Or: Spock’s Beard.
Spock’s Beard entered the music scene with their debut album The Light in 1995. Especially the epynomous title track is still a classic. However, the albums I find myself listening to the most are Beware of Darkness (1996), The Kindness of Strangers (1998) and V (2000).
- Beware of Darkness is the album on which, I think, the Beard (as they’re affectionately called) hit their stride, found their groove. Actually, my brother thought — and I agree — that the album had the wrong title: instead of “Beware of Darkness” — after the George Harrison cover, first song on the album — he was of the opinion it should have been called “The Doorway” (third song of the album). I think bass player Dave Meros later told me the title was a suggestion by the record company.
- As it is, I think the George Harrison cover is the weakest song of the album: all the original songs are better, much better. The madhatting “Thoughts”, the bittersweet “Waste Away”, the “Chatauqua” instrumental. In typical Spock’s Beard fashion, though, the longest songs are the best.
- “The Doorway”: this is basically Neal Morse’s declaration of his (Christian) faith, but in a manner that’s both gently self-mocking, postive without being intrusive and completely sincere. The song might sound somewhat restrained and plain at first hearing, but it’s one of those rare ones that gets better upon each rerun.
- “Walking On The Wind”: another exhilerating journey through ups and downs, of moving forward into an uncertain future, but making that move nevertheless, and getting more positive momentum on the go. It’s a theme that returns in songs in later albums: of being mired in a dark present and eventually deciding to become pro-active and face the future with a smile.
- “Time Has Come” an epic song about change both on a personal and much broader level. Especially the way the song starts up: subtle, swishy keyboards interrupted by heavy bass and drums, and then this tremendous buildup where piano and keyboards chase each other over a tight, pounding rhythm section to a first climax. A dead stop, piano starting again, bass, drums, keyboards kicking in, accelerating and mighty organs blasting at full throttle. Ah, the power! Then falling back to near-silence, and starting the lyrics and the narrative part of the song. So much dynamic in the music, so much diversity in the emotions…
- The Kindness of Strangers is their most diverse album. Every song has a very distinct mood, and the mood even shofts considerably inside quite a few songs. What particularly works — at least, for me — is that it mixes sadness (The Good Don’t Last”), injustice (“Strange World”, “Cakewalk On Easy Street”), melancholy (“June”), naiveté and longing (“Flow”) with giddiness (“In The Mouth Of Madness”), acceptance (“June”), the unrepentant will to make the best of life (“Strange World”, “Cakewalk On Easy Street”) and the determination to stand up and change things for the better (“Harm’s Way”: the album’s centre piece in my viewpoint). It’s Quintessential Spock’s Beard: not denying, but acknowledging that there are a lot of things wrong in this world and then trying — against the grain — to make the best of it.
- So “Harm’s Way” begins — after some initial instrumental fireworks — in a downbeat manner, and builds on that mood. But the song’s protagonist, while absorbing the downtrodden resigantion around him will not stand for it (“I can’t look the other way, I won’t stay out of harm’s way”). As the song progresses, the momentum changes, the mood shifts and the music surges into the stratosphere. Especially after the — “And as the jackal preys upon the Netherworld, You can hear her as she surpsises and sings … RISE!” — chorus: first time the magnificent drums, second time the double keyboards using each other the climb the skies: gooseflesh, fire racing through my spine. Never fails to fire me up.
- On V their tendency to write truly epic songs almost takes over: an opener of sixteen-and-a-half minutes, and a whopping finale of twenty-seven minutes. Luckily, four shorter songs ( from four to six minutes) provide a good counterpoint. And while I quite like the tender love in “Revelation”, the barely refrained madness of “Thoughts (Part II)”, the barely restrained joy in “All On A Sunday” and the sorrow in “Goodbye To Yesterday”; it’s in the two great epics that Spock’s Beard truly shines.
- “The Great Nothing” — ‘the epic to end all epics’, as Neal Morse announced it at a show in 013 in Tilburg — is one great rollercoaster of emotions and is basically about how music supersedes (or should supersede) commercialism. And even at almost half an hour, it’s over before you know it;
- “At The End Of The Day”, though, is my favourite: from the way it slowly builds up the musical narrative in the beginning (few bands can match the Beard in launching a crescendo), the twists and turns of the refrains, pre-choruses, choruses and choirs (that evolve a deeper meaning as the song develops) and the pure, unashamed hope that radiates throughout. This is feel-good music with class, a tune in harmony with the world (or vice-versa), music that aches with sense of wonder. “At the end of the day, it’s what you do not what you say.”
What Spock’s Beard got right on those albums (and many other songs) is that they never were relentlessly positive, but mixed good doses of optimism with bleakness, and sprinkled it with tads of humour and irony, as well.
Unfortunately, the Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse unity didn’t last: after finishing the concept album Snow, Neil Morse left Spock’s Beard — he became a born-again Christian — and started producing solo albums mostly concept albums with a Christian theme. Spock’s Beard went on without Neal, with (drummer) Nick D’Virgillio taking up the lead vocals, and also made several albums (three, so far).
I have all these albums (except the very last Neal Morse solo effort), and while they’re still quite good, they never reach the level of the pre-split up Spock’s Beard. It’s progrock history (somewhat: both Peter Gabriel and Derek William Dick are not born-again Christians, AFAIK) repeating itself: the Genesis/Peter Gabriel split; the Marillion/Fish split. Each went their own way, but the separate parts never really made albums on the same level as the whole. Indeed, sometimes the whole is more than the sum of the parts.