Issue 2013-026: Spock's Beard - Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Hiding Out (7:13), I Know Your Secret (7:40), A Treasure Abandoned (8:53), Submerged (4:57), Afterthoughts (6:08), Something Very Strange (8:23), Waiting For Me (12:36)
Bonus Tracks: The Man You're Afraid You Are (7:11), Down A Burning Road (6:51), Wish I Were Here (6:33), Something Very Strange (Sanctified Remix) (5:09), Postcards From Perdition (4:27)
Tushar Menon's Review
If ever a band could be represented in a scene from a film it would be Spock's Beard and the scene would be from the recent James Bond film Skyfall in which our hero, shackled to a chair, is asked by a deranged villain what his hobby is, to which Bond coldly replies "Resurrection...".
In 2011, when Nick D'Virgilio announced his departure from the band, I got my first taste of Spock's-related trepidation, having only discovered the band a few years after Neal Morse's departure. As far as I was concerned, this was as much a blow to the band as Morse's departure had been. The band was creatively right on top, having redefined their sound and pulled off something truly remarkable. Despite my best efforts, I cannot recall any other band which coped with the loss of as crucial a member as Neal Morse better than Spock's Beard. The question now is whether or not Spock's Beard can justify carrying on in the absence of their two most dominant members. The first impression that Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep gives is an answer in the affirmative.
The Beard's back catalogue neatly divides itself into three sections, based on singers. The album to which Brief Nocturnes... draws comparison, on historical grounds, is Feel Euphoria to which it is largely superior. The melodies are exquisite, vocal lines confident and the overall sound far more coherent. While Feel Euphoria lacked the magic and cogency of the band's previous and subsequent releases, it did, through songs like The Bottom Line and Ghosts of Autumn, presage the band's subsequent direction. Brief Nocturnes..., however, seems to be looking back at the band's two previous eras, melding them into a superior pastiche.
Front-man Ted Leonard must be lauded greatly for fitting in as well as he does. His voice has strains of D'Virgilio's and (oddly) Morse's as well, which augurs well for live performances of songs from both eras. Leonard's two self-penned songs, Hiding Out and Submerged are quite different. The album opener, Hiding Out sounds like something off the band's self-titled ninth album, with the chorus bringing to mind sections from On a Perfect Day. This is Leonard at his most D'Virgilio-esque, vocally. It is, quite simply, an excellent song with a great groove on the main riff and some wonderfully composed melodies and even a short guitar duel. Submerged is a pop-tinged song first heard on Leonard's solo album Way Home. It is a slight departure from recent Spock's Beard albums yet sits comfortably alongside the longer, more intricate songs on the album and, under different circumstances, could have been a mainstream hit.
Jimmy Keegan has the unenviable role of replacing Nick D'Virgilio, one of the genre's greatest drummers. Keegan has, till now, been to Spock's Beard what Chester Thompson was to Genesis. Having spent the last ten years playing D'Virgilio's parts live on tour with the band has obviously given him an insight into the style of drumming that is so much a part of Spock's Beard's sound. Keegan succeeds largely in continuing that style, sounding very much in place on up-tempo songs like Hiding Out and I Know Your Secret, which the drums unusually high position in the mix benefits from. On A Treasure Abandoned it suddenly becomes clear that this is no longer D'Virgilio on drums - Keegan's choice of bass drum accents is quite different from D'Virgilio's, as a result of which the first verse, an alternating 4/4 and 3/4 pattern, betrays its odd time signature in a way that it probably would not have at the hands (and feet) of D'Virgilio.
The most blatant link with the band's past can be found on Afterthoughts, the latest instalment of the Thoughts trilogy (the word 'trilogy' used in the Douglas Adams sense, of course). It is co-written by Neal Morse and closer to Thoughts Pt.5 off his recent album Momentum than the original Thoughts Pt.1 and 2. A neat trick to re-introduce the Gentle Giant-influenced vocal arrangements for the first time since Sid's Boys Choir off Feel Euphoria. Up next is Something Very Strange, the first Spock's Beard song to be written entirely by someone other than a current member. Another great song, it is the most overtly 'proggy' and boasts some compelling riffs and a beautifully constructed instrumental section.
