Round Table Review
Tracklist: - A Flash Before My Eyes- The Ballet Of The Impact: [I] Prelude To The Past [II] The Ultimate Quiet [III] A Blizzard Of My Memories (5:34), I Wouldn't Let It Go (4:53), Surfing Down The Avalanche (3:43), She Is Everything : [I] Strange What You
Remember [II] Words Of Forever (6:46), Climbing Up That Hill (3:31), Letting Go (1:52), Of The Beauty Of It All : [I] If I Could Paint A Picture [II] Into The Great Unknowable (4:53)...
NWC (4:16), There Was A Time (4:58), The Planet's Hum (4:42), Watching The Tide (5:07), As Long As We Ride (5:35)
Monday 31 January 2005 sees the European release date for the Beard's Octane and as we did back in 2003 with the release of Feel Euphoria we are undertaking another Round Table Review to mark this event. Octane is the 8th studio release from the band, but more poignantly the second since the departure of Neal Morse. After Feel Euphoria, there was much debate on how the Beard's would sound without the considerable input of Neal. Some critical leniency may have been afforded the guys on Feel Euphoria, and all in all the album was favourably received, however one always felt that the acid test would be their second release. So two years down the line, how will Spock's Beard fair with Octane and what, if any, changes might the band have made to their sound and song writing style?
As with many of InsideOut Music's releases, this album comes in two formats. A standard version (reviewed here) and a Special Edition version. The Special edition offers two discs instead of one, a digibook instead of jewel case, a booklet with 24 pages – bonus tracks, and a multi media section.
A Flash Before my Eyes is an epic of roughly half an hour. Now, probably half of you are thinking "Yeah, great ! Another big one !", while the others might think "Oh, no, not again ! What's wrong with keeping songs under ten minutes ?". As far as Spock's Beard is concerned I'm probably in the latter group and I found Guy Called Syd a very forced and weak attempt to write a big epic in the Morse vein. Hearing that the band was working on another one that would fill half the album had me a bit worried. I shouldn't have been. This epic is much more like a handful of songs that share the same theme and just a few recurring melodies. It's not your regular 'let's turn 10 minutes of music into 30' affair. As a matter of fact, most of the songs stand up very well on their own. Also, most of the highlights of the album are indeed incorporated in this 'epic', making the other songs feel almost like filler material.
One thing which becomes very clear while listening to A Flash Before My Eyes is that the Beardy Boys have shaking off their legacy and instead of trying to recreate the old 'Morse Beard' sound they have chosen their own path. This means that the typical Morse sound, time signatures and quirkiness is gone and has been replaced by a more accessible, mainstream sound. However, don't fear. There's still enough proginess to detect and there's still loads of keyboard and guitar solos. Overall though, the band sounds more like e.g. Salem Hill than the old Beard. So if you, like me, liked the first half of the previous album and/or also liked Nick D'Virgilio's solo albums, you will not be disappointed by this CD. It's not a classic, but a very descent album which is much more enjoyable to listen to than forcing yourself to hear recycled music all the time (if you know what I mean). If however, you were disappointed with Feel Euphoria and think that Neal Morse's last two solo albums were God's gift to mankind (pun intended), than you might want to steer away from this album.
Someone who did not steer away was the protagonist in A Flash Before My Eyes, who dies in a car crash and sees his life pass in a flash before his eyes. Most of the epic therefore is a flashback of moments that made a big impression in his life; childhood, adolescence, falling in love, the works. Well, not the most original idea for a concept, but it does offer some beautiful subject matters to tie together a few song.
The Ballet of the Impact opens quite heavily with Mellotron, powerful guitar and drums, a very Genesis-like quiet intermezzo with flute ('hold on, did I put Foxtrot on by accident ?') and introduces some of the heart wrenchingly beautiful melodies. I Wouldn't Let it Go is an accessible but nevertheless wonderful semi-ballad while Surfing Down The Avalanche is one of the heaviest things the band has ever done. Being sandwiched between these other beautiful songs it did take me a while to get used to it, but eventually I got to appreciate the almost Metallica-like greasy riffs, thunderous bass lines and grunted vocals. Maybe the ballad which follows, She is Everything, is all the more beautiful after this musical violence. And beautiful it is ! I did find it resembled Morse's It's All I Can Do a bit, although this new song is far superior. It also features an almost Floydian guitar solo by Al Morse at his best.
