Album Review: Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep

Less dedicated bands would have called it a day and gone home by now. But the guys in California-based progressive rock outfit Spock’s Beard seemingly have no intention of waving the white flag of surrender, and for that, fans should be grateful.

The band was formed in 1992 by brothers Alan and Neal Morse (guitar and keyboards, respectively). Neal departed amicably from the band a decade later to pursue a solo career more in line with his religious leanings, though he continues to contribute/collaborate with the band on songwriting. On losing Neal’s lead vocals, the band took a page from the playbook of one of their heroes (Genesis) and turned to their drummer (Nick D’Virgilio) to provide lead vocals. This change actually resulted in providing a welcome aggressive edge to the band’s music; while their knotty prog tunes were always fascinating, D’Virgilio’s singing had more of an edge to it than Neal Morse’s. The band’s 2010 release X (their tenth studio release, natch) was the high point of the band’s second incarnation, combining high-flying progressive arrangements (with special credit due to keyboard whiz Ryo Okumoto), with songs that combined the best of pop songcraft with ambitious, muscular instrumental work.

During the X era, the band augmented its live lineup with Jimmy Keegan as second drummer – sort of a corollary to Genesis’ use of Chester Thompson, or (more recently) Flaming Lips‘ enlisting of Kliph Spurlock – and the results were impressive, as documented on 2012’s The X-Tour Live.

But once again the band found itself at a crossroads: charismatic drummer, vocalist and front man D’Virgilio departed to spend more time with… Cirque Du Soleil. But rather than fold their tent and go home, the band made Keegan a full member, added Ted Leonard (formerly of Enchant, with whom he cut hight albums) on lead vocals, and entered the studio to work on a new album. That disc was released in 2013 as Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep.

While not quite as immediate a listen as X, Brief Nocturnes fairly well picks up where the band left off on their previous studio album. Leonard doesn’t attempt to ape D’Virgilio’s vocal style (nor Neal Morse’s), but his own voice fits well into the overall Spock’s Beard sound.

At first listen, the new album seems to put Alan Morse‘s talents on slightly more prominent display than before. While Morse cuts an unlikely figure for a rock god – he looks very much like the guy you might see in the checkout line behind you on a Saturday morning at The Home Depot – his easygoing demeanor doesn’t result in him playing like some sort of shrinking violet.

Lovers of the long-format approach the band has used before will be pleased to know that there’s only one song (out of eleven on what’s effectively a double-album) that clocks in under six minutes. Okumoto’s deft keyboard runs open”Hiding Out,” on which he plays at least three different keyboard (piano, organ, string syth and almost certainly several more). Dave Meros‘ thunderous, taut bass playing shifts gears between playing in tight lockstep with Morse’s guitar, and laying down a groove along with Keegan. And Leonard’s voice soars above it all. Time signatures shift under the band’s feet, but the pop orientation of the band’s best material means that things stay tuneful. Morse’s blistering solo is backed u pby a band that’s doing thins nearly as interesting. Mid-song, when Meros and Morse kick into high gear, they’re both effectively soloing, yet working well together.

“I Know Your Secret” recalls very early Utopia, and some Drama-period Yes (Meros’ speedy, liquid bass here is its most Chris Squire-like). The band’s trademark more-ideas-than-a song-requires approach means that the lengthy compositions are more than justified; the tracks never drag, always moving forward into new and interesting areas.

Good old familiar sounds like Mellotron crop up all over the record; but Spock’s Beard never sound retro. A bit classic-minded here and there, but in the end, there’s little on Brief Nocturnes that looks backward. What they do is what they do, and the band makes no apology for it. Few bands can write songs in “nonstandard” time signatures and give them a pop sheen. But that’s exactly what they do on “A Treasure Abandoned,” another of Spock’s Beard’s soaring anthem-like compositions. In places the song recalls everyone from The Beatles (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) and other non-prog acts, but Spock’s Beard aren’t derivative.

There’s long been – even after Neal Morse’s departure – a vaguely spiritual center to Spock’s Beard’s lyrical subject matter. They certainly don’t hit listeners over the head – God-rock this ain’t – but concern over big themes and whatnot puts them in a league with, say, Polyphonic Spree. The difference, of course, is that the playing and melodies are such that listeners can ignore lyrics about temples and angels (should they wish) and just rock (or prog) out.

At a shade under five minutes, “Submerged” is the shortest track on the album. It’s also the most mainstream rock offering on the disc. Leonard’s vocals and Keegan’s drums are spotlighted. For listeners not attuned to progressive rock, this track might be the best entry point; as it draws the listener in, winning them over with the band’s charms. IF singles still existed, this would be the one, not only because of its relative brevity.

Things get heavy-prog on “Afterthoughts,” in which Okumoto goes pretty well nuts (in the best possible way). Distorted electric piano, vocoder, piles of synths, and a pop-sike melody welded onto an ambitious arrangement. And since no Spock’s Beard album would be complete without a Gentle Giant styled excursion into multilayered a cappella vocalizing, this track fulfills that role in grand style.

“Something Very Strange” is a minor-key multi-movement piece composed by John Boegehold, a non-member but frequent contributor to Spock’s Beard albums (he’s also credited as co-producer along with Alan Morse and Rich Mouser). The album-proper wraps up with the Genesis-meets-Rush sounding “Waiting for Me,” the lengthiest track on the album. It manages to distill all the elements that make Spock’s Beard one of the best-loved modern progressive bands on the scene today.

Oftentimes a “bonus disc” appended to an album release is stuffed with remixes and material that somehow didn’t deserve to make the single-disc cut. Not here: save for a remix of “Something Very Strange,” it’s twenty minutes of additional material every bit as appealing as the contents of the first disc.

Clearly, personnel changes can’t keep this good band down. They still don’t tour to the degree that fans might like (though they’re doing one of those winter cruise multi-band tickets later this year), but Spock’s Beard seem in little danger of running out of good musical ideas.

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