The album ends with the twelve minute long Waiting For Me, a song that just screams 'Neal Morse'. Even without the prior knowledge that Neal Morse had helped his brother Alan write some music for the new album, it would have been hard to believe that he did not have some hand in this song. It falls into the increasingly predictable 'Neal Morse happy epic' formula. Again, a good song, but of a type that we have heard many times before and continue to do so on Morse's ubiquitous solo albums. Compared to the epic closer Jaws of Heaven on the band's last album, Waiting For Me sounds frivolous. It does feature some characteristically great bass playing from Dave Meros and a wonderful guitar solo from Alan Morse.
Bands which get as far as releasing eleven albums often find themselves fighting a decline in quality, creativity, productivity, relevance or some combination of these factors. This most recent departure of a founding member seems to have made the band more of a democracy, which has resulted in an album of high, if not quite stellar quality. Given the upheavals the band seems to have to put up with on a regular basis, the fact that they have produced an album as well-written and engaging as Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is commendable to the point of being almost inexplicable. A fine effort by a great band.
Guillermo Palladino's Review
Spock's Beard have become one of the most important Progressive Rock acts from the U.S.A., formed in Los Angeles by brothers Alan and Neal Morse and playing a brand of Progressive Rock with Pop Music leanings, with a huge influence to bands such Yes, Gentle Giant and Genesis among others.
Since their latest release X in 2010 and the subsequent The X Tour - Live album the band have passed through some important changes, including the departure of founder member and drummer Nick D'Virgilio in 2011 and the announcement that Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard and their tour drummer Jimmy Keegan would be filling in as new vocalist and drummer respectively. I have to admit that from the beginning I disagreed with such a major change because I felt that Leonard wasn't ready to sing the band's classic songs when I saw his performance at both Sweden Rock and U.K. High Voltage festivals in 2011. Also, both vocalists have a quite different timbre to their voices and the vocal style used by Leonard in Enchant was too far removed from this new challenge as the frontman in Spock's Beard.
One of the most important things I've been thinking about is the fact that Leonard now has a huge responsibility to maintain and then try to improve on the great job done by both Neal Morse and Nick D'Virgilio over the years and to convince all the fans (including me) that this album is a breakthrough moment in the band's history. And I have to say that Leonard's work on Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep has far exceeded my expectations!
After a first listening I felt that the album was a little bit softer than the previous ones, obviously the main composition was oriented to fit with Leonard's vocal style, and the job he has done on the new songs is much better than on the old ones. Leonard's involvement in the writing process is very important and he contributed two songs written entirely by himself (Hiding Out and Submerged) which is proof of how much the rest of the band trusts his abilities alongside the collaborations with long-time co-writer John Boegehold and founder member Neal Morse. Ryo Okumoto's keyboards now have a major role within the whole composition, not only organ and mellotron but also the synthesizers, and there are more major solos with melodies flowing around the keys and not the guitars as on the other albums. Including Jimmy Keegan as an official member of the band was a good choice, his drumming technique is very versatile and precise and his performance is as good as the work done by D'Virgilio through the years.
Hiding Out is the opening theme. One of my favourites from this album, it sounds like a classic Spock's Beard song. I like all the textures it has in the synths, mellotron and organ layering and the opening arrangements which, for me, sound very sophisticated. Obviously the first impression the listener gets is the difference in Leonard's voice but you quickly get used to this. Other important factors are the changes in the rhythm through the song and it comes as a surprise when you realise that this song written by Ted Leonard sounds amazing and demonstrates how versatile he can be as a songwriter outside of his work as part of a Prog Metal band like Enchant!
