As a child, Neal Morse found a kindred spirit in Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Nashville progressive rock composer and multi-instrumentalist became instantly drawn to the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock opera album turned Broadway musical.
“I got it when I was 11 or 12, and I lived that album for months. That’s the way I was when I was young, I only listened to one thing at time,” said Morse, the former Spock’s Beard frontman.
Nearly 40 years later, Morse decided to write a new rock opera showcasing the Gospel at the encouragement of his friend Michael Caplan. In 2008, he embarked on a 10-year creative journey to compose and record Jesus Christ The Exorcist: A Progressive Rock Musical, a refreshing take on the timeless story of Jesus.
“At first I thought, ‘It’s been done, doing a rock musical or rock opera based on the Gospel seems like a trite thing at first,’ and then the more I thought about it, I prayed about it, I felt like, ‘Yeah, I should take a stab at it,’” Morse said.
“I’m a little bit of a one-project-at-a time guy, and so when I worked on it in 2008, I didn’t work on anything else. I only did that until it was done, and I spent about two months on it back then, and then a month demoing it. It was pretty elaborate, I had friends come in and help me sing over stuff. We worked pretty hard on the original demos because we were going to shop it as a Broadway show.”
Unfortunately, Jesus Christ The Exorcist didn’t make it to Broadway, but Morse resurrected the project and debuted it live a decade later at Morsefest, his annual two-day music festival near Nashville. By 2018, the project’s revival led to a renewed interested in releasing it.
“Michael called me up and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, I think I’ve got a record deal for this,’ and I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s really interesting because I’m doing the rewrite now, that’s perfect,’” Morse said.
Frontiers Music srl, an independent Italian-American record label for classic rock, hard rock, prog rock and metal artists, released Jesus Christ The Exorcist as a double album for Morse last year.
With the label’s support, Morse assembled an impressive roster of vocalists and musicians for the project, including Ted Leonard (vocals), Eric Gillette (drums, guitars), Paul Bielatowicz (guitar), Nick D’Virgilio (vocals), Randy George (bass), Bill Hubauer (keys), Matt Smith (vocals), Rick Florian (vocals), Talon David (vocals) and others.
“They really brought their style to playing. There really wasn’t much that was brought to the table in the way of composition because the whole thing was already composed. It wasn’t like the collaborativeness of The Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors or Transatlantic. It was more of ‘OK, here’s the part, play it kind of thing,’ and there was a little bit of embellishing, but not a ton on this,” said Morse, who also released a new Flying Colors album, Third Degree, in October.
Jesus Christ The Exorcist, Act 1
For Jesus Christ The Exorcist, Morse magically highlights the story of Jesus from his baptism to resurrection and dramatically chronicles how he expels demons from others. As longtime writer of concept albums for solo and collaborative projects and a born-again Christian, Morse easily tackled a two-act, 25-track prog rock opera with religious themes.
“It’s kind of like the water I swim in. It’s just one step at a time, one piece at a time, one thought at a time, and then where does it feel like he wants to go from here. It’s very instinctive, and you’re following your gut all the way. The same way in which you write anything really or you write as a regular song. It’s just a lot longer,” Morse said.
“I was attracted to the drama of Jesus casting out demons. I don’t think much of that has ever been portrayed. I had my Bible open, and I was reading stuff, and I would just start writing what I was feeling from what I was reading. There are so many stories in there, I couldn’t write about them all.”
One of the album’s most profound tracks includes “Jesus’ Temptation,” a 10-minute dramatic confrontation in act one between Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness. A majestic rock symphony of pounding drums, bright synths, roaring electric guitars, deep organ and thumping bass crescendos right before their meeting and quickly morphs into somber strings and uplifting piano.
Ted Leonard provides the soaring vocals for Jesus as he defiantly sings, “Satan be gone/I know I am the son/I will worship my God/And no other shall harm me.” In return, Rick Florian provides fiery, metal-like vocals for the Devil, “I’m the watcher of the red skies/The father of crime/You’ve eluded me this time/But the masses are mine/I’ll battle you for all time.”
“I love all of part one, and I like ‘Jesus’ Temptation.’ I just love the whole idea of having a hard rock duet between Jesus and the Devil,” Morse said.
Morse continues to challenge Jesus in “The Madman of the Gadarenes,” a haunting seven-minute confrontation between Jesus and four demons inhabiting a Madman. Bursts of frantic instrumentation interspersed with resonating synths surround Jesus, the Madman and the four demons as Morse eerily sings, “I have been in this man many years/And there are some more of us living here/We are called Legion.”
As Jesus, Leonard quickly responds, “It’s time for you to be gone/Go back to where you belong/In the name of God’s only Son/The holy one of God!” Jesus instantly casts the Madman’s demons into a herd of pigs that run off a cliff and disappear into the sea.
“One of the things I wrote fairly early on for the show was ‘The Madman of the Gadarenes’ piece, and that sort of led me in the direction of how cool and interesting and fun in a way it was to write about that subject and to have the demons coming out of the guy and singing,” Morse said.
Jesus Christ The Exorcist, Act 2
In act two, Morse exquisitely addresses Judas Iscariot’s worrisome thoughts about Jesus on “Hearts Full of Holes,” a three-minute heartfelt ballad filled with melodic, hypnotic piano. D’Virgilio beautifully reveals, “But now He is talking ‘bout giving in/And I don’t see how we can win/He must show His hand/We are running out of time.”
As a tormented apostle, Judas listens to the Devil and turns Jesus over to Caiaphas, the high priest, and his council. Once Jesus is charged and crucified, he reappears three days later before Mary Magdalene, and they both rejoice on “The Greatest Love of All.”
The five-minute splendor features lush guitar, light cymbal taps, uplifting strings and buoyant piano as Leonard and David harmoniously sing, “And this is the greatest love of all/This is what we have waited for/No one could ever give you any more/Than this love that falls like heaven’s rain.”
“At different times in my life, different parts of these stories jump out at me in different ways. Everything that’s in there resonates with me in some way,” Morse said.
“As I was doing the rewrite, it really resonated with me that Caiaphas, the high priest, he’s the one that says that one should die for all, not just the lost sheep of Israel, but all those that are scattered abroad. It’s almost like Caiaphas has the vision.”
Morse also eloquently weaves his rock opera vision through memorable proggy leitmotifs for Jesus, the Devil, Peter and other characters throughout Jesus Christ The Exorcist. Each leitmotif sonically introduces and recalls the feelings associated with his iconic characters in the “story of stories.”
“That’s something I always love and I always look for, and it’s a very common thing. I guess that might be sort of what you would call classical-style writing. Whenever I’m working on a concept album with teams of people like with The Neal Morse Band, we’re always looking for that, too,” he said.
“When we come up to a place where we’re not sure we should go, we’ll very often go, ‘Hey, is there an adaptation of a theme that we already have that we can put in here that will make sense? Can we play that happy theme in a minor key slower and make it sad?’ To be honest, that’s what I enjoy about writing concept albums particularly the most is being able to do that.”
Since releasing Jesus Christ The Exorcist last year, Morse envisions transforming it into a memorable theatrical production for a short run in a city like New York City, Toronto, Chicago or Nashville.
“I hope that it’s well received enough that we can go and do some performances. I can’t really see doing this as like a one-night stand concert tour. I think it would be better served as something you would do for like four or five days in a theater and then move on,” Morse said.
“I hope it’s something that really touches their heart. I hope they love the music, and I hope they love the message, and I hope it lives with them for a long time.”