Friday, August 19, 2016

Music Review - The Choir - Wide-Eyed Wonder

For some reason it has taken me an immensely long time to write this review. Yes, life has been busy but also so much of my early Christian walk is woven with the melodies of this album that attempting to do it justice would be a tall order. Or maybe I don’t know where to start. Or maybe I don’t know what to leave out. Upon further reflection perhaps the reason I don’t want to do my usual review of this album is because to dissect the music might just kill the magic that it had and frankly still has. So I’ll meander about instead.

The Choir’s Wide Eyed Wonder was my introduction to the band (and one of my first Christian albums). As such, I had no clue about Chase The Kangaroo or their former name or that Robin had replaced Tim Chandler* as the band’s bassist. All I knew was that a friend (who seemed to find all the great music three minutes before I did) talked highly about this band so I picked up the album when I saw it on the shelf at my local purveyor of fine** Christian music. It was a purchase I’ve never regretted.

Having been immersed in the world of The Swirling Eddies at that time, I incorrectly took some of Steve’s lyrics as humorous, when in fact he intended them to be poetic. And they are poetic, so I mean no disrespect. But lines like “No, not the spider-shed” and “Were you talking to the snow man? Did you take his cruel advice?” are also a bit random and appealed to my off-kilter sense of humor.

Wide-Eyed Wonder was very different from the music I had been listening to since I began my teen years, which was mostly heavy metal and hard rock. Compared to what I had been listening to this stuff was almost pop, but with a little bit of edge and a little bit of weirdness. I liked all three. The most upbeat of all The Choir albums, there’s a childlike wonder about the songs which captures Steve’s joy over the birth of his daughter and also mirrored my wondrous joy in my newfound relationship with Christ. Of course I knew none of this in my youthful ignorance. All I knew is that there were some unusual sounding songs that were also very singable, very easy to like. There was also a longer, more atonal song called “Car etc.” that I kind of liked but it wasn’t my favorite. There was also a horribly out of place cover of a George Harrison song***. Its fine by itself but it’s a dour acoustic folk song in the middle of a joyous and adventurous celebration. Also tied to this album was the first time I saw the band live. It was the spring of 1990 and I was at Anderson University. I had a girlfriend but no other friends and was so lonely that it ached. I kept seeing this guy around campus who wore a trench coat upon which he had written poetry or lyrics or something all over it. He was a bit on the odd side but friendly so I started talking to him. Surprisingly he also liked The Choir and Adam Again and a few other bands I liked so when I learned that The Choir was playing in my hometown, a mere ninety minutes away, I invited him to ride to the concert with me. It would be great to say that this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship but we didn’t keep in touch after I transferred out at the end of the semester.**** I realize I haven’t said much about the actual album but hey, it’s my blog and I can write like an old man about my ancient memories if’n I want to. You probably already have this album anyway but if you don’t, well, you can’t buy it even from the bands website. YouTube probably has it so treat yourself to some fine tunes that have held up amazingly well for over twenty-five years.

* Looking back at this point in my history I was musically drawn to bass parts but didn’t realize it. I knew there was an instrument called the “bass guitar” but had no clue as to its seductive power or purpose.

** And not so fine. I’m talking to you, Carman and Petra!

*** Really, Choir? Can you tell me, with a straight face, that you listened to the final cut of the album and didn’t think to yourself, “Well, maybe that Harrison cover breaks the spell.”?

**** He’s on Facebook. I sent a friend request though I have no idea why.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sins of the Fathers - a short story

Earlier this summer I threw out a challenge to fans of Daniel Amos to write a short story based on one or many of their songs. So far I haven't received any back but the summer isn't over yet. I hope you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it.

Sins of the Fathers

There’s that counter kid with the insufficient moustache and wiry frame, wiping down a table by the restrooms. He’s one of those bright and funny young know-it-alls, just like his grandpa William who was an old acquaintance of mine, though this kid doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t care if he did. I stand in the doorway of Johnny’s Café and look around for Dotty but don’t see her, meaning she probably had to take time off from work again with a sick kid, one of the many struggles of being a single mom.