I Know Your Secret is a more rhythmical and changing song, with a spacey touch in the keyboards combined with some heavy arrangements in the choruses. I like the textures that Okumoto provides to the songs using all his gadgets at this point. Strangely this is the only song on which Dave Meros participates as a writer, rather than as the major collaborator in the composing of X, and it is a very nice one. Now we have an intro to A Treasure Abandoned which reminds me the early albums from the band. This is the right song to slow things down after the preceding ones and it is undoubtedly enjoyable. Instead of being a song co-written by Morse and Boegehold I like the keyboard emphasis that all the guys are including in the compositions. Submerged is the second song written entirely by Leonard, softer but it goes into a crescendo in the choruses and here we can see the real vocal style of Leonard. This is perhaps the very first moment in which the listener can feel the difference between the singers.
Afterthoughts is intended to be the final part of what I call the "Thoughts Suite" even if Parts 3 and 4 remain unreleased and Neal Morse has written simultaneously a song called Thoughts Part 5 on his latest release, Momentum. This is another important song on this album because it was written by Alan Morse, Ted Leonard and Neal Morse. This song is not as dense as the other parts but I feel that it is just as irreverent. Also we can hear one more time the vocal harmonies that characterize the band although they do not play a major role in their music. Something Very Strange starts in a different way, I like the synthesized voices and that space-like ambience in the keyboards, a song that reminds me of arrangements heard on albums like V. I greatly like the keyboard solos alternating with Morse's guitars, this is a very nice song with a nice job done by Boegehold in the writing. Waiting For Me is a softer song, at first it sounded to me like a Genesis song and also reminded me of The Slow Crash Landing Man from 2006's Spock's Beard at the beginning but a change in the rhythm immediately focused my mind again towards albums like The Light, Kindness of Strangers or V. A very nice track and of course, we are also talking about a song written by Alan and Neal Morse! For me this song is a perfect ending for the album.
Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep was released in both Regular and Special 2 CD Edition, so let's do an overview for this additional material from the bonus CD. The Man You're Afraid You Are is a collaboration between Neal Morse and Stan Ausmus who was a co-writer since 2003. It is a heavier song with stronger arrangements and I like it a lot, I don't know why they didn't put it onto the regular album. Sometimes the Bonus Tracks are better than ones included in the regular track list, this is one example of that. Down a Burning Road is more guitar-driven sounding like a Gary Moore song which then turns into some kind of ballad done in the Spock's Beard style. Not too remarkable this one. Wish I Were Here is a rougher song in the arrangement and sounds more complex, more Crimson-esque, another nice one. The Bonus CD ends with what they call a Remix of Something Very Strange, I prefer to define it as a softer version of that song. Finally there is a Bonus Track for a limited edition written by Boegehold called Postcards From Perdition in which Okumoto has the major role in the arrangements and performs with all his keyboards alternating with some harmonic notes from Meros (who I feel is in the background on this record).
Instead of being considered by some friends of mine as a breakthrough or transitional album due to the major changes mentioned in this review, I regard it as a new definition of what Spock's Beard is going to be as a band in the future. Their musical essence still remains here and I hope that the risks they are taking will be worth it. Spock's Beard has been one of my favorite bands since I heard The Light for the first time, and despite all the changes that they have been through I know that they'll never disappoint me as a fan. As usual, our readers will have the major task to give us the reason or not. A recommended one, of course!
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
So it's 2013 and Spock's Beard return after the departure of long-time drummer Nick D'Virgilio (replaced by long-time live drummer Jimmy Keegan) and bolstered by the arrival of Ted Leonard (previously of Enchant and fresh from Affector's Harmegeddon).
Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is the first fruits of this new line-up and, you know what, it's pretty damn fine in my book. Whilst I'm not fully conversant with the entire Spock's back catalogue I've heard plenty over the years and certainly enough to know that this album is a further progression from their last studio album, X in 2011.
