Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Album Review: Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle

Changing singers is such a tough predicament for bands that most of them are failures. There are even fewer examples of a band being able to go through three singers without losing anything. Spock's Beard tempted fate with their last album, introducing Ted Leonard as their third frontman. The amazing thing is that not only did he fit in well, but they managed to strike gold and make what I consider the best album of their career. "Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep" was a phenomenal record that earned the distinction of placing #3 on my best-of list that year, and is a record I still go back to and enjoy just as much.

That means my expectations for this album were even higher.

It also means that a first impression should be thoroughly discounted. In this case, that's a good thing, because my first impression of "The Oblivion Particle" mostly surrounded the fact that is it a very different record than the last one, and if you were expecting a continuation of that sound, you're going to be disappointed.

"The Oblivion Particle" is a far deeper, more progressive set of songs. This is set up from the opening track, as "Tides Of Time" segues through multiple sections, with upbeat rock moments thrown in with organs and a breakdown of acoustic guitar that is both jarring, and a throwback to what Neal Morse often did with the band. The song is a whirlwind, but it does feel like it lacks a bit of focus.

"Minion" introduces the album's core sound, with more atmospheric instrumentation, including jazzy guitar voicings, and a heavy focus on bass groove. The chorus kicks up some rock attitude, but the song always maintains a laid-back non-nonchalance that makes it different than the usual Spock's Beard material. The inclusion of real pianos in place of synths everywhere is also welcome, and emphasized the depth the band is going for.

"Hell's Not Enough" has many layers of sound going on, and veers off into tricky playing in the instrumental section. "Bennett Built A Time Machine" is one, in a way, with a composition that evokes Yes, and vocals that sound plucked from the Nick D'Virgilio era of Spock's history. It's a song that easily could have fit on the "X" album without sounding at all out of place, with it's smooth melody and tinkling pianos.

The nadir of the record is "Get Out While You Can", a song that has a couple of interesting, sinister guitar riffs, but has nothing for a vocal line but a simple repetition of the chorus that doesn't work at all. "A Better Way To Fly" is the dramatic beast of the record, with huge swells of strings and massive choral vocals, but it again fails to connect with a memorable melody.

I love the use of acoustic guitar to introduce the galloping feel in "The Center Line", both because it's an interesting sound, and because it's a unique way of inverting the expectation. The song is also the most energetic on the album, which works well against the horns that color the background.

When the record is over, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I fully see what the band is going for, and there is remarkable composition skill involved in the layered sound they have created. The songs are deep from a compositional standpoint, and have plenty of details to keep you interested as you listen repeatedly. On the other hand, the album completely lacks the pop charm that the previous album had, and drills down so hard into progressive territory that it never has the sense of unbridled fun that they established last time out. So my verdict is that "The Oblivion Particle" is a beautifully put together album that showcases everything this version of the band is capable of, but it's one that isn't going to have the visceral impact "Brief Nocturnes" did, and for that reason I have to call it a bit of a disappointment, despite its obvious quality.

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