The Decapitation of Spock’s Beard
New Eras for Neal Morse and his Former Band

Sports are stupid.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve uttered the above phrase, I’d be able to buy Fenway Park. Disdain for sporting events – of all kinds, in all varieties – has been a running motif of my life for as long as I can remember. I was forced to play baseball, basketball and soccer as a youngster, and I hated all three. Pointless athletic competition, I’d say. What’s the point?

I’m writing this in the hours before Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series. I’ve watched every game of this series so far, and I’m surprisingly wrapped up in it. The Boston Red Sox are one win away from playing in their first World Series since 1986. The last time they won the World Series was in 1918. If there’s a ball club I would consider “my team,” it’s the Red Sox – I grew up in Massachusetts in a house with a rabid Sox fan, so it’s osmosis more than anything else.

It’s weird, but I’m on pins and needles right now. I’m so stressed and excited I can barely sit still. Oh, did I mention that the ALCS this year pits the Red Sox against the hated New York Yankees? I’d like to say that even if the Sox lose tonight, they’ve played a great series and it’s not who wins or loses and blah blah, but I can’t. Nothing but crushing, terrible defeat is good enough for the Yankees. Most of you reading this probably know by now who won, or you don’t care, but I thought it important to capture this rare moment while it was happening, since I may never watch another sporting event again, because they’re stupid.

So in summary, um, go Sox.

* * * * *

This is going to be a strange analogy, but it works, so I beg you to stick with me.

Those not into music often find it strange when those of us who are describe our relationships with particular bands as exactly that: relationships. It is possible to have a relationship with a band that is just as rewarding, if not more so, than a relationship with a real person. Bands are very much like people – they have opinions and thoughts and particular ways of viewing the world, and they have their own methods of expressing those views. It’s very much like each band member makes up one part of the group’s body, and the amalgam of their shared personalities and skills determines how this new person will move about the world. Bands age just like people, and they can be wounded, maimed and killed like people, too.

One thing that’s extremely difficult for any band to overcome, however, is the loss of its lead singer. The singer is, in most cases, the definable face of the group, and in many cases, the brain as well. If a band, especially a long-running one, must replace its singer, it’s like that person we’ve come to know has been decapitated and grown a new head. This new head looks different, speaks differently and holds different views and opinions from the previous head, and even though the body parts are the same, the new brain will make them move in different ways. It’s like an entirely new person, one which we as fans have to get to know all over again, and it’s little wonder that most fans don’t bother.

See, I told you it would be a strange analogy.

The second getting-to-know-you process would probably be easier if the new heads didn’t have a disturbing tendency towards top-40 radio pop. Time after time, though, talented bands will lose their singers and replace them with new ones, and within two albums they’re suddenly playing synth-heavy love ballads. Van Halen is a good example – they went from “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” with David Lee Roth to talking about nothing but love with Sammy Hagar, and the decline was steep. For a while there, it looked like Steve Hogarth was going to bring Marillion to the same sappy place after Fish left, but that band has blossomed into something wholly different, yet wholly beautiful.

Perhaps the most famous example is Genesis. That band was all but defined by Peter Gabriel in the ’70s, crafting moody soundscapes for his bizarre and creepy lyrics. After he left in 1974, the band auditioned other singers, but eventually settled on their own drummer, Phil Collins. (He’s always been a better drummer than he is a singer, by the way, and listen to Selling England By the Pound if you don’t believe me.) It didn’t take long for Collins to warp Genesis into his personal hit machine, and the less said about later-period albums like Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance the better.

Still, progressive rock fans continue to debate the merits of the two eras, particularly the earlier Collins albums like Wind and Wuthering. Prog fans like nothing better than a good debate, and now they have another chance at one, since a similar fate has befallen Genesis disciples Spock’s Beard.

If you’ve never heard of the band, the name Spock’s Beard tends to provoke chuckles, but for about a decade, they’ve shared the throne with Dream Theater as one of the best progressive bands of our time. I have a few problems with the term progressive, since it’s used to describe a style that’s regressive if anything, but really what it means is music that’s damn near impossible to play. Genesis, Yes, Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard all share one trait – the musicians that play in these bands are, by necessity, masters at their instruments.

That doesn’t mean they can write good songs, however, as any slog through Abacab or Tormato will show. Spock’s Beard has never had that problem – in fact, the band has often been seen as a vehicle for the songwriting of Neal Morse, their lead singer. Nobody writes a 30-minute song like this guy – he pulls memorable melodies from the air, restates themes in perfect places, and never bores. Last year he wrote almost all of the Beard’s two-hour concept album Snow, a rock opera in the classic tradition.

And then he left.

We’d seen hints of the reason for his departure for several years, but none more forceful than on Snow, with its thinly veiled Christ metaphors. Neal Morse had found God, and his religious faith was calling him elsewhere. Many expected the end of Spock’s Beard, but the remaining members soon announced that they would soldier on. In a very Genesis twist, drummer Nick D’Virgilio would step in on lead vocals.

