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Spock's Beard - Snow CD (album) cover


Spock's Beard


Symphonic Prog

3.86 | 692 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars What Steely Dan is to jazz rock/fusion, the Neal Morse-era Spock's Beard is to symphonic prog rock. Say what? Allow me to explain. Both brought an accessible, proletarian mentality to their respective genres that emphasized the noble art of songwriting over long, extended instrumental passages. For some that means they veered too close to pop. I can understand that view but I'm one who considers the talent to create memorable, melodic tunes out of thin air to be the apex of musical genius. Virtuosity can be acquired through diligent practice and lifelong dedication to mastering an instrument but composing is something one is born with. You've either got the knack or you don't. That's why I judge this double album to be an amazing achievement.

But hold the I-phone. This ambitious undertaking has a downside. I consider myself a bit of a wordsmith so story lines and lyrical content are very important to me. "Snow" has a deficiency in that area. If a band is going to deliver a rock opera to the world they must prepare for comparisons to titans like "Tommy" and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway." In the case of the former the plot flows like a classic novel and the latter is a brilliant avant garde work chock full of surrealistic images and phantasmagoria that boggle the brain. Not that the literate side of this project is pitiful, it just doesn't measure up. The basic tale is weak. Judge for yourself: A very white boy with spiritual powers goes to Gotham, displays his gift for psychological healing, becomes an icon with all its trappings, gets his heart smushed flat by a girl, descends into a serious funk and hits rock bottom before he is redeemed by the love of the folks he saved along the way. There's just not a lot of imagination involved in that saga and perhaps it's a product of Neal dividing his time and energies between Spock's Beard and Transatlantic amidst its conception. If the music wasn't so incredible it might have been a disaster. But it's far from that. Recording tracks this tight, this expansive, this varied is hard and only experienced, able musicians can do it right. The end result is nothing short of extraordinary.

Acoustic guitar and vocal start you on your journey with the simple "Made Alive" before Alan Morse's twangy axe barges in for the "Overture." Bassist Dave Meros employs a more suitable, less-trebly tone this time around and drummer Nick D'Virgilio proves that he deserves to be ranked in the elite corps of prog percussionists. They are the unshakable rock this project sits securely on. Horns are an added bonus in this rousing instrumental. Things re-settle into an acoustic mode for "Stranger in a Strange Land," where Alan's subtle slide work shines. The song builds to the 3-part harmony of the chorus before they seamlessly segue into the sizzling 6/4 opening for "Long Time Suffering." Resolving into a straight 4/4 beat, this screaming rocker will make your day. Snow, fresh off the farm, is confronted with the despair of the streets thriving all around him and the myriad of musical ideas that convey his shock are wondrous. One of the group's trademark interlaced vocal breaks occurs before they return to the verse/chorus and end it with chiming guitar. A funky Rhodes piano starts "Welcome to New York City" where they show off dynamic arrangement skills by occasionally slipping down some sinister alleyways. Neal turns in a cool jazz piano solo that leads to the pivotal moment when Snow touches the seedy hustler, The Knight.

A grand piano and acoustic guitar lend a tender grace to the stacked vocal lines of "Love Beyond Words" where The Knight is transformed into Snow's apostle. Huge guitars dominate the hard- driving "39th Street Blues (I'm Sick)" in which a prostitute shares her pain with the duo. Next comes a drug addict's story in "Devil's Got My Throat" wherein keyboard man Ryo Okumoto steers things in a different direction without losing a drop of momentum. Neal's synthesizer runs cut like a knife and Ryo's roaring Hammond organ delights. Once again their aptitude for combining multiple themes into a cohesive whole is on display. Snow's reputation spreads and he delivers his message of love to a curious throng in the uncomplicated ballad, "Open Wide the Floodgates." I like how they allow the tune to drift into a casual jam session briefly before returning to the chorus. "Part 2" is more up-tempo and you're treated to Nick and Alan's singing for a change as they volley back and forth. Ryo's Mellotron flutes are great but when they expand into a gargantuan symphonic prog section I get goose bumps. A homeless chap relates his sad tale on "Solitary Soul," a somber tune where it's easy to overlook the astounding Mellotron in the background if you're not paying attention. In the stirring "Wind At My Back" the poor soul expresses his devotion to his new-found savior as the band pulls out all the stops, constructing a full-spectrum wall of sound complete with plunging synthesizer notes that will test your speakers.

