Steve Morse is probably best known as guitarist for the Dixie Dregs, an outfit that combined elements of Allman Brothers southern rock with the high-flying histrionics of fusion bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also played with Kansas and now wields his axe for geezer rockers Deep Purple. When not engaged in other projects, he leads the Steve Morse Band, a powerhouse trio that not only can crunch and shred their way through typical rock material, but also explores elements such as counterpoint and interplay between musicians that is more likely to be associated with jazz groups. Split Decision, SMB’s most recent release offers a variety of styles without sacrificing the guitar edge that fans have come to expect.
The opening track, “Heightened Awareness” starts with what could be a Van Halen riff that slowly broadens until it kicks into a melody that highlights the interaction between Morse and bassist Dave LaRue. Fans of Dixie Dregs will be happy with this one, but the sound is leaner, providing each musician with more opportunity to stretch out and interact without bumping into anyone else. “Busybodies” has a baroque sound, and Morse confirms that “This tune is like me saying, ‘Yes sir, Herr Bach. You got it right. I’m just a humble student.” Classical aspirations aside, the track is inventive and holds the listener’s attention with its interplay between the two string maestros, while Van Romaine on drums manages to provide significant commentary and keep the proceedings from ever cooling down.
Split Decision is split between what Morse calls “heavier band type material” and more mellow acoustic work. This seems like a natural way to balance an album, but it’s a rather new concept for Morse, who normally makes room for only one or two mellow pieces to break up his more incendiary work. Here the mellow stuff, five tracks worth, is all at the end of the disc, so you get pretty hyped up and then get to float gently back to earth. Tracks like “Marching Orders” and “Great Mountain Spirits”, which sports a Led Zeppelin-style riff and some glacial open chords over which Morse soars like a lone plane over the tundra, while not mellow, do provide a certain balance with the more straight ahead, rip-’em-a-new-one jams (“Mechanical Frenzy”, “Gentle Flower, Hidden Beast”).
When the group hits track eight with “Moment’s Comfort”, one instantly feels the cooler, more melodic breeze. Here, Morse provides acoustic guitar overdubs that recall layers of Steve Howe. The electric work is also slathered on, creating near-orchestral overdubs and what sounds like a fretless bass melodic line that is exquisite. “Clear Memories” offers an almost Celtic sound (Morse claims to have been recently influenced by Enya and the composer of Riverdance, Bill Whelan). It’s one of the weaker tracks on the album, with a melody that’s not particularly memorable and a sound that is a little clichéd. No matter, though, the next track, “Midnight Daydream” is beautiful and dreamy, with echoes of Hendrix and Mark Knopfler and some particularly nice drum work from Romaine. This is one you’ll remember after only one or two hearings. Rounding out the mellower side of SMB are “Back Porch”, with its bluesy acoustic guitar work, and the album’s closer, “Natural Flow”. “Natural Flow” features some time signature changes, a stately Renaissance-inspired chord progression strummed on a 12-string, and a very nicely done acoustic guitar solo that sounds like Jerry Garcia on an especially sharp day.
“I love to make music . . . with variety” states Morse in his liner notes, and on Split Decision that’s just what you get. Listeners willing to flow along with the Steve Morse Band’s creative inspiration will be well rewarded with a musical, yet rocking, experience.