Americans today don’t give a hoot about progressive rock. Our parents grew up on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; the lucky ones collected vinyl from Kansas, ELP, and King Crimson. Those heirlooms have clearly not trickled down yet here the way they have in experimental music havens scattered around Japan and Northern and Western Europe.
That makes it hard for Spock’s Beard, the international superstars from L.A. now in their eighteenth year, left standing as the proverbial prophets not accepted in their homeland. Things seemed even bleaker in 2002 when frontman and brainfather Neal Morse departed from the group after six albums. But now, with the release of X, the stalwart boys look to reclaim their crown as kings of the formerly-and-elsewhere-beloved genre.
Naturally, as their tenth album, X references their fifth: V. Having run out their record deal last year, the band opted not to re-sign with any label just yet. Instead, they funded and produced the album themselves and with the help of established friends in the industry. Most of the money for the endeavor came from hopelessly devoted faithfuls like me who willingly shelled out up to $200 for various pre-ordering options offered before any recording took place. Now that the finished piece of work is in our hands – 10 months later – was it worth it?
Ha. “Worth it” would be an understatement. This is the first post-Neal album that merits favorable comparisons to the band’s earlier work. And that is the highest praise available.
Understand that this brand of prog comes with intricate time signatures, some eccentric keyboards, and long songs. (The 8 tracks on X add up to over 78 minutes, near the capacity of an audio CD.) Neal Morse was primarily a singing keyboardist, so, upon his departure, resident Moog master Ryo Okumoto attempted to maintain the key-centric attitude of the band to mixed results. Drummer-cum-replacement-lead-singer Nick D’Virgilio then spent an album pretending he was a rock star before the guys managed to find their feet post-reconstruction. This new album shows them gelling like never before and finding excellence as a fundamentally bass-driven band.
Two featured 16-minute tracks on the record are subdivided into movements. Both “From the Darkness” and “Jaws of Heaven” are odd in that they forego the sort of blazing introductions or overtures that the band has historically employed to signal an incoming epic. They hop right into things, the former beginning with a hard rock feel and the latter as a mournful western ballad. At four movements apiece, though, the songs have plenty of time to pass through various moods and genres.
“From the Darkness” suffers slightly from a cut-and-jump approach to transitions that, while not disorienting in execution, leaves one feeling that they have just listened to four disconnected songs. The abstract and vague lyrics (arguably a problem on half of X‘s tracks) don’t imbue any greater sense of unity in the story D’Virgilio spins. Vastly superior in this regard is “Jaws of Heaven,” whose segues are fluid and whose movements feel related by recurring motives while each exhibits a unique musical character. The third movement is particularly compelling: stirring far-off drums complement sparse guitar strokes and a soft voice, all held together by the persistent and understated bass.
Both suites conclude in powerful fashion. Either would have been perfectly suited to end the album, an honor granted to “Jaws of Heaven.”
Four-stringer Dave Meros contributes his writing talents to “Edge of the In-Between,” a modest tune at 10 minutes long. While not demarcated into sections, the song moves through a progression of passages with entrancing continuity. The listener is never jilted by the undercurrents moving from a rollicking 4/4 chorus to an expansive 7/4 jam to a slowed-down bridge that alternates between dainty piano and sludgy bass. The recapitulation that follows is reminiscent of the grand effect captured in “At the End of the Day” on V, a compliment not to be taken lightly.
Meros on bass and D’Virgilio on drums click so well that it’s easy to get the impression they are featured in every song on the album. Soaring keys and crunching guitars are thus enabled to reach their full potential on every lick.
A strong case can be made that the standout track is “The Emperor’s Clothes,” nearly the shortest at under 6 minutes, beating out only the shifting and dramatic instrumental romp “Kamikaze.” Written by guitarist Alan Morse (with added touches by his brother Neal!), it is a perfect example of great lyrics perfectly matched by effective musical arrangement. The song tells the first half of the well-known story from the point of view of the tailor who has never sewn but has a plan to cash in: “Well you’ve never seen clothes / Like you won’t see those… ‘Cause the fabric’s so fine / It’s like it’s not even there.”
Bursting and driving trombones ring in the song and are later joined by french horns, a string quartet, and a number of wonky synthesized sounds to complement the core rock instrumentation. Besides all this, there is a cheery a cappella section in the middle ended by a frenetic xylophone run. Tempo jumps add to the effect of a song that is thoroughly fun. Even the basic beat seems to recreate a circus parade!
Finally, a nod must be given to “Their Names Escape Me.” The perfectly eerie mood created, so befitting of a song whose lyrics tell of a judgment and inquisition (“Tell us the names of every traitor who / Took up arms against the nation…”), continues and grows in tension as the band first sings the song proper, then moves into a list of names. D’Virgilio captures in the tune my name and the names of every other contributor to the recording fund, all the while keeping legitimate music going underneath. As the names are sung, the key raises steadily and the arrangement thickens until the eventual unearthly fade-out.
Led by Meros and D’Virgilio, with all intellectualism and virtuosity intact, X is a highly melodic and engaging product. Finally, Spock’s Beard has recreated epics better than past efforts penned by Neal such as “Flow” and “The Good Don’t Last.” Attempts to do so have been made on every record since his departure; only here have they paid off. It is thrilling, after eighteen years, to see the boys raise the question of whether their greatest work lies behind them or ahead.