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Spock's Beard - The Kindness Of Strangers  CD (album) cover

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Spock's Beard

 

Symphonic Prog

3.75 | 373 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars By 1997 progressive rock music was finally starting to rise up out of the grave that the "I want my MTV" generation had buried it in. But an all-USA symphonic prog band was (and is) still as hard to find as an honest politician and it's pretty much been that way since Kansas made their distinctive mark in the 1970s. The "where's the hit single?" mentality of the stodgy fat cats in the music industry has always discouraged any forays away from the accepted "conquer-the-Top 40" formula for success in this country. That's why most of us natives have had to look overseas (with the exception of jazz rock/fusion) to get our prog fix. It's also why I'm so pleased to have discovered the swim-against-the- current creations of Spock's Beard. These guys deserve a medal for courage and sheer intestinal fortitude in sticking by their progressive guns when I'm sure they were told over and over that no one was interested in such indulgent nonsense. As it is, "The Kindness of Strangers" is a fine album in spite of the oppressive odds stacked against it.

"The Good Don't Last" starts things off in fine prog fashion with a mysterious organ droning under an ominous cello before morphing into a jazzy swing feel. However, jazz this ain't and soon they're cruising to a strong rock beat with subtle classical influences. And this gumbo of genres is just the intro! The meat of the epic features a very catchy verse and hook line with an instrumental section that's chock full of interesting detours off the beaten trail. The lyrics paint a caustic but fair picture of American life in the narcissistic 90s as Neal Morse sings "we could've made anything we wanted/so we made "Wheel of Fortune"/and all the popular songs/we made a land where crap is king/and the good don't last too long." That statement hits the cultural nail squarely on the head as far as I'm concerned. A slower movement involving a string quartet ensues on the majestic "The Radiant Is," a dramatic tune with esoteric words and an edgy but soaring guitar solo from Alan Morse. The fade-out with the string quartet is a nice touch.

I think in the eyes of the "biz" the fact that the group had one foot firmly entrenched in hard rock & roll was most likely the reason they got to make records at all. The driving "In the Mouth of Madness," led by the boisterous bass of Dave Meros is a good example of their blend of rock and prog. There's nothing shy about their approach on this one. "Hey, there, would you like to ride/on the best event since suicide/Hey, people, come and board the train/come anaesthetize your frazzled brain" Neal beckons. His histrionics on the synthesizer are reminiscent of some of Keith Emerson's scathing rides in ELP's heyday and drummer Nick D'Virgilio throws in some blazing fills along the way. The opening riff of "Cakewalk on Easy Street" is intriguing due to Nick's odd take on the downbeat as he turns it into a mild mind-mucker, but once it straightens itself out it's a kick butt, in-your-face reminder to count your daily blessings as Neal describes the world as seen by an army vet who is less than whole. "I have nothing to say/'cept all my friends have gone away/half of me is plastic and wood/but at least I've got my arms/that's good." The lyrics may be thought-provoking but there's nothing soft or sentimental about the music. It's a heavy barnburner from top to bottom.

According to the liner notes Neal was hesitant to put "June" on the album because he figured it was too "normal" to include but I'm glad he did. A song doesn't have to be prog for me to like it when it's done as well as this one is. Basically an exercise in CS&N-styled harmonies sung over simple acoustic guitar, it is grandly gorgeous nonetheless with excellent counterpoint and a steady build-up to a super finale as the group joins in. It's about them looking back on a period in the band's career when everything was magically perfect and realizing that they may never experience anything as special as that ever again. It's a bittersweet tune that gets better with every listen. "Strange World" is a well- designed pop/rock ditty with progressive tendencies that works on many levels. It's a social commentary that could have come straight off the front page of the newspaper ("I didn't know life could get so cold/I didn't see/I thought they were all like me") and Alan's out-of-control guitar lead is enough to wake the dead.

The apex of the album comes on "Harm's Way," an 11-minute epic that leaves no doubt as to this group's symphonic prog prowess. After a sizzling hot intro, keyboard man Ryo Okumoto lays down a thick carpet of Mellotron strings under the verse where Neal exclaims that he can no longer stand idly by while the world goes to Hell in a hand basket. "I can't look the other way/just to stay out of harm's way," he sings. The mood changes dramatically when a jazzy Rhodes piano takes over, leading to Alan's best guitar solo where he is seemingly possessed by the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan's slinky mannerisms. A cool electric piano ride follows before they segue into the outstanding passage of the whole endeavor where Ryo sets the studio afire by double-timing on the mighty Hammond organ as the rest of the band falls in behind him. Hallelujah! Prog is alive in the United States of America and it's right here for everyone to witness! Glory be! It even has a big ol' pompous-as-all-get-out finale that appeals unashamedly to my bleeding prog heart. Hear, hear!

The longest cut, "Flow," also happens to be their most uneven. The roots of the track come from material written by Neal when he was just 16 and perhaps it should have stayed in his 70s file. Not that it's a total waste of time, mind you. "True Believer" sports a bang-up introduction and the grand piano adds a touch of grandeur to the melody line but overall it seems a bit overwrought (although I do like the central musical theme they establish). Lyrically it's kinda scattershot and too existential for its own good but at least the words don't get in the way of the performance. "A Constant Flow of Sound" is the pothole in the highway for me mainly because I don't care much for the quasi-funky feel and the cheesy guitar effect that Alan employs. At this point I'm thinking they felt if they tinkered with this thing long enough it would blossom into something great but it never makes it to the promise land. "Into the Source" slips you into a pool of serenity dominated by acoustic piano before they return to the central theme and predictably rotate it through several key changes before fading away. Not bad but not as good as the tunes that preceded it.

The bonus material doesn't really add much to the package. The first three songs are presented in their "radio edit" forms which means all the interesting prog elements have been purged, probably at the behest of the label executives and marketing pukes. While the home demo versions of "June" and "Strange World" offer glimpses into their creative process, they also show why groups still turn to professional studio engineers for the finished product.

I can understand why some don't cotton to the sharp, hard rock edges that Spock's Beard often displays but it more or less reflects what they were raised on and, therefore, it shows up in their music. Subtlety wasn't what was getting a band played on American radio in those days and these guys were fighting for their lives to get recognized. When I take all of that into consideration I applaud the group for standing proudly on its prog feet and producing an excellent album of songs that doesn't have a single "skipper" in the bunch. 4.2 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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