This latest Release from US Prog supergroup Flying Colors chronicles the final date of the ‘Third Stage’ tour that was wound up at Shepherd’s Bush Empire last December. This is a 2 CD and DVD package which really brings to life the spectacle and musicianship the band offer live with both audio and visual recordings of the evening presented.
Unsurprisingly, the set is heavily focused on the then current ‘Third Degree’ album but with enough familiar favourites to create a dynamic balanced show, although sadly no version of that album’s epic Last Train Home was performed (I would gladly have traded Mask Machine for that song) but, even so, what is really apparent is the definitive bass playing of Dave La Rue who anchors the material along with the driving drumbeat from Mike Portnoy. Together, these two offer a fabulous launch pad from which the others can fly their colors, as it were.
Steve Morse is on exceptional form throughout, he is all over these songs with riffs, solos and fills abounding. He also appears to be really enjoying himself, as do the others, the mix and sound is superb with great separation throughout making this a rocking and enjoyable listen. Certainly, those who were there that night sure witnessed something incredibly special indeed. Flying Colors aim of blending musicianship with great songs was realised that night as captured here on these discs and in the excellent DVD of the show.
Especially fine are the versions of Geronimo (which features some excellent bass riffs and a distinctively fine groove from La Rue), the beautiful and emotionally laden epic that is Peaceful Harbour (with an awesome guitar solo from Steve Morse and a fabulous vocal scat from Casey McPherson that leads the song in), this song really shows the marriage of styles that combine to make Flying Colors such a wonderful musical proposition. Songs with emotional depth, musically strong and yet whilst interesting, they really display the talents each member brings to the band. Considering that the band is supplementary to their main day jobs, this is all the more remarkable and is very rewarding indeed.
The fluidity of Steve Morse’s epic guitar playing really shines out on this song backed with real groove and drive from the others, creating a really special version of an exceptional song. This allows for some good audience participation, encouraged by Mike Portnoy acting as unofficial choir master. This joyful song really impresses greatly and is a defining moment of an excellent show.
The second half of the show on disc two contains mainly the longer songs, the band keeping the energy levels high throughout. Crawl is also another epic number, clocking in at 11 Minutes 48 seconds, opening gently and delicately before the chorus is played and a faster more intense pace is picked up. After the initial section, Neal Morse’s keyboards come to the fore, along with a great guitar line from Steve Morse offset against fine keyboards before the guitar snakes the piece away, backed by more great bass work. A seriously good grower of a song ensues here.
The dynamics of this song are truly awesome and highly impressive, really creating the mood. Casey is on particularly good form on this song and, indeed, on the whole set. In fact it is fair to say that each of these musicians are really playing excellently. You can tell just how much they enjoy being together playing together to make this music full of passion and emotion.
Next we have two lengthy tracks, Infinite Fire and Cosmic Symphony, back to back. An exceptionally fine progressive section lasting about 24 minutes in all and full of stellar musical moments from everyone. There’s great interplay, between Neal and Steve especially, backed with strong support from Dave and Mike. This section is followed, and concluded, by strong versions of The Storm and Mask Machine.
This set is really an excellent one and proves that Flying Colors have significant worth and bring a lot of value to the party. If only they could allocate more working time and tour properly so that folks could really begin to appreciate them more, they could be even more successful and reach a far bigger audience and market rather than being Prog’s greatest secret or guilty pleasure.
For me, this a most worthy release and consolidates the strength and value this this excellent band offer to progressive music or to folks who appreciate fine music and great songs. I have no hesitation in recommending this highly to all, seriously great release.
As most of you will know, I’ve taken a back seat for the last six months when it has come to reviewing albums. Now, while I may occasionally step back into the ring and write a full review, going forward I will be recommending a few albums with , hopefully, a few well chosen and pithy words of description.
I am starting with a round dozen of albums new to me over the previous six months or so and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have…
Released on April 26th, Descender, the sophomore album from Puerto Rican prog-metallers Avandra, is an incredibly mature and complex record full of thunderous riffs, intelligent vocals and catchy hooks. In a genre well known for formality, this act with the most humble of beginnings have unleashed something truly different and special and with an impact similar to prog metal legends Dream Theater’s own career defining second album Images and Words.
A Tower Of Clocks is the long awaited second album from multi award-winning UK progressive rock band This Winter Machine. Almost 2 years in the making, this new release has the band tackling universal themes such as time, loss and identity within a loose conceptual framework.
