Spock’s Beard – X

January 01, 1970







It’s funny
what time does…ten studio albums and almost 20 years after Spock’s Beard first
elbowed its way into a bourgeoning neo-prog rock scene, the band is no longer
the brash young upstarts they were in the early 1990s. While early Spock’s
Beard found its influence in a curious mix of King Crimson, Yes, the Beatles,
and even Rush, with prog-rock nowadays spanning the globe and continuing to
grow in popularity, the band has become the esteemed greybeards of the scene,
influencing a generation of young progressive rockers that in turn have formed
dozens of bands. Just check out the roster of Germany’s Inside Out Music and
you’ll find a score or more of Spock’s Beard acolytes.  


Along the
way, Spock’s Beard has survived the loss of founding member and main creative
force Neal Morse, who left to pursue his own muse after becoming a born again
Christian. Drummer Nick D’Virglio stepped up to take over singing duties, and
the entire band pitched in to create the music, with friend John Boegehold
contributing lyrics. Since Morse’s departure, Spock’s Beard has released four
studio and two live albums, culminating in what may be their best post-Morse
effort yet, X their, well, tenth
studio work since the band’s 1992 debut.


The starkest
reminder for the long-time fan of the missing Neal Morse presence in the band
is the harder rock edge they’ve taken on since his departure. While nowhere
near as metallic in orientation as, say, Dream Theatre (another trailblazing,
prog-leaning band), the 21st century version of Spock’s pursues a heavier sound
that falls somewhere between Dream Theater and, say, 1970s-era Emerson, Lake
and Palmer. Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto still gets to layer thick slabs of
electronics on the songs, but D’Virgilio’s drumming has taken on a more
explosive quality, Dave Meros’s bass hits a little harder, and guitarist Alan
Morse – Neal’s younger brother – has increased in both volume and elegance, and
it’s not unusual for a solo to take flight into the stratosphere.


That said,
X veers little off the band’s chosen
path, post-2003, the album comprised of seven lengthy, complex, and
exhilarating compositions that range from the unbelievably brief four-minutes-plus
of “Kamikaze” to the exhausting seventeen-minute sojourn that is
“From The Darkness.” The album-opening “Edge of the
In-Between” could pass for a long-lost Yes track, sans Jon Anderson’s
lofty vocals. It begins with swells of instrumentation, swooping synthesizer
washes, and a grand epic feel before settling in to a sharper-edged morality
tale about that uncertain place between success and failure, something and
nothing, an existence that, perhaps, sums up Spock’s place in the musical
universe as well. While the vocal harmonies are engaging, it’s the constant
barrage of drumbeats, bass, and piano that support the song which enable Morse
and Okumoto to both lay down some fiery solos.


aforementioned “Kamikaze” is just about as radio-friendly as a Spock’s
Beard song is ever going to get…if the radio in question is tuned to 1973, that
is. The song simply rages with early-era progisms, from the daggers of
keyboards and synthesizer to a fractured arrangement that is both syncopated
and chaotic, scraps of prog-rock forebears like Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come,
Yes, King Crimson, ELP, and even a bit of Atomic Rooster foaming at the mouth
on what is the most delightfully molten instrumental that you’ll hear this
year. Alan Morse’s “The Emperor’s Clothes” is an inspired bit of
songwriting, Morse’s imaginative tale sporting verbose lyrics and one of
D’Virgilio’s most athletic vocal turns. Musically, the song ranges from simple
hard rock accompaniment to larger-than-life orchestral moments that simply
astound, with wide slashes of classically-influenced piano juxtaposed again
crushing rhythms and deeply cutting guitar.


The Darkness” is a four-part suite of songs, the sort of over-the-top
progressive rock experimentation that drives non-fans apoplectic while making
prog fans altogether kooky. The song opens with squalls of menacing chainsaw
guitar and brittle vocals, rapidfire drumbeats and wildly oscillating key/synth
lines before decompressing quickly into an almost-pastoral mismatch of soaring
guitars, muted vocals, vocal harmonies, and considered keyboard riffs. The song
will continue this crazed roller-coaster ride for better than a quarter-hour,
leaving the dedicated prog listener much happier for the experience.


Morse’s “The Man Behind The Curtain,” while not sporting as witty a
set of lyrics as his earlier contribution to X, displays a certain acerbic humor and intelligence nonetheless.
D’Virgilio’s darker-hued vocals match the song’s subject matter (a continuation
of “The Emperor’s Clothes” in many ways), supported by an equally
dusky and dense musical construct for the first half, the song suddenly
whiplashing backwards towards a folkish interlude before taking off into outer
space with some high-minded six-string noodling and flagrant keyboard bashing.
Morse kicks out some of his finest guitarwork here, displaying an innate sense
of tone and phrasing while still capable of shredding with the best of the


Beard won’t ever be mistaken for such current rock chart-toppers as Linkin Park
or indie-rock darlings like Arcade Fire, but the truth is that nearly two
decades on, the band continues to crank out music that is as exciting,
challenging, and entertaining as any contemporary rockers, and influential far
beyond their album sales numbers. These are virtuoso musicians tampering with
the fabric of time and space, creating the sounds that they want to hear for a
small but appreciative and continuously growing audience, music made without
interference from label executives or undue commercial expectations. Call it
prog-rock if you must…this isn’t your Muse or Mars Volta, but rather a
continuation of something that began with Robert Fripp and Steve Howe and
others in the late 1960s and has continued, against all odds, ever since. No matter
what you call it; Spock’s Beard continues to lead the pack…. 


DOWNLOAD: “Kamikaze,” “The Emperor’s
Clothes,” “The Man Behind The Curtain” REV. KEITH A. GORDON




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