Round Table Review
Tracklist: On A Perfect Day (7:47), Skeletons At The Feast (6:33), Is This Love (2:51), All That's Left (4:45), With Your Kiss (11:46), Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go (4:31), The Slow Crash Landing Man (5:47), Wherever You Stand (5:09), Hereafter (5:01), As Far As The Mind Can See [Part 1: Dreaming In The Age Of Answers (4:49), Part 2: Here's A Man (3:28), Part 3: They Know We Know (3:18), Part 4: Stream Of Unconsciousness (5:23)], Rearranged (6:07)
Geoff: It’s been four years since Neal Morse’s exit from Spock’s Beard and in that time the band has released two studio and one live album. In comparison the ex frontman has three studio albums and one live DVD under his belt so some catching up was in order. That brings us to this latest release which is their ninth studio recording overall. Given the albums self-title and the SB logo boldly displayed on the cover, the band clearly intend this to be seen as a defining statement. The three most recent releases Feel Euphoria, Octane and Gluttons For Punishment have all received DPRP recommendations so this album has a lot to live up to. I believe that the current foursome of Nick D’Virgilio, Alan Morse, Ryo Okumoto and Dave Meros can sleep easily on that score. Speaking as a confirmed Neal Morse era Beard fan I would say that it rates fairly highly against any of their previous work. In fairness the band's sound and style has changed significantly in recent years, where as instrumental and vocal gymnastics once dominated, here they apply a more straight-forward song-based approach embellished by colourful prog flavoured instrumental work and conventional harmonies.
On A Perfect Day
Ed: One of the highlights on the album. A typical Spock's Beard tune with an energetic opening and lost of tempo and atmosphere changes; there's an enormous lot happening in these 8 minutes. A fine melody, a powerful riff and some great solos. There's even a break with acoustic guitar (think The Doorway) and a flute solo in the middle of the song, followed by a guitar solo that sounds an awful lot like something I've heard before, but can't put my finger on it. It's really a shame this song is missing a decent ending.
Geoff: This song works well as an overture as it encapsulates the style and spirit of much of the rest of the album. Following the attention grabbing, driving instrumental intro with Hammond, guitar, bass and drums Ryo’s synth picks out the main melody. D’Virgilio is in fine voice adding weight and emotion to the memorable chorus and also contributes some excellent drum fills. My favourite part however is a sublime proggy interlude that opens with twin acoustic guitars from Morse (and possibly D’Virgilio) joined by piano and Mellotron flute and strings. The acoustic work is very reminiscent of the playing on the Beware Of Darkness album and the duets the Morse brothers used to perform live. It’s rounded off nicely by a lyrical Brian May inspired electric guitar solo.
Dave B: Pure, unadulterated, classic Spock’s – could easily be a lost track from Beware Of Darkness or V. Typical SB quirkiness, strong melodies (you’ll be whistling them afterwards) and multiple directions whilst maintaining an overall coherence. Nick’s singing is absolutely top-draw, even out-Morsing Neal at times. Lovely acoustic guitar break followed by some nice piano work, flute and cello (or is it mellotron?). Heavy guitar riffing, mellow guitar, really, it has everything you could really want to hear. Very strong opening and contender for the best track on the CD, love it!
Skeletons At The Feast
Ed: Another highlight and an instrumental one this time. A high-paced one with a driving rhythm section and frantic guitar work by Al Morse. As a matter of fact the guitar play is a bit over the top at times, almost destroying a fine piece of work. Fortunately there's also a nice melodic keyboard solo and a section with keyboards that remind me of the Apocalypse in 9/8 section of Supper's Ready. Again, this one has a very abrupt ending, making it feel like it's wasn't quite finished.
Geoff: This is the album's sole instrumental and it’s a feast of virtuoso playing from all involved. A heavy guitar, Hammond, and synth riff hurtles along at break neck speed before morphing into a majestic Flower Kings style synth melody. In fact it sounds like Ryo Okumoto has temporarily given Tomas Bodin control of the keys and for me it’s one of the absolute highlights of the album. It doesn’t last long however before being swamped by crunching heavyweight guitar. From here on it’s fast and furious Hammond soling all the way before collapsing in cacophonic metallic guitar. A worthy effort as instrumentals go, but I would have preferred a more structured ending.