With a feel of early Genesis and Fish era Marillion, the band haven’t strayed too far from the accepted progressive rock path but this album has been created flawlessly and with obvious affection and the musicianship on show is second to none. The impressive songwriting weaves captivating tales that draw the listener into the story and keep them there as willing companions on a spectacular musical journey.
I liked it that much that I bought the vinyl…
Released 24th June 2019
Our Destiny is the brainchild of Vikram Shankar (keyboardist of American progressive bands Redemption and Lux Terminus), whose piano playing on Awakening is paired with the angelic vocals of his partner Lauren Nolan. Awakening showcases the duo’s unique synthesis of genres and stylistic approaches, with emotive progressive rock married to pop, singer-songwriter, alternative and electronic flavors.
Vikram is a multi-talented musician of considerable skill and he shows his lighter side on this most graceful of recordings. A collection of ethereal, wistful songs that lend themselves to Lauren’s spectacular vocals perfectly. In a world full of chaos and anger, this wonderful record delivers some calm, elegance and decorum. An injection of peace into your soul, truly breathtaking.
Released 21st June 2019
None Other is a prog rock power trio from Volos, Greece who have released three albums since 2012. The brainchild of Spyros Charmanis, this eponymous third album is a sometimes brutal voyage that leaves no mountain unmoved and no stone unturned in its compelling forty minute running time.
Thunderous guitar and monstrous bass combine with the mighty drums and authoritarian vocals to deliver an addictive aural assault. Not for the faint of heart but a truly forceful piece of music that is definitely worth your time and attention.
Released 6th May 2019
“Jesus Christ – The Exorcist” is a monumental project in Neal Morse’s already impressive discography. A Progressive Rock Opera 10 years in the making, it was written and produced by Morse and includes performances by Neal and an all-star cast of vocalists and musicians. Featuring about two hours of music that encompass all the spectrums and genres Neal Morse is known for, the album will, of course, tell the Story of Stories.
Now I know Neal’s religious leanings do put a lot of people off but if you can get past that and just listen to the incredible music then you will be privy to an incredible musical journey full of wonderful pomposity, amazing songs and just incredible musicianship. Whatever you say about the man, he is one incredible musician and storyteller and this Rock Opera is a remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride.
Released 14th June 2019
Yes, I know, it’s not exactly progressive rock but then that’s not all I listen to anyway. Western Stars is a wonderful album and one that everyone should have in their collection, it is that good! Forget the fact that it’s a Bruce Springsteen record, that really is irrelevant here, what it is is a truly memorable collection of beautiful songs that show a calm and reflective side to The Boss.
Take the title track, you will not hear a more captivating four and a half minutes of music this year, believe me. Chasing Wild Horses, Moonlight Motel, Stones and more, thirteen tracks of perfect Americana and country music that some are calling Springsteen’s best release in years. Now I can’t comment on that but I can tell you that it is currently my album of the year and it will take something incredible to move it from that spot, a truly special release.
Released 14th June 2019
Fragments of the 5th Element is Magic Pie’s long awaited 5th album, made up from 5 tracks showcasing the band’s very diverse influences. On this record, they have tried to steer clear of the sterile perfection which modern prog bands have a tendency to get caught up in – and have gone for a slightly more unpolished sound, a bit rough in the edges. A little more ‘bite’.
From the incredibly infectious and upbeat opening salvo of The Man Who Had It All to the mighty bombast of the epic twenty three minute album closer The HedonistMagic Pie have delivered joyous symphonic prog perfection. Epic, energetic melodic and sometimes heavy prog rock with splendid vocal harmonies and great musicianship, this album has it all!
Released 30th August 2019
Norrie McCulloch is a singer-songwriter and award-winning visual artist originally from Ayrshire he currently lives and works out of of Stirling, Scotland. McCulloch’s songs are a tangle up of folk, indie and country influences that manage to stay true to his Scottish roots, equating to a style that offers a welcome touch of originality.
Compass is this talented musician’s fourth full length album and builds on his unique blend of Caledonian Americana with exquisite songwriting, plaintive, heartfelt vocals and pared back instruments to deliver his most fulfilling and accomplished release yet. There’s a simple, stark beauty to these tracks, a feeling of a heart laid bare, a truly emotive collection of tunes that leave you emotionally spent.
Released 31st May 2019
“Oceans of Thought” was originally called “The Merchant of Eternal Youth” but during the time of the recordings Marcohad some personal problems and was a little depressed. So the songs, the cover but above all the lyrics, have undergone a change because the music comes from what he has inside his mind and soul.
