Progressive rock flourished in a big way during its heyday in the '70s. Then, artists such as the early Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson created ambitious musical projects that ran the gamut from orchestral to operatic with the flash of pseudo-classical rock keyboards and guitars. These oft-classically schooled artists married that training with psychedelic and rock influences, creating unusual harmonies, intriguing time signatures, endless solos, and more often than not, overriding "concepts" that dominated albums (and quite often, double-albums).
While always interesting for the listener, many of these projects' reaches would exceed their grasps. When the fresh, stripped-down, in-your-face sound of punk/new age came to town, the pendulum swung away from the bombastic heady overkill of popular prog rock, and it appeared to fade quickly from the mainstream.
But take heart, nostalgic proggers -- all is not lost. The incredibly talented quintet Spock's Beard has released their most ambitious prog-rock project yet, a double CD concept album entitled Snow, and it is good enough to take its rightful place among the giants of yore, recalling sounds not heard in many a year (except maybe in Germany, where progressive rock has found a steady following of sorts as a subculture of the metal scene).
Formed in 1992 by brothers Neal and Alan Morse along with drummer Nick D'Virgilio, Spock's Beard has since forged a solid reputation both live and in the studio for the kind of sounds not heard in decades. With the addition of bassist Dave Meros and spectacular keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, they've become the true standard bearers of this modern prog resurgence and Snow is their grandest achievement yet.
Attempting the band's first concept album, songwriter/creative force Neal Morse challenged himself to write something truly special. It was two years in the making, a process of constant revisions with lyrical and vocal changes made right up to the mixing stage, as Morse aimed to refine and polish, to let the music push the story forward. This evolved into a very personal musical project, and with that came good news and ultimately, some bad news, too (more on that later).
First, the good news: this 2-disc offering is voluminous without sacrificing quality for quantity. In fact, many have lauded it as one of the best CDs in years -- a claim that at times seems well-deserved, especially considering the sheer breadth and diversity of its musical elements (to say nothing of how well the music is played). What you get is 26 tracks that span just under two hours worth of music (roughly 115 minutes) to tell the "rock opera" story of Snow, an albino 17-year old with mystical healing powers, able to read souls and intentions.
The young "working-man's son" travels to New York City, where he develops from an outsider into a modern rock messiah, first gaining a following amongst the city's wretched refuse, until word spreads to the point where he gets his Time magazine cover. Ego and unrequited love do him in, but in the end he is redeemed by spirituality, achieving peace through his relationship with God.
This tale of an individual whose talents don't guarantee happiness until a spiritual bond is made is not overly unique, and resonates with elements of the Who's Tommy, the storyline of the film Powder, as well as hints of the New Testament every now and again. These familiar tales have paved the way for our latest hero's rise and fall and rise. Yet while this allegory is at times engaging, the story is secondary to what is accomplished with the music.
Following in the musical footsteps of such concept albums as The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Tommy, and even The Wall, Neal Morse takes bits and pieces from his predecessors and fashions a new epic opus that masterfully weaves repeated thematic lines throughout, taking us on a musical journey that serves up a variety of styles along with several catchy melodies that work well even taken out of context as standalone songs.
There are the impressive yet requisite overtures that open each disk, the first expanding out from the sincere acoustic/folk strains of "Made Alive" into something more recognizably progressive rock, from flugelhorn into pumping bass-driven drums, guitars and Hammond organ/Mellotron, with some saxophones thrown in for good measure. This is accomplished musicianship, both in the writing and the execution, allowing each band member to shine and a very good sample of what's yet to come.
We revert back to acoustic strains with the infectious "Stranger in a Strange Land", where we get treated to an emotive Neal Morse vocal delivering the gentle back-story about our hero (and great backing harmonies as well). The song builds in intensity as it melds into the more upbeat "Long Time Suffering", with instrumental preludes that strongly recall Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The song itself is as strong as any Gabriel-era Genesis tune, and I daresay could work well on radio even today. Strong harmonies and melody, a haunting slower tempo middle bridge, improvisational solo breaks, and a sparkling a cappella counterpoint section (that sounds very Kevin Gilbert, in the best sense imaginable) -- all make this one of the early highlights of the CD. The song ends in a few transitional acoustic chords very reminiscent of "Sparks" from Tommy.
We get the grittier vocal side of Neal Morse with his portrayal of the Knight in "Welcome to NYC", wherein we get metal mixed with jazz elements, fusing into a piano rendition of those same transitional chords. "Love Beyond Words" is another softer track, featuring a beautiful piano solo that is stronger than the song itself.
"The 39th Street Blues (I'm Sick)" is narrated by The Prostitute with a slightly harder edge, it being a tale of the world weary woman who's sick of it all, yet still wonders if there's something that can save her. A horn section is the highlight here.
