By Prog Nick
I have no doubt that several members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, being cerebral fellows, are (or would have been) Prog fans. So I hope they won’t mind my quoting one of their legendary lines: “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition. Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear… Fear and surprise… Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…. Our four… No, I’ll come in again.”
Spock’s Beard – the very words will elicit shivers of excitement in any self-respecting Prog fan. It has indeed been Inquisition-like torture waiting to find out whether they would do a new album, and if so, who would contribute to it. Or as Monty Python might say: the Beard’s chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and Excitement. Surprise, excitement and innovation. Surprise, excitement, innovation, melody and an almost fanatical devotion to Prog… No, I’ll come in again.
After Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard are the band that possibly take the most credit for the resurgence of Progressive Rock, and they are back. Noise Floor is the Beard’s thirteenth studio album, the third with Ted Leonard on lead vocals, and the eleventh with the mighty Nick D’Virgilio on drums. The line-up changes of this band are now the stuff of legend, with the various departures of Neal Morse, D’Virgilio (guesting on this album) and Jimmy Keegan, all having failed to disrupt what is a seemingly unstoppable machine. The historical core members, Alan Morse, Dave Meros and Ryo Okumoto, have appeared on every album (bar Ryo on the first), and they still combine to create the multi-faceted, unique sound that no other band seems able to emulate. There are many reasons why this band has survived (not those presented by our friends from the Spanish Inquisition), and just about all those reasons are to be found on this album.
While very melodic throughout, Noise Floor allows the Beard to demonstrate that they have retained their identity, despite everything. There might be more immediacy in melody and hook, and there is definitely some progression in the band’s compositions (at least from their last album “The Oblivion Particle”). There is also a greater tendency to allow reminiscence of the childhood influence of other melodic American and British Prog bands. But there is absolutely no tendency to abandon that intangible Prog singularity which has always appealed to the band’s die-hard fans. On the contrary (and in a far more pleasant way than the Spanish Inquisition), the band seems to be consistently mindful of that which makes them Spock’s Beard. Let us begin the inquisition.
First song “To Breathe Another Day” is the Beard’s immediate declaration that they have no intention of allowing America’s Melodic Prog throne to be assumed by any pretenders. From the opening Hammond riff, it torpedoes into complex, melodious power rock similar to The Who, with mad staccato stabs leading into a fluid Morse guitar riff and Leonard’s soaring vocals. While not unfamiliar territory to fans of The Who, the song, played superbly and with a more Proggy arrangement, takes the theme to another level – great melodic rock, but more complex in its arrangement and performance. It is undoubtedly Spock’s Beard, and all is well in the world. Leonard’s lyric wails “I’m alive to breathe another day” – indeed they are.
Second song “What Becomes of Me” starts with the metronomic ticking of a clock and middle-eastern themes that give way to some massive Meros Rickenbacker off-beats. One of the world’s most under-estimated bassists, he is ablaze on this song and throughout. Suspense-filled strings lead into a bass-driven passage that could be a cinematic accompaniment to a particularly good spy movie. The verse is a slow, gorgeous Leonard meander in the contemplation of life. Crawling, walking, running then flying, Leonard is in lyrical and melodic command of this song. It could have been written by Jellyfish, but it is better, because it has that Spock’s Beard flavor and style. The contemplation ends with the clock ticking again. The inquisition is well under way.
“Somebody’s Home” begins with bewitching Baroque guitar and rococo flute sounds delivered in 6/8. Soon enough, the band crashes in with full Prog power on a huge off-beat, and this song is immediately a high point on the album. The Mighty Beard are back in all their glory, and, unsurprisingly, this magnificent work is perfectly created without the involvement of Alan’s legendary brother, despite the fact that it is reminiscent of that era. Leonard has really hit his stride and deserves his place among the elite of Prog. He has more than laid the ghosts of his predecessors behind him. The song is filled with heart-searing melody, power, light, shade, counterpointed accents, real strings and just about everything else that any Prog fan could ask for. D’Virgilio’s drumming is particularly tasteful on this song, and Morse’s lead solo (played with his unique pick-less finger technique) is as powerful as anything he has delivered. A true master of his craft, Alan Morse is that rarest of things – a guitarist that plays as well as anyone, but has his own sound. His flamenco/acoustic picking is also sublime and fully exposed on this song. The Tudor/classical undercurrents often found in the best Prog, (especially in the days of Neal Morse-era Beard) are there, familiar, but handled anew. It’s a new Beard, a new day, but just as good as anything this band has ever done.
