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Spock's Beard - The Light  CD (album) cover

THE LIGHT

Spock's Beard

 

Symphonic Prog

3.84 | 493 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars After being duly impressed with both "The Kindness of Strangers" and "V" I decided to venture back to the beginning of Spock's Beard's career. Sometimes backtracking to a band's starting point can be risky because more often than not you hear an understandably amateurish, embryonic version of what they would become years down the road. However, with "The Light" I found a group of musicians who were not only talented but studio savvy, stepping confidently into Progland with an album that suffers little from their lack of experience. In the liner notes of the 2004 reissue Neal Morse relates that, despite their high level of ability, they still had lousy luck in securing a recording contract. (Ya think?) I can just imagine a scene set in the early 90s in the Hollywood office of a major label. A know-it-all executive has just sampled their demo. He puts down his nasty cigar and looks them straight in the eyes: "So, what kind of music did you say this was? Prague rock? Sorry, fellas, we don't take Czechs here. Har, har, har! Seriously, though, I thought you dudes were from Culver City! Where's the grunge? I got news for you kids. No one wants to hear this convoluted crap! Come back when you've got a catchy hit single and a video with lotsa half nekkid women dancing around. THEN we'll talk."

Thank heaven they stuck to their guns and recorded this album on their own nickel, only aiming to please themselves. This is a wonderful debut. Some other reviewers complain that they sound like Kansas but I don't hear it. The only thing they have in common with that courageous band is A. They're Americans and B. They play symphonic prog. It's like saying Yes and Genesis sound alike because they're of the same genre and they're both from Britain. That lame argument just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. What these guys create is a unique brand of energetic, U.S.A.-styled rock containing traces of jazz, salsa, metal and California folk in an imaginative brand of progressive music. And, since we can count on one hand the number of State-side prog groups, a certain amount of respect should be granted them for defiantly swimming against the overwhelming tide of crass commerciality.

Neal relates that "The Light" was his first prog rock composition and, that being the case, it's no wonder that he's still one of the best at planting and harvesting in this particular realm of the music world. It's a very adventurous eight-segment piece that works well on multiple levels throughout its fifteen and a half minute run. After a brief, light piano intro "The Dream" explodes into a driving 5/4 jag from the ensemble that grabs your attention immediately. "One Man" follows and any notion that this is going to be some timid, new-age undertaking is dispelled by Alan Morse's rude but strangely gratifying electric guitar spasms. Lyric-wise it's a jumble of abstract images that seem to be presenting a portrait of society in general as if it were embodied in a single personality. "I am rock & roll/I am classical, country and soul/I am the nun and the flasher/I am the father, the son and the bastard," he sings. Next comes "Garden People" and it only serves as a short transition to the lively tempo of "Looking Straight Into The Light," where their admiration for their English prog predecessors is evident in its bouncy lilt. The movement ends with a trip into the wall-of-sound, cavernous dimension that I crave. "The Man in the Mountain" is a piano-based interlude where Morse delivers an emotional vocal, expressing a sadness that many of us have felt at one point or another. "I stand alone/I've been drowned/in a sea of loveless illusion," he cries. But before they allow things to get morose they slide into the spicy, humorous "Senor Velasco's Mystic Voodoo Love Dance," a Latin-styled song that showcases Neal's impressive Flamenco guitar playing. "The Return of the Horrible Catfish Man" snaps that festive mood right in half, though, with Morse shouting out a menacing vocal that'll make your hair stand on end. The whole number comes full circle with a return to "The Dream" where Neal conveys that the only thing he's trying to accomplish is to make music that can "stand up in the light." He, along with his bandmates, did.

