On February 9, I had the pleasure of finally seeing one of my favorite bands for the first timea progressive rock supergroup called Transatlantic. Because all of my friends are too respectable for such things, I made my journey to the concert alone. For a progressive rock supergroup, however, Transatlantic has an excellent pedigree: The band was founded in 1999 as a side project of four progressive rock musicians from America and Europe (hence the name Transatlantic): Neal Morse, then of Spock’s Beard; Mike Portnoy, then the drummer for Dream Theater; Roine Stolt, the lead guitarist of The Flower Kings; and Pete Trewevas, the bassist from Marillion.
Neal Morse represents part of the growing movement of Christian progressive rock, having converted to Christianity (of a sort) in 2002. The overall terrible quality of Christian rock is well-known, and since progressive rock is already a somewhat disreputable genre, you might think Christian progressive rock is the worst of both worlds. But you also might be wrong.
The term “progressive rock” first appeared in 1968, but the genre has never been well-defined. It’s also not for everyone. Perhaps due to a lingering adolescent pride in having more eclectic tastes than everyone I know, I’ve never had much luck at or really even put much effort into convincing my friends to share in my somewhat unconventional musical tastes. And of course, many of my conservative friends might be put off by the genre’s name, though as Bradley Birzer argued in an excellent essay defending prog (as it is often abbreviated by fans), conservatives have little to fear from this odd form of rock music.
Many conservatives still hold to the criticisms of rock music raised by Allan Bloom in Closing of the American Mind. (As Bloom himself and others have pointed out, he was not exactly a conservative, and Closing of the American Mind is not exactly a conservative book, but its popularity among conservatives is not exactly accidental.) Bloom sees in rock music “sexual desire undeveloped and untutored,” accuses it of fomenting rebellion against parental authority, and of draining its listeners of the ability to feel genuine emotion. Though Bloom’s description of rock music was perhaps a bit of an overwrought caricature, some of his main critiques were not wrong.
Prog, however, with its insistence on bizarre time signatures and its overall absorption in its own musical complexity, isn’t really taking spirited stands against anything. When prog tries to address controversial subjects, the results are often clunky and uninspiring. (For a fine example of this, Dream Theater’s 2002 song “The Great Debate” concerned the then-emerging embryonic stem cell controversy. The last line in the song bids us not to fight for the freedom of scientific inquiry or to defend the life of the unborn, but to “pay attention to the questions we have raised.”) And if mainstream rock music does indeed have “the beat of sexual intercourse,” as Bloom said, it’s safe to say that beat isn’t in 13/16 time.
So for critics like Bloom, who condemn the genre for its base appeal to the passions and its lack of intellectual and artistic rigor, progressive rock stands as a cerebral, artistically ambitious example of contemporary music. It participates in the Western classical tradition. But in departing from the passion of rock music, prog takes on a pretentious intellectual stance that sometimes leaves it seeming distant and impersonal to its audience.
Perhaps because of its impersonal and passionless character, on the subject of religion, progressive rock is not much better than any other form of contemporary music. The intellectual seriousness, not to say pretentiousness, of the genre seems to hold a special appeal for those who fancy themselves to be too independent-minded for God. Rush’s libertarian hero Tom Sawyer, with his “mean mean pride” and whose “mind is not for rent by any god or government” has long been an inspirational figure for prog fans, though not a perfectly respectable role model for the faithful.
So how does Neal Morse fit into this scene? Morse’s Christian conversion has not been without controversy. In addition to the skepticism with which many of his secularly minded fans greeted his conversion, many Christians have been turned off by some of Morse’s unorthodox beliefs. In a 2007 interview he stated that he is not a Trinitarian, and that he doesn’t “see in the Scriptures how Jesus and God can be co-equaI and the same person.” But he abjures any particular labels for his unusual theological position and its distance from mainstream Christian faith since the Council of Nicaea, saying that “I simply like to say that I’m a disciple of Christ.” Some of his work can be characterized as anti-Catholicparticularly his 2007 concept album on Martin Luther, Sola Scriptura, which includes the following lines, alluding to the Catholic Church:
Not just from the mother but the daughters of the harlot
Everything that comes from her it must be left behind
Her rituals and teaching smells of death and bloody scarlet
So, yes, Morse holds unorthodox beliefs and is either guilty of rhetorical excess or intense anti-Catholicism. But listening to Morse’s other work, especially the first album he released after his conversion, Testimony, along with its 2011 sequel Testimony 2 is truly a moving experience, and these albums certainly do not suffer from the influence of any unorthodox theology and are empty of strange anti-Catholic sentiment.
In these two albumswhich are his most explicitly evangelical and personal worksthe joy, hope, and humility inspired by the good news of the Gospel provide a counterbalance to the progressive rock vices of excessive artistic pride and the impersonal and emotionally barren music that can sometimes accompany such pride. The Christian influences on the albums stretches beyond their lyrics, though Morse’s songwriting includes disarming verses like this one about visiting his girlfriend’s church in Nashville:
One day she brought me to her childhood church
Old time religion filled the air
The preacher said you’re saved by faith and not by works
I thought “that’s good ‘cause I haven’t worked in a year”
As well as deeply moving accounts of his conversion experience, like this verse from album’s climax, “I Am Willing”:
For I am willing and I am broken
All I want is the life you have spoken
If I give you my life
Will you come turn the night to day?
But even in its musical style, Testimony is more direct and compelling than most progressive rock. Morse has lost none of his craftsmanship, but the songs on this album are simpler, shorter, and more direct in their structure than in his more conventionally prog rock albumsincluding his Christian-themed epic The Whirlwind, which he wrote together with Transatlantic.
Out of the other albums he has released since his conversion in 2002, many explore theological themes and they are all beautifully composed and skillfully performed. And with the exception of some of the songs on Sola Scriptura, they are all fascinating and moving explorations of different Christian themes, ranging from the ambitious theological concept albums like the story of creation and man’s fall in One (2004) and the the significance of the tabernacle and the Temple in ? (2005) to broadly political songs like “Leviathan” on the 2008 album Lifeline.
Bradley Birzer, who is both a Catholic writer and prog enthusiast, wrote once that “whatever one might think of Morse’s particular theological views, I can state this with absolute assurance: Morse moves me in every way, as a person and as an artist.” I agree with both the praise and the qualification. Morse is a musician at the top of his game in a genre that celebrates complexity over emotional escapism. But his faith gives that complexity something deeper than itself.
Mainstream Christian rock is often criticized for its poor musical quality, and perhaps Allan Bloom’s criticism of contemporary rock music, that it appeals directly to the emotions without concern for artistic unity and beauty, could be applied to Christian rock as well. But while progressive rock has artistic unity, complexity, and even beauty, the aristocratic sense of pride that comes with these accomplishments all too often leaves the music cold and distant. Despite his theological errors and occasional regrettable bouts of anti-Catholic rhetoric, Neal Morse has shown how the Christian message of joy and hope can bring prog’s proud sophistication closer to the heart.
Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Image of Whirlwind cover from Fanart.tv.