Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle (Review & Interview)
Celebrating their twentieth anniversary in 2015, the American prog rockers return with their twelfth studio album. How does the latest effort from the respected trendsetters in the field shape up?
For a band who has had a few line up changes along the way, it’s the second album for the Leonard/Meros/Keegan/Morse/Okumoto line up whilst band collaborator on the writing front, John Boegehold again adds a large contribution to the equation. Add the constant which is Rich Mouser in the producer’s seat and suddenly personnel changes and shifts in the wider musical fashions don’t seem to phase Spock’s Beard.
Bassist Dave Meros has commented that the opening track, Tides Of Time is “classic Spock’s Beard in terms of arrangement and style, but everything else is fairly different” but before any fans disappear, heads held in hands he adds that the album is “still within the parameters of what people expect to hear from us.” He’s not wrong; close your eyes and Tides Of Time could well be a a blend of what you’d find in a tune Enchant, Spock’s Beard with a bit of classic former Spock’s star Neal Morse thrown in. While it’s a track which may be guilty of blurring the edges, Meros’ claim is also bang on when you delve deeper and find the range of writing widening – perhaps the influence of Boegenhold kicking in - yet with plenty of recognisable features.
There might not be too much of Alan Morse’s squealing lead lines this time round although there’s a lovely part in closing track Disappear which also feature Dave Ragsdale from Kansas (the band, not the start of Dorothy’s wild and wonderful journey along the yellow brick road….) on violin, yet he’s added mandolin, autoharp and banjolele to his standard guitar to expand the range of instruments to the sonic palette. On the other hand there’s plenty of Ryo with his jarring Hammond and softer piano interludes. A Better Way To Fly opens with his atmospheric and sparing piano against a distant wind – very Keith Emerson – and something verging on classical piano on ‘The Center Line’ before the track is taken over by a Maiden style galloping rhythm.
Drummer Jimmy Keegan takes lead vocal on Bennett Built A Time Machine continuing the Spock’s Beard/prog rock grand tradition of singing drummers. It sees Spock’s doing a Beatles – a song which is idiosyncratic and verging on the eccentric very much in the vein of a Yellow Submarine. Very possibly the surprise hit of the record, with a The ‘Back To The Future’ type lyric all time travel back to 1983 – which for those of us with long enough memories it doesn't actually seem that far off. It’s also a nice variation and departure from Ted’s voice which has inevitably invoked an Enchant comparison. Check out the lyric video below.
On the whole, The Oblivion Particle contains all the usual Spock’s trademarks of quality – quirky and jerky time signature and splendid harmonies, musical excellence and an underlying element of fun and adventure. Occasionally treading water in the lengthy To Be Free Again but containing a strong spirit of invention, exploration and discovery, inspired no less by the album title. With their self titled ninth album they sang of dreaming in the age of answers, a philosophy which has served them well. As they say in Bennett…, Spock’s Beard continue to recast the die and reinvent the future.
Album review complete, Mike also had the chance to fire across a few questions at Spock’s singer Ted Leonard on behalf of Manchester Rocks!
The Oblivion Particle is the second album with this Spock’s line up. Was it an easier process this time round having done one album together?
TL: I think so. We know what to expect with each other and so I was able to track from home on a few songs. But even in the studio, things moved along a little quicker. Most of the demos were pretty complete before taking them to the studio. I think ‘Centerline’ may have undergone some major tweaks, but otherwise…
Rich Mouser is at the helm again in the studio – is he as much Spock’s Beard as the band members?
TL: He and John Boegehold (who actually wrote 5 of the songs this time so a pretty big role) have become 6th and 7th members. They are both huge contributors to the content and sound.
Dave (Meros) has said that apart from Tides Of Time it’s a fairly different record – can you explain what he’s getting at?
TL: I think the first three songs spell out how we’ve kept the classic sound at certain moments and how we’ve branched out a bit. ‘Minion’ has a heavy-ness to it that could be seen as a new direction. Al and Ryo always have a way of bringing variety to the sonic palette. We didn't necessarily set out to explore new ground, but a lot of the material on the album ended up that way out of not wanting to repeat ourselves.
Dave Ragsdale from Kansas plays violin on Disappear – how did that come about?
TL: John Boegehold met Rags (pre-Kansas) at a music store in L.A. he and Dave Meros worked in back in the late 80's. They did a little recording and talked about putting some kind of a group together but that didn't go too far since he got the Kansas gig shortly thereafter. They kept in touch and when John started writing with Spock's Beard, they talked about having Rags do a guest appearance, first on X then BNaDS but there was always a problem with scheduling. Finally it worked out for The Oblivion Particle. He recorded his violin parts for the song Disappear from his home studio between Kansas gigs.
Alan (Morse - guitar) seems to have used quite a wide range of instruments on the album too – was that something deliberate to add a bit of something unusual?
TL: Having real acoustic instruments give a sonic depth you just can replicate with electric instruments. This time he reached pretty far down into that bag and brought in some cool textures.
Jimmy (Keegan – drummer) does lead vocal on Bennett Built A Time Machine – was it one he chose or did you give him that to sing?
TL: Jimmy was interested in singing more on this album which worked out really well. Besides backing vocals throughout, he sang lead on the song Bennett Built a Time Machine and one section of To Be Free Again. I didn’t feel like I was really connecting with the vocals on the demos I did for that song, so I asked Jimmy to take a crack at it and it turned out really cool.
With that particular track and the album title and cover art, it has a feel of sci-fi/fantasy and invention…
TL: The cover art is definitely referring to Bennett. There is also a song called A Better Way to Fly which talks of invention
There’s a lyric video for Minion – why did you choose that track?
TL: Inside Out suggested that as our 2nd promo song. Perhaps because that song in particular is a bit of a departure for us into heavier territory. But it also has a broadly sweeping dynamic with that great piano/vocal section.
The last album – Brief Noctures And Dreamless Sleep - had the bonus disc with some pretty cool tracks as extras. Did you have much material left over this time around?
TL: Not as much. There are a few songs near completion floating around. I think we would have been better off saving a couple of the BNaDS bonus songs for this CD. There were some good ones on there that didn’t really get the attention they deserved as a result.
How does it feel to have the album released on vinyl as well?
TL: You can’t beat the packaging on a vinyl release. Sonically? I’m not sure I subscribe to the notion that one is better than the other. Especially if the album has been recorded digitally.
You personally have Spocks, Enchant and the live stuff with Transatlantic in your locker. You’re doing a Spock’s/Enchant double header at the end of August too – how do you cope?
TL: Every once in a while the various pursuits collide or overlap, but for the most part it hasn’t been too difficult. I do think that the Transatlantic tour cut in to my writing time a bit, but it was worth it.
Spock’s Beard are on tour in Europe in September/October and conclude the tour with a date at Manchester Club Academy on 3rd October.
Words & Interview: Mike Ainscoe