The Guy Who Isn't There
Every generation of progressive rock bands has had The One Great Line-Up Change. The classic 70's age had Gabriel leaving Genesis, the Neo-Prog wave had Fish leaving Marillion and us guys riding the Third Wave now have Neal Morse leaving Spock's Beard.
While both Genesis and Marillion got over their respective changes of face pretty quickly (albeit in very different ways), the same cannot be said of Spock's Beard.
It's not that NDV isn't a capable singer, or that Feel Euphoria, Octane and, especially, Spock's Beard weren't nice enough albums. Also, the Beard continued to kick ass on stage, as evidenced on their latest DVD release. All in all, the new Neal-less incarnation of the Beard was a pretty cool band.
But the Beard plus Neal wasn't just a pretty cool band. They were damn near perfect. They weren't the most original band under the great big prog sun, but damn if they weren't brilliant. Complex and compelling, excelling in both long and short form, melodic, weird, exhilarating, rocking-your-socks-off and so incredibly fun. The old SB albums are filled to the brim with joyful love of music, always simultaneously causing goosebumps and bringing a smile to my face.
In recent years, while Neal is out there doing his thing for the Glory of the Lord, his composing quality was sorely missed at the Beard. As much as I hate to say it, the absence of Neal continued to be a problem throughout those last three albums. The once-mighty Beard had become The Band of The Guy Who Isn't There.
Enter the X
So here's the tenth Spock's Beard album, simply called X (mirroring the title of their fifth - V). They did the Marillion thing - they funded its release with pre-orders. And they don't just list the people who pre-bought it in the liner notes, no, they actually sing them. More on that later.
Now, here's the thing about SBX: it is very, very good.
It is, in fact, so good that the absence of you-know-who isn't a problem anymore.
Allow me to elaborate. In retrospect, what the previous three albums were lacking was consistency. There were plenty of highlights (case in point: On A Perfect Day, The Bottom Line, Ghosts of Autumn, The Planet's Hum et al), but plenty of mediocre songs as well (Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go, Feel Euphoria, The Slow Crash Landing Man) and the so-called "epics" were very fragmented and didn't feel epic at all. All in all, SB wasn't sure what it wanted to be; a prog monster, a hard rock band, a pop group?
Song by song
We'll leave that question hanging for the moment: let's dive into our subject proper. The first notes of opener Edge Of The In-Between just scream "Warning! Incoming epic!" before moving into a very uplifting tune with a lovely sing-along chorus. True to its intro, things don't stay in one place. We also get a rockier and a slower section before the ten-minute piece closes on a neat book-end return to the main theme. As always, a very impressive opener.
Quietly, it seems bassist Dave Meros has taken over the unofficial leader's position in the band. Along with his writing buddy John Boegehold, he is responsible for half of the album. As well as the opening tune, their contributions include the brutally rocking The Quiet House (which also happens to include the nicest "quiet bit" found on this album), the haunting, cinematic Their Names Escape Me (which includes a long list of names in the lyrics - the ones who pre-ordered the premium package - it does get a tad bit tedious but the music keeps it going) and the ending song Jaws Of Heaven, which I will get back to.
Guitarist Alan Morse contributes The Emperor's Clothes and The Man Behind the Curtain. Both are upbeat, cheerful and slightly quirky (in a good way - wouldn't be SB without it!) songs. The former was actually done in collaboration with little brother Neal himself. It's good to know they're still on good terms.
Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto provides us with Kamikaze. Just like its creator, it is short, unpredictable, highly Japanese and batshit insane. It is what it is, just a goofy little instrumental.
NDV's contribution is the 16-minute From The Darkness. It's length belies its fairly straightforward nature. There's no pompous beginning here; it gets straight down to business and moves through its four parts with little fuss. Like Nick's previous compositions, it is fairly fragmented, but it's a good listen and the transitions work well. And it rocks pretty hard.
And then, there's Jaws Of Heaven. This is it: the true epic we have all been waiting for. It starts off small, but it gets really big. It's a heavyweight symphonic masterpiece with an impressive theme that keeps popping up in all the right ways. Nick's singing really shines here. The guy has a great, versatile voice and, being a drummer, a particularly good sense of timing. Jaws of Heaven closes the album on a high but surprisingly dark and mature note. Great stuff.
"X" has no weak songs on it. Unlike its predecessors, it is of very consistent quality. The album's highlights are many and carry the whole album to a higher level, making the whole just a bit more than the sum of its parts. If the previous three albums were puzzles trying to find their missing piece, all pieces fall together perfectly on this superb album.
Answering the above question to what Spock's Beard wants to be, one could say they have firmly and happily elected the "prog monster" option. And that's what we all want to be hearing from Spock's Beard in the first place. The whole album breathes finely crafted progressive rock without sounding too much like something that Neal Morse could cook up in about ten minutes. "X" is easily the best SB album sans Neal, and pretty much one of the best SB albums overall.
So, finally, the Mighty Beard are once again their own band. I would like to give SBX a big thumbs up. All prog fans out there who have become disillusioned by SB's recent output (such as myself) will be pleasantly surprised. Kudos!