I usually sit at the counter and talk to Bob, the owner and cook of this roadside greasy spoon, but I’m feeling kind of anti-social so I take a booth on the east side where the mid-morning sun can come in. A moment later the kid comes over and I’m thankful for his name tag, my mind momentarily not able to remember that his name is Blake.

“Howya doin today, Mr. Akendorf?”

Life is God's gift but the years have weight and I'm logy, a little sluggish. My back's bothering me again and my bones are rigid and I’m wondering how difficult it’s going to be getting out of this booth, but these are things young Blake won’t understand and doesn’t want to hear. “Better than I deserve,” I reply. Like most of us old codgers, I feel like I’ve lived too many years but then again, not long enough.

“Seen any flying saucers lately?” He humors me and like always, I just let it slide.

“Not today, Blake.” I leave it at that. It’s an old story back from when I was about Blake’s age, a story that kind of got me labelled as an eccentric in this small town. I don’t mind, I suppose. One is what one is. “How’s your music career going?”

“Our drummer quit last week but we’ve got two guys trying out this weekend. Hopefully we’ll have someone by the time we have enough money saved to get into the studio. After that it’s just a matter of time. So what can I get ya? The usual?” He has his pad and pen poised and ready in front of him.

“No, I’m feeling a bit hungrier than usual. I’ll take a Mighty Grunion with extra gravy, to grow my derrière. And java jive. Black.”

“Okay, Bud. One Mighty Grunion coming right up.” The kid turns and leaves, putting my ticket in the order slider by the kitchen. He comes back in a moment and wordlessly places a white mug and saucer in front of me, filling it with steaming bean squeezins. Even this simple action reveals his limitless reserve of optimistic, youthful energy, his bright porcelain blue eyes brimming over with the fire of the immortal soul, making me feel even older, as if he’s siphoning off what little vigor I stored up overnight.

I cup the hot mug in my hands and enjoy the warmth that seeps into my bones, half-squinting with the bright sun on my face as I look out into the parking lot. In the kitchen Bob has the radio on to an oldies station and when “Last Kiss” comes on it’s too much to resist. So I let myself go, fading back to the summer of 1964.

• • • • • •

That song, “Last Kiss,” was all over the radio that summer. It seems you couldn’t step out of your door without hearing a thin rendition squawking out of some kid’s transistor radio. This was back before F.M. so everything was thin, including myself. My best friend Theo and I spent a lot of time that year hanging out with Bill, Blake’s grandpa, though he was a long way from being a grandpa. Bill was okay but I would be lying if I said the fact that Bill had a car and access to his dad’s beer didn’t play into our decision to hang out with an underclassman. Plus Theo had the hot’s for Bills girlfriend, Connie, who was constantly by his side in the front passenger seat of his 1959 Ford Galaxie. Maybe Theo just liked being close to her, even if all he usually saw was the back of her head. I don’t blame him. I mean, she was beautiful enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to one day hear John Charles Daly pronounce her Miss Universe, but I’ve never been one to fight dirty in the game of love and try to take another guy’s girl. Besides I had my eye on a pretty young sophomore with the magical name of Irma.

One of those endless summer nights Theo and I walked over to Bill’s house to see if he was home. Bill’s dad was bowling and he and Connie had already helped themselves to a couple cans each of Lucky Lager. Bill’s dad was a big shot local businessman who could afford to buy his son a car as well as alimony for an ex-wife. More importantly he was a heavy drinker who didn’t keep very good tabs on his stash so it was easy for Bill to be generous. We sat around for an hour or so before Bill had the idea to drive out to the Los Padres National Forest. It was still early, just barely dark, so we all jumped at the chance to howl. I wasn’t much of a drinker, still aren’t, but I’d had enough so that I didn’t realize that Bill had had too many. Now I’m not saying that Bill’s drinking affected his driving, or that our collective consumption played into the events of that evening, but its human nature to dig through the past and play “What if?”

