Album Reviews

Issue 2015-062

Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle - Round Table Review

Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle
Country of Origin: USA
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 59:20
Track List:
Tides of Time (7:45), Minion (6:53), Hell's Not Enough (6:23), Bennett Built a Time Machine (6:52), Get Out While You Can (4:55), A Better Way To Fly (8:57), The Center Line (7:25), To Be Free Again (10:24), Disappear (6:14)
Patrick McAfee's Review
Arriving twenty years after their memorable debut, The Light, Spock's Beard returns with their twelfth studio album, The Oblivion Particle. The band has now produced six albums since Neal Morse's departure, yet each release is still put under a microscope to a certain extent. It's an understandable reaction, as the original line-up made such a strong impression on the prog genre, and the first few albums without Neal did find the band struggling to secure a new identity.

The tide began to significantly turn with the release of X in 2010. That album displayed a confidence from the band that hadn't been seen in quite a while. They even successfully sustained their momentum after the exit of original member, Nick D'Virglio in 2011.

With The Oblivion Particle, Spock's Beard make no attempt to completely disregard their past, but they make it very clear that they won't let it define them. The classic elements are there (multiple chord changes, Ryo's superb old-school organ licks, the polyphonic vocals), but this is clearly the work of a band that is still abundantly eager to prove something.

The album's opening track, Tides of Time is unmistakably Spock's Beard and it is a great signature start. As the song progresses, it doesn't wallow in the classic sound, but there is no mistaking who it is.

After this somewhat traditional start, the album surprisingly proves to be the most diverse recording that the band has ever produced. It's as if they intentionally got the most obvious track out of the way at the start. The change is welcome and in many ways, The Oblivion Particle is the first album to fully establish the new Spock's Beard as a band to be reckoned with. Absolutely progressive throughout, there are also flashes of hard rock and pop/prog in the vein of ELO or Jelly Fiche. From one track to the next, the band sounds more assured than they have in many years. This is in no small part due to the strong quality of the songwriting displayed on each track. Throughout the post-Neal Morse era, the songwriting aspect may have been the biggest and most consistent hurdle that the band faced. The door is now securely closed on that issue, as there isn't a dud track to be found on this album.

Three vocalists in, there are online debates about who is the best Spock's Beard lead singer. Truth be told, it is a tough question to answer. Historically, Ted Leonard displayed an AOR/Steve Walsh-like quality that is impressive but seemed slightly derivative to me. Though that style is on display here again, he shows significantly more range on this album. He does a splendid job and Jimmy Keegan also provides excellent lead vocals on the quirky, Bennett Built a Time Machine. Instrumentally and vocally, the entire band is firing on all cylinders. Just when a song borders on being overtly accessible, they will take things in a more adventurous direction. These moments often provide a great showcase for each member to display their significant musical abilities.

The Oblivion Particle is without a doubt, the most consistently entertaining Spock's Beard album in many years and also amongst their best ever. As different as some of the album is, it also stays inherently true to the original vision displayed long ago on The Light. This is not a collection of songs, but an album in the true sense of the word. It is unabashedly progressive and there is a flow to the track listing that works perfectly. Unlike their last few releases, there are no significantly commercial songs intermixed with the proggy ones. That wasn't a bad thing necessarily, but there is a consistency displayed here that is perfect. Fear not though as there are some extremely catchy and effective choruses to be found throughout.

Spock's Beard is embracing the boldness of their past while moving forward in new and exciting ways. On the twentieth anniversary of their first album, the band has finally silenced any remaining doubt about their relevance. The Oblivion Particle is a great album and is easily one of the best of 2015.
Nathan Waitman's Review
Their previous disc, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, was an important moment for Spock's Beard. It was their opening statement with their new line-up, and they were out to prove that they were a strong unit, even with such a big change in personnel. In this reviewer's humble opinion, that album was a rousing success and showed a band that paid tribute to its roots while still branching out to experiment with something new.

Now, with this latest album, the band is out to prove that their previous album wasn't a fluke. The two new full-time members had the chance to dip their toes in the water with the first album, now is the opportunity for them to really shine and infuse their talents into the music, and to really cement the band's new direction. I am pleased to say they take this opportunity, and run with it to great effect.

