Spocks's Beard

It seems that, no matter what happens, there’s no stopping for Spock’s Beard.

This band has developed into what appears to be a force in the music business with no intention of resting or pausing whatsoever. The departure of their frontman, singer and main-Beard Neal Morse in 2002 left the band without the creative input that dominated the first six albums of the band. Morse’s distinctive style almost single-handedly revitalized the attention for a musical style first developed in the late 1960s by pioneers like King Crimson, Genesis and Yes and launched a new sub-genre of Progressive Rock in the 90s: a movement now known as Retro-Prog. Many artists followed this example and the Beard continued to release highly acclaimed albums. When Morse announced his departure from the band after the opulent double album Snow, fans feared that it would be the end of Spock’s Beard.

But as indicated earlier: there’s no stopping this band – and that was the first proof of that. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio pulled a classic „Phil Collins“ and took the big step to the microphone. What followed was not a series of single hits and sold out concerts at Wembley, but a series of moderately received, but experimental and – in my personal opinion – underrated albums. It wasn’t until their fourth album as a quartet, X, that they seemed to finally have found their niche; a proggy, yet hard-rocking fusion of old influences and recently (re-)acquired tendency for experiments.

It was just then that Spock’s Beard got hit by the next stroke of fate: Nick D’Virgilio pulled the next „Phil Collins“ and not only left the band without a fantastic drummer, but also without a very charismatic frontman that fans had learned to accept and love as such. But help was on the way. Ted Leonard, singer and guitarist for fellow Retro-Prog band Enchant, and Jimmy Keegan, the band’s fabulous tour drummer for the last eight years, came to the rescue and Spock’s Beard seamlessly followed their style with Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep and The Oblivion Particle. As if destiny intended it that way, Jimmy Keegan’s departure last year left the band no breather – and yet again incomplete. Well, every other band would have taken a time-out, or produced a 3- part soap opera in search for a new drummer, but who is a better replacement than the guy who was originally replaced? So, Spock’s Beard’s new album marks their reunion with the dearly missed Nick D’Virgilio, who kindly returned as a guest member for this album. Which brings us to Noise Floor.

Ted Leonard revealed that after Brief Nocturnes’ release, each of the members got very busy with their own lives and projects, which resulted in The Oblivion Particle being composed to a large extend by long-time collaborators Stan Ausmus and especially John Boegehold. The new album was supposed be largely written and composed by the band members again, if still in cooperation with Boegehold and Ausmus. After all, every member had proven with X that they are well capable of creating unique music on their own. Especially bass player Dave Meros had shown on that very album that his last name may not be an anagram to „Morse“ by accident.

Ted Leonard revealed that after Brief Nocturnes’ release, each of the members got very busy with their own lives and projects, which resulted in The Oblivion Particle being composed to a large extend by long-time collaborators Stan Ausmus and especially John Boegehold. The new album was supposed be largely written and composed by the band members again, if still in cooperation with Boegehold and Ausmus. After all, every member had proven with X that they are well capable of creating unique music on their own. Especially bass player Dave Meros had shown on that very album that his last name may not be an anagram to „Morse“ by accident.

Despite of that, the first song on Noise Floor is indeed a song written by Boegehold, but arranged as a classic Spock’s Beard uptempo rocker with contributions in the arrangement from all of the members. „To Breathe Another Day“ opens up the album optimistically, rocking and straight forward. Still, there are some rhythmical difficulties that the band now have learned to build into songs in a discreet way, as if it was totally normal to play most of a rock song in 7/4. The approach of connecting progressive influences with a very down-to-earth hard rock sound and multilayered vocals draws a line to the early Kansas albums, as well as the Drama-lineup of Yes. In fact, there’s probably only one bass player who can reproduce that insane bass sound found on Drama apart from Chris Squire himself, and it’s Dave Meros. „To Breathe Another Day“ follows a conventional structure, but reveals a lot of attention to detail after a few listens, such as the short instrumental freak out or Ryo’s mellotron-melody in the second chorus. Talking of Ryo, this song is not the only one he shines on. He really brought his a-game for this record. But then again, this can be said about all the band members. Even Nick D’Virgilio, who is „only“ a guest on Noise Floor, amazes me with the craziest breaks and the most tasteful grooves. He doesn’t get to shine on the opener that much, but don’t worry, he will. What am I saying? It’s Nick D’Virgilio!

