Round Table Review
Spock's Beard - Feel Euphoria
Tracklist: Onomatopoeia (5.16), The Bottom Line (7.33), Feel Euphoria (7.20), Shining Star (4.04), East Of Eden, West Of Memphis (7.05), Ghosts Of Autumn (6.54), A Guy Named Sid (20.26) [pt. I - Intro (3.00), pt. II - Same Old Story (4.25), pt. III - You Don't Know (3.11), pt. IV - Judge (3.20), pt. V - Sid's Boys Choir (1.09), pt. VI - Change (5.18)], Carry On (5.17)
Ed: Less than a year ago the news of Neal Morse leaving Spock's Beard went like a tidal wave shock through the prog loving community. One of the bands who had come to set the standard form contemporary progressive rock and had just released one of their best pieces of work, the concept album Snow, seemed to shake on it's foundations. A split-up like this could easily be scaled on the same magnitude as
Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, Peter Nicholls and Fish leaving their original bands. The Genesis comparison seemed all the more relevant when the band quickly announced that they would continue to work as Spock's Beard and drummer Nick D'Virgilio would take up the vacancy of the front man and lead vocalist position. D'Virgilio had already proven to be more than able to sing during his performances of Squonk and June on tour, and had delivered a very convincing solo album, Karma, under the name NDV. Besides that, keyboard player Ryo Okumoto had released his solo album, Coming Through, shortly after. In other words, there was no doubt that there was enough talent in the band to continue their efforts. However, the two mentioned solo albums had a very different style, whereas Neal Morse's solo albums and work with Transatlantic had proven how much of a driver he was for the overall sound of Spock' s Beard. The big question therefore wasn't if the remaining band members could produce a quality album. The big question was what it would sound like and if the new sound would still appeal to the fanbase the band had built up through the years.
The Feel Euphoria Medley that appeared on the Internet a few weeks ago didn't convince me. As a matter of fact I was quite disappointed by it. When receiving a promo copy of the album and playing it the first couple of times I was still disappointed. The music either sounded too different or too much like the same old stuff they had been playing for years. I had secretly hoped the band would strike a happy medium. And then there were some tracks I fiercely disliked (the title track, Judge, a.o.). Overall, I was afraid that the end of the Beard was near. But considering my criticism that the pre-Snow albums and all of the other Morse project had all sounded too much alike and considering that it seemed only fair to give this album another chance I have been playing it continuously for the last couple of weeks. And then the album started to grow on me .....
Bart: Just like pretty much everybody else I was shocked to find out about Neal Morse leaving the band last year. After all, as Ed rightly put it, Spock's Beard had pretty much single handedly revived and remodeled the definition of prog in the mid-nineties. However, after five Beard albums and two Transatlantic albums I was growing rather tired of "The Morse Way", which at that point started to become even more standardised and predictable than a Jerry Bruckenheimer film.
Snow was an excellent step into the right direction again. Though a tad overlong, it proved that Spock's Beard was still to be considered THE (second?) best prog band of the nineties.
And then the lead singer left and the drummer took the mike. Genesis comparisons were obviously made, were it not for this one tiny difference: When Peter Gabriel left, Genesis lost their lead singer. When Neal Morse left, Spock's Beard lost not only their lead singer, but also their main composer, lyricist, rhythm guitarist and keyboardist - Neal Morse WAS Spock's Beard. The rest of the band however took the brave decision to carry on under the moniker Spock's Beard and set off straight for the studio again to prove they could do it without Neal. Some eight months later the result is here.
Bob: I entered this CD into the player with some trepidation really, conscious that despite my best intentions, obvious comparisons would be made to previous Spock's Beard albums. To be expected obviously, however with the departure of Neal Morse, the worry would be that the review might become slightly more analytical for that reason alone. On the first few listenings I had mixed feelings about Feel Euphoria, but I should add that I invariably have had these mixed feelings with all of the Beard's previous albums. So as I have only had the album for just over a week, it is a little early to predict where it may end up in the rankings of all the SB albums.
written by Alan Morse, Nick D'Virgilio & John Boegehold
Ed: This might very well be the only track I immediately liked when I played the CD the first time. A great driving rhythm section pushes this enormously energetic up-tempo song forward. Halfway through the song there's a break which took me a while to get used to because upon the first couple of times you hear it, it seems a bit out of place and 'cut and pasted'. Eventually I saw how well it worked as a short resting point in this roller coaster track. If I would need to compare this tracks to anything else I would say the heavier material on Snow and Karma.