We piled into the big, warm, sweet interior of Bill’s Galaxie and headed out into that strange and desperate night that would alter all our destinies. We assumed our regular positions of Bill at the wheel with Connie right up next to him on that massive bench seat. I was behind Bill and Theo was beside me, nowhere near as close as Connie was to Bill.

It only too about ten minutes before we made it out of Bakersfield, the stores and warehouses in our dust.

“One day I’m gonna leave Bakersfield and won’t go back,” said Theo. “I’m gonna hop on a train and explore Europe, maybe even Asia.”

“You can’t take a train to Europe, Theo,” replied Bill as he cracked another beer.

“You know what I mean, wise-acre.”

Bill took a gulp of his warm beer. “Ya know what, I’m bored with Los Padres. Let’s go to Tehachapi Mountain Park instead. The views are incredible!”

“Views of what? Its night time?” quipped Theo.

Without waiting for a vote Bill turned left onto the next country road.

Because of his late decision we weren’t on the main road to Tehachapi and had to nose around a few dead ends before we found a narrow gravel side road that led up into the mountains. Once found Bill seemed eager to make up for his lost time and pressed down on the gas to speed up the treacherous curves, smiling as Connie clung to his arm in fear.

“Slow down, baby. I’m in no hurry.” Bill let off the gas a little which seemed to satisfy Connie.

As we traveled upward we hit a section without trees on the driver’s side and we were able to catch of view of the moon-bathed mountainside. “What’s that?” asked Theo, pointing past my head out the open car window. We all looked and saw a green disc of light with a red pulsing center zipping over the trees and knew that we were seeing a U.F.O., just like in the movies but this one was right there before us in real life.

Theo said, “That is not theologically correct.”

Bill said, “SHIT!” and yanked the wheel hard to the right to avoid driving right off the narrow mountain road. The car slid sideways and the driver side slammed into a short wooden fence that ran along the edge of the road, a gift from the parks department for buffoons like us. Silence accompanied our sudden stop as we all tried to absorb what we just saw coupled with the hair-raising accident. The silence was broken by the radio, playing a few bars of some Beach Boys song before the car engine died. Theo started to laugh in relief. The rest of us sat there, our minds fumbling for words, when suddenly the car was bathed in red light. I leaned out my window and, looking up, my brain turned to sand. The saucer was hovering right above us, maybe fifty feet or so, as if investigating our accident. The horrendous disc was spinning like a record while the red light pulsed twice before the thing shot straight up like a bottle rocket, disappearing into the night.

Theo pulled me back into the car by my shirt. “Where’d it go?”

“Straight up. I can’t see it anywhere.”

Bill cranked the engine and it roared to life. “Well, we’re getting out of here, fast!” He popped the Galaxie into gear and gunned the engine. The rear wheels spun out on the gravel road and the rear of the car slid towards the center of the road, causing the front of the car to push against the fence. A thick, wooden crack could be heard over the engine and the car lurched forward, along with our stomachs, and we dropped off the edge.

My mother must have prayed for me that day because the drop was only twelve feet or so. The car landed nose down, at an angle, with its back wheels leaning against the mountainside, the cabin of the car a confusing Mystery Spot where forward was now down and no direction seemed up. I was banged up with my upper body hanging over the driver’s seat. Seat belts were an option that this particular Galaxie did not have, not that we would have used them. “Let’s get out of here,” I yelled, looking around the car. Theo had a gash on his forehead but was also otherwise okay. “Bill? Are you okay?”

Bill’s head had cracked the windshield. There was a smear of blood but he was coming to. “What? Crap. My dad’s gonna kill me. Connie?” We all looked over at where Connie should have been. My blood turned cold at the sight of the open passenger door leading into a black night. “CONNIE!?” We all scrambled from the car as fast as we could. Fortunately the nose of the car was pretty well buried into the dirt so it didn’t shift or fall over as we made our exits.