"Devil Got My Throat" is the song bound to please those looking for a harder-driving sound. This is near-perfection for that sort of sound, a catchy melody and chorus ("The devil's got my throat / I'm goin' down / That's all she wrote"), wonderful guitars and organ dueling in a sort of Yes/ELP-circa Brain Salad Surgery mode and even hints of Kevin Gilbert, King Crimson, and Kansas working their way into the over seven-minute mix.
"Open Wide the Flood Gates" is presented as a song in two parts, and each has their particular merits. The longer Part One opens as a pleasant song, a sweet mid-tempo pop ballad of sorts with a jazzy soft guitar lead. The latter part of the song diverges into instrumental Traffic territory, then returns to the chorus with screaming gospel backing vocals, very Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd.
Part Two opens up more straightforwardly and is reminiscent of keyboard-driven Kansas at their Wayward Son best, then strays into some brief Yes elements before a big harmonic crescendo.
"Solitary Soul" actually ventures into Crosby, Stills & Nash country with its lovely three-part harmonies and string accents, showing just how versatile Spock's Beard can be. This soft ballad serves up a wonderful Mellotron lead from Ryo Okumoto.
The first disc wraps with the very catchy anthem "Wind at My Back", which marries another catchy song with great harmonies and a very high sing-along factor: "You are the wind at my back / You give what I lack /You're the jewel in my hand / You're like rain on dry land".
Disc Two opens with another impressive "Overture", again playing with the melodic themes already introduced, riffing off them and presenting them in various instrumental styles, while background news reports update us on Snow's progress.
"4th of July" is a group composition and fits well into the overall scheme. This, along with "I'm the Guy" advances our story to the point where ego is tripping up our boy. "Reflection" is a variant on "Stranger in a Strange Land", wherein the story of the "albino priest with the psychic mind" is updated.
"Carie" is the woman that captures Snow's attentions, and this pretty song (with lead vocals from Nick D'Virgilio) manages to capture that delicate love with soft guitars and piano. "Looking for Answers" is the lone Nick D'Virgilio composition here, and it holds its own with the Neal Morse music. This tune of questioning is as catchy as many of the others here, and offers hope that D'Virgilio can contribute more songwriting in the future.
The hard-edged "Freak Boy" is a simplistic bit of necessary comeuppance, as Carie tells Snow rather harshly that he is a revolting, unlovable, magnet for the pathetic. "All Is Vanity" is Snow's first realization that he is hitting bottom again, all alone, while lovely keyboard work and further instrumentals propels the story forward into the next two songs about his descent "I'm Dying" (featuring heart-wrenching vocals and more thematic repetitions) and a harder reprise of "Freak Boy".
We are treated next with a very charged rendition of "Devil's Got My Throat", which proves just as catchy the second time around. This leads to the instrumental tour-de-force "Snow's Night Out", wherein you get a lot of energy and fancy riffs leading up to a grand performance along the lines of what Keith Emerson once did in the aptly titled "Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Ryo Okumoto On The Keyboards".
"I Will Go" is the phoenix-like rise tale of Snow finding redemption through God and the music segues around full circle again to "Made Alive Again" and then "Wind at My Back". This lovely harmony-driven ballad gains in intensity like some concert's encore as Morse thanks the band, etc. It plays out with emotional power and wraps this long yet impressive whirlwind of a musical story.
This two-CD set gets even better with repeated listens. The more you hear it, the more you appreciate the thematic inter-weaving, the subtle accents and musical elements that are not so easily heard the first few times 'round, along with the virtuoso playing of each of the band's five members. D'Virgilio is an excellent tight drummer, Alan Morse never overdoes things with his many guitar sounds, Ryo Okumoto gets his great keyboards in and Dave Meros really does channel Chris Squire through his Rickenbacker bass. Neal Morse has achieved what he set out to do -- and he does it so very well with expressive vocals and a host of deliciously infectious melodies that run the gamut stylistically from soft to hard.
This band balances the story telling with consummate craft and quality arrangements that emphasize the music first. Well-constructed and masterfully executed, Snow is Spock's Beard best work, a classic CD-set that will be a treasured magnum opus for years to come. Fans of Yes, ELP, Genesis, King Crimson, the Who, Gentle Giant, Kansas, Marillion, Kevin Gilbert, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and newer "Neo-Prog" groups like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, the Flower Kings or Echolyn will savor this lavish concept album.
However, the bad news I alluded to earlier is that Neal Morse has since announced his departure from the band in order that he may better follow "the will of God". Morse, while writing this epic tale, apparently was going through a similar inner journey, finding redemption in religion that fulfilled him even more than his talents alone did.
Thankfully, he has left us Snow as a chronicle and testament to those musical talents, a coda to a career with a band that is both impressive and sad, a crowning achievement and a bittersweet farewell.