“So this album talks about the difficulties that life sometimes brings us, but also talks about how to try to overcome them. It’s a record that I care a lot about because it talks a lot about me.”
I’ve always been a big fan of this outrageously talented musician who delivers some intelligent and thought provoking progressive rock with an undertone of eastern promise. Care is lavished on every aspect of the recording and Marco enlists the help of some highly talented individuals to deliver his most intense and complete album yet, a thoroughly engrossing achievement that rewards your complete attention.
Check out Open My Arms with Norwegian guitar maestro Bjørn Riis, a contender for song of the year.
Released 21st June 2019
Living Dangerously is the band’s second release, coming six years after the first and is described as a “Sonic cocktail on the rocks blending equal parts classic, progressive jazz and blues and cheekily spiking with whatever they found lurking at the back of the cupboard…”
There’s bits of King Crimson, bits of Van Der Graff Generator and a whole lot of intelligent, sharp-suited songwriting that has gone into this album and its stays just on right side of being too clever for itself. Broken Parachute craft some impressive tunes on this release and its another album that requires a lot of you time and attention to completely reward but, trust me, it is worth the effort. The blues soaked guitar and jazz infused keyboards are utter works of art and are worth the entry prize alone.
Released 31st May 2019
How do you follow the monumental three disc wonder that was Gandalf’s Fist’s 2016 epic The Clockwork Fable? With a two disc prologue, that’s how!
The Clockwork Prologue is the first release for Gandalf’s Fist as a six-piece and returns the listener once more to the dark and steamy city of Cogtopolis, a city beneath the surface, the once safe shelter for post-apocalyptic mankind, now a microcosmos following its own crude laws, rules and religions.
I called The Clockwork Fable, “A mesmerising musical masterpiece epic in scope and utterly breathtaking in its delivery” and this companion piece takes what the first release gave us and adds to it with the bands’ singular flair for drama, theatre and the spectacular. The stellar cast of voice actors, including Mark Benton and Bill Fellows, return to give a familiar feel to proceedings but its the musical talents of the band and the ever impressive vocals of Keri Farish that are the real draw.
The Clockwork Prologue isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel, it is meant to add to the wonderment of the original album and Gandalf’s Fist have delivered that in spades.
Released 1st July 2019
A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is Djam Karet’s 19th album. The group was formed back in 1984, and this is a celebration of the band’s 35 years together.
Combining analog and modular synthesizers with numerous acoustic instruments from around the world, Djam Karet is exploring new territory on this psychedelic journey of discovery. Harmonium, dilruba, mbira, udu and other exotic instruments, help bring a warm vibe to this highly melodic and visionary work. Swirling electronic soundscapes expand to reveal new acoustic environments of exotic goodness.
With an almost spiritual feel to the intricate music, this collection of tunes has a raw feel, almost primeval, literally music that has come from the Earth. This band always produce thought provoking pieces that take the listener out of any comfort zone and take them on an intensely melodic musical crusade and A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is surely the pinnacle of what Djam Karet have been producing together over all of their 35 years as a band.
Released 15th April 2019
So, there you have it. The first in a relatively regular feature on my recommendations. See you soon for the next Progradar Recommends!!
Neal Morse will be releasing his latest solo album, ‘Life and Times’, February 16 on Radiant Records via Metal Blade Records/SONY on all digital outlets, as well as CD and vinyl.
Premiered in Germany last week, here is the second video clip for the song Livin’ Lightly:
Born in 1960 to a musical Californian family, Morse played in many bands during his youth. He learned and mastered several instruments along the way. In 1995, he wrote and recorded ‘The Light’ with his new band, Spock’s Beard. It was an album grounded strongly in the then-unfashionable progressive rock genre. The album and title song became modern prog classics, and began to bring Morse and the band global recognition. In 2000, he also joined forces with Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), Pete Trewavas (Marillion) and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) to form Transatlantic.
Neal Morse’s solo work has focused almost entirely on music with a strong message of redemption, beginning with 2003’s ‘Testimony’ – a two-disc musical account of his spiritual journey–and most recently with The Neal Morse Band’s ‘The Similitude of a Dream’ , based on John Bunyan’s classic allegory ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Everyone has an opinion. Either carefully constructed after reading up, researching and questioning all and sundry, or shot from the hip in nanoseconds without further thought of the ramifications of the snowball as it grows.
Neal Morse. Opinions on him are as many and verbose as is his output. Unlike his output, they are binary : either the “God” thing does it for you or it doesn’t..
