Spock’s Beard - X 9/10
By Karl Eisenhart
I was planning to start this review off with a necessarily long-winded recap of the Spock’s Beard story so far. After giving it some thought, though, I figured I’d end up boring those who don’t care, enraging those who do care but think I’m wrong in my opinions, and furthering the dead-horse-whipping contest that the Neal Morse debate has become.
True, Spock’s Beard can thank their past for providing them with a large percentage of their fan base and a place among the most revered progressive rock bands of the last 20 years. However, starting with their previous, self titled album and continuing through their newest release, X, Spock’s Beard has proved that they are not in any way defined by or confined to their past.
To shorten that intro up even further, I offer up my two word review: “Neal who?”
The album opens with “The Edge of the In-Between,” the first 45 seconds of which is one of the most grin-inducing things I’ve heard in years. Listen to it LOUD. From there, the song twists and turns for another ten minutes, showcasing the individual members’ level of ability as players and their sharply-honed arranging skills. There is a lot to hear in that ten minutes. The other six songs (or seven if you got the deluxe edition) aptly demonstrate that Spock’s Beard has taken what they’ve learned—together and separately--about songwriting over the course of the last three albums and produced a decidedly more “proggy” album. As always the songs have hooks to pull the listener in. The complex arrangements and amazing playing are there to support the song, not to become the reason for the song. The songs are generally longer—averaging probably 10 minutes. The only one under five minutes is a Ryo Okumoto-penned instrumental called “Kamikaze.”
While there are five different songwriting “teams” (made up of band members and outside talent) contributing songs on this album, all of the songs sound like they were written by the same band. There is a cohesiveness to the tracks that was sometimes missing when the band was first trying to define itself as a four-piece.
One thing that is very obvious from the first listen is that this band is just plain ON FIRE. Some of the individual performances are nothing short of breathtaking. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been great playing on every Beard album up to this point, but there just seems to be a little more “go for it” attitude on X.
The overall recording quality of X is just ridiculous. Rich Mouser never ceases to improve at what he does as engineer. To be honest, on the previous three albums, there was a frequency range that NDV’s voice would sometimes get into that went right through me like a dentist’s drill. Well, either NDV changed his singing approach or Mouser found those frequencies, because the vocals are as powerful and clear as ever (maybe even more so) but the harshness is gone. The overall mix is a mountain of sound that is still so spacious that you feel like you could walk in and sit down in it.
For those out there who believe that Spock’s Beard died with the departure of Neal Morse…provided you’ve read this far…I recommend that you give a good, careful listen to “The Emperor’s Clothes” and “The Man Behind the Curtain.” It’s not that they sound like any of the Neal-era songs, but they sound like they wouldn’t have been at all out of place on Day For Night or V. In the case of “The Emperor’s Clothes,” that might be because Alan Morse’s brother gets a writing credit.
When I first heard Spock’s Beard’s self-titled 2006 release, I thought they had finally found their voice as a four-piece: Brilliantly written shorter songs with progressive tendencies. I was happy. Then, four years later, they deliver X, an even BETTER album with all of the prog thrown back in. The only thing I like better than this album is the fact that, if the cycle continues, they very well might top it the next time as well.