"Go The Way You Go" starts off in a big, dynamic way and then segues into a smooth-running groove fueled by the great rhythm section of Dave Meros with his fat bass tones and Nick D'Virgilio with his clean but ever-punchy drum technique. These two are the unsung heroes of this whole album. This tune about searching for truth ("you can't know what you don't know") eventually drops down into a ballad mode for a while but they never let it overstay its welcome or get boring as they soon stoke it back up to a fiery rock beat with Alan blazing a swath with his hot guitar solo. (I don't recall him being this expressive and downright dangerous in his approach on other albums. It's like he's tiptoeing along the edge of losing control throughout and I kinda like it.) Neal tosses in a too-brief jazzy piano ride before they build up to a huge, satisfyingly grandiose finale. This tune is a fine example of Morse's uncanny genius for arranging that characterizes everything I've heard from him right up through his most recent solo album. His ability to seamlessly connect what should be conflicting musical ideas never ceases to amaze me. He is one of the all-time masters.

"The Water," a 23 minute extravaganza, is the epic centerpiece of the project and it's a doozy. A no- holds-barred statement of personal frustration and a maniac's rant against the human condition, it's as good as it comes. Neal's grand piano and Alan's cellos cruise along for the introduction until the group kicks in sporting a razor-sharp edge as the mighty Hammond organ steps to the forefront. Cascading vocal harmonies lead you to the scathing "When It All Goes To Hell" with its incredibly tight track supplied by Dave and Nick. The addition of a full chorale and Neal's tactful use of the Mellotron is a nice touch but it's Alan's tortured, deranged guitar lead that really twists your brain. On "A Thief in the Night" Morse's tone takes on an admirable Billy Joel-ish quality as he sings about how unfair life has been to him, how he's been callously abandoned by those he most trusted and how none of this is his fault as female vocalists wail in false sympathy behind him. All of this finally reaches the boiling point in a brutally honest, outraged outpouring of vicious venom on "FU" as Neal angrily screams at all within earshot that, as far as he's concerned, we can all take a phallic-shaped object and cram it up our personal orifice of choice. While some find this uncensored expression of pure hatred to be offensive, I find the use of this particular expletive to be most appropriate. It's not uttered gratuitously and it's absolutely necessary to the story. I admire the artistic integrity it took to leave it in because it makes a stark impact that gentler words wouldn't have. "I'm Sorry" follows right behind and its pitiful sentiment delivered in crisp, three-part CSN-like harmony is very effective. It's as if he thinks saying those two words makes everything okay. (I know people just like that.) Perched atop a pulsating bass line, the number reprises the initial "Water" melody before slipping into another slick, jazzy feel on "Runnin' the Race." If there's a dip in the momentum it's in the slow, bluesy aura of "Reach for the Sky." They break it all down to a lone piano and then gradually build to a crescendo complete with a soaring chorale and Neal's impassioned warblings about a "storm raging" in his soul. I think they were shooting for a spectacular gnashing of teeth effect here but it just doesn't pack the punch they hoped to land. Yet I won't criticize too harshly because this epic cut succeeds way more often than not and I consider it to be one of their finest moments.

After that almost anything would pale in comparison so the shorter "On The Edge," a life-in-the-fast- lane tune Neil wrote to be an encore in their stage show, works as well as any tune would. It's more of a straight-ahead, hard rock approach by the boys but it's nothing to look down your prog nose at, either. It has a heavy-rocking bass/guitar riff and features another tight-as-epoxy rhythm track that can't be beat. I especially like the deep synthesizer lines they employ on some of the connecting passages. Not bad.

The bonus track is a home demo of "The Light," interesting only in its display that this group had their parts nailed down pat before they even strolled through the studio doors. It shows the level of dedicated preparation on their behalf that led to this album being so professional sounding. My hat's off to them for doing it right.

As debut albums go this one's a blue-ribbon winner and an exemplary place to start for the Spock's Beard neophyte. As stated earlier, American prog bands are as rare as interviews with Bigfoot and what these guys had to fight against to even get "The Light" distributed would probably have made lesser groups throw up their collective hands in disgusted concession. Lucky for us they stubbornly persevered in pursuing their dream. 4.3 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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