Bart: This track reminds me of Hurt, a song which the Beard covered and put as a bonus track on Day For Night. A hard-hitting pounding rhythm accompanied by a roaring guitar start the song, as if to say that The Beard is still alive and kicking, even without their former front-man. An effect which is not all unlike that created by songs like Dance on a Volcano or King Of Sunset Town if you know what I mean. Just a message from the band, "hey, we're still here, and we can do this". And they can!
Bob: Nice thing about this track is that it just jumps out and grabs you by the throat. A great opening track that is straight to the point. Pulsing rhythm section, precise guitar riff, Ryo Okumoto's crunching keyboards, strong vocal harmonies, in fact all those ingredients that make up Spock's Beard. By a minute or so into the track I had a smile on my face, thinking - yeah this should silence the critics. At this point I was then thrown a little by the acoustic mid section, which just comes out of the blue. Like Ed, subsequent listenings have made more sense of this passage, which gradually builds back up into the main body of the track. Excellent start - so where now.
The Bottom Line
written by Nick D'Virgilio & Stan Ausmus
Ed: A very varied track with lots of interesting segments in different styles (about 6 or 7 I think) and therefore something that should appeal to most prog fans. A rocky guitar and organ intro leads into a more laid back section with fine harmony vocals. As you would expect from a 7+ minute Beard track it also has a nice mid section which seems completely unrelated to the rest of the song but works very well once you've heard it a couple of times. The song ends in an emotional acoustic section.
This was one of the songs which didn't impress me much when I heard it the first time but which has grown into one of my favourites on the album once I had gotten used to the diversity.
Bart: My favourite of the album. It's a great varied track, which balances between ballad and prog epic. D'Virgilio seems to be trying to keep the ghost of Morse alive by singing in a rather hoarse way. To be honest, if you didn't know, you wouldn't notice the band had a new singer on this track.
It has all the ingredients for a great prog track: A nice melody line, great harmony vocals, excellent guitar-work, weird keyboard melodies and a song structure so unconventional it has to be good. (from a heavy guitar/drum/keyboard fest intro to a serene, quiet vocal/acoustic guitar outtro)
Bob: A track of many twists and turns and therefore another winner - well almost. There are many great moments as the track evolves through its many facets. Certainly from the opening guitar riff, the ever developing wall of sound and almost now to be expected, great playing from Nick D'Virgilio which sets up this track from the outset. Add to this some slightly dissonant synth lines and the anticipation of a mini epic are in the making. The let down for me was the lyrical content which did not do justice to the fine melody, strong vocal performance and harmonies that were attached to them. Never a predictable track and once accepted that The Bottom Line doesn't always go in the direction you might expect, it is a piece that grows and grows with each listening.
written by Ryo Okumoto & Nick D'Virgilio
Ed: Indeed a track you would expect Ryo to (co)write. His solo album wasn't really my cup of tea and this track lies along the same lines. It is without a doubt my least favourite track on the album and have skipped it many times. The pace is slow and the distorted vocals and horror-ish mood don't appeal to me much. The screaming distortion of the chorus reminds me a lot of Klaatu's Long Live Politzania. It just drags on and bores the hell out of me. And when the band finally kicks in it is just to aggressive and chaotic for my taste. I mean, there's a clear difference between guitar playing and guitar rapping .....
A shame that they had to name the album after such a mediocre track.
Bart I totally agree with Ed here. A very quirky, chaotic tune. Poor arrangements, barely any melody and the song has neither head nor tail. Not much Euphoria to be felt here, really.
