When Spock’s Beard announced the release of a Best of compilation and titled it “The First Twenty Years,” the immediate thought was “It’s been 20 years!” Impossible! But indeed it has been, which is quite a shocking and frightening thought. It also begged the question, why do I need this if I already have all the songs. We will answer that question later. The best way for me to review this collection is to reflect on the band and their place in the Prog pantheon and in my musical life. To me and many Prog followers, the ultimate injustice is Spock’s Beard not being mentioned in the same breathe as Genesis, Yes, Rush and the other great bands as they undoubtedly belong. Growing up after the heyday of all of those legendary groups. Spock’s Beard is the closest thing, both musically and stylistically, to a band like Genesis, more than any other since that band stopped recording. What Neal Morse and the guys were able to do was capture the unabashed excessiveness of Prog and meld it with modern instruments, unforgettable melodies, incredible musicianship and inspire a whole new group of fans that still longed for Prog. In dissecting the song selection on this set, I can only put it into perspective by looking at how these songs were represented at times in my life when I first heard them.
Disc 1 is the Neal Morse era, the first 6 albums. For me, this 6 album stretch is as good as anything ever written by anybody, so how does the band pick just a few songs especially when they are so long. It affected how I view music, which bands I would discover later and contributed to the reason for this very website. The first song I heard that sparked my interest was “June” from ‘Kindness of Strangers.’ This might qualify as their lone hit, although none were really hits on the radio. This followed with me going backwards and discovering the previous two albums. “The Light” was nothing like I had ever heard before and changed how I thought about music. The album and the title track stand among the most important contributions to Prog in the last 25 years. So these songs are deservingly on the collection. From the second album “Beware of Darkness” there are two selections, the track “Thoughts” which has the signature “Spock’s Beard” vocal acrobatics and the piano epic “The Doorway” It is a bit regrettable that “Walking On The Wind” from that album is not on here, but it is hard to argue with those 2 selections.
At this point in my Spock’s fanhood, I was anticipating each new release. The great thing about this band is that they were releasing albums almost every year. Thank you Neal for being so prolific a songwriter. “Day For Night”, perhaps the band’s attempt at being more commercial, was a fantastic record and the title track is the obvious choice here. Next was the Prog tour de force ‘V’, from which there could be 2 choices, “The Great Nothing,” which is too long for this collection at almost 30 minutes, and the other clear choice “At the End of the Day.” Dave Meros perfect bass sound drives this song. This album solidified the group as one of the best bands in Prog and one people were starting to notice. Of course, what followed was their breakthough masterpiece ‘Snow.’ I remember listening to the whole album from beginning to end and not believing what I had heard. I didn’t think it was possible for this kind of music to still be made. The clear choice for me would have been “Wind at my Back” one of the defining songs from the Neal era. Adding the track “Solitary Soul” which precedes “Wind” on the album is a nice choice here as well.
When Neal left, it was devastating. This was an important band to me and I was hoping they would go on. They did so in spectacular fashion. The first Genesis similarity happened here when the drummer, Nick D’Virgilio, took over as lead singer. He had done backing vocals but his lead singing was a revelation. This sets the stage for Disc 2. The first album post-Neal was ‘Feel Euphoria.’ It was a decent album but having to follow ‘Snow’ was too difficult to match. The best song on this album was “The Bottom Line” which is chosen for this collection. To help with fill the void of songwriting since Neal had been the sole writer to this point, the band brought in some outside help, one of which was John Boegehold, who remains a contributor to this day. I was hoping for more and the band did just that with the next album ‘Octane’ which showed more promise and the band starting the find their own voice. While not the obvious choice, “She is Everything” is fantastic song from this album and one of Alan Morse’s finest moments as a lead guitarist. The self-titled release that followed was this lineup’s finest moment. At this point, I was back in as a full fledged fan. The opening track, “On A Perfect Day” was the best most progressive song this lineup had done to this point and is the perfect choice here. The last of 4 tracks with Nick as lead singer, is the “Jaws of Heaven” from ‘X’. This album was the band’s most heavy Prog album with mostly only long songs and tons of guitar.
Of course, just when things were getting good with this band, they had to shake things up. Nick left and the band marched on bringing touring drummer Jimmy Keegan in as full time drummer and Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard in as lead singer. Another Genesis coincidence? By now, I figured, well it worked the first time and I had listened to Ted from Enchant, so let’s give it a shot. The result was one of the finest album’s of the band’s career. ‘Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep’ revived the band and brought in a whole new legion of fans. The band even brought Neal in to co-write a couple of songs, one of which is the album’s epic closer and best track “Waiting For Me’ which is a great choice from that album for this set. Ryo’s keyboard mastery has always been stellar and no more so than on this track. This past year the band released the follow up ‘The Oblivion Particle’ which is represented here with the signature Spock’s opening track “Tides of Time.” By now, Neal has had a successful solo career and the band has become a completely separate self-sustaining entity. Fans of the original Spock’s had two bands now instead of one. What could be better?
That brings us to why buy this collection. The band had the brilliant idea of adding a brand new track. Who else but Neal Morse to write it. He seems to write 20 minute songs in his sleep. The new track ‘Falling For Forever” upon first listen immediately ranks as one of the best songs the group has recorded. It clocks in at 20 minutes, features all 7 past and present members, has all 3 former singers trading vocal sections and even dual drums section with Nick and Jimmy’s drums panned left and right. It is an essential addition to any Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse fan’s collection. The packaging is also designed to perfection as the team at Radiant Records is known to do. Of course, there is also a DVD with highlights from the band’s history.
So while it has been 20 years, this is a band that if you haven’t heard, this is a great collection to get you hooked. If you already own it all, the new song alone makes it worth it. Congratulations to Spock’s Beard, one of the best under-appreciated bands in the world.
Released on Nov. 20th, 2015 on Radiant Records