Spock’s Beard – The kindness of strangers
Spock’s Beard is probably my favorite band of the (meaning originated in) the 90s, which means that I was looking forward greatly to their latest effort. Third albums tend to be fairly important to prog bands (think The Yes Album or Nursery Cryme), the point where a band either gets it right or shows that what they’ve done before wasn’t a fluke. This is clearly the latter for the Beard.
One of the things that impresses me most about this disc is that while the band has retained a signature sound and style, the work here is not merely a repetition of their first two albums (which sounded significantly different to each other). Where Beware of Darkness is a very keyboard heavy album (particularly Ryo Okumoto’s Hammond), the person who steps forward here is guitarist Alan Morse, with a lot of great distorted guitar providing the foundation for most of the tunes. With that basis, however, both Al and brother Neal Morse show a lot of chops, in a tasteful non-wanking way, of course. Neal’s weapon of choice this time expands to included some great Fender Rhodes sounding piano parts, in addition to his usual synths and acoustic piano sounds. The rest of the band fills in the rest dynamically and with great precision, with huge washes of Hammond and Mellotron, intricate bass lines and fantastic percussive work (is this Nick D’Viriglio telling Genesis they took the wrong drummer on tour?).
The music itself is typical Beard, a healthy mix of intricate complex progressive sections and fantastic melodies, bound together with great arranging skill. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: These guys know that the secret to good music is strong writing, and that good does not always equal complex. The longer tracks are treated to the more progressive treatment (as you might expect), and they shine brilliantly. “Harm’s Way” and “Flow” easily stack up with the other epics in the Beard’s repertoire. The shorter tracks also have a lot of proggy quirkiness in them, especially “In The Mouth Of Madness”, which alternates serious up tempo off-kilter rhythms with more laid back chorus sections. A real standout comes right in the middle of things, a fairly simple acoustic guitar and vocals track called “June.” I can see why there have been some mixed reactions to this song from live audiences, as it is not typical Beard. It is much more straightforward. But it works so well that to make it needlessly complex would have ruined the mood of the song, a longing reflection on a fantastic month the band had last year (unless I completely missed something).
One thing that I always thought the band (well, Neal, I guess) needed work on was lyrics. The songs on the first two albums really don’t mean that much, at least to me, even though they are great songs. Things show signs of improving here, tho’, with “The Good Don’t Last” and “Strange World” obvious social commentaries with some larger meaning, in addition to “June”.