Ted Leonard's voice is a perfect fit to this music, perhaps the best technical voice this band has ever had. Not only does he sing with passion and power, but he contributes instrumentally and als to the song-writing itself. Jimmy Keegan not only showcases an excellent drumming performance, full of technicality, groove and where the music calls for it, restraint. He also lends some great vocal talent, including the lead in one of the more interesting tracks, Bennet Build a Time Machine. It is such a great thing to see that these new members aren't left in the background as mere studio musicians, in favor of the seasoned veterans, but are integral to the music and even showcased in the forefront on many occasions.

As for the new album, it is an interesting beast with many twists and turns. It is hard to pin down this album and define what its main feature is. In some ways, this is its charm. But, I will admit, that it did make it hard to get into at first. Each song is its own animal, with a totally different feel to it and certain sections did not resonate with me on first listen.

But, with patience and persistence, the melodies have seeped into my brain. Many sections that I was put off by at first, have become joyful ear candy. I'm sure that with even more listens, the album will open up even more to my ears. Part of my early confusion as a listener is that I feel this album really showcases the two extremes of this band, often in the same song. On one hand, there is a focus on melody and anthemic sing-along choruses that could almost be called mainstream. On the other hand, there are several sections that are incredibly intricate, complex and downright strange. But, these are always the sections that make me smile for their playfulness and pure proginess.

The album begins with maybe the most typical Spock's Beard track, Tides of Time. With a powerful opening with great pounding drums and organ, you know you are in for a treat. This song has it all: a great bass-line from Dave Meros, great vintage keyboard sounds from Ryo Okumoto, an inspired guitar solo from Alan Morse, and a typically Beardy acoustic guitar interlude, all before closing in epic fashion. As a fan of Neal Morse-led Spock's Beard, this track is just a complete joy to listen to and really pays tribute to the early days of the band.

Minion is on the other side of the spectrum - totally different from the original sound of the band, but in line with the new sound they started crafting for themselves with the previous album. This track, along with the next, Hell's Not Enough, are clearly inspired by Ted Leonard, with a slightly harder edge and some amazing catchy choruses. Minion starts off with an acapella singing of the main chorus, before we are greeted by a funky beat. In the middle of the track there is a fantastic piano interlude by Ryo Okumoto, before the powerful ending. Hell's Not Enough is a somewhat standard rocker, until an awesome proggy section at the end which allows the whole band to show off their skills.

Bennet Built A Time Machine is definitely one of the most interesting tracks on the album. First of all it has Jimmy Keegan premiering on lead vocals, and he does an excellent job. In an odd way, his voice reminds me of previous Spock's Beard front-man and drummer, Nick D'Virgilio. The song starts with a beautiful, even pop-influenced verse and chorus, until the halfway mark gives us some interesting instrumental work drenched in Mellotron and great bass-playing. This perfectly demonstrates the workings of the time machine in the song's title. This is one of the highlights of the album.

In contrast, Get Out While You Can is probably my least favorite track. It is a pretty standard rocker with the least amount of proginess. The best part is the mood and feeling of the piece, fueled by Ted Leonard's great vocal performance. Definitely not a bad song, but it has not managed to grab me at this point in my discovery of the album.

To me, even though there have already been some outstanding tracks, the last four tracks are the highlight of this album. The first of these is A Better Way to Fly, which is such a unique and interesting track. It twists and turns through some very tricky time signatures and various musical workouts. To my ears, it sounds unique from all the Spock's Beard tracks that have come before it. It has a dark, almost disturbed feeling, and yet, at the same time has a sense of fun and wild abandon. The Center Line is bookended by a Gentle Giant-inspired, quirky instrumental section that Spock's Beard does so well, with a fairly standard rocking middle section. The classically-inspired piano intro and outro from Ryo Okumoto are especially inspired.

The longest track on the album is To Be Free Again and consequently the most epic. Some incredible sections showcase the beauty and majesty that this band is capable of. I can't help but be emotional at the sweeping, grand way this song ends.

Disappear is a fantastic closing track, another clear highlight of the album. It features some incredible violin work from none other than David Ragsdale himself. When it begins, it feels like it is going to be a ballad, since it has a slower tempo and an impassioned vocal from Ted. Halfway through, however, Spock's Beard takes another twist and goes all out with a frenetic instrumental section that leaves the listener breathless and excited. This track shows that prog doesn't always have to be long - this is a perfect blueprint for a short, yet effective progressive piece.

This surely isn't a perfect album. It can be a little disjointed at times and I think some tracks work better than others. However, overall, this album showcases a band still at its peak, which is an amazing thing to say for a band that has been around for 20 years.