Well I’m not going anywhere with that construct. I’m going to review the music. And there’s a lot of it on this album. ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ is 2 CDs worth.
I was lucky enough to get a pre release mp3 file and listened with a view to scribbling a couple of pithy one liners about style over substance, myth or mistake etc, but then the hooks in the piece caught me.
Dragged me back into the musical world of Morse and his musical fellow travellers – Mike Portnoy, Eric Gillette ( fab guitar work here) the bass of Randy George, a fine partner in crime for the much maligned Portnoy and Bill Hubauer provides keyboards to a fine standard.
A world class band of brothers who ooze musical chops at every point, but in an understated manner.
I described the album to a friend as “A Musical symphony without the W****y ELP bits.
It has a theme that runs through and it matters not that this theme is based on a 17th Century fable. It’s as relevant as dragons, small furry creatures or starships when it comes to telling a tale.
If you loved ‘Snow’, a high-water mark in Spock’s Beard back catalogue as far as I was concerned, are familiar with Transatlantic’s epic widescreen albums and like a good melody , then this album will float your boat and tick all the boxes.
It’s epic in sound as well, great instrumentation link the themes as they get expanded and revisited across the 2 discs.
The similarity to ‘Snow’ is that once again, we have a protagonist who feels separated from all around, and sets out on a voyage of exploration.. I think? Or it’s a bad trip brought on by the dodgy narcotics offered to him in” Draw the Line”
Oops, got distracted listening again….
Where was I? Oh yes. In a (wisely) unpublished review of Dream Theater’s ‘The Astonishing’, I made reference to ALW doing prog or DT doing musical theatre, with the results as horrible as expected.
This is the opposite, an album that is a musical in a direct, song based way, no dodgy narrative clunkers or strange interludes here, just a collection of songs that fit thematically and musically. Oh – apparently it’s referred to as a Concept album.
People like musical hooks to hang things on, for this, dust off the Genesis“Trick of the Tail” hook for the vibe in “The Ways of a Fool”. Add in Queen too for these are the first vocal harmonies to elicit them since Jellyfish popped up in the 90’s.
Then there are some very Beatles approved strings , a flash of Banksian keyboard prowess and some very Queen guitar before those harmonies kick in again. This track is rapidly becoming a firm favourite here.
The first CD builds to the climax of “Breath Of Angels”, which is the most overtly religious track , hardly surprising when you listen to the lyric, but the angel voices in harmony layered behind Neal as he exhorts us to the City Of Light… A New Jerusalem anyone?
CD 2 doesn’t let go either. Unlike my CD player which refused to give up CD 2 3 times… is this a sign?
Anyway, we rock off at full speed with a keyboard flurry that Jon Lord would be proud of in “Slave to Your Mind”, then we have an appearance of a saxophone in “Shortcut To Salvation”, a west coast vibe to this one, a vocal tour de force from Mr M.
Nice piano too.
This album is shaping up to be a contender for best of the year lists…
Then the crash out with their inner Zeppelin with the monster riff of “The Man In The Iron Cage”, it might be a Zeppelin riff ,but the vocals are pure Morse – no pastiche of Percy Plant here, Neal has a very individual voice and it makes him stand out in an army of clone vocalists raised to believe that karaoke is the way to sing.
Big keyboards again: Purple Zeppelin .This is joy to my old ears. The guitar solo slides in, all flash and stylish restraint, linking to a gentle vocal and acoustic piece about God and faith and breaking out of self inflicted limitations – all very new age, but remember this is based on a 17th century tome, so new age is as fresh today as it ever was… Before the band crash back in with the hook laden choruses. If I was a singer, I’d be singing along… and rocking out with my air guitar, Gibson Les Paul of course.
The Neal Morse Band have a way with a tune, they sprinkle their own stardust on the tunes here. Thematically linked to the story, the songs follow the narration or rather are the narration as there’s no cod theatrical voice over needed. Listening again, it’s the natural flow of the words and harmonies that impress.
Not only have they got me contemplating life’s metaphysical journey and the pitfalls therein, they’ve also got me wanting to read the words to better follow the twists and turns they guide us through.
CD2 builds from the charging stomp of ‘Iron Mask’ to a contemplative piece with fretless bass and strings, a mellow little piece called “Sloth” which leads into one of those “Oh So Neal” songs – all campfire acoustic guitars and sing along tune a pleasant reminder of “Wind At My Back” from ‘Snow’, here titled “Freedom Song”.