Bob: Unlike Ed I personally enjoyed Ryo's recent solo album, but I'm probably with the guys on this track. Feel Euphoria is full of tension and all the elements that go into making this song add to this. For the record, I have to say that I have never liked the distorted vocal sections that adorn the Beard albums and I had hoped that this may be a thing of the past, alas not. However this is a bold and adventurous track, the opening section being full of space with a sleazy back-room feel. Sounds like it's a better track to play than perhaps to listen too.
written by Nick D'Virgilio
Ed: A rather poppy affair written by D'Virgilio which could have easily fitted on his solo album, or even an album by one of the current day boy bands. That doesn't mean that it's a bad song, on the contrary. It's just not one that stands out much and one you wouldn't expend Spock's Beard to make. Nevertheless it's got a nice mellow, laid-back mood which is very welcome after the attack on the senses of the previous and following song. It would certainly do very well on radio too.
Bart: A very American sounding AOR-like track. A bit in the vein of Nils Lofgren, were it not for the chord progression heralding the chorus, which could have been taken straight from a Pink Floyd song. Quite nice, but as Ed said, nothing fancy.
Bob: Possibly my least favourite track from the album and I concur with Ed and Bart's comments.
East of Eden, West of Memphis
written by Alan Morse & John Boegehold
Ed: Exactly the type of song you'd expect Al Morse to write (if you've seen his solo spots on tours that is), East of Eden, West of Memphis is a greasy, groovy, bluesy rock tune. And I quite like it. It's once of those tunes that works fine in the car. The verses sound very 'mean' but the chorus is beautifully sensitive with fine harmony vocals. Again, there's a nice mid section which is a more jazzy approach on the old Beard instrumentals. A shame the song has to end in a reprise of looped samples of the vocal section.
Bart: East Of Eden, West of Memphis is indeed a more bluesy track, but not all that interesting if you ask me. Once again D'Virgilio does the Morse approach of singing and half the track you can't really determine whether it's him, or if they asked Neal back on guest vocals or something.
Also, like the title track of the album, this song is a rather chaotic one, lacking proper melody and direction. The second half, which is mainly instrumental, is a bit better. Still chaotic, but more in the vein of some classic prog rock, with interesting keyboard twiddles and a decent guitar solo.
Bob: A strong guitar motif drives this track (the men with beards, ZZ Top came to mind on this riff), which bounces along and the sort of track that could possibly work as a single (in the USA of course). It pretty much followed on from the previous track and at which point I was starting to have misgivings about the direction of the CD as a whole. So the second half of the track was definitely needed for me, although I have to say that on first listening I just assumed it was another track. I particularly liked the grainy strings and other mellotron parts that introduce this somewhat frenetic and intricate instrumental section. Much more in keeping with the areas of SB's music that appeals to my own tastes. I'm with Ed on the reversed vocal loops of the chorus which ended the track and felt they did little to adhere the two contrasting pieces together or form a convincing ending to East of Eden, West of Memphis.
Ghosts of Autumn
written by Dave Meros & John Boegehold
Ed: A composition by bass player Dave Meros. Blimey ! Why didn't they let this guy out of the can earlier ! This is an amazingly beautiful ballad. Ryo does some nice piano work and Nick is doing some of the most emotional vocals on the album. The track also features a long, drawn-out and almost Floydian guitar solo. Thumbs up !
Bart: This is an excellent track. Both melody and arrangement remind me a lot of the stuff on Ray Wilson's solo album, though this track is twice as long as most of the tracks on that album are. The ballad features a beautiful melody (which, frankly, are rare on this album) and an excellent guitar solo at the end.
Bob: I can only echo Ed and Bart's comments on this track. A beautiful ballad, full of emotion. Ryo's deft touches on the piano are pleasure to listen to and compliment Nick's strong and emotional vocal passages. Alan Morse turns in a fine solo, as previously mentioned, ala Dave Gilmour or Andy Latimer. An immediate winner on the album.
A Guy Named Sid
written by Nick D'Virgilio
Ed: The track that D'Virgilio wrote to prove that the band could still do it (meaning, write a classic Spock's Beard epic) without Neal Morse. And did it work out ? Well, yes and no. Yes, the song consists of some of the trademark elements of classic Beard. No, it doesn't work as well as a whole. Problem is that it's much too obvious what D'Virgilio was trying to do, and therefore the track as a whole sounds more like a pastiche or tribute than a genuine classic Beard epic. I mean, the song just bulges with Beardy clichés, like the instrumental overture Intro, the obligatory Gentle Giant singing in canon in Sid's Boys Choir, the big climatic guitar solo (which appears twice (!) in the songs Judge and Change - what's the point ?), and all of the quirky breaks.
