(CENTURY MEDIA/EMI/INSIDE OUT; 2013)
We like us some Spock’s Beard ’round these here parts! We really do… and that fact makes it hard to say that, while much of BRIEF NOCTURNES AND DREAMLESS SLEEP is top-notch Beard, some of it just makes you say, “What was they a-thinkin’ here?” Now, to be sure, every album can’t be golden from first note to last but there are more than a couple of dubious musical choices made here. Things start off fine, with “Hiding Out,” a poppy little prog-rocker (or is that a proggy little pop-rocker? A rocky little prog-popper?) that bodes well for the proceedings. It’s got a heavy groove coating and a crunchy guitar/organ center, with a smooth vocal (by the limber-throated Ted Leonard) over the top, kinda like a latter day version of early era Kansas. The first misstep comes early on with “I Know Your Secret” and its intergalactic booty call vibe, featuring a melody and a synth line right out of the Era of Disco, one of the most dread, disease riddled times in recent music history. To make matters worse, the thing clocks in at almost eight minutes!
“A Treasure Abandoned” sees the ship righted, as the progressive bombast throttles the unsightly keyboard noodles into submission. The smarmy, cloyingly offensive late-period Styx keyboard patterns try to sneak in through the backdoor in the closing seconds of the tune, but the muscular, bass-heavy bottom is having none of that and, wisely, orders up a big brick of nastiness just at last call. The band calls up the ghosts of 1980s progressive music for the poppy “Submerged,” which works on just about every level. The vocals on this one are particularly pleasing. “Afterthoughts” seems to wanna stir the turd into the punchbowl. There are plenty of really good ideas here, but there are just as many that don’t work. Of the ones that work, the most satisfying is a multi-layered vocal section, reminiscent of “Leave It” by Yes. More goofy keyboard noodlings totally destroy whatever impetus the song had built up. A sad disappointment to a song that offered so much merit.
That tune, oddly enough, segues into one of the better tunes of the album proper, “Something Very Strange.” The strident melody line propels the song forward, with a fat rhythmic underbelly. As most bands of this stripe are held up to a measuring stick that falls somewhere between King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer, it’s very hard not to compare the bass work of Dave Meros to Crimson’s John Wetton and Yes’ Chris Squire. That, my friends, is heady company and Meros holds his own against those two titans admirably. “Waiting For Me” closes out the album, with another Yes-like jazzy solo-heavy 12 plus minutes of pure progressive bliss, with Alan Morse doing his best Steve Howe and drummer Jimmy Keegan plowing through in a swinging, muscular homage to Bill Bruford. This is the Spock’s Beard that I’ve come to expect… not aping or imitating their prog-rock predecessors, but adding to and building upon the rich history that has been lain before them.
There’s a second, bonus disc with four more songs, including a “Sanctified Remix” of “Something Very Strange.” The disc opens with another solid piece of progressive music called “The Man You’re Afraid You Are.” There’s an odd sort of spoken word section – the tone and timbre recall that Rush song with the odd sort of spoken word section, “Roll the Bones,” so I’m a little loathe to call it a “rap,” though, I suppose, taking the word in its strictest terms, that is exactly what it is – that seems as out of place as some of the annoying synthesizer farts. “Down a Burning Road” continues to redefine the genre, as it blurs the lines between heavy guitar rock, pop music and a solid progressive arrangement. “Wish I Were Here” isn’t quite the rebuttal to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” that the name implies. It’s loopy, fun and rather mystical sounding, with Alan Morse offering a less serious version of Frippertronics on the outro solo. The final track, “Postcards From Perdition,” is a solid instrumental, with plenty of bottom and an engaging drum pattern. As with “Hiding Out,” there’s a certain early period Kansas feel, with a great harmony guitar intro and some keyboard solos that border on ostentatious, but are reeled in before they actually become overbearing. A nice way to close out an album that, when taken as a whole, is much better than some of it’s parts. Hopefully, for their next album, the Beard boys will rein in the pretentious parts of Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard playing, as he is quite good when he stays away from that stuff.