“Have We All Gone Crazy Yet” is eight minutes of Prog heaven. The assertion that there is no ‘epic’ on this album is disproved by this song. The big AOR ballad introduction might seem unremarkable to begin with, but suddenly, there it is – that absorbing and evocative Spock’s Beard Prog-pop that we love and expect. Again, this could have been written in Neal Morse’s days, but it was not. It is 2018 Beard and yes, it is THAT good. Melodic folk guitar strumming reminiscent of early Jethro Tull leads to a captivating vocal switch between D’Virgilio and Leonard that contrasts to make both vocals sound even better. The verse and chorus are spine-tingling, gut-wrenching stuff, and the resulting composition is as good as anything in Spocks Beard’s vast catalogue. It is Prog, Spock’s Beard style, delivered in full flight, and it is sublime. Kansas and Styx influences are there, but done with insane complexity such as only the Beard can deliver. The harmony lead solos will make Leonard’s excellent guitar playing indispensible on the road. A quirky middle keyboard interlude soon morphs into a ferocious, tortured beast of a guitar riff that is frightening in its power. (Alan Morse is known for creating unique electronic guitar sounds, and he does it again in this song.) The guitar, keyboards and vocals are literally on the rack here. Suddenly, Queen is conjured in the last passage, but again, with a twist that only these fine musicians can deliver. After the insanity, a huge, epic passage featuring a blistering solo from the most under-recognized lead guitarist in Prog, builds before fading into the ether. This is my favorite song on the album – it has everything, and in my opinion will eventually be recognized as one of the best songs in Spock’s Beard’s catalogue.
“So This Is Life” is a lazy ballad that has a distinct Beatles feel. Beautiful harmony lead parts and a spacious Gilmour influenced guitar solo are the highlights of the song. Expect Pink Floyd and The Beatles melded into one. D’Virgilio even intentionally plays the drum fills like Nick Mason. It is a great song, and for any other band, it would be remarkable. For the Beard, it’s par for the course. There are no low points on the album, but this is certainly the most derivative composition.
Sixth track “One So Wise” starts with an Okumoto Moog riff that brings the listener right back to where he/she belongs – Prog nirvana. Heavenly keyboard riffs command the song throughout, and Leonard is given full reign to soar over them. The middle break brings the listener back down, and proggy D’Virgilio drum breaks, syncopated exactly with keyboard and guitar, are the order of the day. D’Virgilio may just be playing what was composed for him (probably by Okumoto), but it is so tight and precise that he may have arranged it himself. As elsewhere on the album, Meros sounds like John Entwistle on his best day. His sound and playing are so distinctive that Meros fully deserves a place in the Pantheon of Prog bass gods. The chorus is one of the most emphatic statements that Leonard has made to date. Expect American melodic Prog at its very best. Kansas would be proud of this one.
The keyboard jamboree that is seventh song “Box of Spiders” opens with a mystical keyboard riff that is then soon accompanied by complex synthesizer stabs, ascending into keyboard mania. Okumoto conducts with complete control on this one. It is a terrifyingly complex celebration of all that is Ryo Okumoto, but it is also clearly Spock’s Beard as we know them. All the quirky arrangements, perverse time signatures that will torture any aspiring drummer, massive instrumentation and, of course, Ryo Okumoto in full, frantic flight. The tightness of delivery between Okumoto and D’Virgilio is simply astounding. Every possible keyboard variation of this impossible arrangement is explored, and Japan’s finest musical export is just imperious throughout. There is even a processed sample that sounds almost like a death metal vocal (possibly created by Okumoto.) Despite the fact that the song is a keyboard-fest, special mention must also be made of Alan Morse’s guitar solo, which is no less terrifying. The boys really tortured their instruments on this one.