Neal wrote most of the songs but the first two cuts on disc #2 are group creations that show they weren't idle while their leader was away. The metal motif of "Second Overture" indicates that Neal brought back a taste for Mike Portnoy's intensity and D'Virgilio more than meets the challenge on the tubs. Dual synthesizer lines and the horns from Hell precede a spoken-word update on the spiritual phenomenon known as Snow. But in "4th of July" our tabloid star is smelling himself and the music offers a contrast between dirge-like heaviness with stark accents and smooth, Beatle-like harmonies with slide guitar. Snow's inflated ego emerges in the industrial groove of "I'm the Guy" where Neal's menacing delivery, Nick's gated drums, Alan's demonic guitar effects and above-average lyrics make this tune a highlight. "Reflection" is serene at the outset, then the band introduces a jazzy lilt and Ryo's Mellotron strings as Snow's overwhelming infatuation with his first crush is revealed. Piano and acoustic guitar combine in a beautiful lead-in etude for the love song, "Carie." D'Virgilio can croon and he demonstrates it here. This song and his sincere performance is flat out heavenly.

A strong southern rock atmosphere colors Nick's "Looking for Answers." His voice reminds me of Tommy Shaw of Styx but it's just an okay tune that goes on about a minute too long. It seems since Snow fell for this lady he's thinking she's his personal deliverer but his fantasy is shattered on "Freak Boy," a heavy metal ditty that features fat, layered guitars. Carie says in no uncertain terms that she wouldn't touch him with a 50-footer and splits. Snow's world crumbles in "All Is Vanity," a multi-leveled piece populated by sprightly synthesizers, riff reprisals, a fiery Hammond solo slathered over a ferocious band track and towering symphonic prog segments. "I'm Dying" introduces yet another in a string of catchy guitar patterns and Neal's desperate vocal tugs at your heartstrings. The chorus and the later section are both enormous in scope and the short spasm of weirdness they indulge in at the end is a respectful nod to "The Lamb." Drums, bass and a creeping guitar riff create tragic scenery for "Freak Boy (Part 2)," a depiction of Snow's self-loathing, then a revisit to the brash, noisy rocker "Devil's Got My Throat" adds to the drama of his degrading downfall.

Two instrumentals follow and they're both killers. "Snow's Night Out" is very involved mayhem as Dave & Nick dazzle in their tightness and the self-explanatory "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto on the Keyboards" is a fine showcase for this talented musician. He makes his Hammond growl like a Grizzly and he gives Keith Emerson a run for his money when it comes to coercing rude screams from the organ. Then BOOM! Snow crashes. "I Will Go" is a heartbreaker that uses a Mellotron chorale to set the mood. After some tense piano chords the group starts to climb back up. The thick depth of field joined with the background vocals answering Neal's signifies our hero's reconstitution as his caring friends surround him. They briefly reprise "Made Alive Again" before moving into "Wind At My Back" where D'Virgilio takes it up a notch and they commit to the song without reservation. This may be the longest ride on the wave of pure emotion I've ever heard as the harmonies get higher and higher with every round and Neal submerges himself in "the spirit" unconditionally. For some it may be too much but for me it's a total release. And kudos for the classy shout-out to their fans and followers just before the colossal, concert-styled finale.

After noticing widely-varying opinions in the reviews of this album I honestly didn't know what to expect. "V" was amazingly well put together and it seemed far-fetched to think that they screwed the pooch on their follow-up. They didn't. If you disliked Spock's Beard ere to "Snow" then I doubt this will change your mind. If you love their "Americanized" take on symphonic prog as much as I do, then you'll be ecstatic with this double CD set because it's more of the same excellent music and an ocean of it to swim in. If they'd spent more time on the overall story and the lyrical content this would've been their finest hour and a bonafide masterpiece. But that's just my take. As it is, I'll be enjoying "Snow" from time to time for the rest of my days. 4.4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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