What has happened here is that these changes have brought a freshness and a vitality to the music on offer and it simply sounds great. All the trademark Spock's Beard magic is here still; Ryo's whirling and swirly keyboards, Alan's inventive and yet rhythmic guitar motifs, the rock steady bass of Dave Meros and the solid and enterprising drums of Jimmy Keegan. Above all of this comes the clarity of voice that Ted Leonard brings to this album adding strength and, yes, those harmonies are still very present. As a bonus Neal Morse is involved in writing two of the tracks and features on the epic Waiting For Me that closes the album, more of that in a moment though.
This album comes in two guises, the standard single CD and a special double CD with five extra tracks. This review covers the standard CD only but if the bonus tracks are anywhere near as good as the main CD then....
Opener Hiding Out is a simply great song to kick the proceedings off with, it's a real statement of intent setting out the stall for all that follows with a delightfully meaty riff from Alan contrasted with Ryo's swirling Hammond and synths before Ted's voice appears for the first time expressively drawing the listener into the song. What is it with these Morse guys? The choruses are always epic and memorable and Hiding Out is no exception whatsoever.
One of the delights of this album is the interplay between Ryo and Alan and the groove that Jimmy and Dave build together establishes a great platform for some truly awesome instrumental dexterity to be displayed. As always though it fits the context and is never for the sake of it.
I Know Your Secret swiftly follows based on a walking Dave Meros bass line, this is a song that again employs those characteristics that make Spock's Beard so highly revered in prog circles. Again another fabulous chorus adds to the strength of the material.
A Treasure Abandoned follows, this is a more sedate piece that builds through it's 8:56 run time. It sounds not unlike an early Kansas track which is no bad thing to these ears. Submerged is next, the shortest track on the album clocking in at a mere 5:00 minutes but it’s a great little number with its chorus of "Throw me a line I'm sinking fast". It's a song that deserves a listen as it features a beautifully constructed Alan Morse guitar break, short but oh so sweet.
Afterthoughts opens with another fine riff and Ryo's keyboards stabbing out an accentuated melody line. You can see Neal Morse's involvement in this one fairly clearly as this wouldn't sound out of place on one of his solo albums and again the chorus is a gem. This song also features Spock's Beard acapella, again never a bad thing, and in addition Ryo and Alan slug it out in the middle section before that mighty riff comes back in again.
Something Very Strange opens with a wash of keyboards and a synthesized voice can be heard before Ryo's Hammond kicks in again joined swiftly by Dave's nimble and athletic bass runs and then Jimmy's drums. Finally Alan's guitar joins the mix and it is this ensemble playing that makes the album so enjoyable. After the great opening three minutes the song takes off with Ted's vocals and this is a simply fantastic, memorable and catchy song by any standards.
It's a great song on an album full of great songs and most bands would be happy to end such a consistently good album on a song as good as this however Spock's Beard aren't your normal prog band, not in a million years, and so we are granted the truly sublime and wonderful Waiting For Me, again featuring little brother Neal Morse on guitar and vocals, and what a song it is to bring proceedings to a majestic and awesomely impressive conclusion.
I would say that this song encapsulates so clearly all that is good about Spock's Beard and indeed this album. If you only hear one Spock’s song this year pray it's this one...opening like a long-lost Genesis song on that mid-tempo swell of sound and with a plaintive guitar melody opening the song up, this is classic Spock's Beard with some swinging Dave Meros bass before Neal Morse takes the lead vocal. It's very satisfying to hear Neal singing with the rest of the guys and playing up a storm collectively - fabulous guitar work, great keyboards and as always that strident driving beat and some impassioned vocals.
All in all this is a simply fantastic album and Spock's Beard have raised the bar significantly on this release and I would urge anyone who enjoyed previous SB releases or Neal Morse / Transatlantic or just good quality Prog to give this serious consideration and turntable time.
A sterling effort and I'm happy to give 9/10 as this is already one of my fave albums of 2013. Check it out and see if you concur.