Dave B: Second contender for the best track on the album although really not a typical SB track at all with the opening section falling into the progressive metal genre more than prog rock. Really great chunky guitar from Alan and manic soloing, crazy keyboards and intense drumming with that D’Vigillo trademark snare - yes, it’s over the top, excellent! Is this really Spock’s Beard? Wow! Strangely though, changes into a Flower Kings track at 2’42” until the end.
Is This Love
Ed: A short and sharp straightforward rocker, and quite fun at that. It's fast and powerful and unlike some of the tracks to follow it's enjoyable and doesn't feel out of place, probably because of the use of breaks and changes in drum patterns.
Geoff: Initially it seems to pick up from where the previous track left off so for the sake of variety would have sounded better placed after the next song. Given the title I was expecting a slow ballad so this came as a complete surprise. It’s actually a highly charged rocker with D’Virgilio’s aggressive vocals immediately bringing the Beastie Boys to mind. It contains more venom than we’re used to from SB and for my money they’re trying just a little too hard to sound different. Bags of high energy in its favour but not really my cup of tea. At least at less than three minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Dave B: It’s not unusual for SB to completely change direction one the same album (All On A Sunday/The Great Nothing for instance) and this track is far more mainstream than the previous two. Almost commercial but quirky enough to be interesting with driving bass and drums and some off-beat guitar and keys. It's OK but not really what we want to be hearing from The Beard.
All That's Left
Ed: This beautiful and emotional song with strong harmony backing vocals is a very welcome diversion after the heavy approach of the previous tracks. One of my favourites on the album, this one feels like something that could have been part of the Flash Before My Eyes epic of the Octane album. The song also contains a nice but rather short acoustic guitar solo.
Geoff: In complete contrast to the previous offering this melodic piano driven song has a Blackfield or chilled out Porcupine Tree ambiance. Bonus points for the stately chorus, articulate bass playing from Meros and excellent vocal harmonies. The metallic guitar solo sounds slightly out of place but the beautiful piano and classical guitar work that follows more than compensates.
Dave B: A change of pace – a mellow song but full and rich at the same time although I don’t care for the effects on the voice in the verse there is some nice harmony vocal work in the chorus. Great piano with some nice acoustic guitar but I prefer the more up-tempo tracks to be honest.
With Your Kiss
Ed: The first part of this track continues the peaceful, harmonic atmosphere of All That's Left with a wonderful multi-vocal melody. The pace picks up with a guitar solo, while the middle section is powerful and driving with splendid drumming and a nice guitar/bass riff. It does however feel slightly out of place. The end section comes a bit sudden and there's a strong contrast with what's gone before. It develops into a Reach For The Sky-like ballad before it ends with a nice double guitar solo as a climax and - bugger ! - another bad ending. A good song that feels a bit fragmented and might have been even better with some more work.
Geoff: This song has an epic feel to match its length. Eerie synth introduces a haunting guitar and vocal melody with D’Virgilio sounding at his absolute best. The song continues at a measured and stately pace with relaxed vocals and harmonies dominating. The inevitable guitar solo is a good one with inventive playing from Morse supported by Ryo’s bubbling synth work. Heavyweight drums and Mellotron choral voices introduces an imposing drum pattern that sounds very like the drum fest in Yes’ Ritual. The macho sounding chants that follow however are a long way from Anderson and co. With the end in sight, a plaintive vocal and acoustic guitar duet makes way for a majestic coda with Mellotron, bass and a scorching guitar solo.
Dave B: Now this is a weird one, chopping and changing as much as the opening track but it all seems rather thrown together and disjointed. Starts with a sequenced keyboard intro that sounds interesting enough and into a typical SB verse before descending into a rather poppy section. Then the pace picks up nicely before hitting the opening sequence again and a nice solo – sounding good… Then around 6 minute mark the train leaves the rails – firstly with some awful heavy guitar/keyboard riff and then some ludicrous tribal style drumming that just sounds so out of place it beggars belief. To make it worse we then get some awful “Hey! Hey! Hey!” chanting and the whole lot is repeated. Magically, the final three minutes or so are rather beautiful with an touching acoustic ballad followed by a grandiose epic guitar closure (for some reason I can’t help thinking of Hotel California at this point) that perhaps could have lasted another couple of minutes rather than the rather abrupt and unexpected ending.
Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go
Ed: And then suddenly things start going down the hill. This song has a nice guitar riff but falls flat because of two problems. First of all it's simply too slow. It just drags on for four and a half minutes and gets rather tedious to listen to. Second, it's far too monotonous. Slow and monotonous, a perfect recipe for a real stinker.
Geoff: This has a bluesy feel with some suitably atmospheric lead guitar that again sees the band exploring different avenues. For me, unlike Is This Love, this time it pays off. The rich almost a cappella vocals at the end are an added bonus.
Dave B: Surely this must be the worst song ever to be released by SB? It’s bland, tuneless and, well, basically complete crap with perhaps the most awful lyric you’ve ever heard on any song of any genre, ever. Listen to it the once before pressing skip ever after…
The Slow Crash Landing Man
Ed: It took some time for this one to grow on me. At first it didn't do anything for me, and now it still isn't a favourite although it's not a bad song. There's little remarkable about this one and it sort of feels like a closer of a big concept album. You know, the type of reflective song you get after the big final. It even includes a big emotional guitar ending such a track normally has. As a result this piece feels very much out of place in the middle of the album.
Geoff: Another change of mood with a pure slice of melodic anthemic prog that brings Barclay James Harvest instantly to mind. The short burst of stately Rick Wakeman like synth is a joy and the suitably bombastic guitar solo has John Lees of BJH written all over it.
Dave B: Slow and ponderous but deliberately so making it effective and pleasant with a grandiose feel and good melodies. This track could have fitted nicely onto Snow without being totally out of place.
Wherever You Stand
Ed: Straightforward rock that I find completely forgettable. I don't like the melody and the singing is too strained. Some people have called this the 'Led Zeppelin' track. That would explain why I couldn't care less about this track. I've never been a fan of Plant & co.
Geoff: This song tips its hat to 70’s heavy rock with D’Virgilio giving his best Ian Gillan impression and Jimmy Page guitar histrionics from Morse. In addition to the raunchy organ dynamics Okumoto adds a touch of smoothness with a triumphant Moog solo. Nothing startlingly original but it’s entertaining to hear the Beard boys pay tribute to their mentors.
Dave B: Another track they should have not even bothered putting on the CD. Generic and boring rather than awful, could have been recorded by any number of bands and bears no relation to SB excepting a small instrumental break around three and a half minutes. Another one to skip I’m afraid...
Ed: It's quite remarkable that the last Salem Hill record sounded a lot like Spock's Beard/Neal Morse while this song could have come straight of a Salem Hill record. This piano/vocals ballad sounds very much like a sensitive ballad that Carl Groves could have written (think Seatlle of the Be album). Having said that I find this piece a bit too theatrical for my personal taste. There's some nice classical piano work though, which wouldn't have been out of place as a break in a big epic.
Geoff: The albums token ballad is a gem and couldn’t be more different from the previous track. D’Virgilio bares his soul with a beautifully judged and sometimes fragile vocal performance accompanied by graceful grand piano. Okumoto follows through with a tender understated solo before the return of the vocals this time with a symphonic backdrop from Mellotron or possibly real strings; it’s hard to tell which. A very effective piece in my opinion which remains on the right side of sugary sweet.
Dave B: A pleasant ballad with some great piano and vocals. Imagine the opening piano/voice section of Ghosts Of Autumn from Feel Euphoria, extend it to five minutes and you’ll have a very good idea of this entire piece. I like it very much although it is rather generic once again.
As Far As The Mind Can See
Ed: As Far As The Mind Can See is, like A Flash Before The Eyes on the previous album, a series of separate songs connected to one 'epic'.
Geoff: Divided into four song parts this is the albums epic, (yes you knew there had to be one!). Whilst Parts 2 and 3 sound a little disjointed there is at least continuity between Parts 1 and 4 which prevents it sounding like a collection of songs masquerading as an epic.
