Round Table Review
Tracklist: Edge Of The In-Between (10:30), The Emperor's Clothes (5:52), Kamikaze (3:50), From The Darkness: [a] The Darkness, [b] Chance Meeting, [c] On My Own, [d] Start Over Again (16:36), The Quiet House (9:03), Their Names Escape Me (8:57), The Man Behind The Curtain (7:46), Jaws Of Heaven: [a] Homesick For The Ashes, [b] Words Of War, [c] Deep In The Wondering, [d] Whole Again (16:22)
Alex Torres' Review
Frankly, music doesn’t get much better than this. Spock’s Beard tenth album, simply titled X, is more than worthy of that significant landmark. It’s as close to perfect as one could ask for, a glorious blend of superbly composed and performed music. It has enough prog to keep the progsters happy, enough rock to keep the rockers happy and enough melody to melt the coldest of hearts. The instrumental palette yields a rich delight of musical colours: it’s not just the keyboard/synth sounds but the brass and string arrangements that adorn some of these compositions that enrich the music far beyond what conventional rock instrumentation could achieve. The pacing of the album is superb. For me, X justifies the invention of prog-rock!
If there is a blemish, a criticism, then it could only be that the band are perhaps repeating a musical journey that has already been trodden by themselves – structurally and compositionally. For instance, the opening riff of The Quiet House is very reminiscent of Is This Love from the previous album, Spock’s Beard, before veering off on its own direction. However, I sense that within this “framework” there has been a development, in that the strength of these compositions is greater: the composition seems more mature than on the band’s previous albums, Octane and Spock’s Beard. Also, even if there is an element of self-repetition, the execution is so very good that to criticise would be churlish. It’s music that grows with each listen, as you begin to appreciate the subtleties in composition and choice of instrumentation. Yes, it really is as close to perfection as one can get.
One aspect of the band’s music which enhances the listening experience for me is the fact that they have a number of very competent songwriters composing in different styles: D’Virgilio, Alan Morse, Meros and Okumoto all weigh in with strong contributions. Even our old friend Neal Morse (along with Larry Kutcher) contributes some of the music to The Emperor’s Clothes! Despite the musically heavyweight nature of the Neal Morse name-check, it has to be said that a more significant contribution comes from John Boegehold, who is Meros’s musical writing partner and lyricist on three of these eight compositions, as well as providing their string arrangements and playing some keys and guitar. Boegehold’s contribution to the post-Neal Morse era Spock’s Beard has been highly significant – he is a de facto band member, even if not formally so. Overall, it feels as though there was a very high synergy at work compositionally – to the benefit of the band and its music.
Three pieces clock in at over ten minutes but, in perfect prog fashion, are constructed in such a way, featuring specific “movements”, that the listener never comes close to being bored. Far from it! Edge Of The In-Between is a great album opener, very clever rhythmically, a catchy kick start! From The Darkness features perhaps the most complex structural composition of the album, alternating rocky and slower, classically inspired movements. Okumoto’s piano playing in the second and fourth movements, taking in a number of moods, is immense! The four-movement finale, Jaws Of Heaven, closes with some of the most wonderful melodic writing I have heard. In this context, it becomes simply a terrific ending to a stunningly good album but, take the melodic line out of here, put it into the mouth of a youngster with an image and you would have a million-selling number 1 hit, for sure. I’m just glad that Meros & Boegehold chose to place it here, or I may not have heard it!
Okumoto gets another name check for the stunning instrumental, Kamikaze - wow! The remaining sung short pieces (well, the shortest is nearly six minutes, hahaha!) are also full of interest. The Emperor’s Clothes has some good rock parts as well as a brief a cappella section. It’s very catchy, as is The Man Behind The Curtain, both songs very typical of this band’s recent output. Finally, Their Names Escape Me deserves special mention as it’s on this song that the band chose to list the names of their fans who provided extra special financial support in backing this independently - released, totally fan-financed album. The “list” comes after the song’s first phase, sung to conventional lyrics. The band have to be commended for the excellent musical fashion in which they’ve carried off this novel feat, the song as a whole coming over as nothing at all like “filler material”, being instead another excellent song. Spock’s Beard show that they could set the operation manual for your computer to music and make it sound interesting!