And then there's the story behind the whole epic, which D'Virgilio described as being "about a guy who grows up a bully and fights his way to the top of corporate life by being fierce and mean, a back-stabber basically. He gets all the way up there and realizes that he's all alone and doesn't have any friends. He looks at himself and towards the end of the song and realizes that he can't live his life that way because he's lonely." And that's basically just it. There's not much more to the concept behind this 20 minute concept than those few lines. From a concept and lyrical point of view the epic can therefore be considered rather weak. And talking about lyrics, the bit that D'Virgilio wrote for Judge sounds especially cheesy. Combined with the simple melody and misplaced aggressive drum-synth breaks this section really spoils some of the fun in the whole epic.
Yes, you read it correctly, there is still lots of fun to be had in these 20 minutes. Despite some of the weaknesses and clichés I find myself really enjoying Intro, The Same Old Story, You Don't Know and Sid's Boys Choir. I do however hope that, now that the band has gotten this out of their system, that they will move on and write their own original material instead of harking back to the past constantly. There's more than enough 'new Beard' tracks on the album that prove they can be much more original and refreshing.
Bart: It doesn't happen often that I almost entirely agree with a review Ed writes, but I share his views on the new Spock's Beard album almost completely. A Guy Named Sid sounds a lot like a feeble attempt to write a prog epic, lacking structure and coherence. It certainly contains a lot of great moments, but on the whole it's more like many great and some weaker moments glued together, rather than a "real" track. Mind you, in that respect it's not all that different than The Healing Colours Of Sound, off Day For Night, which was also merely a string of shorter songs glued together.
It's not all harking back to the golden days though. Some sections, especially in You Don't Know and Judge sound more like Transatlantic or even The Flower Kings than 'classic' Beard. But on the whole it's just a bit too obvious an attempt to recreate the classic 'Beard' feel.
Bob: The biggest misgivings I had with A Guy Named Sid were that I was not convinced it worked as a continuous piece of music, but rather more as six tracks segued together. Having said this there are tracks from Spock's Beard's past that have suffered from this. However the majority of this track is great and there are some truly splendid moments. The bouncy synth Intro section, which builds nicely with some fluid keyboard lines and laying the foundations for the Same Old Story. A great driving Hammond organ solo section from Ryo and with the band cooking on gas all bodes well for Sid. You Don't Know offers a good contrast to the more frantic Judge. Instrumentally manic, but enjoyable, only the lyrical content and delivery being a tad corny. Sid's Boys Choir - wonderful - worth the admission fee! Finally Change which has everything including the kitchen sink thrown in, concludes the proceedings. I wasn't over keen on this section at first but it is growing on me with each listening.
written by Alan Morse, Stan Ausmus & John Boegehold
Ed: I have to admit that this song didn't really stick in my mind, not even after listening to the album so many times. Maybe it's because of its place on the album and the fact that I've basically lost interest after the whole Sid epic. It's a fine song though. The typical optimistic album closer you would expect, including some trademark Beardy bits like the ascending note riffs and the brass synths. Maybe the problem of this track is that after Judge and Change this sounds too much like a third climax for the album.
Bart: An almost obligatory statement that the band can survive without Neal Morse. Not all that necessary if you ask me, since they have just spent the past 58 minutes stating that they can survive perfectly well without him. It's a bit too overly jolly for my taste, complete with strings, horns and church bells.
Bob: Carry On sounded like a triumphal encore, but for me it would have proved more effective early on in the album, as the end section of A Guy Named Sid left no room for another finale. Alan Morse turns in a solid and melodic solo section embellished with a fanfare of keyboard sounds. Again, earlier in the album this would have been a much stronger piece - perhaps releasing the tension built up by the title track.
Ed: There can be no doubts about it. The Morse-less Beard has their own sound. Of course there are traces of the quirky music we have all come to love so much, but at times it feels more forced and too obvious an attempt to copy the old sound than spontaneous composing. The epic track A Guy Named Sid suffers a lot from this, but maybe it is something the band just had to do in this 'transitional phase'. Some of the tracks in the first half of the album, like Onomatopoeia, The Bottom Line, East of Eden ... and Ghosts of Autumn prove that the band is more than able to write quality tracks without being too much tied down to their legacy.
