Album Review: Spock’s Beard – X
File Under: How Did I Miss These Guys? The new album X from Spock’s Beard offers up a set of bright, well-polished progressive rock songs. The group’s tenth outing (natch) finds them pursuing a style of progressive rock that places unerring emphasis on melody and songcraft. Whether a mid-tempo number like the album opener “Edge of the In-between” or a faster number, the quartet puts great emphasis on keeping things interesting.
Only a prog band would have the guts to open an album with a ten-minute-plus number. But like any prog band worth its salt, Spock’s Beard weaves several distinct movements into the song (more of a suite, really). Plenty of solo sections abound, but they’re all relatively brief. Vocal sections weave in and out of the arrangement, and in most cases, tight and inventive vocal harmony lines add interest even if one doesn’t pay close attention to the lyrics.
Yes, the time signatures change again and again. But somehow the changes make sense; they’re almost telegraphed to the listener ahead of time. Classic sonic elements like Leslie-treated guitar riffs and layer upon layer of Mellotron mean that Spock’s Beard should have strong appeal to fans of classic 70s progressive rock. Some listeners might be scared off by the prospect of a ten-minute song, but they shouldn’t; at least not when listening to X. The songs never meander, never drag, never lose focus.
Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto takes the spotlight with “Kamikaze.” The instrumental number goes where others might fear to tread: imagine an unholy crossing of early Emerson, Lake and Palmer with some Gentle Giant and Red-era King Crimson. Add some Joe Satriani-styled axe riffage, up the melodic quotient and you’ve got “Kamikaze.”
“The Emperor’s Clothes” starts off with some synthesized/sampled (or real?) trumpet, and quickly leads into an almost-rap lead vocal. But that quickly segues into a densely layered vocal arrangement that has more in common with Queen or (again) Gentle Giant. Yet the straightforward melody has it both ways: bass runs that evoke Chris Squire lead into a lovely jazz-classical piano solo that leaves the listener breathless. And the song stops rather than ends, leaving the listener hungry for more.
“From the Darkness” is the centerpiece of X. At seventeen minutes plus, one would hope Spock’s Beard would have enough good ideas to sustain the runtime. In fact they do: the song could conceivably be carved into smaller radio-friendly segments if such were the band’s goals.
Here the song actually is divided into movements. “Part 1: The Darkness” is a four-on-the-floor rocker that dials down the prog elements, and sounds most like modern rock, yet it manages to showcase the band’s virtuosity. Each player takes a brief solo turn.
“Part 2: Chance Meeting” is built upon Pink Floyd-styled synth beds and an insistent semi-acoustic guitar riff. Here lead vocalist and drummer Nick D’Virgilio evokes Kansas. An extremely catchy and memorable riff appears mid-song, and its existence is a case in point about why Spock’s Beard is special. Other bands would take this riff and beat it to death; Spock’s Beard rolls it out once or twice, and then it’s gone. We have other things for you to hear, they almost seem to say.
“Part 3: On My Own” is a chance for the band to showcase its technical mastery (not as if they haven’t already availed themselves of multiple opportunities to do so). While D’Virgilio sings some sparse lyrics, a complicated big-big drum kit pattern holds things down. The other players all run in their various directions, but it all hangs together in that edge-of-mayhem kind of way. Okumoto seems unwilling to play a single keyboard part at once, so here we have piano, Mellotron and blobby analog synth all running at once. The response to his multi-keyboard call is a guitar-led musical free-for all.
“Part 4: Start Over Again” has solo piano as its foundation, with Queen-style stacked vocals atop an is-it-1967-again Mellotron flute. That intro leads into the song’s main section, a heavy yet melodic outro full of grandeur. It wraps up the suite, and would make a fitting end to an album.
But again, Spock’s Beard isn’t done with us yet. In fact we’re barely halfway through the disc.
“The Quiet House” kicks off with Dave Meros‘ bass figure leading the way. Here the band sounds a bit like Trevor Rabin era Yes, or Asia or GTR. But they somehow manage to evoke that 80s vibe without actually sounding dated in any way. In fact there’s little about X that would peg it as being of any specific post-1975 era. A lovely mid-song interlude is bookended with riff-heavy sections.
Synthesized (and/or real) horns are answered by Alan Morse‘s pig-squeal guitar. That’s the grand opening of “The Man Behind the Curtain,” a song of anthemic proportions. Everyone goes quiet, then the song builds again from nothing. Lyrics that could be clichés (“ready for my closeup”, “fat lady sings”, “little white lies” and the title phrase) instead make sense in the song’s context. Musical touchstones include Animals-era Pink Floyd and Selling England by the Pound-era Genesis.
“Jaws of Heaven” concludes the album in grandiose (in a good way) fashion. Another lengthy number, it tracks in at over sixteen minutes. There’s a lot going on musically throughout “Part 1″ Homesick for the Ashes,” but the interplay between Okumoto’s piano and D’Virgilio’s drumming is among the number’s many highlights. Dave Meros manages to make a tricky bass figure catchy.
“Part 2: Words of War” strikes a musically aggressive tone in line with its pseudo-epic lyrical approach. As the tune slides into “Part 3: Deep in the Wondering” (the section breaks aren’t marked as such, so I’m doing a bit of guessing here), Spock’s Beard heads into full-fledged symphonic prog territory. The influence of early Genesis comes to the fore here, yet it’s presented within the context of the Spock’s Beard sound. Melodramatic in the best possible sense of the word, the third section features some spare yet thickly textured guitar soling in that soaring David Gilmour style. The instrumental “Part 4: Whole Again” pulls out all the stops, with Mellotron choral voices, squiggly analog leads, galloping drums, thunderous bass lines, tubular bells and orchestration and stratospheric guitar. The fade is vaguely redolent a cross between Tales of Topographic Oceans and the fadeout of Aerosmith‘s “Dream On,” of all unlikely things. At 16:22 the track is over, and too soon at that. And so ends the album as well.
Spock’s Beard’s X is paradoxical: yes, it’s polished to a brilliant shine, yet it’s not the least bit slick. One of few American bands in the 21st century with a demonstrated ability to bring the prog while leaving the metal behind, this band deserves more success at home. Sadly, so far that’s not been the case. Though based in the USA, Spock’s Beard rarely plays stateside, preferring (out of financial necessity) to perform where they’re more appreciated: Europe. Come on, people!
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to discover Spock’s Beard’s back catalogue, nine more discs stretching back to 1994.
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