This 1997 release by modern prog giant Spock’s Beard was the CD that proved to me my style of prog music was not dead! That you could mix Symphonic, Eclectic, and Neo-Prog with Lennon and McCartney’s commercial sensibilities and produce a work of outstanding merit.
A solo cello by guitarist Al Morse plays with an ambient orchestral synth, abruptly leading to a bouncy bassline that is joined by the band in a section reminding me of a more jazz influenced Kansas crossed with Gentle Giant. Ten minute track “The Good Don’t Last” then goes mainstream with a pop rock anthem (occasionally Cheap Trick influenced) until it finally winds up segueing seamlessly into a mellow ending that recalls all the previous sections and once again features the cello in a grand majestic finish like a Yes or Genesis. Pure Prog Heaven to these prog hungry ears.
A quartet of shorter songs follow and are sandwiched between the three longer pieces that begin and close this prog rock extravaganza. “In the Mouth of Madness” is less than five minutes long though you never know it by the amount of imagination has gone into it. Kindness of Strangers twists and turns around constantly, with inventive harmonies and oddly accessible instrumental passages claiming a stance between rock and roll and prog I’d not heard before. Is this prog rock with commercial leanings or commercial songs with prog leanings? They are constantly straddling the lines with songs like “Cakewalk On Easy Street” and “Strange World” that are short yet delicious slices of Beatlesque pop that turn you around, prog you up and then kick you in the behind when you least expect it. There are few songs as beautiful as “June,” a lovely acoustic guitar ballad with a tender melody and vocal harmony rounds that sound as gorgeous as anything we’ve heard from bands like Queen, CSN or Yes.
“Harm’s Way” moves easily from section to section and does not overstay its over eleven minute duration with Neal Morse’s jazz-groove piano and brother Al’s percolating guitar playing nasty solos that go from Fripp to Gilmour in a split second. This album is a tour-de-force for the entire band, as keyman Ryo Okumoto blows it out constantly on Hammond and Mellotron, bringing the Wakeman and Emerson flourishes. Dave Meros and Nick D’Virgilio make up one of the finest rhythm sections in progressive rock, and Nick is no slouch in the vocal department either. Dave’s creative bass lines always surprise and stay locked in when needed, flowing out of the pocket only when necessary.
“Flow” is a grand and majestic way to end the record. It is steady and deliberate through to the final note, never wavering from Spock’s Beard’s mission to create a memorable and interesting slice of American Prog. I don’t know. Can you tell I love this record? Kansas? Pink Floyd? Todd Rundgren? Jellyfish? Gentle Giant? Yes? Cheap Trick? 10CC? The Beatles? Genesis? Do you have room for all of these artists in your collection? Then you really need to check this album out. It still sounds as fresh today as it did in 1997. Some would say start with the Light (and I did), but Spock’s Beard defining moment for me was this record and 2000’s V.
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on March 15th, 2012