Some of these tracks sound refreshingly original. It should be said though that the lively atmosphere of the band's old work has been replaced by a more dark and rocky approach. Then again, considering the punchier approach of some of the material on Snow, this isn't as dramatic a change as it might seem.
Since Neal Morse did most of the lead keyboard parts as well, Ryo Okumoto has now taken over the duty of all keyboards instead of just being the 'organ guy'. At times, I missed the dynamics of Neal's play but overall Ryo doesn't do a bad job. The album is also a bit more guitar oriented than the old Spock's Beard albums, enabling Al Morse to shine from time to time. I do have to say that some of the more chaotic guitar bits, like in the title track, fail to impress me (to say the least). D'Virgilio is doing a splendid job on vocals and drums of course, although I could have done without the misplaced drum sequence in A Guy Called Sid.
Overall the album could best be described as a cross between Snow and Karma, D'Virgilio's solo album, plus some additional gems like Ghosts of Autumn thrown in. If you liked Nick's solo album you will probably like this new Beard CD as well. As a matter of fact, when I had given Nick's solo album a couple of spins lately this new Beard album seemed to fall into place and really started to grow on me. If you're too much attached to the old Beard sound you might not really like the new direction. But then again, you can't really tell until you've given them a fair chance, can you ?
Bart: Although I had my doubts before the album came out, I must admit the remaining members of Spock's Beard have managed to pull it off. They produced a decent album and proved that they can do without Neal Morse. HOWEVER, the music has also lost a lot of the charm Morse brought to the music. For instance I do miss the playful keyboard twiddles that were once patented by Spock's Beard. Yet the main thing lacking are good vocal melodies. Whatever you say about Morse's way of singing and his songs all starting to sound similar, he had a gift of producing unconventional yet catchy vocal melodies. With the exceptions of The Bottom Line, Shining Star, Ghost of Autumn and perhaps Carry On the album misses strong melodies. Especially A Guy Named Sid is mainly sung like a long monotonous string of words.
Also, had this album not had the name Spock's Beard, would it have gotten as much attention as it does now? I think not. It is a very nice album, which certainly has its moments, but by no means can this be considered a modern classic. Having said that, the band is to be commended on how they managed to pull this off without their main driving force. If you don't compare the album to any previous work by Spock's Beard, Feel Euphoria is a decent prog album. Yet if you DO compare it, then it's still a decent album.
It remains to be seen how the band will perform live. Apart from the mastermind behind the band Neal Morse was also a very charismatic frontman. Then again, it would be nice to see the BAND Spock's Beard perform, rather than four guys being the backing band of the Neal Morse show. With an extra touring drummer aboard, and Nick D'Virgilio taking care of not only the vocals but also playing some drums, percussion and guitar onstage, I'm sure there's plenty to look out for.
Bob: Whilst writing this review I couldn't help but ponder those reviews that surrounded Genesis' similar transitional album and the debate that ensued, and to a certain extent still ensues Gabriel's departure and Collin's movement forward to the microphone. If the Beard's career is to follow in the same commercial vein as Genesis, then I doubt they will be troubled greatly. I feel that in similar fashion to Genesis, the debating will continue for many albums to come on whether this line-up are able to repeat or even improve upon the classics from their past. From my own point of view this was an enjoyable album and though probably over the passage of time may not be my most favourite, it did confirm that the band are here to stay. Spock's Beard have always had a sound that is instantly recognisable (and still do) and although Neal has left the band, the four remaining members show with Feel Euphoria that they possess much of the chemistry that made this sound. Spock's Beard cannot turn back the hands of time and have accepted Neal's departure and I feel we should also accept this and move forward with the band. Prog in the 21st century needs these guys.
Check out the MP3 Medley Sampler for snippets of the following tracks: Feel Euphoria, East Of Eden West Of Memphis, Sid's Boys Choir, Judge, The Bottom Line and Ghosts Of Autumn.
Ed Sander: 8+ out of 10
BJ van der Vorst: 7.5 out of 10
Bob Mulvey: 8- out of 10