By: Dave Cooper
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Released on November 20, 2015 via InsideOut Music
It is the curse of progressive rock that the limitations of physical formats make the task of compiling a “best of” collection extremely difficult for some bands. California’s Spock’s Beard have done their best to keep things simple: they’ve selected one or two tracks from each of their twelve albums, and added one new song. The complications of even this straightforward task are formidable, though. Although the band have written some taut, powerful rockers and limpid ballads that sit well within the four-to-five minute range that bands outside the progressive sphere tend to cleave to, they’ve also turned in many musical behemoths, many-headed hydras that are as key a part of the Spock’s Beard experience as their briefer siblings. Achieving a sensible mix of the two very different sides of their output, even over the length of two CDs, is a difficult task for a band such as Spock’s Beard.
The album is arranged purely chronologically, opening with the first song from the band’s first album, the title track from 1995’s The Light. As opening gambits go, it’s perfection. The rambling yet undeniably feel-good ‘The Light’ – all 15 minutes of it – remains irresistible and as straight out of left-field now as it was upon its release. Back in 1995 the song (and indeed the album, and the band that made it) was so out of step with what was happening in music that it felt like it had been beamed in from outer space. Along with American prog metal legends Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard found themselves almost by accident at the vanguard of a new generation of progressive rock bands. Whilst Dream Theater mined a darker, grittier seam, Spock’s Beard made looser, more psychedelic and downright playful music. Simultaneously a throwback to the gleefully eccentricity of early Genesis and yet informed by the wiry energy of late 80s new wave, Spock’s Beard took their inspiration from favourites old and new alike, infusing the results with their sunny West Coast charm, creating something that was both familiar and intriguingly different along the way. ‘The Light’ sets out the band’s stall very effectively: a multi-part epic, it takes in cheerful, feel-good progressive rock, gentle balladry, a truly unexpected and affectionate flamenco interlude and oases of thunderous power, where the band members could showcase some of their evident virtuosity. That virtuosity never gets in the way of the song, however; Spock’s Beard have always been about The Song, even if there are adventures along the way.
‘Thoughts’, the entry from the band’s second album, 1996’s Beware Of Darkness, ups the insanity quotient substantially. A scrambling, frenetic instrumental intro gives way to a simply dazzling performance that sees most of the band grabbing a mic and delivering a Gentle Giant-influenced counterpoint vocal workout, a firework display of staggering skill and timing that amazes to this day. The sheer precision of it is mesmerising, and if the band came to repeat this particular trick many times – so much so that their vocal prowess is now one of the things they’re especially well known for – it’s easy to forgive them for it when they’re clearly so incredibly good at it. ‘Thoughts’ is one of the most remarkable things on display here, its twisted humour and thrumming energy displaying the neophyte band at its best.
The band are clearly very fond of Beware Of Darkness; so much so that it’s one of the few albums that is represented by more than one selection. The other track from it is another epic, in the shape of fan favourite ‘The Doorway’, eleven minutes that blasts past in no time. An extended piano intro that is pure Genesis gives way to a hugely optimistic song, possessed of a huge chorus and some astounding ensemble playing. Particularly of note here is Alan Morse’s performance on guitar, his fuzzy new wave playing lending an edge to proceedings until he is given space for a showstopper of a solo that all but brings the house down. The track also packs in an intricate acoustic passage, and even an irresistible reggae-influenced mid-section that only a curmudgeon could sneer at.
The limpid ‘June’, from 1998’s The Kindness Of Strangers, follows. Showcasing their outstanding vocal abilities once again, albeit in a much more languid and harmonious fashion than on ‘Thoughts’, ‘June’ is strong evidence of the band’s increasing confidence. At just over five minutes long, it’s wonderfully atmospheric, the shimmering of never-to-be-forgotten summers evoked so perfectly that it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved. Also in a summery vein, albeit with a very different feel, is the title track from 1999’s Day For Night. In sharp contrast to the woozy ‘June’, it’s a heads-down rocker with another instantly addictive chorus, one of the band’s most reliable feel-good numbers.
2000’s V is represented by ‘At The End Of The Day’, which is perhaps the finest moment from the first disc of this collection. Another epic – and the longest track on this first disc – it is a seamless musical odyssey in the classic progressive rock tradition. Another of the band’s finest sing-along choruses is wedded to a musical feast that opens with a brass-soaked intro and blasts off into the sunrise with a captivating, frantic energy; even on the occasions when it pauses for breath, the sense of barely-restrained momentum is palpable. Everyone turns in stunning performances, but perhaps man of the match here is keysman Ryo Okumoto, who delivers a staggering showcase that runs the gamut from prettily ornate piano to thunderous, atonal organ abuse that still causes jaws to drop. It could be his finest recorded performance.
The first disc closes with two songs from 2002’s Snow, which was to be vocalist/multi-instrumentalist – and chief songwriter – Neal Morse’s final album with the band. A two-CD concept piece about an albino with a healing gift, the album’s thinly veiled themes of religious faith reflected Morse’s own struggles with a faith that was leading him in a different direction to the rest of the band. As such, it’s no surprise to hear Morse’s vocal performances on these two tracks are arresting to say the least. ‘Solitary Soul’ is a thoughtful, introspective ballad shot through with self-doubt, whilst in some ways ‘Wind At My Back’ is his letter of resignation, and the evidently deeply-felt personal dimension lent to this song makes it all the more powerful. Here, it’s the perfect closer for this first disc, and for the first chapter in the band’s history.
