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Music Review: Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep (InsideOut, CD)

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Spock’s Beard “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep” CD

It’s hard enough for a band to go through one major personnel shakeup—which California progsters Spock’s Beard did in 2002 when singer/songwriter Neal Morse left the band. But in 2011, Spock’s Beard found itself again without a singer when Nick D’Virgilio (who had taken over lead vocals following Morse’s departure, and was also the band’s founding drummer) also left.

Luckily, Spock’s Beard already had replacements for D’Virgilio—as singer and drummer—in place. Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard had been subbing for D’Virgilio at live shows, and Jimmy Keegan had been the band’s touring drummer since D’Virgilio moved up to the mic.

That’s all well and good for touring purposes, but since this latest change was announced, the big question has been “How will this new version of the band, Spock’s Beard 3.0., fare in the studio?”

With the March 2013 release of Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep—the band’s 11th studio CD and first with Leonard and Keegan—that question is answered: the band has fared very well indeed, with its strongest most consistent album in years.

The four CDs the band made during the D’Virgilio years were, for the most part, hit-or-miss affairs as the group mixing more modern, harder rock stylings with their prog. The best of the four, 2010’s X, found the band veering back to its classic progressive style, and Brief Nocturnes sees Spock’s 3.0 returning to the big, symphonic mini-symphonies of the Morse years—with a twist.

The twist—and it’s a welcome one—is Ted Leonard. For a band that’s switched lead singers two times now, Spock’s has, to its credit, not replaced its vocalists with clones. D’Virgilio sounded nothing like Morse, and Leonard doesn’t sound much like either one. In contrast to Morse’s Beatleisms or D’Virgilio’s straightforward rock delivery, Leonard vocally brings to mind Kansas singers Steve Walsh and John Elefante—and it sounds at times as if the band has picked up on that feel and emphasized the Kansas influence always present in their work—check out “A Treasure Abandoned”, which would have fit in easily on the first Elefante album, 1982’s Vinyl Confessions.

The injection of new energy from Leonard and Keegan also seems to have brought out a new power in the playing of Spock’s veterans Alan Morse (guitar), Ryo Okumoto (keyboards) and Dave Meros (bass). For example, “I Know Your Secret” has plenty of feisty playing, dynamics, and shifts in mood. The CD even includes a welcome instrumental, “Postcards from Perdition,” a clever workout that spotlights Okumoto’s inventive synth textures and solos.

One of the biggest challenges for the band since Neal Morse’s departure has been compensating for the loss of his considerable songwriting skills. In terms of songwriting, Brief Nocturnes may be the best, most melodic and consistent set of new Spock’s songs since Neal’s 2002 swansong, Snow. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and while X also showed marked improvement in this department, the new CD shows evolution and refinement. The new band is a formidable force creatively as well as instrumentally and vocally.

Vocals certainly come to the fore on this album. “Afterthoughts,” a clever sorta-sequel to the multi-part “Thoughts” songs on the band’s Neal-era albums, features a round-robin of vocal parts from Keegan and Alan Morse along with Leonard, and includes a Gentle Giant-style, acapella section that harkens back to the previous “Thoughts” tracks.

Wrap up all of this goodness with a stellar engineering/mixing job from Spock’s mainstay Rich Mouser that gives the songs power, balance and clarlity, and you’ve got one spectacular CD package. Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is a welcome return that’s at once a worthy addition to a formidable legacy, and very promising debut of the next iteration of America’s premier progressive rock band.

 

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