In conclusion, if you missed out in pre-ordering this album, I can only recommend that you buy it now, before the limited edition with Their Names Escapes Me sells out. I can’t believe that you won’t enjoy listening to this many times. Incidentally, great artwork too! Awesome!
Brian Watson's Review
Spock’s Beard must be cited as an influence on bands in the DPRP review pages as often as Yes, Genesis, ELP et al and they are well and truly established stars in the prog firmament. They paid their dues back in the dark days when prog was a dirty word, before the bandwagon jumpers, with their glossy magazines and London festivals. When audiences could be counted on the fingers of a couple of hands. Hard work, and a ton of talent, paid off and now ‘the Beard’ are prog royalty.
We’ve reviewed fifteen of their recordings, and all but five received recommended ratings. Of these three were live albums, and one was a reissue of The Light, marked down (as were others in the Inside Out ‘Artwork Collectors’ series) for the lack of any real ‘added value’. The other, V, would justify a recommendation if one of the four Round Table Reviews were discounted.
Since 2003’s Feel Euphoria, the first album sans Neal the band have been on InsideOut and have released four albums on the label (including the live set Gluttons For Punishment). Four years have passed since 2006’s Spock’s Beard and the band have now ‘done a Marillion’ and financed the self-released X by way of pre-orders. Fans, myself included, stumped up their cash before a note had been played. Some stumped up a not inconsiderable sum for lots of signed goodies, an executive producer credit in the sleeve notes and their name incorporated in the lyrics of a song on the album.
Gimmicks aside, this tenth studio album (X, geddit?) is for my money the best thing the band has released since Neal Morse’s departure and represents a welcome return to their prog roots (after some ill-advised dalliances with pop and AOR balladry).
You will have noticed that we here at DPRP try to signpost influences on bands, to give you an idea of whether an album might float your boat, sub-genre wise. No such creative subjectivity here. Spock’s Beard are one of a few bands who, through a single creative vision that single-handedly re-defined the American symphonic prog tradition and an unchanging line-up -notwithstanding Neal Morse’s departure– have a signature sound all their own but which is grounded in the classic 1970s era.
Edge Of The In-Between kicks things off in typically bombastic style before settling into a poppy groove with atypical Beard vocal harmonies. It isn’t long though before the tempo changes and Ryo lays down a synth backbeat that Alan Morse riffs off nicely. Piano and electronica then compete for attention before the song builds up to a premature choral climax (a reprise of the opening theme) by way of spacey guitar washes and faux mellotron. The song ends pretty abruptly though before we are into the acoustic intro to The Emperor's Clothes. The brass section takes over pretty quickly before NDV is singing (with a little help from his vocoder) his heart out on this Beatles meet Queen by way of Transatlantic ballad with added a cappella flourishes that showcases the virtuoso piano and keyboard stylings of Ryo.
Kamikaze is a good vehicle for the ample skills of Ryo too, with Keith Emerson (with a bit of Mark Kelly wibbly wobbly thrown in later) keyboard savagery laid over NDV’s aggressive skin beating and some down and dirty ‘rawk’ riffage from Alan Morse.
From The Darkness is the first of two epics on the album, over 16 minutes long and in four sections. A heavy song from the off, it sees the Beard do what they do best – great melody, complex time signatures and fantastic musicianship as all players get a chance to shine. It soon slows down before a nice symphonic section reminiscent of The Flower Kings. Throughout its length the song twists and turns and the transitions between sections, the interplay between light and shade, between heavy and quiet passages is incredibly well handled.
The Quiet House is a lovely song, that may remind the listener of Hogarth era Marillion before – shock - a prog-metal-y section that leads into fantastic Beard harmonising over understated Morse soloing. It’s definitely a rocker, this one, that will I’m sure be a staple of the live set.
