Album: The Light
Band: Spock's Beard
In the mid-'90s, prog-rock was down in the doldrums - its cooler, hipper younger brother prog-metal had taken the spotlight, and while bands like Queensryche, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning were certainly carrying the progressive torch to new generations, none of them were very "rock" at all. In 1995, a young band with the quirky name of Spock's Beard exploded onto the scene and sent major rifts in the prog community. Their debut, while only having four songs, was a powerful, bold statement from a band who would go on to shape the landscape of progressive rock for the years to come.
The greatest feature about this album is the musicians' ability to blend sounds and styles with one another to form a coherent whole. Yes, occasionally certain instruments take the spotlight but for the most part this is the work of an indomitable, unified force. The guitars have a rough, raunchy, hyper-saturated tone not heard since Hendrix, the bass gives a funk-inspired pulse throughout, the drums exhibit a sense of style and musicality somewhere in between Phil Collins and Nick Mason, and the keys permeate the recording with all manner of styles - from greatly exaggerated symphonic bombast to ambient pianos and floating organs. Vocally, the record is nothing truly great, but Neal Morse's voice exudes youth, passion, and soul that's often lacking from prog bands.
At first glance, the music sounds like an early-Genesis clone, but the Beard firmly established a unique sound with this album. It combined the symphonic grandeur of Genesis and molded it with heavy blues-rock and even elements of noise-rock, giving the album a contrast between very calm and pastoral, and very "nasty" and rough. The songs are long - very long, but their composition and scope justify the length. From even the first song, "The Light", it is evident that the band are very competent songwriters and arrangers - using repeated themes in a whole slew of interpretations so that each time the melody reoccurs, it sounds different. Tinges of funk, gospel, Latin, psychedelia, even the occasional metal riff all rear their heads across the musical landscape as well, and the songs are constructed to showcase these moments throughout, but the main thing about the album is its soul. It's fun to sing along to, and fun to listen to. Just listening to some of the parts on the album gives you the impression that a lot of fun was had writing and recording the album. Even in the darker, serious moments really feel like a group of four young guys having fun playing music.
The first three tracks "The Light", "Go The Way You Go" and "The Water" are all among the strongest in the band's catalog, while closer "On The Edge", the only one underneath the 12-minute mark, is comparatively weaker. However, each of the four tracks have very high points and the occasional spot where the music drags, but it's a well-rounded effort, proving that even 16, 12, and 23-minute epics could be well written. The production is another weak aspect of this album, although the slightly distorted quality gives the impression that the album is on vinyl, and sometimes helps to further accentuate the atmosphere.
The music and lyrics on The Light range from angry and rebellious ("You gave me this home, and then you left me alone, so fuck you!"), introspective ("What makes a dream so very different from any other dream?"), and even whimsical and into the absurd ("I am Señor Valasco, I drink my milk with Tabasco" and "I am the catfish man, I can't hear you!") and a myriad of other styles in between. As an album that will take you on an intriguing, varied journey that would still allow you to have fun and sing along to the very strong melodies, this album can't be beat. An excellent debut.
Highlights: The Light, Go The Way You Go, The Water