Neal Morse: Maintaining Balance in the Whirlwind
By GREGORY TWACHTMAN
When Neal Morse moved away from secular music to follow his Christian muse, it dashed the hopes of Transatlantic fans that they would get a third studio album from the progressive rock supergroup. But thanks to an off-the-cuff comment from a friend and some soul searching, Morse has stepped back into the secular spotlight with his Transatlantic bandmates.
The foray back to secular music started in an unlikely place. A Christian friend of Morse who was not even a fan of Transatlantic suggested that Morse take a theological idea they were discussing and transform it into a concept album for Transatlantic to play. The result was The Whirlwind, Transatlantic's third studio album, which was released in 2009.
"A couple of years back, just out of the blue, a Christian friend and I were talking about this concept of 'the whirlwind' from the Bible," Morse recalled. "He cited a reference in the Book of Job that states 'and God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.'" It is not the only place that the Bible mentions this. Morse cites a passage in the Book of Ezekiel that also was inspirational for the album.
"Many times when you see God, the presence of God is surrounded by either 'the whirlwind' or 'the four winds' or this kind of cloud then storm and lightning and thunder and all of these things," Morse added. "So [my friend] had these thoughts that it could be symbolizing confusion and turmoil in our lives and in the lives of nations and that God may be trying to speak to us in these ways; that God deals with mankind sometimes through those means. Not literal storms, but a symbolic thing."
Then the friend made the oddest of suggestions: that Morse turn the discussion on the whirlwind into a concept album and present it to his fellow Transatlantic bandmates – Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, Flower Kings guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt and Marillion bassist/vocalist Pete Trewavas.
Morse took part of that suggestion and several months later began working on translating the concept to music. After taking some time to think about the concept and look for guidance through prayer, Morse ultimately felt the time was right to reach out to his Transatlantic bandmates with the idea. They agreed to explore it, ending an eight-year hiatus for Transatlantic following its celebrated 2001 release, Bridges Across Forever.
A Collaborative Process
While the base concept that serves as the foundation for the nearly 78-minute epic title track that makes up The Whirlwind comes from Morse's original demo, he is quick to stress that the final song was very much the result of a collaborative effort. The album's liner notes illustrate this further, crediting the lyrics and music simply to "Transatlantic."
"I just want to make it clear that it was in no way that they got together and recorded my music," Morse noted. "What we wound up doing is almost completely different that what I did."
Morse described the dynamic of the band as a "many-membered ship without a captain."
"There is nobody really in charge of Transatlatic," the keyboardist/vocalist explained. "That is something that makes it interesting because there has been somebody in charge of every group I've ever been in. With Transatlantic, it's a mixed bag. It's a very interesting thing and I think that's what makes it unique."
Transatlantic's approach to writing and recording The Whirlwind clearly illustrates the lack of a dominant personality.
"Everybody brought in demos and we just kind of did what felt right," Morse said. "There was a little more jamming, there was a little more writing in the room than on previous albums. I thought that bore a lot of really good fruit."
Morse then got just a little more excited as he told an anecdote of one particular section, humming some melodies and talking about the back-and-forth on making changes to individual notes and how that became the bridge for the "Rose Colored Glasses" portion of the title track.
"What an adventure [and] it was totally collaborative," Morse recalled enthusiastically. "We had no idea where it was going to go and it turned, I think, one of the most powerful parts of the record."
But as the music was evolving, Morse was never put in a position to where he needed to relinquish the Christian path he currently follows in his solo music career, allowing him to maintain that balance of keeping his lyrics true to his faith, even for this secular release.
"They let me write whatever lyrics I felt to write," Morse said of his bandmates. "I didn't write all the lyrics, but the lyrics I wrote were saying what I wanted to say about the Lord and about the whirlwind."
And Morse is not shy in talking about what he hopes people will take away from the CD – that it "will influence people towards the Lord. I am excited about what God's doing."
The deluxe edition of the album contains a disc featuring some leftover tracks and cover songs that allow the band members to collectively pay tribute to their influences.
Morse stated that a bunch of ideas for covers were kicked around, but he could not recall what ideas were rejected.
"I remember Mike and Roine were really into the Procol Harum tune ['A Salty Dog']," Morse said. "I had never even heard that song, so it was kind of their baby."
The song offers Portnoy fans the additional rarity of hearing the drummer on lead vocals, singing the tune in tribute to his late father Howard. This was not the first time Transatlantic has covered Procol Harum, however. The band's 2000 debut, SMTP:e, closed with a cover of "In Held (Twas) In I."
Also included is a mash-up of two different songs that carry the same name: "I Need You." Morse noted that "Pete really wanted to do that America song and it was Mike's idea to throw in The Beatles thing." The Beatles have been a recurring theme with the band, particularly in its live performances.
The Genesis cover also should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Transatlantic or the member's individual influences. During its first tour, the band performed a Genesis medley. This time around, "everybody wanted to do 'Return of the Giant Hogweed.' We were all over the whole Genesis track."
Closing out the bonus disc is a cover of Morse's suggestion.
"My idea was 'Soul Sacrifice' [by Santana]," the keyboardist revealed. "I had to push that one through a little bit because I thought it would be a lot of fun to just do a jam after you've done such intense music."
Whether this cover that closes the deluxe edition and the short upcoming United States and European tour ends up being the band's swan song remains to be seen. For Morse, it will be about whether it feels right, and it will have to fit in with his bandmates' respective schedules.
"When it happens, it happens," Morse said. "When it's the right time, we will gather."
Copyright 2010, Brian Heaton. All Rights Reserved.