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Spock's Beard - Beware of Darkness CD (album) cover


Spock's Beard


Symphonic Prog

3.68 | 524 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
3 stars It's a common tale in the "biz." Aspiring musicians slave away for years honing their craft playing tired pop tunes for drunks in smoky bars and grungy dives for mere nickels and dimes, dreaming of glory days to come. They eventually find a compatible combination of other like-minded bohemians and form a band. They hustle and grovel to get their raw demos in front of conceited, self-absorbed A&R grunts at the labels in a never-ending quest for that elusive record deal. At long last the day dawns when they sign on the dotted line in blood, put out their debut album, go out on the long hard road to promote it and, if they're lucky, receive encouragement from the public's feedback and move a few discs. Suddenly it's time for the follow-up and cold, stark reality smacks the group right across their collective mugs. The cream of what they had written, rehearsed and perfected for years went into that first CD and ever since its release they've been too busy to compose new stuff and they're looking around at each other asking "what now?" This usually results in what's referred to as the "sophomore jinx." But there's no voodoo involved, it's simply cause and effect at work in the world of music and all successful artists have to deal with it. While not bad in any sense of the word, "Beware of Darkness" is a slight step down from Spock's Beard's impressive initial foray into Progland, "The Light."

One indication of this predicament can be detected when a band records a cover of a well-known star's material, even if it's a relatively obscure deep album cut like George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness." Having said that, it's certainly a liberal, bold interpretation. After a big, dynamic intro it glides into being a heavy, Yes-styled rocker that sizzles right along until the verse abruptly arrives and that's when it staggers and loses momentum. It's almost like two songs stuck uncomfortably together and, despite containing some of Harrison's most haunting lyrics ("Watch out now/take care, beware/of greedy leaders/who take you where you should not go/while weeping at the cedars/in the dead of night/..beware of sadness"), the tune falls a little flat. One bright point is the fiery solo supplied by the group's newest member, Ryo Okumoto, as he sets his Hammond organ ablaze. The large chorale at the end is a nice touch but overall I don't think the song lends itself well to the prog treatment they give it.

Next up is the crazy, scattered "Thoughts." Now look, I like weird, offbeat numbers as much as the next progger but this one just doesn't make it for me. The track laid down by drummer Nick D'Virgilio and bassist Dave Meros is as tight as it can possibly be but, as great as they always are together, even they can't make a cohesive casserole of all the wild, disjointed musical ingredients flying around willy- nilly over their heads. It's a failed experimental dish involving intricate harmonizing vocal lines and rude synthesizer noises (among other strange things) that, while courageous, is ultimately a mess that doesn't taste good. In the liner notes Neal Morse admits that he considered it to be too "out there" but lead guitarist and sibling Alan talked him into recording it. Neal should have stuck with his gut feeling on this one.

Just when I'm wondering if I've made a mistake in buying this CD, "The Doorway" opens with a magnificent piano performance and I gladly set my apprehension aside. Like Tony Banks' amazing piano introduction to Genesis' timeless "Firth of Fifth," Neal mesmerizes and completely captivates your attention here. The group makes a graceful, smooth entrance, then the verses and choruses hit with power. Neal Morse possesses an uncanny aptitude for prog rock arrangements and that gift is very evident on this song as they segue into a calmer bridge section, followed by strong acoustic guitars intertwining under the emotional vocals. After a return to the tune's main theme (Is it just me or does it remind you of John Williams' brilliant score for "Jurassic Park?" I'm just sayin'.) they build up to a gigantic BOOM! that rattles the china closet in the next room. But it's a false ending as the band gradually fades back in and goes on to get rowdy and frantic for no good reason other than to provide themselves with a noisy concert ending. No matter, it's still a humdinger.

Neal's lone acoustic guitar recital of his "Chatauqua" is next and, while it's okay, I've heard better. It has "filler" painted all over it and I gotta say that Mr. Morse will never be mistaken for Steve Howe. Moving on, "Walking on the Wind" is a highlight and the most cohesive track on the album. Its forceful beginning emphasizing Ryo's command of the Hammond organ, the exciting stabbing accents, Dave's impeccable bass tone and Nick's torrid drumming make this one a stunner. The tune's melodic verses and choruses are engaging but it's Meros' fluid fretless work during the subdued middle segment that elevates this number into greatness. It's downright awe-inspiring. All of this leads up to a grandiose, full-scale finale that makes the prog monster in me one happy ogre. This is symphonic prog done right, my friends.

"Waste Away" may not be particularly progressive but it's a hell of a driving rock & roll ditty, to be sure. Following a deceivingly serene acoustic guitar intro the band comes roaring in with an all-out frontal attack and they don't let up till it's over five minutes later. Alan Morse's massive electric guitar tone rules the day here and, while the lyrics are somewhat inane, the catchy hook line will stick in your skull whether you want it there or not.

Which brings us to the album's grand epic, "Time Has Come." Inspired by the psychopathic thought processes of the Trashcan Man from Stephen King's "The Stand," this is what Spock's Beard excels at. There are really three tunes in one here but it is so well-structured that it never flags or gets clumsy for a moment as the arrangement flows like a river. After another boisterous start it settles down into a menacing verse and chorus where Dave's fat bass slays once again. (Chris Squire's got nothin' on this dude!) Alan spits out a scary but necessary guitar ride before they transition into the "cardboard people" number where Okumoto's organ and Mellotron performances nearly steal the show. D'Virgilio has been steady as a stone throughout but he finally gets to cut loose at this point and his energetic drum fills will make your hair stand on end. Making a potentially long narrative short, I skip ahead a bit to where they finally arrive at the bouncy "we love you but we'll hate you if you leave" melody line that leads to a surprisingly gentle ending. Well done. (The two bonus tracks are home demos of "The Doorway" and "Beware of Darkness." Need I say more?)

If not for the first two tracks this recording would stand in defiance of the famous jinx I spoke of earlier but, sandwiched between their eye-opening debut and the wonderful "The Kindness of Strangers" album, it's just not as consistent. I still keep them on a pedestal for being one of the few USA groups brave enough to create symphonic prog music in an age where blatant commercialism and shameless pandering to the lowest common denominator dominates popular culture. "Beware of Darkness" is no masterpiece, but there are plenty of WOW! moments to make it worth having in your collection. 3.4 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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