Now that singer, multi-instrumentalist and chief lyricist Neal Morse has left Spock's Beard, the band he founded in 1992 and fronted for a decade, the four remaining members of the progressive-pop band spend a lot of time on the phone with each other. "That was Al," keyboard player Ryo Okumoto says to writer Michael Popke, referring to Alan Morse, Neal's brother and the Beard's guitarist, after wrapping up the most recent call regarding the band's future.
That future, as you've no doubt heard, involves carrying on the tradition of Spock's Beard, arguably one of progressive music's most unconventional yet talented bands. Plans call for drummer Nick D'Virgilio to step out from behind the kit and handle lead vocals, with probably a new drummer joining the band for live performances. "I'm hoping that I can cover all the keyboard parts, but when Nick sings, we'll need a really good drummer – and one who can sing, too, so we can still do songs like 'Thoughts,' " Okumoto says, adding that the Beard will forge ahead as a quartet in the studio. "We're fine. Everything's cool. We just have to go into the studio, record some material and see what we can do. I'm not worried about coming up with new material. Sonically, the music is going to be Spock's Beard. The lyrics and the voice will be different. I don't know what it will sound like, but it's still going to be good."
Already, Spock's Beard has performed as a foursome at November's ProgWest in Claremont, Calif., playing three of the band's songs ("The Doorway," "Go the Way You Go" and "Devil's Got My Throat"). And there's been talk of recording in early 2003, with a summer release and then a tour. A 2002 tour in support of the monumental double-CD Snow, which Spock's Beard released just prior to Neal's departure, was shelved in light of the singer's decision. "Not touring the Snow album was the dumbest thing we've ever done," says Okumoto, whose first name is pronounced "Rio." "We put out this mega CD, and then we didn't tour."
Indeed, while it would have been a treat to hear songs from the epic concept album about an outcast young albino man, who in the role of the title character, finds himself confronted with a higher calling that allows him to feel and heal people's pain, Neal's sudden departure (for personal reasons stemming from his Christianity) stalled the band – and ultimately could have broken it up. Okumoto says he actually begged Neal to tour, but his mind was already made up. The band played only a few in-store acoustic gigs (with Neal) in support of Snow, an accessible album that contains musical and lyrical elements of such other landmark concept records as The Who's Tommy, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Pink Floyd's The Wall and even the Seventies off-Broadway musical Godspell.
Yet in the midst of Spock's Beard's darkest autumn came at least two bright spots:
1. Neal's decision may have actually boosted interest in Snow, as listeners new to
the band gave the album a spin to hear what all the fuss was about. Metal Blade, the label that released the album in the United States, made the album a priority in 2002.
2. Okumoto released Coming Through on Europe's InsideOut Music and InsideOut
Music America, his first solo album in 22 years and his first ever outside of his native Japan. His first album, Solid Gold, was released in early 1980 and featured then-Jeff Beck drummer Richard Bailey. He quickly released two more albums that year with such notable players as Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, the late Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and session keyboardist David Foster.
With Coming Through, the term "solo album" is a subjective description, as the record features several guest appearances by his wife, Linda, on background vocals and his 11-year-old son, Sage, on drums, as well as renowned artists such as journeyman vocalist Glenn Hughes, and singer Bobby Kimball, drummer Simon Phillips and Lukather – all from Toto. Each of Okumoto's Beard bandmates also plays on the disc. "Was I smart to use everybody in Spock's Beard on my solo album?" he asks. "Well, I have to use who I have."
And when who he has are as talented as the guys in Spock's, why not? The most memorable track on Coming Through – and the most appropriate, considering the circumstances – is a poignant performance from Neal, whose last recorded work may very well be the title track. The lovely piano-driven ballad features bittersweet lyrics Morse penned himself: "I know you're down, my friend/Shedding tears for what might have been/Time won't stand still/But if we try, time will heal." A video of the recording session, during which Neal is overcome with emotion, is captured on a multimedia CD packaged with the album.
"When writing that song, I'm sure Neal had already made up his mind about Spock's Beard," Okumoto says. "The day after he recorded that song, he announced he was leaving. That's probably all he was thinking about."
The goal of this record, recorded in Spring 2002 after wrapping up Snow, was to take some of the best compositions Okumoto's written during the past two decades and rearrange them in a progressive, yet accessible style. Examples include the funky "The Farther He Goes, The Farther He Falls" (with D'Virgilio on vocals and drums), and the 19-minute "Close Enough," on which Kimball goes prog. Okumoto also includes three instrumentals on Coming Through, sequenced to fall nicely between the other five tracks. One of those, the groove-heavy and guitar-free "Godzilla Vs. King Ghidarah," dates back 17 years.
About the only semi-clunker is Hughes' "Highway Roller," which unfortunately sounds like a Deep Purple reject. The nature of this album gives it a "Various Artists" vibe, but Okumoto's solid and creative playing holds it together. While on Snow he proved he's just as comfortable playing classical-inspired solos as he is banging away on the Hammond organ, on Coming Through, Okumoto just goes wherever the music takes him.
"You definitely feel that progressive thing in there, which I needed to have for prog fans, for Spock's Beard fans," Okumoto says. "I didn't really plan to have a pop side and a prog side. That's just the way things happened. I wasn't even ready to do a solo record. But Spock's Beard is getting bigger, and now I have a chance to actually sell copies of one of my CDs. If I do well with this CD, maybe the guys in Toto [whom Okumoto has known for more than two decades] will call me, and I won't have to call them."
(Incidentally, Okumoto also released a CD single in Europe in 2001 called "Winners of the Heart," a pop tune written for an international ski-jumping competition.)
When he's not working with Spock's Beard or making solo albums (he's already begun writing the follow-up to Coming Through and plans to call on Neal again for at least a cameo appearance), Okumoto keeps busy with side gigs. He's been part of the live band for Hughes' Voices of Classic Rock project, a live amalgam of some of the best rock voices from the Eighties – including Toto's Fergie Frederiksen, Loverboy's Mike Reno and Survivor's Jimi Jamison. He also plays in Natalie Cole's touring band. "I just sit there and read music," Okumoto says, comparing that gig to a Spock's Beard show, where he ventures blindly into the audience while playing a wacky solo on his portable keyboard. "With Natalie, I play jazz instead of rock." And he says he's not too proud to still do weddings.
Okumoto's got more free time now that he's at least got a command of the English language. "I started learning how to speak English when I arrived in this country 22 years ago," he says, still speaking with a sometimes thick Japanese accent. "You would not believe how hard it was. It took me 10 years to be able to argue."
That said, neither his powers of persuasion nor those of the rest of the members of Spock's Beard were enough to keep Neal Morse from leaving the band. But even though he won't be appearing on the next Beard record, Neal still runs the band's web site, according to Okumoto, and he remains "part of the family."
"Spock's Beard is as good as it gets," the keyboard player says, optimistic about the group's future. "We don't need to prove anything. It's a beautiful band we have."
(For more info on Okumoto's colorful career, log on to www.ryookumoto.com.)