Climbing Up That Hill brings us back in the up-tempo range and could easily have been taken from D'Virgilio's solo album, as some of the other songs on the album. A real toe-tapper ! Letting Go is a nice instrumental organ intermezzo and finally Of The Beauty of it All brings back the melody from the opening tracks and leads into the obligatory big guitar and synth finale. Indeed, some things don't change in this band.
As mentioned, the other songs almost feel like fillers on the album. Which doesn't mean that they are bad though, although I never get the same attention-grabbing quality as with A Flash Before My Eyes. NWC is a great instrumental that would work quite well as a show-off energizing show opener. It's almost as if you're listening to an old vinyl album again, where you need a really impressive opener to get you in the mood again after having flipped the record.
There Was A Time is another straightforward tune that could have come from Nick's solo album, but again a very good one at that.
The Planet's Hum is a another difficult one. It's got some great stuff like a fine bass intro and fugue style flute and acoustic guitar before some amazingly heavy riffs kick-in, followed by aggressive grunted vocals. This song is to the second half of the album what Surfing Down the Avalanche is to the first. And there's so much happening in less than 5 minutes, it's almost overwhelming. I guess this is a good piece to play in certain moods (read: those moments you like to jump around the living room like a brainless baboon - what ? you never get that ?).
Watching the Tide is a fine ballad that I feel could definitely have been on a solo album by Nick if Morse had still been in the band. Finally, As Long As We Ride is a typical American AOR rock tune. One of those tunes that has Route 66 written all over it. Nothing wrong with that, consider it a light-hearted way to close off the album. Oh, and before I forget to mention it, it's got some marvellous scatting-acoustic guitar interplay.
Seemingly bass player Dave Meros wrote a lot of material for Octane. I was already very impressed with his compositional contribution on Feel Euphoria but Octane once again proves that this guy should have been let out of the can much earlier. All in all Octane is a fine album and definitely gets a recommendation. As said, it's not an instant classic but a highly enjoyable album nevertheless deserving full respect !
When I listened to the sample of The Beauty Of It All through the band’s website – it really blew my mind, as the music was melodic and beautifully crafted. I thought the band had pushed their music forward into a more symphonic vein. Then I received the promotional CD and spun it right away for appropriate scrutiny that I hoped would kill my curiosity. I was surprised with the fact that the album offered a wide variety of styles from hard rock, ballad and symphonic prog. As this new album represents the band’s second release in post Neal Morse era, I think it’s fair to compare with their previous album: Feel Euphoria. In terms of musical styles both albums are similar. Then I spun the CD on and on and I experienced some shifts in emotions about the music. The first write-up I completed right after five spins and I revised it again after 8 times. It has grown on me steadily until it settled down firmly at spin 10 onwards, and I think I’m ready to give my final view, having listened to it approx 14 times.
As their previous album had an epic called A Guy Named Sid, the first seven tracks of this new album form an epic too: A Flash Before My Eyes. I expected the epic would contain a stream of music through seven songs that build up into a cohesive whole. My first five spins of this CD did not sound that way. Each tune seemed like a stand-alone piece that had a loose - or even none - tie with the others. It’s OK if the tagline melody for each tune is different, as it supposed to be, but it must have had a smooth transition that connects to the next tune. Good examples are: Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood or Rick Wakeman’s No Earthly Connection. But, it has then grown slowly on me with the more spins I did. Now I can see some sort of connections of loose ends through musical nuances, even though most of them were not properly polished in such a way that create smooth transitions. I would say, it lacks structure and coherence as an epic. This does not mean each track is a bad one - most tracks are excellent. Beside the epic, the other five songs also vary in styles and compositions.
Let’s have a look on track by track basis …
The Ballet Of The Impact - is a rocking track with a driving rhythm section. It blew my mind at first listen and made me curious about the next tracks. It starts off with a Mellotron sound, reminiscent of Genesis’ Watcher of The Skies intro, but in a more modern sound. The howling guitar in the background soars and gives the music a rocking style - a blend of Hackett and Fripp – it’s really stunning, Alan. It has a relatively long intro in fast tempo and an excellent sound harmony from all instruments used. The opening tagline melody brought by guitar and keyboard is really catchy and uplifting for my personal taste. Approaching the two minute mark the Mellotron brings the music down smoothly followed by keyboard and piano section. I’m touched with the catchy melody created by keyboard / Mellotron that sounds softly like a flute. What a killing melody this line is! It’s amazing. It reminds me of the 70s prog music mixed with modern technology. Great work, Ryo. "When Nick's vocal enters the music, it projects a strong nuance of the music with his powerful voice. Honestly, I prefer Nick's voice than Neal's. It's excellent- one of my favorite tracks! It flows to second track in an ambient style with distanced bell sound."