“What I wouldn’t give right now for my old man’s flashlight!” We all scrambled around in the dim moonlight, yelling out Connie’s name. I found her, a few yards away, lying way too still. She had been thrown from the car when it hit. “Over here!”

Bill and Theo raced over, Bill kneeling beside her, his face next to hers. “Connie? Are you okay?” Even in the dim light I could see that Connie’s face was turning purple on one side but she opened her eyes, tried to smile through the stiffness and lifted a hand that I noticed was covered in blood, from where I couldn’t tell. “Connie! You’re okay!” Bill kissed her and turned to us, “Guys, she’s okay!” He turned back to Connie who had closed her eyes again. “Connie! Try to stay awake! Connie? Connie!” But there was nothing we could do. She was gone.

Bill stayed with her while Theo and I climbed up onto the road, walking back to the highway where we eventually flagged down help. Days later we learned that Connie had suffered a massive brain injury and there wasn’t anything medicine in those days could have done to save her. Bill spent two weeks in the hospital for his head injury and wasn’t able to attend her funeral. Theo and I both had some bruises but not much else, unless you count the severe sunburn I received from leaning out the window to get a better look at the saucer. I made the mistake of telling a few people about what we saw that caused us to have the accident, mostly because my sunburn made me a walking target for questions. Even though I shut up about it quickly enough the damage was done and I had earned myself a reputation as “that saucer guy.” Fortunately I graduated the next year and was able to move away to school. By the time I moved back four years later most people were over ribbing me about it, though I’m sure the notion was still in their minds. Bill and Theo were smart enough to keep their mouths shut. Not that I blamed them but it sure would have been nice to have someone back me up.

Theo and I went to the same college, kinda lost touch in the eighties when his marriage was in rough spot but got back in touch during the Clinton years. Irma and I used to get together with them each month for bridge but Theo’s wife has had some health issues lately so that’s on hold for now.

Things weren’t so easy for Bill. Even though there were no charges brought against him I think he blamed himself for the death of Connie, which caused him to start drinking more. A lot more. Once he showed up at my college and asked if I knew where he could get some acid. I didn’t and wouldn’t have told him if I did. Believe it or not, not everyone in the sixties did drugs. In the early seventies he ended up moving to Vegas and marrying some dancer named Terri Roy Al, and you can guess how long that lasted. He eventually went back home to work for his dad but a few years later the Vegas dancer showed up just long enough to drop off a young boy, counter-kid’s dad, surprising Bill, his pregnant second wife and their two year old daughter. In the early 80s Bill quit drinking after getting saved at some tent revival service a lady preacher held on the edge of town and basically got his act together, becoming the stereotypical pillar of the community just like his dad. It was obvious from the start that Scott, his Vegas-born son, had a wild side, or maybe he just didn’t feel like he fit in. A couple of car wrecks, a string of bad jobs, even six months in prison for dealing weed failed to turn him around. Bill did his best to help him along, finding him work when Scott was in the mood for it, but Bill couldn’t shelter him from three bad marriages. Blake here was the result, I think, of the second marriage. Some local girl named Anna, a good kid who got mixed up with Scott and ended up raising Blake alone. Well, not exactly alone. She was close to her family and they helped her out, as did Bill and his wife. Bill and I were never all that close so we didn’t reconnect after he got cleaned up but I’ve had my eye on Blake, him being Bill’s grandson and all. I guess I have a tender spot for him, and from the looks of things he turned out alright.

• • • • • •

My trip down memory lane is broken when Blake slides the white porcelain plate across my table. “One SAUCER of food, Mr. Akendorf.” I look up at his grin and am tempted to offer the boy some kind of words of wisdom, clichés about life being tough, tell him about unrealized expectations, maybe pass on a couple of tips. But I’ve learned after all this time that you can’t teach these young dogs new tricks.

“Thanks, Blake.”

