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Spock’s Beard – Top Ten List August 16, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in music, music commentary, progressive rock, rock music, Spock's Beard.
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This is the second of what will be a series of posts offering Top-Ten lists of selections from various progressive rock bands, past and present. (When I started this blog, I said it would be mainly for writing, but with some surprises. I have now posted a number of times about music, including a few posts specifically about progressive rock: The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes, The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, Flower Kings – Top Ten list, Music Review/Comentary – MoeTar and Beggar’s Opera – Rock Music Commentary. I released my own mystic jazz CD “Issa Music” late last year.)

A few words about this Top Ten list for Spock’s Beard—this list will pertain to the six studio albums released between 1995 and 2002 that included Neal Morse. For me, “Spock’s Beard” without Neal Morse sounds like a different band. Also, “Snow,” the final release of the six, is a dramatic whole. I have extracted cuts from that whole for this list, and have not treated “Snow” as one selection. I also treated “The Healing Colors of Sound” from “Day for Night” as one selection even though it is offered as six selections. It is as complete a whole as other long-form selections on the other CDs. This choice is arbitrary. “Snow,” for me, was uneven, and would not make this list as a whole. But selections from it are wonderful, worthy of consideration for the list.

For my tastes (please offer comments if your tastes are different—or, you can say if you agree), I found no Top Ten selections from their first CD, “The Light.” And I found many from “Kindness of Strangers,” “Day for Night,” and “V.” So, obviously, for people trying to decide which Neal Morse “Spock’s Beard” CDs to buy first, I recommend those three CDs.

So here’s the list, from Number Ten, finishing with Number One:

10 – “The Big Nothing” from “V,” 2000 (27:18)
One of Spock’s Beard’s epics with catchy piano riffs and poignant acoustic guitar riffs tying together melodic voice-chord song sections also punctuated with guitar and keyboard solos. The riffs stretch out into improvisational opportunities. They tie the big epic together near the end with the melodic electric guitar riff that started it off, concluding the nearly thirty minute selection with an anthem-like finish featuring two wailing guitars. The subject seems to be about music commerciality versus art.

9 – “The Devil’s Got My Throat” from “Snow,” 2002 (7:17)
This is a visceral, driving, tuneful song from Spock’s Beard’s opera “Snow.” It starts out with an ambiguous rhythm of hammering, thumping organ chords jumping in intervals, working its way into its dynamic hook—“The Devil’s Got My Throat, I’m going down, that’s all she wrote.” They slip into a few instrumental interludes, and even some vocal counterpoint, developing themes from the bass rhythm and notes, but the song’s strength is that driving rhythm and jumping, pounding chords.

8 – “The Doorway” from “Beware of Darkness,” 1996 (11:27)
One of Spock’s Beard’s most thematically developed long-form pieces, with ideas worked over and varied as the song seems to describe a spiritual journey, though the exact nature of the doorway, and the “[who] are the doorway” that goes with the “you are the doorway,” is left open to interpretation. The anthem-like conclusion (followed by a brief coda) and the inventive development of this early Spock’s Beard piece puts it in the Top Ten.

7 – “At the End of the Day,” from “V,” 2000 (16:30)
Much of Spock’s Beard’s music, including many of the epic progressive-style pieces, evolve around strong songs—chords under lyrics in a great marriage of words and music. So for a number of the epic-length pieces coming up, it is a matter of taste, of what melody, what song, strikes the listener as most pleasurable. The hook “at the end of the day” is pleasant and so is the theme of not getting too wound up about transient events because “at the end today, you’ll be fine.” Also included is some solid development of the main melody, played by a french horn, and a B section reminiscent of a sort of Spanish-style chord progression/riff, with an electric piano solo played over the riff. The reprise of the main verse sections features a great running bassline pounding underneath with some wah guitar effects adding to the turbulent flavor of the final reprise.

6 – “Day for Night,” from “Day for Night,” 1999 (7:34)
“Day for Night” is another fine song, great melody and chords, winding out into a larger whole. It is a tighter construction than some of the epics, making it easier to grasp, so for me, elevating it on the list. The song climaxes with some wonderful vocal harmonies and counterpoint, making this memorable tune, well-developed and economical, one of the top Spock’s Beard tracks.

