The thing with progressive music is, it’s a bit more complex and structured. Which means, depending on what prejudices you bring to the argument, that it is either (a) music for wanky poseurs, or (b) something to spend a bit of time with before passing judgement.
No surprises that, as a card-carrying wanky poseur, I advocate the second position… for lots of fascinating music: prog, jazz, jazz-rock, some electronic, much 20th century composed music and all the inter-category hybrids you can make out of the preceding.
Formed in the early 90s by brothers Neal and Alan Morse, Spock’s Beard combine brilliant instrumental playing with a whole lot of heavy rock grunt. At its best, the music evokes exciting glimpses of everyone from Yes to Queensrÿche. And V, the fifth Spock’s Beard album is certainly one of their best.
Released at the dawn of the new millennium, V is a fine example of the progressive torch being carried forward on high. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s bloody good.
Opening with an epic track of sixteen and a half minutes is brave, you might think, in a century where our attention span has shrunk to chopped up mouthfuls of TV programs jammed between advertisements. But here’s the thing, “At the end of the day” is that prog staple, a multi-part song. It doesn’t trumpet this in the way the closing suite does, but the parts are distinct. Opening with stately church-organ sounds that subtly introduce the main melodic theme, the crunch explodes just over a minute in and the song thunders into the sky: Great guitar riff, fabulous underpinning from keyboard master Ryo Okumoto, and Nick D’Virgilio’s powerhouse drumming—it’s a big kit and this dude knows his way around it. The vocals from Neal Morse, with some (brotherly?) Yes-like harmonies are terrific too. Real French horn adds a classy touch over Okumoto’s synths. At the five minutes mark everything shifts. A totally new rhythmic feels—Spanish, channelling early Return to Forever—trades off with a pure metal riff. Then, oh joy!, a Fender Rhodes solo from the fabulous Mr Okumoto. The vocals provide a through-line and some cement for the total piece, introducing a quieter section before…
I imagine you have the idea by now. What is interesting about V is that this classic prog opening salvo is followed by four songs of comparatively concise length: six, five, four and five minutes respectively.
“Revelation” is the first, full of Old Testament bombast and heavy riffing. Oh, but this is big music: great vocals and seismic guitar chords that suddenly drop into a crooning voice accompanied by electric piano… then that refrain thunders back. Have a listen if you have headphones.
The second, “Thoughts (Part II)” is perhaps my favourite Spock’s Beard moment. A deep and rich homage to Gentle Giant, it takes that band’s layered vocals and lightning changes and breathes 21st Century life into them. Simply thrilling. Fans of the Giant, enter here and be instantly seduced.
The ballad “All on a Sunday” is a pretty melody with added power. Ryo’s back in Wakeman-land, and that’s a good thing. “Goodbye to yesterday” has stayed in my mind as sweet but lightweight. Perhaps its job is to set the stage for the final act.
And what a monster that final chapter is. In fact, it’s more a book in its own right. “The Great Nothing” has six named parts, totalling almost half and hour. It’s full of invention, power, great playing and passionate vocalising, but doesn’t hold together as well as the tighter opening song. Unlike the best of, say, Yes long-form compositions, this one doesn’t pull you back into its world frequently enough to stay attuned. I read somewhere that the band called “The Great Nothing” their “Supper’s Ready”. As any Genesis fan will tell you, that is a big banquet hall to fill, and I cannot honestly say Spock’s Beard succeed. A few of the courses are in the wrong order, there’s a bit of a food fight and not all the dishes are fully cooked. Yet there are mouth-watering moments and the sheer scope of it all is undeniably impressive. What’s more, if it had come off perfectly I’d have had to award V a rare 5 (V?) stars. As it is, we have a terrific four-star album from the neo-prog, symphonic metal, harmony rich quintet whose vaulting ambition is to be applauded.
Fan of the Beard? Liked what you heard in the clip? Do tell!