The clever use of the upbeat music to convey the joy of the protagonist unburdening himself of the burdens stopping him is simple and effective.
You get the old time gospel hoe down distilled into a song full of hope and optimism.
Appalachian mountain Prog anyone?
We then get the big finale. The crowd are warmed up by “The Freedom Song” / “I’m Running”, featuring some fabulous bass dexterity and a nod to Phil Collins big band tub thumping full spectrum production with the kitchen sink relegated to 3rd sax…
Another gentle nod to Genesis and Bank’s contribution in the piano intro to “The Mask”which veneers on the pastiche such that I was expecting Romeo to lock up his basement flat and join the journeyman…
This nasty little voice in my head is playing spot the Genesis reference now. “Confrontation” intro had me thinking ‘Eleventh Earl of Mar’, don’t know why as couldn’t hum it to win a pint, so where that popped up is anyone’s guess.
Most Un- Abacabish is the instrumental breakdown which sounds like the you tube cat got not only the Theremin but the rest of the instruments too.
‘Back to the City of Destruction’ qualifies as the most depressing hook line to any song ever, but the Deep Purple Hammond flurry after it erases such piffling triviality to a foot note.
We are into big bold grand piano chords and time changes now, classic “American” Prog where technical flash breaks free from pious restraint and madness ensues as they fight over the direction of the piece, aptly called “The Battle”,the piano and keyboard here are fantastic, a bit ELP in bombast in places, a bit Benny Hill in others (listen – you’ll know what I mean).
Sadly it means rather than the cataclysmic battle of Armageddon, it comes over more Ernie the fastest milkman for me, but it’s a small price to pay for the joy of the piece.
The climax, “Broken Sky / Long day“, delivers everything you want for the finale.
Heartfelt vocals over subdued instruments that builds , you can tell that the end (of the song) is coming, and your heart lifts as the song unfolds it’s wings, shakes them free and prepares to soar.
And soar it does with a lovely keyboard flurry and full Morse the Evangelist vocals, with a guitar part that didn’t trigger Genesis associations …
No it’s doesn’t sound like comfortably numb….
Sorry, that little cynical voice appeared again. Ignore itt. The most iconic of guitar solos will obviously echo through space and time…
Better that than the Jonas Brother‘s attempt…
The sums of the parts with this piece greatly outweigh a few “borrows” here and there.
I loved it and I’m neither A born again American or An American Born Again.
The production, songs, package and playing on this are all woven together to create a modern classic, for once the praise surrounding this project undersells it, it is that good.
RELEASED NOVEMBER 11 ON RADIANT RECORDS
VIA METAL BLADE RECORDS/SONY
2CD, TRIPLE VINYL AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD
WORLDWIDE TOUR STARTS
JANUARY 15, 2017 IN NASHVILLE, TN
NEAL MORSE: LEAD VOCALS, KEYBOARDS, GUITARS
MIKE PORTNOY: DRUMS, VOCALS
RANDY GEORGE: BASS
ERIC GILLETTE: GUITAR, VOCALS
BILL HUBAUER: KEYBOARDS, VOCALS
The journey of Neal Morse has seen three decades of musical accomplishments, the latest being the inception of The Neal Morse Band. Morse has forged many relationships over the years with his other bands, Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors, and Transatlantic. However, the most compelling and fruitful efforts have been those with drummer Mike Portnoy (The Winery Dogs, Flying Colors, Transatlantic, ex-Dream Theater).
Now the current line-up of “The Neal Morse Band”—Morse, Portnoy, bassist Randy George, keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette—brings forth “The Similitude of a Dream”, a concept album to be released November 11 on Radiant Records via Metal Blade Records/SONY. This will be the eighth studio album with Morse, Portnoy and George, and the second as a true collaboration with this current lineup. A lyric video for the song, “Overture,” premiered on PROG Magazine’s website earlier today and will be available on the band’s official YouTube page tomorrow. Watch the lyric video for the songs “Long Day” and “Overture”
Clocking in at over 100 minutes, this amazing piece of prog storytelling will leave you breathless, exhilarated, amused and fulfilled in a way that only inspired music can. It will be available in various formats: a two CD package, a Special Edition with the two CDs and “The Making of a Dream” DVD, or as three vinyl records along with two CDs.