My breakfast is hot, delicious and plentiful, meaning Bob is in his element. As I sit and enjoy the morning sun Blake stops by to pour me another cup of thick, bitter coffee. “Are ya finally gonna have some pie, Mr. Akendorf?” Despite my full belly I eye the glass carousel display of pie slices by the register, think about my sugar level and like always, I decline. “Just the check today.”

While he’s away getting my ticket I use the time to struggle out of the bench seat so I don’t give the boy something else to laugh about. Once up I head over to the restrooms, labeled Pointers and Setters, and by the time I return my check is waiting for me on the table. I look around but don’t see Blake so I leave the tip on the table and offer another prayer for the boy, for God’s mercy and His grace, for salvation and love and that maybe, just maybe, he can avoid the sins of his fathers and have the courage to make the world a better place. Good luck walking on water, kid. But when those mistakes come, learn from them. That’s what I would say if I felt it was my place.

Blake appears out of nowhere and beats me to the register, his usual cocky grin on his face, and I talk myself out of saying anything more than, “Have a good day.”

“You too, Mr. Akendorf. Hang in there!”

I shuffle out and leave him to his hopes and dreams as I hang onto my memories. Well… you hang on too, son.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Garden Post 2016.3

I guess it's time to post more green pictures. Trust me... you'll come back to this page in the middle of winter and bask in their glow.

First up, my prize so far. This melon is slightly larger than a ping pong ball and I place a small metal critter cage next to it in the hopes that it will scare away chipmunks. There's still at least one of those buggers left even though I've relocated five of them this year.

This little guy is about the size of Andre the Giant's thumb and I'm pretty sure it's a Green Machine variety, one that's supposed to churn out oodles of melons. Because I was lazy I didn't even label or write down where I put each melon plant, and I barely remember what I planted. I'm fairly certain the one above is a personal size melon and that I also planted a Black Ozark and a white fleshed melon but there's one more that I can't remember. I suppose a trip to my seed tub to thumb through packets would solve the mystery but where's the fun in that?

A single melon plant, thriving nicely in my unusual planting manner.

A long view of more plants including some stunted sunflowers. One neighbor already has flowers on their sunflowers but they are the smaller- headed kind. I'm not jealous.

Here are the beans. I kept forgetting to plant them so they're behind schedule. Plus I really need to do some more weeding.

There are at least two beets ready to pick and eat but the kids have VBS (again) this week so it will have to wait until the weekend, at which time they'll be bigger than our house.

The Giant Marconi peppers are not so giant. Yet. Beside this one is a rogue tomato that kinda just started growing and I decided to wait and see what it is because I'm just that kinda guy.

And speaking of tomatoes, here they are. I've already had some of these super sweet little treats so it looks like the bag-o-compost method isn't affecting them in a negative way.

And speaking of negative, look at this mess! The house came with two mature pear trees but last year we didn't get to eat a single one because the tree rodents (a.k.a. squirrels) ate them all. I'm willing to share but when they take a bit or two and toss it to the grown to rot, well, that's just wasting. So I'm taking some precautions this year.

That's right, buddy. You're on notice to stay away from my trees!

Another surprise that came with the house is a blackberry bush. It didn't make much last year but this spring I fertilized it and have been watering it and VA-VA-VOOM! The raspberry plants I transplanted aren't doing very well this year but I'm not holding it against them.

Saving the best for last is my little helper. I had a bucket filled with water while I was watering the garden and my daughter decided to help herself.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Garden Post 2016.2

It's been one month and things are taking off. But not the budget, thankfully. I've spent maybe another $15 (including a bag of what must be gold-flaked compost that wasn't priced but by the time I got to the checkout and it rang up at over $5 I just didn't care). That brings the total to $40.

Let's start off with the pretty flowers planted by the kiddies. Moving on...

Here's the $5+ bag of compost, growing things nicely. But not appreciably better than the melon growing in the $1.00 bag (not shown for legal reasons).

Carrots and beets.

Tomatoes of all sizes. If you're still reading, congratulations. Even I'm bored right now.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Music Review - Dave Kerzner - New World

Yet another fine album that I need to listen to again.

