, focusing on numerous instances when Jesus is said to have cast out demons from people. “If you read the gospels, you’ll see that there’s a lot of that activity going on, a lot more than I really noticed before,” Morse told me when we spoke around the release of ‘The Great Adventure’. “For example, Mary Magdalene, it says that he had cast seven devils out of her, and so I wrote this song called ‘The Woman of Seven Devils’. Then I wrote this piece based on the mad man of the Gadarenes, who’s filled with a legion of demons and they come out one by one and sing their role in a sort of Spock’s Beard or Gentle Giant way, and that’s one of my favorite pieces.”

The first part ends on a high note with a raucous classic rock track that channels early Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, called ‘Get behind Me Satan’. It’s slightly out of line stylistically with the rest of the album but it’s so good and so much fun that it’s easy to forgive the transgression. Having said that, the album does navigate different musical styles, cleverly used to highlight different parts of the story. For example, this album does feature complicated instrumental passages, and they’re used to illustrate the various exorcisms Jesus performs throughout the first part of the story.

Jesus Christ: The Exorcist (cover autographed by Neal Morse)

The musicianship on the album is of course fantastic, as usual. ‘Eric Gillette is playing drums,” recalled Morse, ‘Randy George and I share the bass duties, Paul Bielatowicz from Carl Palmer’s band is playing guitar. Eric also takes a guitar solo and I play quite a bit of guitar on it also, so we’re the three guitar players and Bill Hubauer plays a lot of keyboards on it, too.”

The second disc starts with the Pharisees deciding that Jesus must die, depicted as a circus-like chorus. Like many musicals, the music becomes a little too preoccupied with moving the story along, and it sometimes drags the pace down a bit, but there are enough fantastic bits of music to keep the listener’s attention. In true musical style, it finishes with a grandiose track, ‘The Greatest Love of All’, before seguing into a reprise of ‘Love Has Called My Name’.

The musical was premiered last year at MorseFest with a very limited theatrical setup. Clearly this piece could sustain a full stage presentation, so let’s hope it can make the jump to the stage. I’d definitely catch this off Broadway!

If you’re already a Neal Morse fan, you know his faith plays a big part in his music. I understand how this might keep someone away from ‘Jesus Christ: The Exorcist’, but the music is very good, and it’s worth checking it out, no matter what your feelings are towards religion. Because music has the power to light up our lives as much as faith does.

Full cast:

  • Ted Leonard – Jesus
  • Talon David – Mary Magdalene 
  • Nick D’Virgilio – Judas Iscariot
  • Rick Florian – The Devil
  • Matt Smith – John the Baptist
  • Jake Livgren – Peter and Caiaphas
  • Neal Morse – Pilate, Demon 1, Disciple 1
  • Mark Pogue – Israelite 1, the Madman of the Gadarenes, Pharisee 2
  • Wil Morse – Israelite 2, Demon 3, Pharisee 1
  • Gabe Klein – Demon 2, Pharisee 4
  • Gideon Klein – Demon 4
  • Julie Harrison – Servant Girl

The album is available now from Radiant Records and Frontiers Records.

Jean-Frederic Vachon
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