Spock's Beard - Octane

Year of Release: 2005
Label: InsideOut
Catalog Number: IOMCD 198/SPV 085-40702
Format: CD
Total Time: 55:56:00

My initial thought when I first played Spock's Beard's Octane was "where's the octane?" I expected a supercharged, high-energy, kick-the-jams out release. In fact, the only thing that really fit the title for me, in the way I expected, was the closing track "As Long As We Ride." Listening more - and I have been listening a lot - I can conclude that "Surfing Down The Avalanche," "NWC" and "The Planet's Hum" all can be said to contain "octane." My favorite track, though I wouldn't call it proggy at all, is "Climbing Up That Hill." It sounds a lot like something that REM, at least early to mid-period REM, would do, jangly guitars 'n' all (hmm...think "Orange Crush"). That's fine by me, as I'm an REM fan, too. But my saying so may not convince you that that is a good - not great, not classic, but good - Spock's Beard release, even if you feel that maybe they oughta have changed their name.

If Feel Euphoria was the bridging album between Spock's Beard I and Spock's Beard II, then this album would have to be the first of the new breed of Spock's Beard. Well it is, but interestingly enough, it reminds me more of Neal Morse solo than of Spock's Beard of old, even as Octane sounds like nothing the band have done before. Maybe this is because that during the opening suite, "A Flash Before My Eyes," which comprises the first 7 tracks, there are many times when current vocalist Nick D'Virgilio sounds like ex-vocalist Neal Morse. Just listen to "The Ballet Of The Impact," for example. Don't try to compare this Spock's Beard with anything earlier, however. There are no vestiges of Beware Of Darkness or The Light.

With "Watching The Tide" - a ballad where a sparse piano phrase accompanies fragile, sweet vocals - we do get some SB of old; that slow build to something that just opens wide, to the open sky... and yes, strings help that feeling here. This is what I really, really missed from SB of late; these songs that just seem so musically uplifting because the arrangement does that. But this is also a very much different SB, as the music edges closer to "modern rock" (a term as nebulous as "neo-prog"). That is ... rock the way it used to be - with strong songwriting, great melodies, vocals you can hear and understand. Not really riff rock and not jangly rock, but yes, I'd say SB would fit comfortably next to REM (which brings me back to "Climbing..." and "As Long...").

The concept of "A Flash Before My Eyes" concerns one's thoughts in the midst of car crash; in the midst of dying, really. A theme explored in last year's The Human Equation, but, also let's mention Arena's The Visitor, Marillion's "Out Of This World" from Afraid Of Sunlight, and Gathering Speed by Big Big Train. What do you think about when you're dying? Or you think you're dying?* In this case, as you might have gathered from the suite's title, it's the protagonist's life to that point. The highlights, at least, of his life in a small mid-western town.** It's hard not to try and fit the rest of the album to the concept, but other than "There Was A Time" and "As Long As We Ride," they don't really fit. And they weren't meant to either.

The CD opens with what sounds like a mellotron to me, or at the very least keyboards that are very evocative of Genesis' "Watcher Of The Skies." What the beginning of "A Flash Before My Eyes," called "The Ballet Of The Impact," is trying to evoke is a moment in time, a freeze-frame snapshot. Though within short order, we get guitars, and theremin (both Alan Morse), the latter in a dramatic, horror film like way (so enigmatic of the theremin); bell-like percussion signals doom. The strings that accompany the piece have a late 60s dramatic feel, sort of TV-theme music like, but... that doesn't quite capture it. "The Ballet Of The Impact" is very identifiable as Spock's Beard, especially when D'Virgilio begins singing - and not just because he sounds like Neal Morse, as I said above. It's very laid back and mellow, not quite ethereal and floating... but certainly full of atmosphere.

They follow this with the country-tinged "I Wouldn't Let It Go," including twangy, wavery guitar (Morse) and Rhodes piano (Ryo Okumoto); here again, we get strings rounding out the arrangement. Oddly... I hate to say it... but it's a track that wouldn't have seemed odd on Neal Morse's Testimony... maybe it's the churchy, gospelly feel to the organ, I don't know. The character is looking for something... just as... well, let's not get on that tangent.

A church organ bridges us into the darker "Surfing Down The Avalanche." Screaming guitars, throbbing bass (Dave Meros) and driving percussion (D'Virgilio) serve to propel this churning, about-to-burst, metal-edged track (think Soundgarden with Hammond). This restlessness and rebelliousness of youth segues into the tender, heartfelt ballad "She Is Everything" (by means of a loping, clock-ticking-like interlude). For the first few moments, I thought of "This Strange Engine" (Marillion), before the darkness lifts for the core of the ballad. Morse gets to stretch his fingers in this song with a wonderful, emotive guitar solo. No, it doesn't go anywhere you don't expect a guitar solo in a ballad to go, but it is perfect for the piece.

