Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle

Year of Release: 2015
Label: InsideOut Music
Catalog Number: 0717-2
Format: CD
Total Time: 72:31:00

My bad habit is writing very long reviews, wanting to share as much as I can to guide you to (or away) from any particular release. And yes, I've done it again. The essential thing you need to know is that Spock's Beard have released another strong album in The Oblivion Particle - if you are a fan, you won't be disappointed. There are no left turns -- they've not decided to become the next One Direction -- but it's also not a retread of any of their previous albums. Like Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep before it -- and (I imagine) X before that (and so on) -- it is identifiable as Spock's Beard. There is a through-line right back to that first album The Light, even as this, their 12th studio album, shows how collectively they've matured.

The band has had to, in a way, reinvent itself twice now. In 2002 it was "Who would they be without Neal Morse?" The first post-Morse album was Feel Euphoria - I similarly spoke of transition in my review, which you can read here if you are so inclined. In short, they maintained who they were and changed simultaneously to no ill effect. After 2010's X (which we've not reviewed, yet, as of this writing), they had to decide "Who would they be without Nick D'Virgilio?" Well, from hearing Brief Nocturnes (my review is here), they both maintained and changed to no ill effect. This is the second post-D'Virgilio release and it shows a band that is still both staying the course and changing simultaneously. This just goes to show that as integral as both Morse and D'Virgilio were to shaping the band, they weren't the only ones shaping the band; not to minimize their importance in any way.

The first thing that hits you is the keyboards of Ryo Okumoto, a distinctive parpy sound that is a hallmark of many things prog. And while I didn't quite put my finger on it when reviewing Brief Nocturnes..., this is, if not THE thing that defines the "Spock's Beard sound," it is certainly one that would be listed first. The first particle is "Tides Of Time" where I can't help but think of Genesis - the Collins years. In part because here Ted Leonard croons like Phil Collins, but musically it could be a track off, say, Duke or Trick Of The Tale... Oh, there are aspects that clearly aren't Genesis-ish (mostly the keyboard bits, which are often more symphonic, Yes-like, and some searing guitar soloing that is squarely in the modern-age), but overall the arrangement and vocal phrasings... I don't think all this is coincidence, but it is also quintessentially Spock's Beard and recalls almost everything in their now vast catalog of work.

While still retaining their progressive leanings, The Oblivion Particle has gone through the accelerator -- that is, it's a harder rocking album than Brief Nocturnes.... It is more driving than lyrical; more focused and less epic; more tightly wound and intense than relaxed and expansive. This is a good thing, because you don't want a band recreating the same album over and over again. This isn't to suggest it's filled with 3-minute hard rock songs. I've been listening to a lot of "pure hard rock" the past year and I don't think Spock's Beard would get much traction there. Sure, some of it steps into progressive waters to a degree, but Spock's Beard commit to it abashedly in their own way. Some may argue they get only up to their waist and are not fully immersed in "progness." But I'm not sure if there something we can truly define as progness anyway... but that's a long standing debate...

With this album, there are still the complex arrangements and lyricism ("The Center Line," for example; the latter in the intro/outro...), the layers of instrumentation, extended arrangements with solo interludes... There's still richness, texture, nuance, it's just presented in a slightly more compact form. You still have mini-dramas playing out -- "Bennett Built A Time Machine" is a good example (the title says it all but why; and haven't we all had the same wish?). There is still lyricism -- "Minion," for example, which includes a warm piano interlude. There are a few moments on "Minion," incidentally, that reminded me of Journey's "City Of The Angels" (from Evolution) -- the opening (and repeated) Leonard falsetto and phrasing of "a minion of the citadel" compares with Perry's "city of the angels" opening. This might be coincidence or this might be a nod from one SF Bay-area musician to another. That bit of "light" is in contrast to the at times dark but ultimately empowering lyrics. As with most things, one can read into them more than one thing, and often that thing is informed by one's own... state of mind.