Part 1 - Dreaming In The Age Of Answers
Ed: And suddenly we're back in 1976 with a song that starts like it could have come straight of the Genesis album Wind & Wuthering. After this short intro we go right back to Spock's Beard energetic territory again. A nice but not overtly special track evolves with a George Harrison-like guitar play and ends with a nice fretless bass solo.
Geoff: It kicks off at a lively pace before settling into a mid tempo song centred around a riff lifted from Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me). A catchy chorus, strong harmonies and a melodic guitar break strongly feature but the real highlight is a slow and moody fretless bass solo backed by piano and strings to lead into Part 2.
Dave B: Now this is better and although nowhere near the excellence of the opening two tracks it does just about sound like prog albeit at the more commercial end of the spectrum. Again though I’m left with the feeling that this could be any number of bands as it’s lacking character.
Part 2 - Here's A Man
Ed: Consider this a jazzy version of I'm the Guy of the Snow album. This section starts with a very jazzy organ solo and funky bass, followed by spoken vocals. Certainly not my favourite part of the epic, although it might just take some time to get used to. This is definitely one of Ryo's big moments on the album.
Geoff: With the bass remaining in the sonic foreground they turn up the heat with a Brand X flavoured jazz workout full of rapid cascading notes. They really make the most of this one with tricky electric piano work, lively Phil Collins style drumming and a flamboyant Hammond solo.
Dave B: Complete change of direction here with a much jazzier, funkier feel. If the opening bass line sounds familiar then perhaps that’s because it’s quite similar to the one on The Devil’s Danceschool by The Flower Kings. After a few bars the music reverts back to more traditional SB territory. A pretty good track this one, again wouldn’t sound out of place on Snow.
Part 3 - They Know We Know
Ed: Now, on to the stomping section of the epic. A nice change from the previous section, even featuring a large children choir (how original!) singing the 'they know ! they know we know!' section. The song also features a brass section, which unfortunately sounds like it's coming straight from a synth.
Geoff: Following an intro that bears more than a passing resemblance to Genesis’ Squonk, this breezy song develops with brass flourishes into a sing-along affair that sounds like the band have invited all their friends and neighbours to join them for the massed chorus.
Dave B: Another decent track with no doubt that it’s SB. The children chorus makes one think of Another Brick In The Wall (although the track bears no relation to it) and to my ears sounds a bit corny. The brass/synth solo is somewhat lacklustre.
Part 4 - Stream Of Unconsciousness
Ed: The pace picks up again for this closing section, starting with an up-tempo guitar solo and splendid keyboard variation on the melody of the previous part before slowing down again ... only to speed up again. What follows is a very nice climatic brass and wind instrument section, which sounds much better than the synth brass of a few minutes earlier. The vocals return to the melody of the first part of the epic, followed by a nice closing guitar solo.
All in all a nice epic with it's ups and downs. It's really a shame that the middle section of this album takes the attention away, so by the time I reach these four tracks my mind has already wandered off. If only they would have dropped track 6 to 9 the album would have been much stronger.
Geoff: Fuelled by a fiery synth break it races towards the finale pausing on the way for a lyrical string arrangement that’s ironically reminiscent of the orchestral parts on Neal Morse’s Testimony album. A stirring fanfare of horns announces a reprise of the chorus from Part 1 delivered in a higher key to give it that extra lift. It concludes with a symphonic fusion of guitar and synth that sounds ever so close to the ending of The Great Nothing from V. Plenty of pomp and circumstance then, and maybe it would have been wise to end the album here.
Dave B: An up-tempo ending to this “epic” and the best track on CD after the opening two (although it’s possible you either fell asleep before getting this far or ejected the CD.) This would be a decent album closer except it’s not the final track.
Ed: A song that starts peacefully with vocals and organ with a nice melody hook and via a segment with very 70s sounding synths it moves into a more rocking tune. At the end it goes a bit berserk before it finishes of with another crap ending. It's really a shame the boys haven't taken more time to finish up some quality compositions on this album in a better way.