Recently I was in my car listening to “Comfortably Numb” on the radio and I started to wonder how many times I’ve heard this song in my life. Two hundred? A thousand? Sure, it’s a great song but wouldn’t it be great if Pink Floyd put out some new music? Fat chance. It’s a good thing, then, that there’s someone like Dave Kerzner to fill the gap. Kerzner is a man who loves Pink Floyd more than most fish love water but fortunately he’s also such an amazing songwriter and gifted musician that the music on New World is no flat Floyd imitation. Instead it breathes and excites with a life and character of its own, though Floyd fans will appreciate that it sounds like it is a long-lost recording made between Momentary Lapse of Reason and Division Bell. The friends joining Kernzer speaks to his standing in the music community. Not only do classic rock prog-legends Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson lend their talents but former bandmate (and adopted Fort Wayne son/Sweetwater alum) Nick D’Virgilio plays most of the drums.

The fun starts with the ten minute “Stranded (Part 1-5)”, an expansive, mysterious adventure that, above all others, sounds like a missing piece of Darkside of the Moon, owing greatly to the wailing female vocals. The song ends with an invigorating chanting-vocal part that is surely a tribute to the song “Shadow Self” by former bandmate, the late, great Kevin Gilbert. Stepping out of the “progressive epic” mode is “The Lie”, an achingly beautiful song that could easily be a single on rock radio, especially with its heartfelt and perfectly restrained guitar solos. Another amazingly catchy rock song is “Nothing,” which sounds like a cross between E.L.O. and early Asia and culminates in a snide chorus of “All I need from you is nothing.” “Under Control” begins as a shadowy whisper but erupts into an insistent, pounding and creepy chorus of “I… am… under control,” though it sounds as if it’s more of a last desperate hope than a confident statement. Immediately following is the instrumental “Crossing of Fates” featuring a Keith Emerson moog solo. Mournful horns predict dark skies while stabs of guitars put one off balance in this cinematic masterpiece that is enthralling throughout. The album ends with the second half of “Stranded”, packing in many changes in mood and tempo into its seventeen minute length, at times driving yet restrained (as exemplified by Pink Floyd) and other times chilling, somber, plaintiff, and hopeful.

If you can’t tell, this reviewer thinks that New World is an astounding album, possibly the best I’ve heard in the last six months, and I’m not even a huge Pink Floyd fan! New World incorporates a breath-taking kaleidoscope of sounds and textures, wrapping them around skillfully written songs that catch in the brain while at the same time rousing the heart.

Music Review - Brandi Carlile - Firewatcher's Daughter

It turns out that these songs didn't grow on me. When they came up on shuffle play on my MP3 player I kept finding myself hitting the skip button. Better luck next time, Ms. Carlile.

At first blush I didn’t care much for The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Brandi Carlile’s first album after leaving a major label deal and going indie. I found the choruses to be repetitive and the lyrics a bit thin. It’s one thing when an artist is exorcising their demons and you’re allowed along for the ride and another when the artist has made it through the woods and intentionally writes songs to help others. Which is to say that on her first few albums the lyrics seemed more genuine and now they seem to be full of sincere yet flat encouragements. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it’s not a great thing.

But that was “first blush.” It was this past weekend, as I found the melodies in my head of Firewatcher songs I previously thought were tepid, that I wondered if perhaps this album was a grower. You know, one of those albums that takes more listens than normal to get into but once you “get it” it stays gotten for a long time.

So what’s on Daughter? The first song, “Wherever Is Your Heart” has exactly the faults I mentioned above, a very poor first impression, so much so that I initially failed to notice the amazingly tight vocal harmonies of “The Eye”, a Fleetwood Mac with old-school country song centered around the line "You can dance in the hurricane / But only if you're standing in the eye." Another memorable ballad is the beautifully melancholy “Beginning to Feel the Years” which focuses on the bond of parent and child (“Maybe I was meant to be under your lock and key”.) None of the other slower songs did much for me, sounding like pretty standard Carlile ballads.