5 – “The Healing Colors of Sound” from “Day for Night” (selections 8 to 13) 1999 (total cumulative time 21:07)
In the tradition of Jethro Tull’s “Passion Play” (and even “Jesus Christ Superstar”), we have a story-selection (broken into different parts, but clearly meant to be taken in as a single whole) loosely based on the New Testament story of Jesus. Memorable themes, anthems that build in intensity—the “My Shoes” vocal line rises an octave as it evolves—make this a top Spock’s Beard effort. Along the way, we have the biting rock style of “Mommy Comes Back,” and the lighter rock style of “The Healing Colors of Sound” complete with fanfarish french horns. The whole selection culminates with a huge anthem, the epitome of the Spock’s Beard style, a reprise of “My Shoes.”

4 – “Flow” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (15:48)
This is a long form, epic piece with a few simple ideas—the biggest idea is the “true believer” who will never be a victim of the “great deceiver.” For my taste, the entire piece hangs together magnificently, with every instrumental interlude and new theme a joy with no real soft spots. And the concluding spiritual/mystical section (“Into the Source”) is one of my favorite Spock’s Beard musical moments, with its towering simplicity, musically and lyrically. After sections of turbulence and tension, the “Into the Source” finale invites us into a simple yet elegant state of mind.

3 – “The Good Don’t Last” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (10:04)
This is my favorite of the epic-length Spock’s Beard pieces (Number Two and Number One are shorter song forms). The opening jazz waltz, with one line working up while another works down until they are joined at the end of the phrase, lets us know we’re in for something special. The verses have a tuneful, memorable flow. The piece seems to refer to lost opportunities, to missed chances to accomplish greatness. But at the end, there is hope we still have a chance—“The radiant is still here… And it’s not going to disappear.”

2 – “June” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (5:29)
For the top two, I admit I am emphasizing music over lyrics, song-craft over epic-craft. This song simply has a wonderful melody and harmony, with images of nostalgia and “fire girls” dancing through it. Yes, it is the kind of song that sticks in your head for days.

1 – “Skin” from “Day for Night” 1999 (3:58)
This song is just simply a great combination of words and music. It’s catchy and there is depth to the lyrics as well. It is not as big in form as some of the grander Spock’s Beard epic cuts. But it is a song I can hear over and over and walk away singing. This makes it a great melding of progressive rock and tuneful, popular music.

Almost Made the Top Ten

11 – “Wind at My Back” and “Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back” from “Snow” 2002 (5:12, 8:28)

  • One of the big anthem selections from Spock’s Beard’s two-CD rock opera “Snow.” I listed the selections together because they both feature the “Wind at My Back” melody. There is an exhilarating inspirational quality to the song.

12 – “I Will Go” from “Snow,” 2002 (5:09)

  • Right before the big climax of “Snow” with “Wind at My Back,” comes this song of decision, rising, building from the depths of despair to the energy of determination.

13 – “Revelation” from “V” 2000 (6:04)

  • Starts as a dreamy song, with electric piano bouncing across the speakers, then hammered with a big hook about the “rain of revelation.”

14 – “Crack in the Big Sky” from “Day for Night” 1999 (9:59)

  • Driving-rock, guitar-riff oriented epic-length song about “Crack in the Big Sky,” with rain, but with “night staying and music playing” that “could not shame this high.”

15 – “Long Time Suffering” from “Snow,” 2002 (6:04)

  • Great hook on the lyrics “Long Time Suffering,” in this selection toward the beginning of “Snow.”

16 – “Gibberish” from “Day for Night,” 1999 (4:18)

  • Complex instrumental and vocal counterpoint, reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s “Reflections” give us an adventurous progressive rock song influenced by Gentle Giant, but with Spock’s Beard’s distinctive stamp.

17 – “Strange World” from “The Kindness of Strangers,” 1997 (4:20)

  • “The bomber got his manifesto published in the New York Times.” It is a “strange world,” well described musically in his ditty-like, quirky song.

With this post, I have followed my Top Ten list for Flower Kings. These two progressive rock groups are more contemporary groups, issuing their CDs during the 1990s and 2000’s. My next Top Ten progressive rock posts will be more ambitious. I will tackle Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, King Crimson, and Gentle Giant. You can expect those posts over the next six months or so. In the meantime, feel free to offer your comments. Formulating a list like this is a way to share reactions to the music. Of course, there is no right answer to this sort of assessment. So please feel free to offer your own take on Spock’s Beard with your comments.