I Wouldn't Let It Go is a ballad pop song that reminds me of The Distance to The Sun off the Day for Night album performed in happier mood. Acoustic guitar rhythm dominates the music augmented with symphonic keyboard / organ and guitar-work. The music flows straightforwardly with relatively minimum melody variation, ending up with a nice church organ sound. My appreciation towards this track has built up slowly (and firmly) with many spins. The song has successfully created a strong nuance especially through orchestration in the background.
Wow! Surfing Down The Avalanche - what a great rocking tune! It starts with Dave Meros’ fantastic bass line followed by rocking guitar sound that blasts the music off in up-tempo. The music reminds me to Led Zeppelin / Audioslave. I think the band has pushed their style further with this tune – it combines the classic rock sound with a touch of prog vibe excellently. The guitar riffs remind me to Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Tom Morelo of Audioslave. The vocal line is excellent with great high and low registers – I salute Nick on this. I love the interlude part where the powerful vocal is accompanied with dynamic drumming and dazzling bass lines. This track reminds me of opening track of Feel Euphoria album: Onomatopoeia. It’s an excellent track that will put the band in competition with hard rock (instead of prog) bands! Regardless of the musical boundary, I love this track very very much!
The opening part to She Is Everything is an ambient music with a rhythm that reminds me to Peter Gabriel’s music (to be specific: the intro part of The Rhythm of The Heat live version). The keyboard / Mellotron that produces a sort of flute sound before vocal line has accentuated the song beautifully. It reminds me to Arena’s The Visitor album. It’s a moderate / mellow tempo song with, again, powerful and clear voice of Nick augmented with excellent backing vocals. Stunning solo guitar reminds me of neo prog music interlude with some Gilmour’s style. It’s an excellent song for my personal taste. Well, I guess this song is accessible to wide variety of listeners – be it a proghead or music listener.
The Climbing Up That Hill track combines hard rock and prog styles. As far as the rhythm and melody concerned there is no question that this is straight forward rock music. But when I observe how the bass guitar is played, it produces an image of prog sound. Fantastic work, Mr. Meros! The drum and guitar works are also excellent. All musical instruments accompany rocking voice line in excellent harmony. Clearing off all musical boundaries, this is an excellent track! One of my favourite tracks!
Letting Go is a short track which consists of keyboard / Mellotron work that serves well as concluding part of previous track and it could have been made as part of it. Left alone as a track by itself, as it is, it fails to provide a smooth transition to the next track that represents the last one of A Flash Before My Eyes epic: Of The Beauty Of It All.
Of The Beauty Of It All is a superb track! It kicks off with an excellent and melodic vocal line backed with a soft keyboard sound that reminds me of Mike Rutherford’s solo album. The opening line flows smoothly and it continues with a very catchy keyboard sound (minute 0:58 onwards) right after the lyrical section “... of the beauty of it all …”. What a magic melody! This catchy melody has made me totally hooked to this track (for me, this part reminds me to “It’s getting late …” part of Heart of Lothian in Marillion's Misplaced Childhood). That’s not the end of my ultimate satisfaction. The next excellent segment is when the music shifts into a faster tempo with stunning guitar, dynamic bass line, great drumming augmented with Mellotron and orchestration (this part reminds me of “Wild boys! … “ part of Heart of Lothian). Wow! It’s a top notch musical composition: tight structure and very strong melody. For my personal taste, this is the best track of this album. This is the kind of music that I want the band to pursue in the future and craft it as Spock’s Beard sound.
NWC is another track that has amazed me even at first listen. It’s a great instrumental tune opened with a spacey soundscape followed by symphonic keyboard with firm drum beats augmented with stunning guitar rhythm. Simple opening but it works well to set the overall nuance of this tune. It turns to a complex piece with punchy keyboard / effects and returns back to original rhythm. The interlude part with African music influence is really great. The solo guitar was mixed thin so that it appears only at background but it serves really well to accentuate the music. This is the kind of music that fully satisfies my need. Awesome!
Nothing special about There Was A Time as this is a straight forward ballad with minimum prog element at all. It’s probably the interlude that I may consider that it has a bit of prog element. It reminds me of the bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eagles and the like. This track does not fit Spock’s Beard sound, I think. Therefore, it should have been removed from this album as it ruins the structural integrity of the album.