Final song “Beginnings” is a suspense-filled description of a man experiencing a new dawn. A layered ballad, it is built around a magnificent vocal arrangement that builds and soars into the re-genesis that the protagonist is experiencing. Leonard is on the top of his game, and trades vocal lines with the other members with ease. It will be challenging for the band to reproduce this tapestry of vocals live, but they are, after all, Spock’s Beard, so you should expect just that. The instrumental section in the middle contains much harmonic interplay and a pause that is symbolic of the rebirth in the lyrics. It builds like a phoenix rising at its renascence, with D’Virgilio’s flawless drum crescendo leading into a Leonard vocal climax that is as uplifting as any he has delivered. A final note wails into the distance as the album ends.
There is a bonus disc/EP (named “Cutting Room Floor”) of four songs that are not part of “Noise Floor”, but apparently do form part of the official release, “Days We Remember” is a pleasing if simple ballad with a strong Styx influence. “Bulletproof” is also a ballad, but contains more of the rousing chord progressions, variation and soaring choruses associated with Spock’s. “Vault” belongs on the main album in my opinion – darker than most of the album and based on a stunning Morse guitar performance in 7/8 timing, this excellent song is slow, tortured and highly emotive. I can understand why the label decided not to include “Armageddon Nervous” on the main disc, since it is another insane Spock’s instrumental, and I suppose a choice had to be made between this song and “Box of Spiders”. But it still exposes the Beard at their high-flying instrumental best, and is worth your attention, as is the whole EP.
Ryo Okumoto is possibly the Chief Cardinal on this album, though Morse, Meros and Leonard have obviously not in any way abandoned the unique contribution that each of them respectively brings to Spock’s Beard. While there appears, at times, to be tendency to lean towards the sound of classic American Prog bands like Kansas, Styx (and even Boston), this band of veterans almost always brings the listener back to the beloved quirks, peaks and emotions that are unique to Spock’s Beard. On this album, there is no “Gentle Giant” harmony counterpoint that the Beard are well-known for (though there is a moment on the bonus disc that comes close), but it matters not. Every other aspect of Spock’s that we have grown to love over the years, is there, including the mad time signatures, impossible harmonies, intense arrangements, melodic structures and the unique instrumental sound that only the combined force of Morse, Meros, Okumoto and Leonard, can create. And it helps that Nick D’Virgilio is there. Melody is paramount, and Noise Floor is sensational.
Quite predictably, the album’s production, under the auspices of Prog’s go-to producer/engineer, Rich Mouser, is immense. It has, at the same time, nuance and power, clarity and depth, aggression and sensitivity. Every note, every stroke and every word are declarations of his masterful studio technique. Mouser is undoubtedly a crucial contributor to the phenomenon that is Spock’s Beard, and great kudos must be sent his way. Also not to be ignored are co-composers John Boegehold and Stan Ausmus, who have done much for the Beard’s cause, both on this album and previously. It’s a great pity that Nick D’Virgilio will probably be too busy with other commitments to tour this album. Not in any way to belittle Jimmy Keegan’s massive contribution to this band, there is clearly a magic that happens when D’Virgilio is sitting at the drum altar of the Beard. I guess history counts.
Spock’s Beard’s chief weapons of surprise, innovation, excitement and melody are strong indeed, even after all these years and so many changes in personnel. May they live long, prosper and continue to make some of the greatest music in Prog. Or as the Cardinal might have said if Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition scene had been about a band: “Nobody expects the Beard. If you have committed the heresy of not following them, we’ll soon change your mind about that.”
Released on May 25th, 2018 on InsideOut Music
Key Tracks: To Breath Another Day, Somebody’s Home, Have We All Gone Crazy Yet
Disc 1 – Noise Floor
1. To Breathe Another Day 5:38
2. What’s Become of Me 6:12
3. Somebody’s Home 6:32
4. Have We All Gone Crazy Yet 8:07
5. So This Is Life 5:36
6. One So Wise 6:58
7. Box of Spiders 5:29
8. Beginnings 7:25
Disc 2 – Cutting Room Floor
1. Days We’ll Remember 4:15
2. Bulletproof 4:42
3. Vault 4:39
4. Armageddon Nervous 3:32
Line-up / Musicians
– Ted Leonard / lead & backing vocals, guitar
– Alan Morse / guitars, mandolin, electric sitar, banjolele, autoharp, backing vocals, co-producer
– Ryo Okumoto / piano, organ, Mellotron, synths
– Dave Meros / bass, synth bass, backing vocals
– Nick D’Virgilio / drums, percussion, backing vocals