CD Reviews

Spock's Beard - 'X' Hot

Added by Central Electronic Brain     September 13, 2010    
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Tenth studio album by Spock's Beard.

The title says it all; this being the Beard’s tenth studio album and the fourth since the departure of Neal Morse. I don’t mind admitting (again) that the band proved me wrong when they decided to continue without Morse as I felt that he was so synonymous with everything about them that they couldn’t possibly overcome his loss. After the promising but rather inconsistent ‘Feel Euphoria’ heralded the new dawn they positively blossomed and won me over without reservation with the subsequent ‘Octane’ and ‘Spock’s Beard’ albums which saw, in particular, Dave Meros (bass) flourish as a songwriter and Nick D’Virgilio confirm his credentials as their new front man. Both of these releases fall into the ‘must have’ category for any self-respecting Prog fan and ‘X’ is about to join them.

With this album the band have taken a different path and used the Marillion model of asking their fans to fund the album by paying for their copy in advance with the promise of an exclusive special package, more of which later. The snippets of songs they have been posting on their MySpace page over recent months have had me licking my lips in anticipation and given me the impression that this album was going to be every bit as good as its immediate predecessors, so now that the real thing is here, what’s the verdict?
In short it’s another triumph and a further validation of their post-Morse configuration. This album has been on permanent rotation on my I-pod since I loaded it and in truth I have had to force myself away from it to listen to other albums that I am due to review.
What makes it so compulsive? All the usual ingredients really, such as immensely memorable songs, superb and towering melodies, wonderful themes that ebb and flow, terrific playing, from all concerned, and hooks so large you could land a whale. If I have one criticism, and it’s a small one, it would be that some of Alan Morse’s guitar solos are a bit weird and rely on strange noises rather than proper melody. That said, at other times he produces solos of considerable beauty.

As to the songs themselves, you know you’re in for something special from the moment that the first chord of opening track, ‘Edge Of The In-Between’ bursts out of the speakers with fabulous gusto. The keyboard refrains are a delight, as are D’Virglio’s drum patterns. To me, SB has an uncanny knack of producing melodies that are instantly pleasing and almost familiar even when you are hearing them for the first time. The ten minutes duration of this track is a sublime journey (aside from the first guitar solo) as we pass through the smooth vocal passages and into a breakdown section that includes that solo, before the theme changes again and then in due course the original melody returns. The second vocal section is immense and instantly memorable, whilst the guitar solo that follows is spot on. This track alone encapsulates everything I love about the Prog genre.

‘The Emperor’s Clothes’ carries on the great work, starting with acoustic guitars and strings it builds to a big theme, lead on this occasion by horns. The style is that more straight Rock vibe that the band have brought to the table of late, although the chorus is very SB. Just to show they’ve not lost their chops there’s even an a capella interlude, the theme from which is picked up later in the piece by both keyboards and guitar. Ryo Okumoto gets to show his piano skills to wonderful effect. The instrumental that follows (‘Kamikaze’) just has to be a composition from the Japanese keyboard wizard as he gets to thrash the Hammond organ in Keith Emerson style and inject some classic synth. Morse also gets the opportunity to dish up a heavy riff.
From The Darkness’ is the albums longest track at a fraction under 17 minutes. It opens with a titanic section before the tempo slows for a delightful passage that screams genius. The pace then picks up again as the band demonstrate their prowess for arranging these lengthy numbers. They throw in a few new subtle flavours along the way just to show us that there’s no formula. The piano refrain that appears from time to time has an almost ‘Tubular Bells’ feel. But it’s another piano lead theme that introduces the song’s closing section with the vocal arrangement bringing to mind a cross between Venice and The Beatles.

‘The Quiet House’ arrives anything but quietly as the bass of Meros forms the intro in splendid fashion. The vocal melodies on this one are very special indeed with a hint of Level 42 in there. I defy anyone not have this lodged in their head after just one play. The vibe changes at about the half way point and just when you think they are losing the plot they switch to a sublime piano and guitar ballad passage where the vocal arrangement is awesome. ‘Their Names Escape Me’ has a Steve Hackett feel to the opening stanza and once more I have to praise the melody. I mentioned earlier those fans that financed the album; well on this track they get a name check as D’Virglio sings all their names. Initially I thought this was very cheesy, but the way they build the tension in the music as he goes through the list is so well done that it actually works. It must have taken ages to get the scanning right.
‘The Man Behind The Curtain’ has another of those stirring refrains that the band does so well and yet another strong chorus. There’s a modern edge to the early part but this is truncated by an acoustic interlude that changes the feel markedly. Naturally they explore various moods before returning to the original theme to close.

The final track is another epic with ‘Jaws Of Heaven’ clocking in at fifteen minutes, and like any true Prog masterpiece it explores myriad themes. It is truly captivating with glorious melodies and themes, huge Mellotron washes and synths redolent of another era all appearing in the first few minutes. Morse lays down some adept solos before the song enters a different phase with yet another vocal refrain that will stick in your head. It’s a joyous ride throughout with interest never having the opportunity to lapse.

I can only conclude by saying that they’ve done it again and produced an album that will have their existing fans purring with pleasure and one that in all justice should entice a new army of listeners. I have reviewed the Limited Edition, at the time of writing I have no idea what the difference will be in the standard version, so my tip is get this one ordered while stocks last.

Gary Marshall

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