spock's beard

Nick’s presence becomes evident in the second song already. „What Becomes Of Me“ starts off with a poignant melody from Alan Morse’s guitar that indicates the following of a huge, melancholic ballad – which is exactly what this song is not. The intro is the first showcase of Dave Meros’s unique bass lines. The combination of vast mellotron layers and catchy Rickenbacker riffs brings back memories from a similar part in „Heart Of The Sunrise“. It’s another Yes influence that is incorporated in such a subtile fashion that it still sounds a hundred percent like Spock’s Beard. The intro to „What Becomes Of Me“ could easily have fit into a packing blockbuster if instrumented differently, and it builds up a lot of expectations to where this might be going. Shortly after, the song seems to change its mind and the mood becomes more light hearted. The tune turns into an optimistic groover with perfectly integrated string arrangements, which is not exactly what it was built up to be by the intro. But the darker touch and the haunting mellotron harmonies come back later in a bridge where Alan Morse plays one of his unique guitar solos. This song is the first of many highlights on Noise Floor.

„Somebody’s Home“ is a strong 6/8 AOR-powerballad with a very memorable hooklines and imaginative instrumental arrangements. Its main theme is first presented by somewhat of a mixture of camp fire guitars and a baroque sounding oboe, before the whole band kicks in on a huge offbeat that hits the listener like a slap in the face. The verses are dominated by beautiful acoustic guitar licks, a commenting cello and mellotron flutes. The instrumental interlude convinces with multiple cleverly interplaying electric and acoustic instruments and yet another haunting solo by guitar master Alan Morse. „Somebody’s Home“ seemed kind of mediocre to me at first, but it gets better with each listen and suddenly you’ll find yourself not being able to get its main theme and chorus out of your head.

While the next song „Have We All Gone Crazy Yet“ is the longest song on the album, it still clocks in at „only“ a little over eight minutes. But Spock’s Beard seem to have realized that their real strengths lie within songs between six and nine minutes. Great achievements like „On A Perfect Day“ (self-titled album), „Ghosts Of Autumn“ (Feel Euphoria) and „A Better Way To Fly“ (The Oblivion Particle) have proven this. And this may be a simple coincidence, but Noise Floor’s longest song is actually one of my least favorite – which doesn’t mean too much. With its 5/4 rhythm, upbeat mood and grande finale, „Have We All Gone Crazy Yet“ could almost have been written by Neal Morse. And this is – as we all know – never a bad thing to say. The way in which the themes are variated and reprised, sent through different moods and harmonic contexts, brings up a lot of memories from the old Spock’s Beard days. But the jazzy, shuffling middle part explores new harmonic territories and sways between super cool keyboard melodies and hard rocking guitar riffs. Nick’s playing is also truly unique in this part. The only thing I can’t really connect with is the soft snare sound he is using during this song. It fits perfectly into its jazzy middle section, as well as mellow ballads, as become evident in „Shining Star“ (Feel Euphoria) and the following „So This Is Life“. But for the rich, bombastic parts I would have preferred his usual crisp snare. Still, this is just a minor flaw. „Have We All Gone Crazy Yet“ is a great song and saying that it is one of my least favorite songs on the album only means that the other ones are even better

The above mentioned „So This Is Life“ is a melancholic ballad hovering somewhere between The Beatles and Pink Floyd and a true gem hidden between two prog monsters. Spock’s Beard have shown that they are able to write even better ballads without Neal Morse than with him and this song underlines that statement. „So This Is Life“ is just a few philosophical thoughts about life and people around you, connected with music so inconspicuous and fragile that I fear it’s going to be overseen among fans. However, it’s a hauntingly beautiful little song with a majestic, yet moderate string crescendo near the end, multilayered vocal interplay and soaring guitar solos that could have been played by Gilmour, Hackett or Rothery. By the way, I think it’s about time I mentioned Alan’s overall fantastic guitar work on the whole album. Especially his lead sounds and solos have improved and gotten more present over the last albums and he has never been better than on Noise Floor.

As if Ryo was tapping on my shoulder just as I’m praising Alan’s work, the first real keyboard showcase comes with the next song. The sounds dominating here are just fantastic and way too many to count. A song that wouldn’t be out of place on Kansas’ Leftoverture, „One So Wise“ is so packed with ideas and moods, that it would be hard to keep track of all that’s happening, if it wasn’t for the main theme being reprised in all sorts of ways the whole time. It is so expertly composed that it overplays the fact that it doesn’t even have a real chorus. Somewhere in the middle, the song breaks down and arises anew with some very cool 80s keyboard sounds that indicate that something awesome is about to go down here. And what follows are some raging keyboard and guitar solos that leave the listener not one single second to catch a breath. While Ryo Okumoto is all over the place here, the other band members deliver stunning performances as well. Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Meros are as perfect as a rhythm section can get, Alan Morse fires up some wild guitar solos and Ted Leonard… man, Ted Leonard’s long, dramatic vocal acrobatics send shivers down my spine every time I listen to them.