Three of the four rockers, though, provide a solid backbone. The reckless “Mainstream Kid” is about as good as it gets, three parts ballsy rock and one part country with Brandi belting out lyrics like “I need someone to tell me who I am” before a scorching guitar solo burns down the barn. The nostalgic “Blood Muscle Skin & Bones” has hints of 80s pop and cowbell in the chorus. Serious amounts of cowbell that toe the line of acceptable cow bellage. Fun and raucous, “Alibi” is one of the strongest on the album, pummeling along with rockabilly roots and wry lyrics like “If you’re good at telling lies / You could be my alibi / And I won’t take the fall for where I’ve been.” Show of hands: who else wants a Carlile album of just rock songs? While not as consistent as her earlier albums, The Firewatcher’s Daughter has more than its fair share of good songs. Time will tell if these “good” songs are just that or if they are exceptionally humble “great” songs that only flower over a period of months.

Music Review - Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

I've grown to love this album even more as time has gone on. It has been a great encouragement to me.

Neal Morse is back with another album, though this time it falls under the moniker of “The Neal Morse Band,” indicating a shift from him being the man in full control to more of a collaborative effort. I’m sure it’s not easy to relinquish control, hence the title The Grand Experiment. Or maybe the “experiment” is to see how much they can sound like classic Styx in the chorus of the self-titled track.

Ah, but I jest. But not about the Styx, because they do and it sounds totally amaze-balls, though the rest of the song is an effective yet straight-forward gutsy rocker with a hint of blues. One thing I noticed in this song, and indeed the rest of the album, is that Neal shares lead vocal duties with bandmates. Sure, he’s got a nice voice on his own but imagine if Paul sang every song on every Beatles album. So the variety is a nice surprise. As are the copious amounts of vocal harmonies which, juxtaposed against the heavier rock setting, are quite reminiscent of early King’s X. “The Call” opens with three part vocal harmonies that bash into aggressive, stuttering guitar rhythms offset by classic rock organ sounds before jumping into a kind of musical overture. Its ten minutes of fairly typical Neal Morse songwriting, which is to say that the ten minutes fly by in a furry of catchy melodies and killer guitar riffs. “Waterfall” contrasts the driving rock of the first two songs, itself being comprised of acoustic guitars and a downright beautiful melody softly presented via three part vocal harmony. If they were trying to emulate Crosby Stills and Nash they nailed it. One thing I like about the music of Morse (and pals) is that he’s not afraid to use unusual sound choices but always tempers any weirdness with solid melodies. “Agenda” is no exception, nimbly hopping from spacy quirkiness to driving hard rock. The homemade video is kinda hokey, though.

At twenty-six minutes, “Alive Again” gets its own paragraph. Few alive can write an expansive prog-rock epic like Neal Morse (and his band), spending the first three minutes building a sweeping orchestral-like overture before switching to a tumbling and forceful rhythm. Still no words for another minute when the bottom drops out, leaving Neal singing over a thin ray of nearly inaudible sunshine that brightens into more lush vocal harmonies singing the chorus. A few minutes of more typical song structures follow before things get crazy in an extended instrumental passage where talk box guitars combat gritty saxophones before the second “song within a song” begins. When this section finishes the album turns classical with piano and string section. Yeah, lots of prog bands include these instruments but this band knows their classical music arranging well enough to make it sound, well, real. This is immediately followed by a pleasant return to the early eighties, complete with an orchestral Deep Purple passage of frogged violins that turns things over to an amazing guitar solo which sounds like a perfect combination of Malmsteen, Vai, and Blackmore. Killer? Oh yeah. A calm “song #3” begins next, eventually flowing into a reprise of the original chorus but seriously, after the heart pumping instrumental section, what’s the point? Oh yeah, song integrity.

If The Grand Experiment is just that, The Neal Morse Band needs to spend time in their musical laboratory on a regular basis.