The opening part of The Planet's Hum is stunning; it combines dynamic bass line in jazzy style with stunning acoustic guitar work and flute sound with classical music influence. It turns then to a thumping beat music with excellent harmony vocals and instruments. It’s an interesting composition as the main rhythm of its body is a hard rock music, augmented with complex acoustic guitar work. Not bad but it’s not my favourite track.
Watching The Tide is a ballad pop song with excellent vocal and nice piano touch reminiscent of Marillion, Hogarth era in terms of musical nuance. It’s probably a break after rocking track. The music builds up slowly into high register with some orchestration. It’s good but it’s not my cup of tea and does not attract me to repeat.
As Long As We Ride is the only track that I hate its existence especially in this album. It has a very thin prog touch (only in a short duration during interlude). Be it as a straight forward rock tune, I do not enjoy this track at all. If I may suggest to the band, this should not be in the album at all as it ruins its cohesiveness. It’s a big regret that the band has ever created this tune. It does not even qualify as a bonus track. It’s hard to accept the Beard plays this tune.
In conclusion, this album has demonstrated the band’s positive progress compared to previous work. There are excellent tracks with symphonic prog as well as hard rock styles. Some tracks are mediocre and do not stand out as excellent compositions. The album fails to identify the musical identity – the Beard sound – post Neal Morse era. It’s obvious that the band has put a concerted effort to offer two alternatives of music for its listeners (past, current and future). First, being a hard rock band with some flavour of prog – especially during interlude part – as it’s been clearly indicated by strong influence of Audioslave, Led Zeppelin in some rocking tracks with more guitar sound: Surfing Down The Avalanche, Climbing Up That Hill, The Planet’s Hum, As Long As We Ride. Similar tracks also appear in the band’s previous album such as opening track Onomatopoeia. Second, being a melodic symphonic prog band - as indicated by tracks like: Of The Beauty Of It All, the second-half of The Ballet of The Impact, She Is Everything and NWC.
This album has not indicated any clear direction on which pathway the band would pursue in the future. They might play safe by offering both types of music, that I don’t think is a wise decision as it serves well, only during a transition period and will only serve to confuse the listeners and fans in the long run. As for my personal taste, I would love the band to pursue the second alternative as it’s more prog and it carries the soul of Spock’s Beard sound. The rocking tracks can be maintained by putting some prog elements or combining them with symphonic style. The Ballet Of The Impact and NWC are good examples. The band has to make up their mind for their next album - before it’s too late.
Although Octane is officially Spock’s Beard’s eighth release, its easier to see it as the ‘new’ (i.e. Neal Morse-less) Beard’s second album, and judge it on those merits. The fact that many were still reeling from Morse’s departure, and were grateful that the band had still decided to carry on without him, meant that Feel Euphoria was probably greeted with (in my opinion) more enthusiasm than it merited. Granted, there were a couple of excellent tracks (The Bottom Line and Ghosts Of Autumn), and much of the rest was pleasant listening, but the record was hamstrung somewhat by two main factors: first, the album attempted to cover too many bases in one go (including trying to make sure they included all the elements of the ‘trademark’ Beard sound – witness the rather forced ‘epic’ A Guy Named Sid), and secondly, the strength of the song writing simply wasn’t that strong. We all know these guys can play, and they are certainly capable of penning strong melodies and good choruses, but too often songs seemed to drag, or go off on tangents. The end result was an album that, whilst by no means bad, had only limited appeal. I quite enjoyed it at the time of the release, but haven’t felt compelled to play it much since.
So, have these flaws been eradicated on Octane? Unfortunately, I would largely say no. Thankfully the attempts to recreate the sound of the Morse-era has largely been abandoned, but the record still has a rather confused and disjointed feel – there’s simply too many ideas and styles present (some of which are attempted decidedly half-heartedly) for things to properly gel. Once again the song writing is a little uneven, and many songs seem to drag past the five or six minute mark because that’s what is expected of a prog band, when they would be better being three or four minutes in length. The end result is very much like Feel Euphoria – a generally pleasant listen, but nothing much more.
This is all the more frustrating because the CD kicks off very strongly indeed. The first seven tracks form a suite of songs titled A Flash Before My Eyes. The songs seemed to be connected more in terms of common lyrical content than musical, although the opening and closing sections do see recurring musical themes examined. The Ballet of The Impact gets the suite off to a very strong start. The introductory overture is great; very atmospheric, with a classic symphonic/ progressive feel, things come to a crescendo before gradually subsiding and building again as Nick D’Virgilio’s vocals enter the fray. This is vintage Beard – well crafted, with strong melodies and an imaginative yet unfussy arrangement.
