Feel Euphoria marks the beginning of Spock's Beard, Phase II – the band's first album ever without founder, multi-instrumentalist, chief songwriter, producer and singer Neal Morse. Even the old logo is gone. Replacing Morse on vocals is drummer Nick D'Virgilio, whose high-pitched harmonies made many older Spock's Beard songs so memorable. Expectations among both fans and skeptics are high, and Feel Euphoria provides fodder for both camps. Written, recorded and released nine months after Morse's departure and less than a year after the band's two-CD concept masterpiece Snow appeared, Feel Euphoria emerges as the band's seventh studio album -- a likely and a likeable next step that echoes much of the Beard's earlier material without repeating it. That said, here are three things you should know heading into your first 64-minute spin of Feel Euphoria:
1. Two, maybe three, tracks are almost unrecognizable as Spock's Beard songs. The rest don't sound that much different than tunes from the Morse era. Opener "Onomatopoeia" and the title track boast distorted guitars and vocal effects that would probably sound more at home on D'Virgilio's 2001 solo album, Karma. Off-key jams and fast tempos intertwine with creeping choruses that lend these tracks an even more progressive vibe than previous material. Other songs, however, adhere more to the traditional Spock's Beard style, as "Shining Star" and "East of Eden, West of Memphis" pump out smart and soaring feel-good rock. "The Bottom Line" is a progressive tour-de-force that finds D'Virgilio singing like Peter Gabriel and the rest of the players expanding their chops as the band journeys through several diverse passages. Meanwhile, the six-part, 20-minute epic "A Guy Named Sid" recalls a much more condensed version of Snow. D'Virgilio often sings like Morse here, and the band engages in effective use of counterpoint vocals that marked some of Snow's best moments. Not surprisingly, "A Guy Named Sid" was the first song D'Virgilio wrote after Morse's departure, and it boasts lots of drums.
2. Feel Euphoria was recorded differently than previous Spock's Beard albums. With the departure of piano and synths man Morse, Ryo Okumoto now plays all keyboards, instead of just organ and Mellotron. His new contributions are most apparent on the haunting piano ballad "Ghosts of Autumn." Likewise, guitarist (and Neal's brother) Alan Morse wrote many of his own parts this time, using such diverse inspirations as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Ted Nugent as jumping-off points during "East of Eden, West of Memphis" and various movements of "A Guy Named Sid." Bassist Dave Meros, while not taking on new roles, plays as solid as ever. Also new for the band, now down to a quartet, was recording much of Feel Euphoria at California's Lawnmower and Garden Supply studios and The Mouse House – leading to a fuller, deeper and more effective sound. Unless you've seen the band live, Spock's Beard has never before been in your face this much. Previously, the Morse brothers recorded their individual parts at their homes; this time, the band's seasoned engineer and mixer Rich Mouser laid down most tracks in a professional recording environment. Plus, the members of Spock's Beard receive a collective "Produced By" credit on Feel Euphoria, rather than the "Neal Morse and Spock's Beard" credit that appeared on the previous six discs.
3. Just as Day For Night and Snow did before it, Feel Euphoria is bound to divide fans. There's no question that this is no longer "Neal Morse and Spock's Beard." Neither, however, is it "Nick D'Virgilio and Spock's Beard." Rather, Feel Euphoria is an entity unto itself, an enigma that will likely remain so until this version of the band records at least one more album. What's more, "Carry On," this disc's hopeful closer, doesn't quite live up to the promise of its beginning – or even of the album's other songs. In an eerie performance, D'Virgilio seems to invoke Neal Morse's voice more than ever on "Carry On," reminding listeners of the past this brave band has attempted to leave behind. What's truly remarkable about Spock's Beard right now is its ability to confront adversity so admirably. After all, Neal Morse often appeared to be the brains behind the Beard, albeit backed by some extremely talented musicians. Feel Euphoria proves that those extremely talented musicians don't need Neal Morse, that (contrary to debate on some Internet bulletin boards) the players in Spock's Beard didn't have to change the band's name after all, find a new singer from the outside or even call it quits.
At this moment in time, no other rock group – progressive or otherwise – could have made an album quite like Feel Euphoria. And at this moment in time, that's about all Spock's Beard fans can ask.