The Neal Morse Band (L-R): Eric Gillette, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Neal Morse, Bill Hubauer. Photo: John Zocco
City Of Destruction
We Have Got To Go
Makes No Sense
Draw The Line
Back To The City
The Ways Of A Fool
So Far Gone
Breath Of Angels
Slave To Your Mind
Shortcut to Salvation
The Man in The Iron Cage
The Road Called Home
Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise)
Together, Morse and Portnoy have launched four bands, but the one that has endured the longest and thus with the most musical output has been The Neal Morse Band. Over the years, Morse, along with Portnoy and George, always assembled musicians as needed to support Neal’s solo music. In 2012, they held auditions to find the musicians needed to fill out the band as a permanent lineup that would write music collectively. Hubauer and Gillette joined the band after three days of auditions. The fivesome went on to release The Grand Experiment in 2014 followed by the Alive Again live DVD/2 CD package in 2015.
“The Similitude of a Dream is loosely and sometimes directly based on the book, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan,” explains Neal Morse. “The book’s original title was The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream, and was originally published in 1678. The book chronicles the spiritual journey of a man from the City of Destruction to a place of Deliverance. Someone had suggested to me that I do a concept album based on this book, but I kind of forgot about it. Then when I began writing new songs last December, the suggestion came to my mind. I had never read the book, so I Googled the SparkNotes story outline and began to write some little song bits and instrumentals based on what I had read. Those bits combined with the ideas that the other guys brought to the table then miraculously exploded into this double concept album. Funny thing is, this album only really covers about the first 75 or 80 pages. Maybe we should’ve made a five disc collection! Well, we’ll save that for later. Ha.”
Continues Neal, “At the conclusion of the grueling recording sessions, I remember Mike saying rather prophetically, ‘Boys, I think we just made the album of our careers.’”
“I honestly think this is THE album of my career,” declares Portnoy. “Neal and I have now made 18 studio albums together, and I consider The Similitude of a Dream the absolute creative pinnacle of our collaborations together. I’ve always had a soft spot for double concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, and I can bravely say that I think we’ve created an album here that can sit side by side with those masterpieces. Bold words, I know, but after a career of almost 50 albums, I honestly consider this to be one of the defining works of my career.”
“We weren’t sure we had enough music to make a double CD, and yet it seemed as though the concept and the music wanted to go there,” bassist Randy George continues. “Ultimately, we created so much great music in the sessions that it just had to be a double album! To cap that off, we worked with a pre-imminent classic album cover artist to create painted illustrations of our concept which will grace the booklet!”
The Neal Morse Band tours worldwide almost yearly and continues to grow in popularity, attracting new listeners everywhere they go. The band has toured in North America, Central America, Europe, Israel, Mexico and India. The shows are filled with excited and extremely loyal fans, some which have regularly traveled very long distances to see the band. The band has an extensive catalog of live shows on Blu-Ray and DVD as well.
Their latest round of worldwide tour dates start January 15, 2017 in Morse’s current hometown of Nashville, TN. More dates will be announced in the coming weeks on the band’s official website.
‘Time’, it’s a strange thing. Undetectable without relying on specialist intervention – slow motion or time lapse cameras show us its effect, mirrors reflect the effect it has on us. Time is both measure and measured, we slice it up and record its passing, yet time is the single most important concept we have. Without it, there is no ‘now’ and no ‘future’ or ‘past’.
If someone in the future invents a time machine and travels back, we would know it, wouldn’t we? They’d stop wars, point humanity on the right path to prevent destruction of the planet, encourage us to support the exploration of outer space, reveal the evil of reality TV etc.
If there is such a machine and such people were taking requests, then I think Spock’s Beard need to borrow that time machine to go back and meet their earlier selves.
The one thing they need to communicate, without putting the future of the universe at risk with causality and paradox, is they should seriously think about changing their name. No matter how good they are as musicians, no matter how epic their epic tracks are, the name conjures up all the wrong associations. Geek chic it ain’t…
Twenty years of Spock’s Beard. To me, they are part of the “new wave” of Prog, post Genesis, and post Twelfth Night et al. They write long, epic tracks and started as they meant to go on with complex multi-part tracks that are polished and assembled on this chronological trip.
The first piece by them I’d heard, from a cover mount free CD was At the End ofThe Day and it wormed its way into my consciousness. I went on a voyage of discovery, picking up second hand copies of their albums, then deluxe first editions as they were released. I didn’t realise but SB and it’s off shoots, side projects and affiliates take up a large chunk of my modern Prog pile. The tentacles spread out, from Transatlantic to Roine Stolt’s Flower Kings to NealMorse’s solo work to some bunch of internet sprout wranglers; the Beard has links to it all.
