There are a few releases each year that leave prog fans giddy with anticipation. Yes, countless albums come in waves through the Lady’s door, and some enter with high expectations, whereas others are absolute surprises and delights. But each year, there are a few which leave us holding our breath. The latest installment from prog legends Spock’s Beard, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, would fall under the “holding our breath” category. This isn’t just because its Spock’s Beard, though one would think that would be reason enough, it’s also because the band underwent a huge lineup change with the departure of lead vocalist and drummer Nick D’Virgilio, leaving fans and prog lovers everywhere what the next incarnation of this legendary band would bring.
Oh what to do, what to do….
First, take the “touring” moniker off of drummer Jimmy Keegan, that takes care of the skins more than handedly. Then, enter Ted Leonard, front man for another legendary prog outfit, Enchant, to take over the vocal duties. With the vacancies filled, and the mainstays of the incredibly talented trio of Ryo Okumoto on keyboards, Alan Morse on guitar, and Dave Meros on bass still going strong, Spock’s Beard settled in and delivered to us, the fans, a brilliant album in the vein of pure, classic progressive rock.
The album opens up with Hiding Out, and right away the band starts layering the sounds upon one another, something they do so well throughout the album. The simple tinkling on the keys is shattered by the harsh guitar, and then they proceed to stack the musical blocks on each other, building a perfect opening segment. The song’s tone of loneliness and isolation is thick, indicative of the solitude felt in the sleeping mind. There is a sense of desperation here, of wanting something more. Highlighting the song is some blistering guitar work by Morse, serving notice to all that he will always be a force to be reckoned with. Heading into the second song, I Know Your Secret, the tempo is kicked up a bit, presenting a song that is a frantic slice of delight. Instrumentation and structure here are all up-tempo and solid, a heavy pounding bass and drum line with guitar and keys gently placed upon it. Brief moments of heavier notes break through, hinting at the darker nature of the theme of guilt and secrecy, possibly a source of the isolation hinted at in Hiding Out.
A Treasure Abandoned, the second longest piece on the album, opens in an epic-esque fashion. The gentle intro that gradually builds in intensity is such a classic prog trick, it never gets old, and these guys pull it off with perfection. At the climax point of the intro, the dual acoustic/electric guitars take over, leading us into a song dripping with regret of things lost, but it seems to be more than just mere dreams and hopes that are gone, it is something more intrinsic to the self. Leonard’s vocals are just wonderful throughout the album, such a range of styles, he covers all the complexity of the emotions so well, not to mention he just slides into the music of the band perfectly. Anyone who was worried about that aspect of change need not be, he is a wonderful fit to the band and the music, and on this song he shows it so well.
I almost wanted to skip writing about the next song, not because it’s a bad song or anything, but because it has a chorus that is so damned infectious, I would get it stuck in my head and wouldn’t be able to focus on the task at hand. Submerged is the bottom of the barrel from a thematic viewpoint, the last house on the street. Lost, completely lost, the searching for any answer begins. Though the rest of the tracks are longer and more complex, I think this one is the centerpiece of the album’s theme. The honesty of this simple ballad number is blatant, “Throw me a line, I’m sinking down, submerging further and further from you.” This is spiritual desperation at its best, when we are down and out, and build up the walls to distance ourselves from any salvation. Afterthoughts is a brilliant follow up song to Submerged. After the harrowing sorrow involved in that number, there is always some frantic soul searching. Afterthoughts portrays that mood perfectly, the vocal work on this song is superb, and the exchanges are just stellar. It really gives the notion of the different sides of us speaking out from within trying to make sense of things, just brilliant.
The next track, Something Very Strange, comes in with an almost jazzy feel to it, upbeat in tempo, but with that near sexy feel to it. This song doesn’t change tempos as much as it slides and rolls from one to the next, it is almost effortless to listen to it’s so smooth in its transitions. The musical buildup in the heart of this one would be the best on the album if it wasn’t for the final and longest piece, Waiting for Me. Finally, after six songs of looking and searching, of helplessness and hopelessness, we are given a sense of salvation via a song that will stick with any fan for a long time. I feel this song is a perfect demonstration of how music can capture, control, and even change the mood of the listener. The short build up gets the attention quickly, and the thumping bass line brings us into the first set of vocals and acts as the vessel that we ride throughout the song. Leonard’s vocals fit the tone of this song perfectly; he carries hope, sorrow, and elation all so well. Leading from the line “all my life I’ve waited, as the lines have faded…” Morse enters with a solo worthy of a tear or two at least. His heart bleeds out through the strings here, and just when we feel it’s over, that we are at an end, the band begins to transform us. Enter Ryo with some blistering and inspired keyboard work that lifts us right out of the funk Morse drove us into. They are conspiring to change us; I’m convinced of that now, for I do change just a bit every time I listen to this song. Each musician adds his touch of color to my soul, the guitars enters, the drums build, the keys roll, everything adds and adds and adds into one of those epic moments of instrumental prog, that long build up to an instant release that I love so much, and this one is perfect, “Now a new day has begun, the wounded stars run home, chased away by a brand new sun.”
Whatever struggles the frantic, dreamless night held for us, Spock’s Beard managed to get us through it, and they managed to kick some pretty serious butt in doing so. There are reasons why bands like Spock’s Beard have such staying power, why they are the most anticipated releases of the year, it’s because they are that damn good. Nothing on this album changes that perception, even through the line up changed, they are still as good as ever, still more than worthy of their prog legend status.