spocks beard band

And as if this wasn’t enough, Spock’s Beard send the wacky „Box Of Spiders“ along our way, an instrumental piece that at times really gives us the picture of a man in a box filled with spiders trying to get out. Indefinable time signatures, tricky unisono lines played by the whole band, disastrous mellotron harmonies and a furious rhythm section dominate this song. Ryo once again goes the whole nine yards and brings every keyboard sound to the table that he could find. Nick can finally show what he’s capable of and shows why he has been missed the last years. Jimmy Keegan is a fantastic drummer, but no one grooves like Nick D’Virgilio. I already feel bad for the drummer who has to learn this tour de force for the (hopefully) upcoming concerts. Maybe it’s my own weirdness, but in a strange way, „Box Of Spiders“ would have been an awesome opener for Noise Floor as well. But what could be a follow up to a song like this?

Well, the one actually following it. The abrupt ending of „Box Of Spiders“ makes it almost seem like an introduction to „Beginnings“, and the first vast chord feels like a redemption after this instrumental freak out. The first time-out of the last ten minutes. It takes some imagination to close an album with a song called „Beginnings“. But really, its bombastic, melancholic character and the lyrics drawing somewhat of a circle from beginnings to ends make it the perfect closer for this album. After „Have We All Gone Crazy Yet“, „Beginnings“ is the second song on here that comes close to what can be called an epic. And it does everything right. The majestic arpeggios and melodically-orientated instrumental sections remind of what Tony Banks was composing for Genesis around the Wind & Wuthering days. Alan, Ted and Nick provide some back and forth vocals and it’s good to hear Nick’s voice on a Spock’s Beard album again. As it should be, the tune is brought to an end by a big gesture during the finale. Truly majestic.

This marks the ending of the regular album, but Spock’s Beard threw in a little goodie for their fans: a four song EP named Cutting Room Floor, which consists of songs that didn’t make it on the album. I can see why those particular songs were chosen for the EP instead of the album. It’s definitely not because of a drop in quality, but rather a change in style. At least the first two songs have a slightly more pop-oriented singer-songwriter vibe. „Days We’ll Remember“ is yet another 6/8 power ballad in the vein of „Somebody’s Home“, but it stays in the pop/rock territory. It has a very sunny, uplifting chorus that I’ve found myself humming a couple of times already. That’s a big quality of the Beard. Not only are they capable of performing crazy instrumental sections, but they also have a sense for catchy, yet not silly melodies. „Bulletproof“ follows the Beatles-influenced style of „So This Is Life“, but is way more extroverted and opulently arranged. I love Ryo’s piano playing in this one, as well as the string ensemble, which is are yet again perfectly integrated into the arrangement. There’s a lot of great ideas concisely packed into less than five minutes here, but it doesn’t feel overloaded one bit. A great song for the spring season.

„Vault“ could easily have been on the main album. As hinted by Ted Leonard in an interview, it was initially supposed to be longer, but in the end remained unfinished somehow. The song leaves the pop/rock territory introduced by the former two and returns to the classic progressive rock sound of the main album. Another irresistible chorus can be found here, along with beautiful acoustic guitars and vocal arrangements. While I wonder what would have become of „Vault“ if it had been developed into an eight minute prog monster, it doesn’t give me the impression of an unfinished song and functions perfectly fine as a four and a half minute tune. „Armageddon Nervous“ is one last little wink by Ryo in the shape of another wacky instrumental tune that reminds me a bit of „Skeletons At The Feast“ (self-titled album). Songs like these are perfect vehicles for Dave Meros’ and Nick D’Virgilio’s grooving abilities. You can’t help but nod your head to the 13/16 and 7/8 time signature changes and it’s all thanks to this hell of a rhythm section. And of course, Ryo fires up all kinds of sounds again. I can see this song very well on the stage, as an opportunity for extended improvisations. It’s a very good one, but I can see why it lost its place on the regular album to „Box Of Spiders“. 

But fans don’t really have to worry about that, because no matter which version you buy of this album, the EP is included in every one of them. Which is good, because you don’t want to miss those four songs.

In my opinion, Spock’s Beard have release their best album since X, maybe even since Snow. But this is yet to be proven by the test of time. Every member shines on their respective instrument and gets the chance to have an influence on the result. This makes Spock’s Beard come across as more of a unit than in the Neal Morse days and it fits the band well. Even if people had their doubts if the Beard would ever grow back out again after the departure of the mighty Neal Morse – I think by now it’s safe to say that they can finally relax. Because the Beard is definitely back.

RATING: 12/15
Favorites: “So This Is Life“, “What Becomes Of Me“, “One So Wise“

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