Spock's Beard - Snow (advance promo)

Year of Release: 2002
Label: Metal Blade Records
Catalog Number: n/a
Format: CD
Total Time: 57:08:00

Saying you like Spock's Beard in some prog communities is like to get you harangued and harassed and all but booted out. But, at the same time, you know exactly why so many dislike Spock's Beard, and at a lot of times it's the very reason you like them. To be sure, Spock's Beard mainman Neal Morse is not a humble individual, and that somewhat self-centered attitude is often reflected in the music. It's big and bold, expansive and sure of itself. The one thing fans and detractors can both agree upon - Spock's Beard do not go gently into that good night ... no, rather, kicking and screaming full of bluster and bombast.

So it is with their new release Snow, of which reviewers have been given only a taste. When it is released this coming week, it will be a deluxe 2CD set, with a booklet ... and if you are feeling especially flush, a 3CD super-deluxe set that features a third disc (that's why it's a 3CD super-deluxe set, of course) featuring bonus material, plus a booklet of the story and stickers, though the last I'm not sure why, except that I suspect younger fans can affix them to their school notebooks. Oh, I guess us oldsters could put 'em on our car windows... anyway, stickers aside, I'll admit, I went for the super-deluxe ... but then, I'm also big and bold and expansive... okay, I'm not bold... but Snow is. But not so bold that you can't tell right away that this is the Beard.

Let's look at those qualities. Aside from there being 2 discs and 20-plus something tracks, this is a big release. Everything is played a full tilt; there are only a few moments that that doesn't cover, such as "Made Alive," the acoustic guitar and vocal opening ... well, a dash of French horn, too (Dave Meros). This leads into "Overture," a tour-de-force whirlwind of sound, beginning with the fat sound of Meros' bass. Add in a little ELPish Hammond from Ryo Okumoto and snappy, taut drumming from Nick D'Virgilio (and more brass from some corner) and you have the functionally typical, yet sonically different Spock's Beard.

In some ways, Spock's Beard are playing it close to their collective chests - that is, some of the material is similar to stuff they've done before... but this is a band that is trying to break free of a reputation. Whether a 2CD set is the means by which to do it, remains to be seen. They could possibly do it based on this promo alone - which is more than just a Cliff Notes version of the album, as it contains about half of the tracks. But, what remains to be heard at this point has either got be so much more spectacular than what is here or at least equal to it, or the CD will fail. Of course, the reason only a scaled back version of the release was mailed was postage costs. Quite understandable, that.

The point is, Spock's Beard will have to do something that will shake up fans and non-fans alike, will have to release something that is not just a rehash of what they've done before, but build upon it. However, overall, based on the evidence, this album goes back to the Spock's Beard we've grown to love (or hate), and dips back to their Kindness Of Strangers and Day For Night period. Certainly, Morse is stretching himself in creating a concept album - that can never be easy. Subject-wise, without having seen the whole story yet, it's about a albino boy and his struggle to be accepted. From what I can glean from the music thus far, I liken it to a combo of Powder and Stranger In A Strange Land -- the latter obviously Morse's intent, given that the third track is called "Stranger In A Strange Land" (another mellow...well, sometimes mellow... moment). And suddenly, too, a powder-white Marlon Brando comes to mind, too. And not for the better.

Shaking that image, let's move on. "Long Time Suffering" is typical Spock's Beard, such that you will find similar sounding tracks on past albums ... I specifically thought of "Cakewalk On Easy Street." The layered, contrasting vocals here will recall "Thoughts" (Beware Of Darkness). Now, this whole self-referential thing is not a unique characteristic -- and how conceited it is to quote from yourself -- as I made the same comment about Kindness Of Strangers and its similarities to the albums that preceded it. (Um...didn't I just say "how conceited it is to quote from yourself"?) ... "Long Time Suffering" has a chorus that will stick in your mind. It does represent a good performance from the band, full of warmth.

What seems to be a new element to the music of the Beard is the use of brass, which makes another appearance in "The 39th Street Blues (I'm Sick)." Of course, it was used on V... I notice it so much more here, and is the highlight for me in this particular track. It's a hard driving rocker, deep toned and chunky, wall of distortion from the guitar and at times made me think of Alice Cooper. Morse's vocal performance on this track is middling, kinda dull though the tries hard enough. It becomes much more interesting after the smoother bridge leading into the ending, which takes the same fuzzed groove, adds a bit of a rolling piano and jazz flavour... and then it ends.