Yet they are not mentioned in the same pages that eulogise Mr Wilson, fawn at the uttering’s of lesser talents with better haircuts. But they deserve their place in such company.
They write record and perform long, complex pieces; they can rock out with the best, with an instantly identifiable sound. It is a broad pallet of sound – vocal harmonies, kicking brass section, attacking keyboards, and guitars too, underpinned by some severe drumming talent.
In many ways, Spock’s Beard are the quintessential American Prog band. Musically adept, lyrically optimistic, almost slavish attention to detail. There is a lot going on in these tracks, almost too much at times: This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is evident in the tracks that start this CD.
The younger version of SB, fronted by a scarily long haired version of Neal Morse, seemed to want to be taken seriously, very seriously. Every track is a constructed of multiple parts, instrumental breaks and moments of sublime beauty. The Guitar and keyboard coda of the track in question still makes me stop and hold my breath.
The cynical amongst us may deride SB as Genesis wannabe’s as there are striking similarities between the evolution of both bands.
Both bands produced complex, multi part tracks across their first albums.
Both bands “lost” their original vocalists and replaced them with the incumbent drummer stepping up to the front.
Both vocalists departed leaving, as their swansong, complex double concept albums in their wake.
Both bands then changed to a more direct, full on direction and reaped the benefit of commercial success.
But here our stories diverge, as SB then floundered with a mid career fallow patch ( to me, “Feel Euphoria” was a band in a holding pattern) .They then rediscovered their Prog Mojo with “ Octane” , the opening 7 part concept sees them at their best ,describing a car accident from the POV of the driver. The sheer beauty of his life unfurling is a testament to the collective ability of the ensemble in that it skates close to cloying sentimentality. But the combination of words and music convey the love of life and of hope in the face of adversity which reflects the lyrical obsessions of Mr Morse and the spiritual quest that pulled him away from the band.
One part of this epic, my favourite post Morse SB piece, is here in burnished re-mastered glory.
She Is Everything is one of Prog’s great love songs. A song that makes you want to share the joy of this experience, the lyrical content is crafted around a tune that comes straight out of the classic pop tunes book. It’s a love song that in a few short verses leaves you fully understanding the depth of feeling conveyed, but without getting caught up in sentimentality.
I mentioned earlier Neal Morse’s swansong, “Snow”, my favourite SB album.
It’s that most “Prog” thing, a concept album detailing the life of Snow, an albino loner with a psychic ability. He grows up in the Midwest, move to New York, undergoes an epiphany , uses his powers for good, falls in love with the wrong girl, ends up fulfilling his prophetic vision of his future ( see, time again! ) then gets saved by his friends.
Mixing Christian myth, Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and taking the good from every concept album ever written, bits of ‘Tommy’, ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Wall’ & Bowie and Roeg’s ‘The Man who fell to Earth’ all are thrown into the pot. There are bits that Yes would be proud of, Marillion would recognise and ELP would tap their feet to. In short, it is the quintessential Prog Rock concept album.
But if that all sounds clichéd, it succeeds on the strength of the music. It ebbs and flows beautifully, from a gentle acoustic representation of Snow’s innocent childhood to the depravity of the cess pit of New York to the pain of unrequited love through the depths of despondency and out on the wings of hope and love.
The tune selected for here, The Wind At My Back is the centre of the piece, appearing twice at the climax of both discs. Its harmonies and themes run all through the album and serves as a fitting memorial to Mr Morse’s tenure as vocalist.
If this Collection has done nothing else, it’s made me dig out my SB CD’s, and go looking to fill the gaps in my collection.
X, represented by The Jaws of Heaven seems a return to the more Prog rock version of SB than the previous albums, with this track highlighting the keyboard strengths of the band. There’s a whole raft of sounds – Mellotron, piano, strings, brass all flowing together and complimenting Nick D’Virgilio’s fine vocals.
Over the two discs of this compilation we have witnesses the young Prog overachievers throw everything into the mix, then slow down, give us vocal harmonies, fine melodies and songs, become increasingly adventurous with their lyrical subjects which culminated in an epic modern fable. Then the singer quits and their drummer takes over.
The band move onto new terrain, ploughing a rockier landscaper, but still sowing the seeds of Prog, they start to really find their musical point in the cosmos with a trio of albums…
And then they lose another front man! NDV jumps tracks and we all know which train he’s hitched his wagon to!