Their Names Escape Me is an odd one – this is the track where everyone who paid enough cash got name-checked in the lyrics. It starts off (and ends) well enough but as one whose name is not included (which would have the novelty factor if nothing else) I’m not quite sure just what the band was thinking of here. It’s a nice gesture but it simply doesn’t work as a song for me. Happily, and justifying my (wait for it) recommended rating there’s another 70 minutes of outstanding prog on offer.
The Man Behind The Curtain puts one in mind of classic Spock’s Beard – Dave Meros’ bass playing is particularly impressive. It’s a bit of a crib lyrically (and musically it has to be said) from Man Of A Thousand Faces by Marillion but that’s no bad thing. There’s a nice Yes like groove before the song rocks to a quasi-close. Things end properly with a nice acoustic section – “and the curtain finally comes down”.
Jaws Of Heaven closes out the album. Unfortunately, about ten percent of the album’s initial pre-order pressing suffered from a disc defect that causes the track to skip towards the end. As one of the unlucky ones I am reliably informed a replacement will be posted out soon. It’s a real shame, because this is for me the standout track on the record. A big contender for track of the year come poll time in fact. NDV’s vocals have never sounded better and yet again Ryo’s keyboard playing is sublime. His playing on this record is much more textured than on previous releases, and this is aided by the excellent production – channel separation is excellent. The sing along chorus is going to be a massive standout at live shows too. As is the Kansas style orchestral section. And Genesis style flute and keyboard section. It’s a belter this track.
Hardcore fans will, I’m sure, have pre-ordered this. So I guess this review is more for those who are waiting before ‘adding to cart’ and for those of you out there who are still to discover the band. Well then, I can heartily recommend (notwithstanding Their Names Escape Me) X as the single best place to start if building your post-Neal Morse Spock’s Beard library.
Ed Sander's Review
Ever since Neal Morse left the band, Spock's Beard's albums have been a bit of a hit and miss affair. Feel Euphoria has some excellent tracks in the form of Onomatopoeia, The Bottom Line and Ghosts Of Autumn but the attempt at writing a big 'Beardy Epic' in the form of A Guy Named Sid immediately fell flat. On their next album Octane the band proved that they could write a concept of tracks without reverting to the old formula of Neal Morse and the result, the wonderful A Flash Before My Eyes, was worth the price of the album alone, while the other tracks weren't half bad either. After this step in the right direction the self-titled Spock's Beard was quite a disappointment. Sure, it had excellent stuff like On A Perfect Day, Skeleton's At The Feast, All That's Left and With Your Kiss, but the album was overlong, with a couple of weak compositions in the middle and the epic As Far As The Mind Can See did not reach the same heights as A Flash Before My Eyes.
So, just when I was starting to doubt the continued existence of one of my favourite bands they returned four years later with X. Considering that the previous three albums had been released over the course of three years I was wondering if the new material would make up for the long wait and if the band had used this long period to produce something that was of higher quality. I must have been very sceptical since the album didn't do much for me when I gave it its first spin. But before long it started to grow on me... fast! And now, a month later I'm glad to say that the Beard have released their most coherent and best album since Neal Morse left the band. Come to think of it, as an album this might well be one of their best releases to date since most of the albums they produced under Neal Morse always had a few very disappointing moments.
This album breathes a new energy and enthusiasm that was somewhat absent from Octane. The tunes are full of tempo and style changes as we all know and love of the band. The melodies are catchy, there's great vocal harmonies (just check out the remarkable stuff going on in The Emperor's Clothes). Some tracks have a clear Beatlesque influence, especially Al Morse sounds like he's paying homage to George Harrison several times on the album. There's also some tasty brass and string arrangements throughout the compositions.
A 7/8 time signature, a thunderous bass, harmony vocals and wah-wah guitar always do it for me, and therefore The Quiet House is without a doubt my absolute favourite on the album. The sudden break in the middle section and the amazing piano arrangement that follows are just the icing on the cake this composition needed. Can't get enough of this tune.
Another highlight is The Man Behind The Curtain, which features a extremely catchy melody hook (which I often find myself whistling throughout the day) that appears in various forms in the near 8 minutes of the track (even as a bass solo!). The arrangements go from energetic to peaceful to full-blown in-your-face rock, before it calms down for an acoustic closure. Excellent work.
