Review Summary: Strong melodies and controlled madness are back.
Against all odds, Spock’s Beard have really hit their stride with a superb modern symphonic prog album. In fact, a fair amount of the material here is as good, as inspired as much of what they did in the Morse era. Their tenth album X
is easily the strongest of the four albums the Beards made since multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter and creative leader Neal Morse quit the band in 2002, taking their classic sound with him. This was right after the band released their challenging concept album Snow
. Morse pursued a prolific solo career as a ‘reborn Christian’ prog rocker. Since then, Spock’s Beard released three albums (from good to average) over the course of three years. It took four records for the remaining Beards to make this achievement, but it certainly was worth it.
It was safe to doubt the continued existence of Spock’s Beard after four years of silence, and it was long enough to wonder if the new material would make up for the wait, and if the band had used this period to produce something that was of higher quality. Expectations were not high, but against the odds, they succeeded. X
is a winner on all fronts. It’s truly a triumph and a further validation of their post-Morse configuration. Spock’s Beard had rediscovered the spark that had made them so great before: every song is carefully elaborated and flows very well. It seems the band have revealed their true songwriting skills, which probably were pushed aside when Neal was still on the lead and writing stuff continuously.
Since the departure of their leader, Spock's Beard have never had developed a new identity of their own. Replacing Neal has been a difficult task for the band, and his composing quality has been sorely missed. At that point, they were experimenting with a new sound, and It would seem like they could not decide whether to be a progressive rock band or a straight forward rock band. It was like if they suffered from a lack of direction, focus and personality. Neal Morse’s signature synthesizer being gone, resident Moog master Rio Okumoto attempted to maintain the key-centric attitude of the band to mixed results. With X
however, he has finally moved out of Neal Morse’s shadow. His playing on this album is much more dominant, more textured, fluid, and darker than on previous releases, and he creates many memorable transitions. Maestro drummer Nick D’Virgilio assumed lead vocal duties. His voice fits nicely with the music, and is even more powerful and upfront than Neal’s for many people. Bassist Dave Meros offers some magnificent bass lines that remind of Yes’ Chris Squire, and like D’Virgilio, he also flourished as a songwriter, penning half of the material on X
with the assistance of John Boegehold (song co-writer/symphonic arrangements, since 2003). Guitarist Alan Morse has an original style of playing (lots of effect pedals like a wah-wah, and he does not use a pick); He has some great moments but if anything, lacks creativity on occasions.
This is the first post-Neal album that merits favourable comparisons to the band's early work. It measures up with the best of the Neal-era such as V
or Beware of Darkness
, but still keeps things sounding fresh and modern. The band’s goal was to live up to the best moments of the earlier era to using the four remaining members. Not only did they succeed, but this time they managed to be up to the standards of the Morse-era epics. Both 16+ min multi-parts epics From the Darkness
and Jaws of Heaven
contain so much creativity it’s hard to believe that Morse didn’t help to compose them. Their structure flows without ever being fragmented. They both have nothing to envy to their passed classics such as Time has Come
, The Great Nothing
or even their top song The Light
. The current line-up finally proved to be able to make truly progressive music like they were able to when Neal was the primary songwriter. Attempts to do so have been made on every record since his departure: only here have they paid off. X
is the first (and probably not the last) tour de force recording as a four piece.
All the prog fans out there who have become disillusioned by Spock’s Beard's recent output will be pleasantly surprised. X
breathes a new energy and enthusiasm that was somewhat absent from the previous three. On top of that, it really shows how much the band seems to be enjoying their work. You know you’re in for something special from the moment that the first chord of opening track bursts out of the speakers with fabulous gusto. There is no weak songs on here (The Man Behind the Curtain
has to be the least interesting) and most of them are 10 min and more.
The limited edition offers a bonus track, the haunting, cinematic Their Names Escape Me
. The thing is that Spock’s Beard decided they were going to produce X
independently. Their record label went under and rather than try to get signed again, they decided to do things on their own. The band financed this album by selling pre-orders, like Marillion are also doing. The names of those fans supporting and financing this album are mentioned on Their Names Escape Me
. It’s a kind of a song for the fans, by the fans. This may sound extremely tedious to listen to, but it actually isn’t. The building intensity and the multi-layered vocals are so well done that it works very well.
In conclusion, Spock’s Beard have done it again. They have finally cleared the shadow of Neal Morse and set down their own canvas, from which they can move onwards and upwards. They 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.