Spock’s Beard is a band that has seen a big resurgence in the last few years. To the more casual prog listener (if indeed there is such a thing), they were big in the prog scene in the 90s and early 2000s while Neal Morse was heading them up, and then they shrank back a bit once he left. This is not true of course – after they did the whole Genesis thing and drummer Nick D’Virgilio took over on vocals, they continued producing some fantastic music across their next four albums. But for some reason they weren’t as in the limelight, and when NDV then left in 2011, fans who had stuck by them were understandably worried that it could spell the end. Thankfully this was not so, and 2013’s superb Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, their first with Ted Leonard (previously of Enchant fame) on vocals, did a great job in returning them to prominence in the world of prog rock, and even found them some new fans.
The next big question was then, of course, what they would do next. And so to new album The Oblivion Particle. Stylistically, it’s mostly what you would expect from Spock’s and won’t be too surprising to fans, but there are some little new flourishes and ideas too. The one thing I noticed on first listen was that the album is less immediately engaging than the band’s previous effort. Where BNADS grabs you right from the off, with its hugely catchy and momentous choruses, The Oblivion Particle is not so immediately melodic. But it’s an album that gets better with every listen, as you explore the different ideas and nuances, and as some of the tunes begin boring their way into the deep recesses of your mind.
The opening song, Tides of Time, is a definite highlight, and very much sets the tone for the album. There is no obvious standout chorus, but the song is full of good ideas and develops superbly. The final third of the song is one of the best moments of the whole album – an unusual riff on acoustic guitar, repeated by the full band, leading into a wonderfully intense minor-key section that completely dissipates any worries over the chorus. Ted Leonard’s vocals in particular really shine here, as does the guitar work from Alan Morse.
This leads into Minion, which serves as the first single for the album having been released with a lyric video already. The song kicks off with very traditional prog vocal harmonies that call to mind Kansas (think Carry On My Wayward Son), and one could be forgiven for thinking one knows how the song will develop. But as with the opener, it takes some unexpected turns, and contains some particularly beautiful piano work from Ryo Okumoto. And again, the second half of the section has some really gorgeous stuff in it.
I hadn’t planned to talk about every song, but I do want to briefly talk about Hell’s Not Enough, as it contains some lovely folk-inspired themes, reminiscent of Kaipa. It’s also a great example of what makes this album such a grower, because on first listen the chorus seemed to slip by unnoticed, but after a number of subsequent listens it really stood out. And I will even-more-briefly mention the next track, Bennett Built a Time Machine, which is a pleasant if straightforward tune (about time travel, if you couldn’t guess), but which is notable for Jimmy Keegan’s first lead vocal contribution since he joined as full-time drummer in 2011 (and while you ask, yes he does a splendid job!). While I’m at it, Get Out While You Can is a fun rocker that harkens somewhat back to the band’s Neal Morse days.
The next big standout for me, though, is undoubtedly the 9-minute A Better Way to Fly. It’s quite dark, eerie and tense, particularly in the opening minutes as the song builds. After around two and a half minutes, it kicks up a gear, with some standout bass work from Dave Meros right in the forefront. The song develops fantastically, and over the first 4 minutes it grows and grows, before veering off in all sorts of directions and leaving you guessing. It’s very much another grower, and takes a few listens to sink in, but it’s worth it. This is followed by The Center Line, another solid progger that is mostly fairly unremarkable but does have some highly enjoyable instrumental passages.
And then onto what is, along with the opener, probably the other strongest song on the album, To Be Free Again. Clocking in at 10 minutes, the song covers a huge amount of ground, from quirky verses to big choruses and an almost Porcupine-Tree-like second act. The whole band brings their A-game to this song, and there is much to enjoy, and much to discover on repeat listens. And finally, closing the album after the rollercoaster of the previous few songs is the very pleasant Disappear, which rounds the album off nicely.
All in all, this is an excellent new album from Spock’s Beard. It contains some material more reminiscent of their Neal Morse days than anything else they’ve done since he left, while it also continues to build on what they’ve created since and even explores some new territory. Is it as good as Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep? In my opinion, no it’s not quite as brilliant. That album had such incredible choruses as to be immediately gripping, but still contained enough depth to be just as gripping two years on. The Oblivion Particle is a real grower, and having listened pretty solidly for a week, I do think it’s fantastic. But I’m a real sucker for huge melodies, and on that front I think this one sits slightly behind. But that’s my tastes, and I can’t say how other listeners will react. Indeed, those who found the overly-melodic approach to the previous effort slightly off-putting will, I’m sure, love this. Overall, I feel quite confident that the vast majority of Spock’s fans will, after a few listens, find themselves liking this album a lot.