The album features two four-part epics. From The Darkness rocks your socks off in its first 4 minutes, while the end section features a wonderful piano break before going into the extremely Beatlesque Starting Over Again. Parts of this epic remind me a lot of the straightforward rock epic Paying The Price and other tunes on NDV's solo album (which most certainly isn't a bad thing). While From The Darkness makes for great listening, the strength of Jaws Of Heaven is even more remarkable. Another top-notch tour-de-force that features all the necessary ingredients to make this a true Beard classic (including a semi-Latin section!). While A Flash Before My Eyes and As Far As The Mind Can See really were just a series of loose songs, these two new epics are well-crafted 16+ minute adventures that flow seamlessly from start to end.
The instrumental Kamikaze is probably the only track I don't quite appreciate. It's simply too free-form, quirky and jazzy for my taste, regardless of the nice guitar & bass riff in the midsection.
Many of the longer pieces have their quiet moments but there are no real ballads on the album. Although this means that we miss out on stuff like Ghosts Of Autumn or She Is Everything it also keeps the pace in the album. As a result the CD, unlike its predecessor of similar length, never falls flat and keeps exciting from start to finish.
The lyrics on the album are great. The comparison between teenagers participating in American Idol and soldiers going off to war in the (otherwise) uplifting album opener Edge Of The In-Between is remarkable. From The Darkness seems to focus on problems within relationship and match the roller coaster feel of the music quite well, while The Emperor's Clothes sets the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale to music from the point of view of the swindling weavers and set in modern times. And some of the words in Jaws Of Heaven border on the edge of sheer poetry.
Where Marillion had their fans pre-order their new CDs in return for their pictures on the cover or names in the booklet, Spock's Beard took this trick one step further. When you ordered the 'Ultimate Package' edition of the album you would get your name included in an actual song. The result is Their Names Escape Me. The first half of this track is a normal song but in the second half Nick lists up some 130 names of Spock's Beard fans. Now, this may sound like something extremely tedious to listen to, but it actually isn't. The building intensity and the multi-layered vocals make it great fun. Also, you can try and pick out how many of these people you know (and are now 200 dollars poorer - as such they might have named this track the '25.000 dollar song'). I do wonder how these people feel about the reason behind this list, which is revealed in the first half of the song's lyrics ('Tell us the names of every traitor who took up arms against the nation'). I doubt if 'Simon the Prog Cat' (one of the 130 names mentioned) appreciates this ...
Okay, that's as far as the extreme enthusiasm goes. Now for a critical note. So far the album has only been available through the band's website, where you can buy a 'limited edition'. It does not specify what's limited about it, but the distribution definitely is. Currently there's no other way to get it and I've been told that the retail release will follow in August and will exclude the track Their Names Escape Me. Okay, so that's what makes it limited, why doesn't it say so on their website? Heck, the site doesn't even mention the playing time and tracks! What amateurism is this?! But the worst is yet to come. I personally don't mind buying albums straight of the artists and I'm more than happy to pay slightly more for that. But this CD, including postage, sells for more than twice the amount I normally pay, again including postage! And no, I don't want a $20 T-shirt with that or have it autographed for another $10 extra. I just want the CD. And if you want to cough up 199 dollars for the "Ultra Package" in order to have your name mentioned in a song that's all fine with me. I just want to have the darn CD at a reasonable price. It's schemes like these that make people decide to not even bother buying the album and simply pull it off a torrent site! This is the age where people want their music NOW. They don't want to wait a friggin' 3 months or pay twice as much!
Okay, that's my little rant over with. I've taken my meds and have calmed down. Let's focus on the music again. As we all know, X marks the spot, and therefore they couldn't have picked a better album title as this is indeed a treasure chest filled with amazing gems. Again, it's hats of to bass player Dave Meros who composed a substantial part of the album, as he did with some of the best tracks that the band released on the previous 3 albums. Unlike these albums though, there's not a single bad track on this one (Kamikaze being a matter of taste). Ladies and Gentleman, Spock's Beard are back ... with a vengeance !