Although difficult for those who are fans of the band's original members, the losses and addition of certain people have actually kept Spock's Beard vibrant, instead of becoming stale. The addition of Ted Leonard and Jimmy Keegan has really added a new element, and it makes for a fun listening experience to uncover those new influences and sounds amongst the familiar Spock's Beard backdrop.

In my estimation, the difficult thing for most bands is to have an established sound for their fans, but to also branch out and do different things to stay fresh and exciting. Spock's Beard has managed this, and while not all the different things they attempt work to my ears, the successes are far greater than the failures and showcase a band still evolving and developing. I look forward to where this band goes from here.
Raimond Fischbach's Review
Hooray, the Beard is fully back! With The Oblivion Particle, the band performs a drastic turn back towards its early days. In their decade with Nick D'Virgilio fronting, their songs became more and more standard in structure, with a radio-friendly awareness. It always seemed to me that D'Virgilio's experiences in his early days with Tears for Fears pushed Spock's Beard into that direction. But that streak has now been broken, and what a relief it is.

The Oblivion Particle must be the most progressive album in the band's career so far. Almost gone are the standard chorus/verse structures. Each song on the new album has at least three sections, two different vocal parts that do the story telling, and and an instrumental part that depicts the scenery. The wonderful dynamic arcs they provide in their songs are quite stunning and help to tell their little stories perfectly. This was not even heard during their Neal Morse phase.

The album has no concept, it is just a collection of fine little songs. However each is just the perfect prog song, and the collection easily creates its own global arc, making the entire album one wonderful, illustrious show. This effect is boosted by the versatile and eclectic mix of styles which the band brings to the table. It's as if they tried to implant every single aspect of their influences into the mix. The Beatles, Queen, Yes and Genesis, ELP, The Alan Parson's Project, Pink Floyd and Kansas all have their moments; so solid that it feels that you could touch them.

But this is all delivered within the distinctive Spock's Beard style that we know. Ryo Okumoto has his usual Mellotron sounds and Hammond, piano and Moog tones, but he also brings some new and quirky synth sounds to the mix. Dave Meros' "walking bass" lines are there too, as well as Alan Morse's typical hand-picked guitar. Morse also adds mandolin, electric sitar, and banjolele to the sonic picture. Ted Leonard unleashes a silent and calm vocal style, which was never heard from him before, and he sings at full pressure only in the moments where it is required, so he can maintain the band's full dynamics. Jimmy Keegan has his introduction as a lead vocalist on Bennet Builds a Time Machine and on the album closer Disappear. Kansas' very own David Ragsdale plays the violin.

In contrast to today's common sonic overload, the arrangements and mixes are created in a 70s manner, where every instrument has enough air to develop and deliver its own character, without another one distracting or adding useless disturbing texture. Rich Mouser more than ever gives the band a crystal clear and iconic sound.

The Oblivion Particle is an ageless and timeless album. It could have been released in the 1970s or in the 00s of this millennium and would just sound as fresh as today. It appears to me that this is the highlight of the band's creativity, lifting them to the same heights as Transatlantic for me. It is an album that will provide me with joy for many years, if not decades.

All the fans who turned their back on the Beard because of the leaving of Neal Morse must give this one a chance.
Eric Perry's Review
Spock's Beard have been around for a long time. You don't need a history lesson about them though. All you need to know is that The Oblivion Particle is their second with Ted Leonard (of Enchant) on vocals and Jimmy Keegan as the permanent drummer, and it's these two elements that are crucially contributing towards making the band achieve new heights; 23 years after their formation.

This is a band that has been at the forefront of the third wave of prog, producing many standout albums in their history. Their following is big and when they release something new it is eagerly awaited. Personally despite all their accolades, I was never enamoured with them, no matter how hard I tried. This time around though something is different, and on first listen it stands out instantly: the track Bennett Built a Time Machine.

It isn't the only gem here. This outstanding fourth song sits ahead of three superb tracks. The opener Tides of Time is melodic prog rock at it's best, with many of the familiar elements that make up the Spock's Beard sound. Minion, is a vocal harmonic stunner with a spiky guitar riff which packs a punch, and compliments the heavy classic 70s AOR of Hell's Not Enough perfectly.