Geoff: Following a muted introduction of lazy vocals, electric piano and synths this song suddenly finds its feet with a burst of rippling keys and a weighty drum, guitar and Hammond riff. It moves along at a scorching pace with a rousing chorus and a pounding rhythm before coming to a discordant and not so satisfying close.
Dave B: OK but nothing special and again somewhat lacking anything recognizable to link it to SB. It does have a nice chorus with decent melody though and a strong driving rhythm and warm synths. Sounds like a cheap drum machine in the opening section though, in fact the production on this track really isn’t as top-notch as the rest of the CD so maybe it was an afterthought to add it to the album? Really begins to rock towards the end before just petering-out, very strange way to end the album…
Ed: A biggest weakness of the album is it's length. There's a lot of music on this album and some of it (the middle section) is just not very interesting. I therefore lost interest somewhere halfway through the CD and even though the last 20 minutes is more interesting the album has a hard time grabbing your attention again after being bored for 20 minutes. Maybe a different order of songs would have helped, but I personally think that a 60 minute album with some of the lesser material removed would work much better. Previous Spock's Beard albums had the less interesting material placed on a bonus disc of a limited edition. That might have been a better solution as well, although I personally considered that milking of the fans. All taken into consideration my conclusion is that this is an album with a small hour of good to great material interrupted by 20 minutes of below par stuff. The coherence and flow of the album suffers greatly from this.
Style-wise I have always said that I thought it was a good thing that Neal Morse left the band since it brought a fresh 'wind of change' to the sound of the band. I really liked most of the stuff on the first half of Feel Euphoria and was glad to hear that the band had shaken of most of the Morse legacy on Octane, which no longer featured forced pieces like Sid. On the other hand, sometimes a band can wander too far from their roots and I think that's what the Beardy Boys have done on this record. At times they go a bit too far in the area of mainstream American rock. Nothing wrong with that but I personally expect something more daring from the band. And even though I am the first to welcome broader influences that just prog rock in our favourite bands, they do have to maintain their own personality. Otherwise I could easily put on any other thirteen-in-a-dozen band to enjoy some rock music.
Let's hope that Spock's Beard continues on the same road as they've done with Octane and the first half of Feel Euphoria and this new album. And let's hope they continue to stay critical about what to put on an album and what's just not good enough for Spock's Beard standards. Quality over quantity please. And take a bit more time to finish such quality material. On this album they have stumbled and faltered.
Geoff: At nearly eighty minutes this album certainly has the quantity but does it have the quality to match? With one or two reservations aside I would say a cautious yes. In fact cards firmly on the table for my money this is the best album the current line-up has put out so far. It certainly feels like a natural progression from Octane which in turn was a leap forward from Feel Euphoria. I believe they’ve finally shaken off the shadow of Neal Morse and his dominance of the band's sound. Here they stamp the music with their own identity. True, there is a retro feel to parts of the album and their influences are just a little too transparent at times, however the song writing throughout is of a consistently high standard and the musicianship is as good as you would expect. They make good use of the opportunity for some excellent soloing which was not always an option under the constraints of Neal Morse’s watertight arrangements. I can think of no reason why existing fans should not respond positively to this release. And with each song averaging around the five minute mark it’s accessible enough to attract many new converts to the Beard cause.
Dave B: It’s a sad thing to say but this CD would be a lot better with half the tracks removed. The expectation generated after listening to the first two numbers is so positive that the dross that follows is deeply disappointing, even disturbing. For car listening I may just burn a 35 minute version of the CD. We're talking about a 30/40/30 split here between excellent, average and awful which I find incredibly frustrating, why can't it all be as good as the opening tracks? The quality of the musicianship is outstanding throughout as is the production (Rearranged excepted) but a lot of the time it's a wasted effort on sub-standard material. I didn't mention in the review but Dave Meros is mighty on the bass from start to finish.
As for the “epic”, well it’s a lot better than A Guy Named Sid from Feel Euphoria but it’s still rather forced sounding and I’d prefer them not to work in this way – if a real epic is there to be had then great but don’t strive to create one just to satisfy the fans.
Rarely has a CD started so well and faded so badly, but being positive about it, the really bad tracks can be skipped and you've still got a decent length CD. I'm a great fan of the Morse-era Beard but don't find enough here to satisfy.