Review Summary: "Snow" has some outstanding moments of genius progressive rock, but sometimes it seems to be an exercise about how you can stretch as few ideas as possible over the longest manageable period of time.
A progressive rock band records a conceptual double album and tries pretty hard to sell it as their most inventive and greatest work ever. Soon after that, the frontman departs from the band and leaves the other members struggling without leadership...
No, I'm not talking about Genesis, but about their little nephews Spock's Beard and the action doesn't take place in 1974 but in 2002. From more than one point of view, it's actually not wrong to declare Spock's Beard as the Genesis of our time - though they are lacking a whole load of depth, charisma and inventiveness. But apart from these flaws, there are many similarities.
Spock's Beard are one of the few "classic" progressive rock bands of our days - they seem to come directly out of the 70s. Mellotrons, lots of very technical solos and long instrumental passages: everything this genre is either loved or hated for is there. But Spock's Beard were founded in 1995, long after progressive rock was forced away from the mainstream. Quite obviously, "Snow" tries to follow the footsteps of such albums like "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway", Pink Floyd's "The Wall" or even The Who's rock opera "Tommy" (considering the themes). And they have succeeded a bit too literately, meaning that while imitating their idols, they are carefully trying not to lose the well-known path. There is nothing new on "Snow", Spock's Beard never leave territories that haven't already been experienced often enough and besides some exceptions the whole record is painfully lacking originality.
I cannot compare this record to Spock's Beard's earliers (I don't own them) and because "Snow" (their sixth studio output) is quite often considered to be the band's masterpiece, I don't have much motivation to get any other albums.
Now to the story: Snow is the nickname of the central character of the album: a 17-year old albino "with skin like white lightning"
and unnatural, mighty powers, able to heal people and more mystical things of that sort. On the first disc, he goes to New York, befriends some kind of gangsta rapper (I don't know what sense this part of the story should make) and soon turns into a messiah with a lot of followers behind him. Everything seems to be perfect for about two years, he becomes famous - "made the cover of Time"
even - but on the second disc he falls in love with a girl named Carie, who turns him down and causes him to fall in a deep depression. The end of the story remains unclear to me, but I believe that Snow commits suicide and is eventually healed - by himself or God or some other mighty power. But the ending seems to be left open for interpretation.
All in all, it's a short and simple story without any surprising turns or twists and neither inventive nor new. It does not have the complexity that Pink Floyd or Genesis packed into their conceptual albums - and it's definitely not enough to fill two discs with.
There are hints at social criticism every now and then, but they are never specified. And above all, Neil Morse's strong religious affection is clearly visible - too clearly. (It were religious motives which made him leave the band after recording this album.) Is it really so hard to think of a good story" The idea behind it is not even bad: a healer who starts to struggle with his gift is surely a promising story - if handled properly. (To my disappointment, I've found out that even this idea is not Spock's Beard's own - they've "borrowed" it from a movie called "Powder".) I'm sure it took a long time to record an album like this, so why the hell did nobody involved realize that it could have been done so much better" As it is, it reminds me of some mediocre TV-production, where no one is even trying.
The lyrics are another point where this album falls short. The story is told straight-forward, but even that conventional narration is not managed well - Queensrÿche have done much better on "Operation: Mindcrime" for example. Most of the lyrics have no meaning at all, the story wouldn't suffer if half of the text would have been cut out - especially considering that many of the lines are repeated over and over again. Neil Morse's vocals are quite comfortable and never getting annoying, but they don't shine out either. And he is unable to give every character an individual voice, like Peter Gabriel had managed to.
The other members of the quintet all use their instruments very well, like you would expect from a prog-rock band. Especially keyboarder Ryo Okumoto's work is superb and quite often saves an otherwise completely useless song from being - well, completely useless.
Concerning the music, a very brief summary would be to say that the album starts end ends extremely strong and has some good moments in between, though most of the middle part is more or less crap. Like both Pink Floyd's and Genesis' double album, also "Snow" has mainly short and straight-forward rock songs with some really catchy melodies - which is always a surprise in this genre. The production is very smooth and sounds extremely good in the calm parts, but when the guitars get louder, they are so hollow that it is almost hurting. By the way, most of the heavier parts seem to be a slower and not so virtuoso imitation of Dream Theater while the soft parts are often very pop-like and containing some really catchy tunes.
There are two Overtures, one at the beginning of each disc. The good thing is, that these instrumentals are done extremely well - but the bad thing is, that after listening to them, you've already heard most of the musical ideas the album is based on.
So the impression the first few songs make, is quite an impressive one. The acoustic and calm intro Made Alive
is blasted away by the following instrumental Overture
- a progressive masterpiece with tons of breaks and changes. Stranger in a Strange Land
is more catchy and its country-like guitars give the song a very laid-back feeling, it sounds almost more like a pop than a prog-rock song - but still not bad. Long Time Suffering
features more of the same, but then the first backlashes are coming: Welcome to NYC
tries to sound cool, but feels painfully empty and Love Beyond Words
is it's counterpart on the softer side. But both tracks include cool interplays by Ryo Okumoto. The first disc has some other highlights at its end: the hymn-like Open Wide the Flood Gates
and the calm Solitary Soul
, but none of those songs can be compared to the great start. So all in all the first disc is actually quite enjoyable, though there are some letdowns.
The second disc again starts promising with the Second Overture
. But most of the rest of the album is a complete mess. The many short songs and reprises should be pieces of a great suite, but instead of giving the album a complex feeling, the reprises cause nothing but boredom. Spock's Beard seem to have run out of ideas and are therefore reprising themes from the first disc over and over again - I think there is no melody line that is not played at least at two moments of this album. The songs themselves are not really bad - at least one, All Is Vanity
, is outstanding - but most of them get boring extremely quickly.
But at the very end the band surprises again. Suddenly there is a keyboard solo played live, the character Snow is visiting a Spock's Beard concert (at least one creative idea). And then I Will Go
is executed in a theatrical and dramatic way reminding me very much of Queen. Eerie keyboard chords create a tension that was missing for about half an hour. The song builds and builds and although the melody has already been heard before, it is beautiful and emotional. I Will Go offers some of my favourite lyrics on the album as well: "And as the whirlwinds disappeared / I Looked around and I was here / The clouds were clearing from my eyes / My life stood still and began to rise"
. And the last song Made Alive / Wind at My Back
is nothing but a long and dramatic crescendo and proves that Spock's Beard can make great music - if they want to.
After listening to the album for a few times, there still is one question longing for an answer: Why did it have to be a double album" If the band had cut the songs together on one disc and thrown away all the unnecessary parts, the album would have been at least twice as effective. But so Spock's Beard have destroyed their own work and there are only hints at how great this band could have been.
As it is, I can recommend it only to fans of "classic" progressive rock.
Although quite a lot parts of this album get boring very quickly, there are enough outstanding moments to save the album from being crap. But because it is a conceptual album I have to include the story in my rating - therefore: 3/5
Note: when I was reworking my reviews in winter 07/08 I stumbled across the band’s website, which funnily enough I haven’t even visited while writing the original version. For those who are interested, it gives a little more insight to the story and proves some of my interpretations wrong. But I still won’t change them, because they show what a listener (or at least me) without further knowledge thinks about it.