I will never forget the first time I saw Nick D’Virgilio play. He was touring with Jonatha Brooke, and all by himself he was more than half of her backing band. He sat at a three-piece drum kit with a bass guitar in his lap, and he used both hands to play the bass, his left foot to work the kick drum and his right to work the hi-hat. But wait, there’s more – he played the snare drum with the head of his guitar, shifting his whole body every fourth beat or so. Oh, and he also sang backup vocals. The guy’s amazing.

But still, could Spock’s Beard find its own identity without Morse’s songwriting? The answer, in a manner of speaking, has arrived with Feel Euphoria, the first Beard album with D’Virgilio in the lead spot. And while it’s not bad, it’s certainly the weakest music ever released under the band’s name. Despite the fact that these guys have been playing together for more than 10 years, this album feels like the first tentative steps of a neophyte.

Naturally, it’s not nearly as complex as any of their albums with Neal Morse. There are progressive touches here and there, but mostly Feel Euphoria is straight-ahead rock and pop. There are three ballads, which stay pretty well within the pop cliche realm, and there are several simple rock songs stretched beyond their ideal running times. The album’s centerpiece, the six-part suite “A Guy Named Sid,” feels like the first extended piece D’Virgilio has tried to write – he should probably have scrapped this one and attempted two or three more before recording.

But there’s some pretty stuff here as well, and some things that bode well for the future. D’Virgilio’s voice, for one, is strong and appealing. “The Bottom Line” makes good use of its seven and a half minutes, flipping from one section to another well. The melody of “You Don’t Know,” smack in the middle of “Sid,” is impressive and memorable. The band is tight and plays this simple stuff well, but given their past records, most of this material is beneath them. Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, especially, never gets to shine, and this guy’s a wizard.

Feel Euphoria is certainly a first step for the new Beard, but even so, it probably could have been better than it is. The first signs of a top-40 direction are here, and the band needs to nip that in the bud as soon as possible. Even without Neal Morse’s direction, the four musicians who make up the Beard are capable of more than they’re showing here, and the next album should demonstrate that.

And hey, if they need a good primer on what made them special, they can always pick up Morse’s own new solo album, Testimony.

Everything that Feel Euphoria lacks is here. Testimony is a massive, two-hour progressive suite, the kind that can only be written by a master. It’s thematically sound all the way through, and it feels like one long, beautiful song. It’s the ultimate excessive prog record – there are horn sections, orchestrated passages, winding keyboard solos, tricky instrumental bridges that last for four minutes, and numerous interludes. There are even three, count ’em, three overtures. It’s the kind of laughably grandiose project that few artists even try for anymore.

And yes, this is the Jesus record that Morse felt he couldn’t make with Spock’s Beard. As the title implies, Testimony tells Neal’s story, focusing on his conversion to Christianity. It’s a topic that has, to my knowledge, not been broached in this style before, and it’s funny to me that one of the most Christian albums of the year was released on Metal Blade Records. It’s also a topic that needed to be handled delicately to fully succeed, and that’s where Morse fails. If there’s one thing prog is not, it’s delicate.

Much of Testimony sounds like Michael W. Smith trying to make The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The lyrics are, in a word, bland – they tell Morse’s tale in the vaguest and most general terms, and infect the record with several typical CCM-style praise songs. My complaint here is not that Morse has made a Jesus record, but that he’s made one that retreads the same ground the Christian music industry has trampled since its birth. “I Am Willing” sounds like Carman at his most worshipful, and “Oh, To Feel Him” is pretty much irredeemable. (Plus, he’s releasing this album to an audience that’s not used to this sort of thing, one that will definitely catch the unintentional homoeroticism in a song called “Oh, To Feel Him.”)

But even if he’s occasionally overzealous, Morse obviously felt every note of this enormous work, as evidenced by the fact that he played almost all of them. Any sound on Testimony that wasn’t made by an orchestral instrument or a drum was probably made by Morse, and I doubt that any artist with an album this year can say that they worked harder on theirs than Neal can. (The drums, by the way, were played by Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy.) Musically, this is mostly fantastic, and it contains all the hallmarks of Morse’s best work, kicked up a notch or two. Testimony‘s two hours fly by, propelled by Morse’s sense of flow and unity.

If this is the last we hear of Neal Morse – and it may very well be – it’s a good way to go out. He’s made an album that he’s obviously wanted to make for a long time, and he’s poured everything he has into it. I hope, however, that he returns to music, and even to Christian music, once he gains some perspective on his newfound faith. Testimony is a musically rich album that, unfortunately, could have used more depth lyrically. But Morse is still better off than his former band – we already know him, and it’s going to take a bit more time to get to know them again.

See you in line Tuesday morning.