It’s starting to read like a Prog Spinal Tap here, without the gardening joke, but nothing is going to slow the progress of the Beard. If you’ve lost a front man, not a problem: steal (or borrow, though do you have to give him back?) one from another band.
Enter Ted Leonard from US Prog metal band, Enchant. Now I had a couple of Enchant CD’s once. They didn’t survive the great CD purge. They were nice, inoffensive formulaic Prog Metal. Too twiddly for me to be honest, the downfall of Dream Theater in my humble opinion. I go for the Miles Davis approach. Play one note instead of ten as long as it’s the right note.
Jump to 2013 and the release of “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”. And it sounds like the old SB, back to their proggy best. The track chosen here, Waiting for Me features the SB “sound”, vocal harmonies and glorious melody, a superb production as we have come to expect. This track shows how far the band has travelled but they’ve still retained their core spirit. They use keyboards to complement the guitar as did Deep Purple before the departure of Mr Blackmore. Drums are high in the mix, but unlike Metallica , SB have a world class percussionist who drives the songs forward rather than running alongside trying to grab the steering wheel.
The penultimate track is the first track on their most recent album. Criticisms have been levelled at the band for moving away from their sound, but, on the evidence of this track, the 2015 SB is rolling on nicely, with some great guitar and keyboard touches. The Deep Purple comparison is very evident with the Hammond being prominent, but to me, this is a good move as that classic sound of guitar, Hammond, bass and drums drives the song onward.
And so, gentle reader, we reach the track that most Beard heads will be forking out for. A track that promises all 3 front men together (well appearing on the same song). And we start with gentle piano and strings, then a very Early Yes like rhythm and sound.
It’s Very Yes like. The Proper Yes. Roger Dean Artwork Yes.
There’s a nice instrumental section, with all working together to create a melange of melody. Guitars are edgy and the metal influences are there, but the big Prog chords and drums keep them firmly in their place.
The music swells and slows, we are anticipating vocals as the rhythm changes and we get acoustic guitar a drum then a voice.
More voices, it’s no longer a song of parts as the song moves through a very folksy part with at least 2 different voices singing parts, then we switch moods again and a third, much more rock voice appears.
I’m enjoying the interplay of instruments and voices on this first listen, I’m not too focused on the lyrics as they flow with the tune and I’m more interested in the structure first, lyrics second.
This is possibly a result of continued exposure to bands singing in languages I’m not conversant in ( i.e. everything except English) but as I get older and the reading of lyrics stops being feasible due to CD sized fonts and ole eyes, I find it easier to concentrate on the whole thing.
Well, it’s a Spock’s Beard epic track. Lots of glorious vocal harmony. Glasses full of guitar and keyboards. There are fine performances from all 3 singers.
As you would expect, their voices complement each other, the sound is one that SB have perfected. It’s a compliment to them that time flies by as you listen. The track allows them to do what they do best.
Listening again (the third time) this track reminded me of another band. It opens as if it’s from those dextrous players on a cosmic adventure, Utopia, circa 1973 when Todd Rundgren was in full cosmic flow, expanding his (and our) consciousnesses.
The more I listen, the more the track strikes me as a statement of where American Prog is today. Think of a line drawn from Utopia, through Kansas, up across the Boston Guitar Mountains to the Glass Hammer lakes, there you will find a dam built by these eager beavers of Prog. All that music is held back and they tap it off into these epics.
There’s even a drum solo hidden in there and leads us on to an extended instrumental piece that ties all the different SB threads together. Guitars weave as the tempo increases, the keyboards are fighting for their place in the sun, the interplay between them and the drums is pure SB and all the more welcome for that. I can see this going down a storm live, with the big solo closing piece giving the lighting designer a chance to stun the watchers as the closing lyric wafts over the rapturous audience.
If you’ve never dabbled in the world of Spock’s Beard, then this compilation is a fine way to start. Chronological and logical, it gives a true flavour of the band. Personally, I’ would have included live tracks as that’s when the interplay between them as musicians really comes into play.
Also, I’d have chosen different tracks. I would have included Devil’s Got MyThroat from “Snow” which is as noisy and rocking as the title suggests. I’d feature more from “Day for Night” and “V”, but then they were the first SB CD’s I owed.
At the price this is floating around for, it’s a great summary of a great American Prog band.
They will never be out there on the edge, pushing the envelope of Prog, but if you want songs, actual tunes you can hum or even sing along to, then dip you toes in the Beard’s world. It’s a rather fine place to spend an evening or two with a glass of good wine.