Gary Marshall chronicles the output of the Prog-Rock outfit.
Having tried to ‘make it’ in the mainstream music industry for a number of years without success, in 1991 multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse found himself writing three tracks in the style of artists he admired the most, those being from the Prog genre. He shared the demos with his guitarist brother, Alan, who loved them and they set out to find a band to play these creations. A serendipitous meeting at an ‘Open Jam’ night had the Morse brothers’ names coming out of the hat to play alongside a young drummer, Nick D’Virgilio, whose favourite player turned out to be Phil Collins (Genesis). As a consequence, he was also a fan of Prog and therefore very much wanted to be on-board with this new band. Their first choice for the bass position was Dave Meros, but as they felt the style of music probably wouldn’t be his thing, they were pessimistic. However, as soon as he heard the demos he also wanted in; a good job too because his playing across their body of work is right up there with that of Chris Squire (Yes) and a very important facet of the band’s sound. This particular recruitment amazed Neal as in a city (LA) where money talked, here were guys actually wanting to play what was considered at that time an obscure genre of music, just for the fun, thrill and indeed love of it.
Their debut album, ‘The Light’, was released in 1995; it was made independently for the princely sum of $3,500 after they’d eschewed signing a terrible contract with a label. It was recorded on an incredible mish- mash of equipment, therefore the quality of the output is quite remarkable. To supplement the line-up Ryo Okumoto was recruited to play keyboards at gigs and would subsequently join as a full-time member. One of their early live engagements was Progfest 1995 where they were introduced to Thomas Waber who signed them to the Giant Electric Pea label (and subsequently to InsideOut), licencing the debut album for a European release.
The sophomore album, ‘Beware of Darkness’, followed the next year but Prog didn’t pay the rent so Neal joined Meros as a member of the Eric Burdon Band which toured extensively. During breaks, Morse, a prolific composer, was writing material for the next Spock’s album, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, which garnered sufficient interest and label support to enable him to leave Burdon’s outfit but also to justify two European tours... as with a number of other North American bands one could mention they would be appreciated far more by the European market than at home. Indeed, the band have been regular visitors to European shores and always delivered shows of top quality. I well recall my first encounter (2nd October 1999 – London Astoria 2) and being astounded that they could reproduce the vocal arrangements; plus Neal’s ability to switch between keyboards and guitar at will. Their many live releases are testament to just how good they are.
New albums appeared almost annually and their star was ascendant, but as their epic concept, ‘Snow’, was about to be released in 2002, the unthinkable happened as Neal dropped the bombshell he was leaving the band to follow his faith. Whilst his lyrics were never overtly religious, one could certainly read them and infer that meaning. It’s incredible to think that this album almost didn’t happen. The band was in LA writing for a new release but it just wasn’t coming together so they called the session off. Neal was about to fly home to Nashville but as it was late in the day he decided to have a night in the hotel. The next day was 9/11 and with all flights grounded he chose to drive home, and on that long journey, he composed the songs that would become ‘Snow’. Because of Neal’s departure the band didn’t tour the album, but in 2016 at his ‘Morsefest’ event they convened to finally play it in its entirety, recording and filming for posterity. I hold my hands up in admitting I felt they couldn’t survive without their driving force, songwriter and linchpin. However, D’Virgilio, an accomplished vocalist in his own right, came out from behind the drums to become their frontman with Jimmy Keegan engaged as their live drummer. ‘Feel Euphoria’ was a patchy first effort but at its best showed promise. My misgivings may have been both too harsh and rather hasty and when they delivered the follow-up, ‘Octane’, they well and truly proved me wrong as they’d maintained their position albeit with a slight change in sound. However, two albums later the uncertainty returned as D’Virgilio departed for the security of a full-time job as Musical Director with ‘Cirque du Soleil’. Again they came up trumps by bringing in Ted Leonard (Enchant) and making Keegan’s position full- time, albeit he too would subsequently leave
Each of these three phases of the band has its own identity whilst only occasionally straying from their core attributes, consequently they’ve remained recognisably Spock’s Beard throughout. With Neal writing the vast majority of the material on the early albums it was a question of whether the others could step up, which they did albeit with the help of some outside assistance. Most notably from John Boegehold (Pattern-Seeking Animals), who has become an intrinsic part of the songwriting team during the band’s most recent incarnation, and to a lesser extent Stan Ausmus. They also have another important member in their camp with Rich Mouser, who mixes the albums and who clearly plays a vital part in how dynamic they sound.
Every album is imbued with unforgettable melodies and superb songwriting; it may be Prog but the band steers clear, in the main, of the excesses of the genre thus remaining accessible and entirely listenable. They have the happy knack of having just enough complexity combined with huge dollops of melody. What’s more, comparisons are largely redundant as they don’t sound like the usual suspects such as Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd etc. Only occasionally does a certain influence shine through; then again it may be an homage to a favourite band, Gentle Giant.
If you’re a novice and are wondering where to start there’s a superb compilation, ‘The First Twenty Years’, which covers each of their albums and adds a specially written epic ‘Falling For Forever’ that features every band member past and present.
The Ultimate Spock's Beard Mix Tape
At The End Of The Day (V) Thoughts (Beware Of Darkness) Thoughts (Part II) (V) Afterthoughts (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) Go The Way You Go (The Light)
The Good Don’t Last (The Kindness Of Strangers) Stranger In A Stranger Land (Snow) A Flash Before My Eyes (Octane) In The Mouth Of Madness (The Kindness Of Strangers) Day For Night (Day For Night) Ghosts Of Autumn (Feel Euphoria)
June (The Kindness Of Strangers)
Carie (Snow) Harm’s Way (The Kindness Of Strangers)
The Distance To The Sun (Day For Night)
To Breathe Another Day (Noise Floor) Submerged (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) Crack The Big Sky (Day For Night) Tides Of Time (The Oblivion Particle) Something Very Strange (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) The Planet’s Hum (Octane)
Minion (The Oblivion Particle) Is This Love (Spock’s Beard)
The Quiet House (X) The Great Nothing (V) Long Time Suffering (Snow)
Love Beyond Words (Snow)
Open Wide The Floodgates (Snow)
Open The Gates (Part 2) (Snow)
Solitary Soul (Snow) Wind At My Back (Snow) Walking On The Wind (Beware Of Darkness) Hiding Out (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) Bennett Built A Time Machine (The Oblivion Particle) The Bottom Line (Feel Euphoria) There Was A Time (Octane) On A Perfect Day (Spock’s Beard) Waiting For Me (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) The Slow Crash Landing Man (Spock’s Beard) Edge Of The In-Between (X) The Center Line (The Oblivion Particle) Jaws Of Heaven (X) A Treasure Abandoned (Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep) What Becomes Of Me (Noise Floor)
Somebody’s Home (Noise Floor)
The Doorway (Beware Of Darkness)
This article appeared in Fireworks Rock & Metal Magazine Issue #98