But it's the story of Bennett that sits at the heart of this superb collection of songs. It's a simple idea of a man who builds a time machine to change his past and it proves to be an exquisite masterpiece that puts a smile on my face every time (who hasn't thought about what they would change with this kind of power?). Full of ELO charm, this is a song that could have been the centrepiece of a larger album-length theme. As it is, it gives this band a nailed-on classic song to add to their catalogue. Without doubt, the bass at the mysterious mid-section instrumental break makes this track even more sublime. Dave Meros captures the spirit of the late Chris Squire in a short passage which has the hairs on your neck standing up. Keegan is excellent on both lead vocals on this track, as well as his big-hitting, bold drum sound. Adding to the value of this amazing piece, are the other extra's such as the mandolin that Alan Morse brings to it.

Everyone excels on this album. From Leonard's gutsy vocals as he yells, "Get Out, Get Out" on Get Out While You Can, to the classical piano virtuosity from Ryo Okumoto on the galloping The Center Line, or yet more precision and grandeur from Keegan on the symphonic epic To Be Free Again. This is a band at the top of their game in both performance and songwriting. The key difference this time around seems to be that there is a more instant accessibility to the songs, and a power within them that is both uplifting and thought-provoking.

Everything on this release screams quality, from the detailed, texture-rich image of Bennett on the cover, to the first-rate sound production by returning master producer, Rich Mouser. Without doubt there is something for fans old and new, and even splinter-ridden fence sitters like myself who are just hearing something very special in Spock's Beard's music for the first time. Does it get any better than this? I don't think so.
Guille Palladino's Review
I have admit that I was totally surprised about the announcment of a new recording by Spock's Beard a couple of months ago, as in the last two years we have seen the band embarking on a tour with their new line-up and facing the great challenge to demonstrate they were right when choosing Ted Leonard as the new frontman and lead singer of the band.

Their previous album Brief Nocturnes and Sleepless Dreams received very good reviews, making it one of the most successful albums recorded by the band and was followed by a short but also great and intense tour promoting it. The band and even recorded a live double album called Live from the Sea on the Progressive Nation by the Sea Cruise. It all showed us why they are one of the most important and experienced bands on the American progressive rock scene.

The Oblivion Particle comes as a new chapter in the history of the band, because even if they are keeping musical influences from their early records, as the tracks are passing by you'll note that we are listening to a totally reconfigured band. What we have here is the reinvention of Spock's Beard. In my humble opinion this is the result of what they wanted to do when Nick D'Virgilio fronted the band, but at that time, it wasn't enough and he wasn't in a real influential position. Without any doubt Ted Leonard came to the band to add a newer and fresh approach but without interfering with their musical legacy and essence.

On the other side we have Ryo Okumoto taking a more important role in the direction of the band alongside Alan Morse. We can see both of them taking more risks, musically speaking, exploring new sounds and adding them to the whole composition. On this record Okumoto gives a more classical approach with their arrangements (for example in The Center Line). It is not only a matter of doing the progressive recipe on keyboards, he is giving every song its own personality with all the equipment he has and knows how to use. I feel Alan Morse here is more free. I imagine him more comfortable with what he is doing on this album, with some powerful and more virtuoso guitar solos or with the acoustic arrangement placed in the right moment of a song. Dave Meros' bass sound is one of the essential elements in building the sound of the band. He is a master behind these four strings, with a huge influence from Chris Squire on his playing style at this time.

We have a couple extras on this album which I want to mention too. The first is Jimmy Keegan, who not only is a wonderful, charismatic and skilled drummer and percussionist he also does the vocals on one song - and believe me, he sounds great doing it. And finally we have a very special guest for the first time on a Spock's Beard album, with the great David Ragsdale from Kansas giving a fine touch on the final track Dissapear.

We have some influences from classic bands like Yes and Genesis this time, and overall this is a powerful, mysterious and dense album. You'll have to listen it carefully the first time, but after that you'll love it. I like too many songs in this new chapter of the band to pick a favourite. The most remarkable are: Tides of Time, as the more early Spock's Beard influenced track, the eclectic Minion, Get Out While you Can and A Better Way to Fly, and the epic, powerful but beautiful To be Free Again and Dissapear.

This wonderful album also comes on a Limited Edition Media Book CD with Iron Man as a bonus track, or a 180g gatefold double vinyl edition which also includes the CD album, and digital download. Highly recommended!
Patrick McAfee: 9 out of 10
Nathan Waitman: 9 out of 10
Raimond Fischbach: 10 out of 10
Eric Perry: 10 out of 10
Guille Palladino: 9 out of 10
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