It is to the band’s credit that there was never really a question of calling it quits, and the resolute way in which they moved forwards shows just how surely they felt that there was more music to be made. In a move that Genesis fans would find familiar, drummer Nick D’Virgilio took Neal Morse’s place at the mic, and his immediately evident vocal skill made it very easy for the band to move on without missing a beat. Their first album with D’Virgilio, 2003’s Feel Euphoria, is represented by the surprisingly sober and low-key ‘The Bottom Line’, musically and lyrically rather darker fare than the band had typically released; in some ways it’s reflective of a strong but nevertheless unfocused album made by a band that were still finding their way following Morse’s departure.
‘She Is Everything’, the entry from 2005’s Octane, is a lovely, lilting yet tragic ballad that again demonstrates the band’s ability to deliver well-crafted, concise songs in a more obvious rock idiom as well as showcasing D’Virgilio’s highly emotive vocals. There is some sense here of the returning confidence that pervaded another ‘difficult’ album, as the new-look band began to feel more comfortable painting outside the lines provided by their original incarnation. However, 2007’s eponymous album saw their focus fade. Rather than hone a selection of songs as in the past, the band elected to throw all the material they had ready at the record, resulting in what is possibly their most controversial release. Looking back, it’s hard to see what upset some of the band’s fans quite so much, especially when faced with songs like the album’s representative here, the muscular but typically joyous ‘On A Perfect Day’. Marrying the big grin factor of ‘Day For Night’ with the epic sensibilities and drama of ‘At The End Of The Day’, it feels almost like a re-birth, a re-connection with the soul of the band after some difficult times.
2010’s X was to be the band’s last album with D’Virgilio, who made the difficult choice to pursue other projects – including a prestigious (and perhaps crucially for D’Virgilio, reliable) period as a musical director with Cirque de Soleil). Listening back to the icy atmospherics of the lengthy ‘Jaws Of Heaven’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that D’Virgilio was already wrestling with the practicalities of being a member of Spock’s Beard. Although it’s intensely dramatic and home to some truly outstanding performances, it feels cold and forbidding, full of a tension that told of the difficult decisions being weighed behind the scenes. As a testament to D’Virgilio’s time with the band, though, it’s no less effective than ‘Wind At My Back’ was for Neal Morse’s departure; both songs have a great deal invested in them by their respective vocalists.
It was time for Spock’s Beard to re-invent themselves again. Recruiting Enchant’s Ted Leonard, the band regrouped once more; the result, 2013’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, practically fizzed with new-found enthusiasm. Leonard was clearly the right man at the right time: his vocal recalls the grit of Neal Morse but also contains the fine musicality of D’Virgilio. So ideally suited is he to the Spock’s Beard sound that you might be forgiven for believing the rest of the band had cloned him in a lab. He wasted no time in putting his stamp on modern-day Spock’s Beard, as can be clearly heard on ‘Waiting For Me’ – a song which, ironically, was co-written for the band by none other than Neal Morse. Clearly and immediately vintage Beard, the song struggles to contain Morse’s trademark enthusiasm, given wings by the rest of the band, notably Alan Morse, who turns in one of his finest ever extended solos halfway through.
There’s one more familiar entry here, from this year’s The Oblivion Particle, in the shape of ‘Tides Of Time’; again, so familiar in feel that it might have “Spock’s Beard” stamped throughout it like a stick of rock. The cynical might feel that perhaps the new-look band have played it a little safe with these last two selections, as they are respectively the most typically Spock’s Beard-esque tracks from the albums in question, but there’s no question that the band seem re-energised and perhaps more comfortable in their own skin than they have for some time.
This actually seems borne out effectively by the final track, a newly-minted twenty-minute epic by the title of ‘Falling For Forever’ penned – and performed – by the whole band, including the departed Neal Morse and D’Virgilio, who both provide lead vocals along the way. It feels almost like the essence of the band distilled. From its organ-fuelled opening to massive chorus, from its grin-inducing unison segments to its lengthy closing section which contains almost as many false endings as the extended edition of Peter Jackson’s The Return Of The King, and filled with unabashed fists-aloft life-affirming joy, it is perhaps the quintessential Spock’s Beard track. The diehards will enjoy it, both musically and in a more abstract fashion, akin perhaps to the pre-credits sequence of a good film where the protagonists all get a namecheck and mug to the camera; for the newcomers, it serves as a mini-history of the band all unto itself, and also as an indicator of the soul of the band. Resolutely uncommercial, expansive, passionate, bewildering, familiar, and just downright fun… that’s the spirit of Spock’s Beard. As perfect a distillation of everything this now-legendary band does so well as can be imagined, it can only be hoped that this excellent compilation reaches the ears of new fans as well as those who are already familiar with this much-feted, much-loved band.