Unfortunately, after this great opening, the Beard then destroy all the good work with a couple of the worst tracks on the album – I Wouldn’t Let It Go is a dull, country-flavoured rock song, with D’Virgilio seemingly basing his vocal style from The Eagles, whilst Surfing The Avalanche is a rather tuneless and badly structured up-tempo rock song, with a strange time signature; granted its heavy, but something tells me that the Beard’s heart isn’t really into this heavier direction (which is noticeable on a number of the tracks). The band seems much more at home on She Is Everything, a strong, atmospheric ballad, with something of an 80’s AOR feel. The guitar solo from Alan Morse which dominates the second half of the song is graceful and (relatively) restrained, although (as with much on the album) is rather overlong.
A couple of OK if unexceptional tracks follow - Climbing Up That Hill is an up-tempo track with a rather weak verse section but a good chorus, whilst Letting Go is a classical piece that seems there just to segue into the last song, The Beauty Of It All. Here again the quality meter goes back up, as themes established in the opening section return and are embellished over the course of what is a fine track. Overall then, this suite is decidedly hit and miss.
The five ‘stand alone’ tracks that complete the album are of similarly diverse quality. The instrumental NWC, for instance, is great – there’s another classy atmospheric intro, before a strong lead riff kicks in. The track has some good grooves and strong lead work from Alan Morse and Ryo Okumoto. There Was A Time is also quite good, a relatively simple, almost folky pop song with a good chorus which features particularly strong vocals from D’Virgilio. Less good is the rather messy The Planet’s Hum, although it does have some good moments, whilst Watching The Tide, a piano-led ballad in the late period Genesis mould, never quite delivers the strong chorus you’re expecting, instead just drifting along rather aimlessly. The album ends with the ‘feel-good’ rock of As Long As We Ride, which breezes along nicely; nothing outstanding, but its one of the better ‘heavier’ tracks.
Overall then, its clear that Spock’s Beard are far from a spent force without Neal Morse, as shown by the (too few) strong moments on the album. However, it’s becoming equally clear that they aren’t likely to reach the heights of the late nineties. Octane remains a frustrating album, merely a pleasant listen which is unlikely to get many repeated spins, whereas the band have shown that they are capable of better. I haven’t given up on them yet, but they need to produce stronger work than this to ensure they have a successful long-term future.
When Neal Morse left Spock’s Beard after the release of Snow, I really thought that the prog scene would loose another great band... However when Feel Euphoria hit the stores I was not dissatisfied at all, in fact I truly liked the album a lot, and I liked it even better after the Beard performed the songs live in Tilburg. Octane is their second effort without Neal and I can honestly say that I love this album. It is much better than FE and if you compare Octane with One (Neal’s second solo album after he left SP), then The Beard is the “winner”, without any doubt at all.
Their new album is filled with surprises, although a lot of die-hard proggies might by scared of, or disappointed, by the more (hard) rock approach on Octane. However the albums opens with the superb epic A Flash Before My Eyes, a song divided into 7 different parts. This is probably the absolute highlight of this album; it opens with a fantastic Mellotron intro, before this track evolves into one of the best Beard songs ever. Especially the guitar solos/melodies and the keyboard passages are of outstanding quality. Part 3: Surfing Down The Avalanche, is the heaviest SB piece of music I have ever heard and I really like it, as it reminds me of my favourite prog metal band Dream Theater; just check out those riffs by Alan Morse!! Nick’s varied vocal parts give this prog epic another magnificent dimension, especially the ballad-like passages as in part 2 I Wouldn’t Let It Go are sheer brilliance.
The other five remaining tracks are most of the time of the same high musical quality, although I think that Watching The Tide would have been better if the song would have been two minutes shorter... The instrumental track NWC is another highlight on this rather “heavy” album, as that one is filled with amazing rhythm changes and excellent guitar and keyboard solos. Spock’s Beard also knows how to touch an emotional “snare” with the breathtaking almost ballad As Long As We Ride. The more I listen to this album the more I appreciate it and I even discover some new musical aspects and refinements as I push the re-play button after the CD has ended. Octane is probably not what the “old” Beard-fans expected, but it is a superb album, more hard rock than progressive rock, but without any doubt, a wonderful musical roller coaster ride of one of the best bands at this moment. Well done, guys, and I am really looking forward to the new SB tour. Furthermore I will be sure that Octane will find a place in my top 5 of 2005; a great release at the beginning of a hopefully wonderful prog year.