This heavy rock feel continues with "Devil's Got My Throat." Okay, maybe I've listened to way too much music, but I kept thinking of The Hooters and their "South Ferry Road" as sung by Bryan Adams with a Beatles fetish. Keyboards, bass and guitar grind darkly, while D'Virgilio bashes away on the drums. But for Morse's scratchy, strained Bryan Adams like vocals, you'd think this were a metal track, until the more poppy chorus kicks in ("the kids just wanna rock!" though Morse doesn't sing that) and you know it isn't. Best things about the track? Alan Morse's guitar solos, D'Virgilio's percussion, and Okumoto's Hammond solos ... there's a wicked nasty bit at about 4 minutes in, some acidic, fusiony stuff that make this track. Oh, then there's smidgen of Wakeman-like keyboard pomp before we go back to the bash-rock. It ends with some more "Thoughts"-like vocal weaves.

Spock's Beard promo edition of Snow, back cover"Wind At My Back" is the "June"-like tune of this album (every album needs one), though a little less acoustic and mellow... a mid-tempo rocker that also makes me think of Adams, or John Mellencamp. Though the backing keys sound like they were lifted from the intro to Steve Winwood's "While You See A Chance" (a particular tone I absolutely love, by the way). Yeh, thematically it's like "Wind Beneath My Wings"... Snow finds love... (one sided, I'm guessing, from what follows). To get a sense of this song, I've included a scan of the back cover - this image gives you an overall idea of the music on this in general and what I mean when I say big and expansive ... it's this kind of imagery I'm thinking of and that Spock's Beard do so well.

Thus ends the first half of the sampler, covering half the tracks on disc one. The story continues on disk two, and here with tracks 7 - 12, beginning with "Second Overture." This is a keyboard lead piece with some dark, percolating bass from Meros... and more brass. In fact I love this track, and especially this particular section. It gives way to a floaty keyboard and piano section uncharacteristic for Spock's Beard (think the atmospheric parts of Brave, for example, instead), over/under which a TV news report soundbyte is played. "4th Of July" recycles some familiar Spock's Beard territory - a little late-period Beatles-esque with a bit of guitar from Alan that sounds a bit like that from George Harrison... Billy Joel, you'll see, has been mentioned in a couple of reviews published this month, and I'm going to do it again, not because I feel compelled to, but because Morse sounds here like Joel as Joel did on The Nylon Curtain's "Laura" and "Surprises." Restrained and rough, a bit pinched, as through some filter or something... which is about as close as I can come using words.

The Beard go country-rock with "Looking For Answers," a light, upbeat track, but it also sounds like someone else. It has a late 70s feel, and the band that comes to mind is (yes, again) Little River Band... and the Eagles (Desperado period, specifically Glenn Frey). They follow this up with AOR/metal attitude of "Freak Boy." The promo ends with "I Will Go," which begins with some gentle, floaty keys and atmospherics from Okumoto and piano from Morse... it is an emotional, heart-wrenching opening, with Morse's thin, strained vocals (the character is dying, this is a quality not a failing on Morse's part). The sadness and melancholy here is palpable. I can imagine that once you've listened to the full album, absorbed the story, that you'll shed a few tears here. Even still, having heard only this promo and not seen the full story, I feel the emotion in this song. Again the Eagles come to mind.

And so the promo ends... and I feel I need more. Based on the material heard so far - and a real final verdict will come when I get the full version (on order already, so this isn't an empty promise/threat) - I really like what I'm hearing. I have enjoyed listening to this CD very much... but saying that, and saying that it holds together as is makes me wonder how much of the 2CD version is extraneous? I mean, what criteria did they use to put together the promo? The strongest material? An interesting question I'll answer in a few weeks or so, when the full-version arrives.

[July 2010: So, never got around to reviewing the full set as others here did - SS]

The full album was also released by Radiant Records, and in Europe, InsideOut

for the promo: Made Alive/Overture (5:32) / Stranger In A Strange Land (4:29) / Long Time Suffering (6:04) / The 39th Street Blues (I'm Sick) (4:06) / Devil's Got My Throat (7:17) / Wind At My Back (5:12) / Second Overture (5:47) / 4th Of July (3:11) / I'm The Guy (4:48) / Looking For Answers (5:16) / Freak Boy (2:12) / I Will Go (5:09)

Neal Morse - lead vocals, piano, all synth, acoustic guitar
Ryo Okumoto -hammond and mellotron
Dave Meros - bass, vocals, French horn
Alan Morse - electric guitars, vocals
Nick D'Virgilio -drums, percussion, vocals

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: August 25th 2002
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

Artist website: www.spocksbeard.com
Hits: 506
Language: english


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