"Hell's Not Enough" starts with a medieval/folk feel, acoustic guitar beneath trilling flute-like keys before building into a mostly mid-tempo rocker, though sections do rock heavier - thundering percussion and screaming keys add some extra oomph to this piece. This medieval feel continues in the opening notes of "Bennett...," which turns the acoustic to the electric. The rhythm is foot-tapping friendly, the harmonized vocals distinctly Beach Boys-like ("Sloop John B" comes to mind), and this contrast gives it a very unique character. The instrumental interlude at the 3:30 mark - churning bass and guitar, spacey keys, and sparse percussion move from something Yes-like to something Genesis-like (here more akin to the Gabriel-era) before transitioning back to where we started. It's not necessarily musically they are taking the same retro-trip the Bennett wants to take (it's not 1983 but more 1973... or 1966, in the case of the Beach Boys), but it does evoke a nostalgic feel for the past, even if Bennett seeks not nostalgia but a way to change his present by making changes in his past, at some key point in his timeline...

"Get Out While You Can" is taut and full of tension that strains to break free (the text/subtext to many of the album's tracks: the need for escape or change). It isn't heavy in terms of instrumentation but in tone it's heavy, dark, foreboding. Even more foreboding is the intro to "A Better Way To Fly" - atmospheric as hell... sparse, tinkling piano, half-heard screams and howls (like hearing a horrifying fun house from a great distance*) before a brief explosion of keys, drums and guitars shatter this eerie calm. However, all that has nothing to do with the lyrics about a modern day Icarus or maybe Da Vinci and his flying machines. This is the "prog epic" of the album as here, more so than elsewhere, the quintet play off and with each other in a fantastic tour de force fashion in the instrumental interlude - all prog hallmarks are here: throbbing bass and sassy, parpy keyboards - which do a bit of call/response --, a full range of snickering drums and shimmering percussion that naturally just drive it all forward. Guitar is given a moment to comment in muted searing solo, which returns to leave the track on a soaring note.

A musing classical piano introduces the otherwise galloping "The Center Line." This track is like warm fire on chilly evening, perhaps owing to its relative conventional rock feeling. I mean, it can't be totally that way -- we wouldn't want it to be -- so there is the expected instrumental interplay here, too (And here Leonard does his Don Henley impression again). "To Be Free Again" announces its "epicness" with the chime of bells (or the effect of chiming bells). Spock's Beard always had this way of creating songs that felt as vast as the open plains, and this track holds some of that feel. It is, unlike the rest of the album, more airy and open, certainly during the more pastoral passage from the 6-minute mark or so. Out of that comes the swell of atmospheric keys which sweep us up into another piano solo from Okumoto (a mid-west flavoured solo that instantly made me think of Bruce Hornsby) before we segue into a too-brief uplifting guitar solo. The theme of freedom concludes with the album's closer "Disappear," a track that is structurally and sonically consistent with the ouvre of Spock's past; it could have appeared on almost any one of their albums. Guest on this track is David Ragsdale on violin.

There is a bonus track, a fairly (or very) faithful cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" even down to Dave Meros' Ozzy-esque vocals (he's on bass and guitar, too). Ex-Beard Nick D'Virgilio is on drums, Leonard providing the guitar solos, and Okumoto on, naturally, mellotron and synth.

*it occurs to me, this could also be gathering birds screeching, desperate to take flight, which would tie in.

Tides Of Time (7:45) / Minion (6:53) / Hell's Not Enough (6:23) / Bennett Built a Time Machine (6:52) / Get Out While You Can (4:55) / A Better Way To Fly (8:57) / The Center Line (7:25) / To Be Free Again (10:24) / Disappear (6:14) / Iron Man (6:14) (special edition bonus track)

Jimmy Keegan - drums & percussion, vocals
Ted Leonard - vocals, guitar
Dave Meros - bass, synth bass, vocals
Alan Morse - guitars, mandolin, electric sitar, banjolele, autoharp, vocals
Ryo Okumoto - organ, piano, mellotron, synthesizers

Guests: David Ragsdale - violin (9)
Nick D'Virgilio - drums (10)

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: May 28th 2016
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website: www.spocksbeard.com
Hits: 2754
Language: english


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