After my favorite track, "Climbing..." we get the instrumental "Letting Go," which recalls the opening piece. Hovering, breathy keys bring us back to that moment. I might last just a tad too long and say nothing new that we haven't already got from the opening (and the gurgling frog effects don't work for me), but it does ease us into "Of The Beauty Of It All," which itself is restatement of "The Ballet..." And what happens next... well, you could theorize that the protagonist dies (how grim) or that we're left hanging and it could go either way. Perhaps I'm a cynical fatalist but... I think the former.

Since there are already half a dozen reviews of this title, here's a quick tour through the rest, as heard through my ears: "NWC" is a chunky, grinding instrumental with lots of percussion. It's fusiony and actually reminded me more of something from a Planet X/Derek Sherinian release than Spock's Beard. Morse's guitar screams, keyboards scream, and bass just pounds at you. The countrified SB re-emerges with "There Was A Time" - acoustic guitar n' all. And the spirit of Morse creeps in again, but it's a solo Morse again, oddly. In a way, it's also classic SB, if you think of it as this album's punchier "June." Though overall it's not quite as good (there are some weak sections), there are nice harmony vocals. And uh, having said that, the song does become one of my favorites on the album (Tom Petty comes to mind also, style-wise).

"The Planet's Hum" opens with a noodling, deep-toned bass (almost sounds like a tuba), adds light guitar strumming, and a trilling flute (perhaps synthetic as no flautist is mentioned). But before long we have launched into a muscular, funky jam-like piece. As much as SB of old is evoked (though harmonies), Planet X comes to mind again.

And then we get the punchy rocker "As Long As We Ride." It has a familiarity about it - that summer-radio ready groove about it; obviously what they were looking for, of course. What comes to mind? Sammy Hagar, Billy Joel, Soundgarden, a harder-edged Doobie Brothers... all kinda mixed together, and yet... it's catchy, poppy and except for a brief interlude, nowhere near proggy. I'm not even sure we could say the interlude is proggy.

What does one take away from this album, beyond their own ruminations about the themes and the songs themselves? That although Neal Morse has left Spock's Beard, the band isn't going to totally ignore their past as if it has never happened. This is evident in some of the music; in some cases, maybe too evident. But, they also want to get across that this is Spock's Beard now and that you can either get in the car and come along for the ride, or you get off and wait for the next bus. I might have thought differently after Feel Euphoria, but now, I'm hitchin' a ride.

A Flash Before My Eyes: The Ballet Of The Impact (5:34) / I Wouldn't Let It Go (4:53) / Surfing Down The Avalanche (3:43) / She Is Everything (6:46) / Climbing Up That Hill (3:31) / Letting Go (1:53) / Of The Beauty Of It All (4:53) // NWC (4:16) / There Was A Time (4:58) / The Planet's Hum (4:42) / Watching The Tide (5:07) / As Long As We Ride (5:35)

Bonus Disk: Bonus Disk: When She's Gone / Follow Me To Sleep / Game Face / Broken Promise Land / Listening To The Sky / (extras from 'A Flash Before My Eyes'): Someday I'll Be Found / I Was Never Lost / Paint Me A Picture

Includes a QuickTime video: The Formulation Of Octane

Nick D'Virgilio - vocals, drums
Alan Morse - guitars
Ryo Okumoto - keyboards
Dave Meros - bass

The Light (1991)
Beware of Darkness (1995)
The Beard Is Out There Live (1995)
Official Live Bootleg (1996)
The Kindness of Strangers (1997)
From The Vault - 1995-1998 (1998)
Day For Night (1999)
Live At The Whiskey and NEARfest (1999)
Don't Try This At Home (2000)
V (2000)
Snow (2002)
Feel Euphoria (2003)
The Light - The Artwork Collector's Series (2004)
Octane (2005)
Gluttons For Punishment (2005)
Spock's Beard (2006)
Live (2008)
X (2010)
Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep (2013)
The Oblivion Particle (2015)
Noise Floor (2018)

The Beard Is Out There Live (VID) (1995)
Spock's Beard's Home Movie (VID) (1998)
Live At The Whisky (VID) (1999)
Making Of V (VID) (2001)
Don't Try This At Home & The Making Of V (DVD) (2002)
The Making Of Snow (DVD) (2004)
Live (DVD) (2008)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin US

Added: March 29th 2005
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website: www.spocksbeard.com
Hits: 942
Language: english


[ Back to Reviews Index | Post Comment ]