Monday, May 21, 2018

Album Review: Spock's Beard - Noise Floor

The recent years of Spock's Beard have been a bit of a roller-coaster. "Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep" was a phenomenal album that nearly topped my list the year it was released, while the follow up "The Oblivion Particle" underwhelmed me greatly. In the meantime, they had questions about their ever-shifting lineup, and reunited for one epic track with Neal Morse. Consistent is one thing they are not. That brings us to this newest effort, which sees the band go back to what worked on "Brief Nocturnes", an album that is lengthy enough to allow for some exploration, but concise enough to be song-oriented above all else.

At least to my ears, the biggest issue Spock's Beard has had since their initial fracturing is the number of people who contribute to the songwriting. While it has probably helped them maintain their creative energy and put out albums regularly, the different voices that have penned their music does leave every album, and several times within albums, sounding as much like the idea of Spock's Beard as the genuine article.

The first couple of tracks on this record are an illustration of that point. "To Breathe Another Day" opens the album as we were first introduced to Ted Leonard's era of the band, with bouncy rhythms and big pop hooks, punctuated by some tricky keyboard and rhythmic diversions in the middle eight. It recalls my favorite Spock's Beard material, and gets things off to a fine start. It's followed up be a completely different track in "What Becomes Of Me", which is an almost cinematic track of prog drama that builds feeling through the instrumental, and uses Leonard more as a highlighting color than the main dye. It's not just that they mine different territory, it's that they feel cut from completely different cloth.

"Have We All Gone Crazy Yet" is the longest song on the album, and the one that most explicitly throws all of the band's influences into the pot. The one thing it doesn't really do is hold together as a great song. There are some beautiful harmonies late in the song, some of the guitar runs sound straight off a Beatles record, and the instrumental section traverses a lot of ground, but there isn't much holding all of those pieces together. Without much warning, or explanation, it shifts from rocking the chorus to a slow and jazzy build, and then through a prog guitar workout, before the 60s pop sound returns. Each piece is fine, but it's prog-by-numbers in the way that lets people say prog is just stitching together ideas with little concern for how they fit.

That Beatles influence is stronger here than on any other Spock's Beard album. "So This Is Life" is the alternate-prog-universe vision of "Rubber Soul", which I will admit sounds gorgeous, until you realize that nothing about the song sticks with you. It's the candy coating, hollow on the inside. The other thing about this album is that it is very keyboard driven. Look at the beginning of "Box Of Spiders", where multiple synths and organs are layered atop each other to set the stage for the rest of the instrumental track. The keys dominate a lot of the compositions, which may or may not be a breaking point for some people.

The album also comes with an EP of tracks that didn't make the track list (even though the combined running time is only 70 minutes). They are the shortest and most straight-forward of all the tracks, and they are highlights of the package. Replacing one or two of these songs on the regular album with these to give a bit more melodic pop to the experience might have been a good idea. I understand why they were put aside, though I do disagree with the decision.

Spock's Beard has been hard to figure in recent years, and they are on this album again. "Noise Floor" is a beautiful sounding record, and it's more engaging to those outside the die-hard prog sphere, but it doesn't have the killer instinct that "Brief Nocturnes" did. That album was able to fuse pop and prog in a way that let both shine, and could reach across the divide. "Noise Floor" uses the sound of pop, but it's entirely a prog vision of it, which leaves the album decidedly tilted towards those who want engaging instrumental work. It doesn't have the same amount of surface-level appeal the band's best material in the past could muster.

So yes, "Noise Floor" is interesting, and I enjoyed it much more than "The Oblivion Particle", but I can't call it an essential Spock's Beard album. There are pieces of their identity missing, and the absence is felt.

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