Wow. The Beard are back! This, their ninth studio album, is the one I knew these four extremely talented guys could make. Unfortunately, for many people they will forever be compared to the “Neal Morse era.” It’s true that many of us had a lot invested in the band that we started loving when multi-instrumentalist/lead vocalist/songwriter Neal was a part of the band. Albums like Kindness of Strangers and V remain among my favorite progressive rock recordings ever. I would put this self-titled album right there along them. It even beats them at their own game a few times.
After Neal left, the band IMO struggled with finding their own identity. How would they ever be able to exist without such an important component as Neal? Seeing them live, I realized that they were perhaps even better with drummer Nick D’Virgilio as the front man. They looked like they were having more fun and had no problems realizing their large repertoire on stage. Truly, they were an incredible live act. Yet although the two studio recordings of SB 2.0 (as we like to call the band post-Neal) Feel Euphoria and Octane had merit, I had not quite warmed up to them entirely as I had the six albums before. Still a big fan and not ready to give up, I knew the talent was there to hit it out of the ball park. They did.
SB9, as we’ll call it from now on throughout this review, begins with the incredible symphonic prog track “On a Perfect Day.” It has all the elements of a great Spock’s Beard song with even an acoustic guitar instrumental section and great intensity. What follows is what may be my favorite instrumental prog jam of the decade, “Skeletons at the Feast.” Dave Meros’ bass and Ryo Okumoto’s keys bring this amazing tour de force to life. As a matter of fact, Ryo’s playing on this CD is amongst the best I’ve heard from him and that’s saying a lot. Great Moog solos and lightning-fast keyboard wizardry! What follows is different for SB, the three minute single! “Is This Love” is a rock’n’roll tune with a strong melody, prog-style stops & starts and fun lyrics. I wanna hear it on the radio!
I really would like to mention each song, because all of them are top quality. Track #4, “All That’s Left” leaves you with a tune that you cannot get out of your head and a great co-lead vocal and guitar solo by Al Morse. This brings me to my favorite cut on the album, “With Your Kiss.” It begins with one of the most powerful melodies I’ve heard from SB 2.0 and a gentle keyboard backing. Just after two minutes into the song, Al comes in with a swinging guitar rhythm that starts picking up the song from mellow to smooth. The band is teaming up to take you somewhere purposefully as is evident at just after four minutes with a melodic guitar solo and keyboard glissandos until it all stops around six minutes to segue into tribal beats and chants. It’s another rockin’ prog freak out! Nick is just blowing me away with his growth as lead vocalist. The other three are contributing to make this one of the best Spock’s Beard songs ever! We finally wind up this track with acoustic guitar and Nick’s vocal leading to a majestic ending for this eleven minute monster in a way that keeps me thinking of “The Radiant Is” from Kindness of Strangers. This is the longest track on the record, not counting the epic “As Far As the Mind Can See” that’s been broken down into four separate tracks at #10-#13.
The album loses just a little bit of steam with the next few tracks. How could you keep up this pace?! Al’s “Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go” is the best song I’ve ever heard him sing. It’s unsurprisingly also got a great guitar riff. “The Slow Crash Landing Man” is slow and deliberate. The rocker “Wherever You Stand” and ballad “Hereafter” are Ryo’s two songwriting contributions to SB9. I especially enjoy the “Lucky Man” style Moog solo in “Wherever You Stand“” and Nick’s delicate vocal on “Hereafter.” These are all good songs, just not as good as those before or after them.
And now… THE EPIC! The next four tracks comprise “As Far As the Mind Can See.” Every prog album must have an epic as even the last two SB 2.0 recordings have included “A Guy Named Sid” and “A Flash Before My Eyes.” “AFAtMCS” begins with “Dreaming In the Age of Answers.” Melodies are SB9’s strongest asset and part 1 of the epic is no different. Next, “Here’s a Man” begins part 2 with a Brand X/fusion feel. We definitely never heard anything like this when Neal was around! It really shows how much they’ve grown as songwriters. The music stays at this pace while an excellent vocal is layered over the top without disturbing the fusion feel. This is not an easy feat to accomplish. With part 3 “They Know We Know,” the chorus comes in big and even includes a brass section that is perfect in its execution. We end the epic with “Stream of Unconsciousness” as almost all SB epics have ended before, balls-out majestic rock! That large afore mentioned wind section helps this song come to its final conclusion. This is the best epic from this band since before Neal left.
Well… they should have ended the CD there. Although “Rearranged” is a great song it feels a little bit like a let down after the majestic closing of the previous piece. Once again the melodies are what brings this song (and the entire album) to its incomparable excellence. I especially like what Ryo’s doing here, again. He’s really brought a lot to this CD.
I can’t let this review end without mentioning the contributions of John Boegehold and Stan Ausmus as co-songwriters and occasional performers on many songs. Also, Rich Mouser’s assistance in production as he has so many times in the past for this band cannot be denied. This is in my opinion the best album of 2006. For all you Mad TV fans out there, “Spock’s Beard? SB9? Y’all done took it to a ‘Ho’e… ‘Nudder… Lebbel.”
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on December 19th, 2006