Although they arrive at an odd time when no new material from Spock's Beard or the band's former front man Neal Morse is imminent although a live Morse DVD is slated to drop in late June reissues of the first three Beard albums are a most welcome addition to any self-respecting prog fan's library. They each come with bonus tracks, detailed and entertaining liner notes penned by Morse, plenty of photos from the archives (including Neal Morse with long hair and guitarist Alan Morse with a mullet) and remastered sound that gives the music even greater pop and depth.
The Light, originally released in 1995 and considered a modern prog classic in some circles, introduces listeners to many of the musical elements that would become Spock's Beard trademarks. Consisting of just four songs (only one shorter than seven minutes) The Light demonstrates the Beard's desire to bridge its tight grasp of Seventies prog with contemporary charm, chops and wit all characteristics in short supply from American bands at the time.
The eight-part title track just happens to be the first "progressive" song Morse wrote, and it's a doozy, characterized by patient arrangements, distorted vocals and quippy lyrics "I am the nun and the flasher/I am the father, the son and the bastard." (And there's even a bonus-track demo version of the song here that's nearly as long as the album version.) Then comes "Go the Way You Go," with its swirling Beatles-inspired harmonies that give listeners the first real taste of this band's melodically wonderful potential, followed by the seven-part epic "The Water," which relies on influences from Pink Floyd and Genesis to New Kids on the Block. One of the song's most notable sections is called "FU/I'm Sorry" and consists of Morse screaming "Fuck You" and then apologizing. In the liner notes to this new edition, Morse who left Spock's Beard in 2002, citing religious reasons apologizes again for his actions and warns to "clear the kids out before you put this one on."
Morse says he composed most of The Light, with the exception of the more traditional closing track "On the Edge," within a week or so. "I asked my brother Al to play on the demos and at first he didn't seem very into it," Morse writes. "Then he called me a few weeks later and said, 'Oh yeah, this stuff is KILLER
Let's put a BAND together!' And the Beard was born." Enter drummer Nick D'Virgilio and bassist Dave Meros. The Light presents Spock's Beard as a four-piece band only, with the Morse brothers handling Hammond organ, Mellotron and other keyboard duties. Ryo Okumoto would make his debut on 1996's Beware of Darkness.
Beware of Darkness partially mixed, incidentally, by the late Kevin Gilbert, who died in the middle of this project actually picks up where The Light left off, although the Beard's sophomore album sounds prettier than its predecessor. In addition to the Yes-influenced reworking of the George Harrison-penned title track and the feedback-laced 16-minute closer "Time Has Come" (perhaps the band's most progressive piece up to that point), Beware of Darkness is full of poignant passages: the piano intro to "The Doorway," the brief acoustic-guitar instrumental "Chatauqua," the mesmerizing group vocals on "Walking on the Wind." With nearly twice as many songs as The Light, Spock's Beard has nearly twice as many opportunities to wow listeners.
Neal Morse's improved songwriting reveals a more human element to his lyrics. On "Waste Away," for example, he sings, "Some people think they're lucky/Like they thought of Heaven first/Some people been holdin' back their love so long/I think they're about to burst." The group also begins to really show off its vocal talent on "Thoughts." Inspired by Gentle Giant, the song relies heavily on contrapuntal voices recorded in the same vein as classical choral music.
That said, even at this early stage, some of the Beard's arrangements were becoming predictable, as serious listeners can easily determine when Okumoto will break out into a full-blown Mellotron solo, or when Neal Morse will distort his vocals, or when D'Virgilio will rely almost solely on his hi-hat.
That predictability began to change on The Kindness of Strangers, with a string quartet (the vibrant opener "The Good Don't Last"), a first-rate ballad that highlights D'Virgilio's emerging voice ("June"), social commentary ("Strange World") and darker sonic landscapes (the 16-minute epic closer "Flow"). With Rich Mouser taking over mixing duties, the Beard started to rock a little harder, particularly on "In the Mouth of Madness" and "Cakewalk on Easy Street" presented here in both their original forms and their radio edits. The made-for-radio versions of those songs plus "The Good Don't Last," edited down from 10 minutes to less than three-and-a-half minutes, indicate the band was shooting for mainstream success in Europe if not America. Amazingly enough, any of these tunes would still manage to fit in on some U.S. radio stations. Pity they never will.
Day For Night, an even more commercial set of songs than those on The Kindness of Strangers, appeared in 1999, followed by 2000's V, a six-song amalgam of the Beard's most accessible and most progressive material. The epic two-disc masterpiece Snow arrived in 2002, mere weeks before Neal Morse's sudden departure, and then in 2003, the band released Feel Euphoria with D'Virgilio singing lead. When you take the time to delve deep into the Spock's catalog, especially via these tempting reissues, it dawns on you if, indeed, it hadn't already -- that Spock's Beard has never released a bad album.
1) The Light (15:32)
2) Go the Way You Go (12:07)
3) The Water (23:10)
4) On the Edge (6:14)
5) The Light (Home Demo) (15:18)
Total Time: 72:23
Beware of Darkness:
1) Beware of Darkness (5:42)
2) Thoughts (7:10)
3) The Doorway (11:35)
4) Chatauqua (2:50)
5) Walking on the Wind (9:09)
6) Waste Away (5:21)
7) Time Has Come (16:22)
8) The Doorway (Home Demo) (10:26)
9) Beware of Darkness (Home Demo) (5:10)
Total Time: 73:49
The Kindness of Strangers:
1) The Good Don't Last (10:04)
2) In the Mouth of Madness (4:45)
3) Cakewalk on Easy Street (5:01)
4) June (5:29)
5) Strange World (4:20)
6) Harm's Way (11:05)
7) Flow (15:50)
8) The Good Don't Last (Radio Edit) (3:19)
9) In the Mouth of Madness (Radio Edit) (3:58)
10) Cakewalk on Easy Street (Radio Edit) (4:02)
11) June (Home Demo) (5:28)
12) Strange World (Home Demo) (4:31)
Total Time: 77:58