It's been nine years since Neal Morse embraced Christianity and left Spock's Beard and Transatlantic to pursue a solo career, and eight years since he tried to explain why with his prog epic Testimony. Now he's come back to finish the story with Testimony 2, which highlights his time in the Beard and delves deeper into his conversion.
In those nine years, Morse has dove headlong into his religion in both his personal life and his music. While still a purveyor of prog, his albums have become more and more religious with each offering. When Neal and the Transatlantic boys decided to get back together in 2009 and make an album, I approached the results with more than a little trepidation, as I said in my review, and lo and behold the result was more than a little church-y. So I took an even healthier dose of skepticism with Testimony 2, as there was little need for Neal to even pretend to be secular.
The album is split into two discs. Disc one includes the Testimony 2 suite broken up into three parts. It starts off with part six, much like the first Star Wars movie is actually part four. There's a second disc with three unrelated songs and a DVD chronicling the making of the disc, which I haven't watched yet.
Let's get this out of the way right now - the music on Testimony 2 is first-rate. The usual players are back - Randy George on bass and the legendary Mike Portnoy on drums, with the usual complement of guest musicians - and they don't disappoint. You can't put these guys in a room and not get great music. The problem is the lyrics, both in content and in delivery.
There is little subtlety or nuance in the lyrics. They definitely tell, not show. It's an autobiography set to music, with all the good and bad that entails. It's kind of like setting the Sunday paper to music - you can do it, but it won't sound good. Many of the vocal melodies in Testimony 2 seem forced, as if the words were written first and then Neal had to shove them all in somewhere. Sometimes it worked, most of the time it didn't.
By far the best part is the opener, part six, which has four sections. In a break from the Morse norm it doesn't start off with an overture - it starts off with the very catchy Mercy Street. From there, it kicks into Overture No. 4 and what is the definitive highlight of the suite, Time Changer, which features the Spock's guys singing one of their patented syncopated Gentle Giant-esque vocal parts. It concludes with Jayda, which is a bit sappy but also honest and heartfelt. It's written about Neal's daughter of the same name who recovered from a hole in her heart and was the catalyst for his conversion. By this time the lyrics haven't gotten too heavy and the whole piece is enjoyable for what it is.
After that it goes downhill. Granted, there are some excellent musical pieces in the next two parts, and as usual he did a great job of integrating the Mercy Street opener into the conclusion, but many of the pieces are of him conversing with Jesus, and let me tell you that can get a bit trying. It also comes off as a bit narcissistic, like why would we want to know what was going on in is head? Seriously. We don't.
There is a hidden gem, though, on the second disc, and it's even more surprising as it comes out of nowhere and is preceded by two straightforward praise songs. Seeds of Gold is a prog masterpiece. The biggest shock, though, comes when Neal starts singing - the lyrics are amazingly secular! Here's all the nuance and subtlety that was missing from Testimony 2. The song opens with a piano interlude that only Neal could write, followed by three distinct song sections and a brilliant conclusion. The vocal melodies are intricate and interesting, not at all forced like in Testimony 2. It's musically brilliant - there's not too much or too little, just enough to fit the song. Another legend, Steve Morse (no relation), handles lead guitar work. This song wouldn't be out of place on a Spock's Beard or Transatlantic album - in fact, it's more secular than The Whirlwind. The bottom line is that Seeds of Gold is one of the best prog songs I've heard in a while, bar none.
So in the end, Testimony 2 is a flawed but technically superior album saved by one masterpiece. Seeds of Gold alone is worth the entry fee, and although the lyrics aren't the best, at least they serve as a documentary of sorts for Spock's Beard fans so they can finally get some closure on the Neal Morse era, even though the Beard's X probably gave them that already.
I give this album 3 1/2 out of 5 stars - although without Seeds of Gold it would only get three.
This post first appeared on Pantomime Horse, please read the originial post: here