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Spock's Beard - Noise Floor CD (album) cover

NOISE FLOOR

Spock's Beard

 

Symphonic Prog

3.58 | 63 ratings

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Aussie-Byrd-Brother
Special Collaborator
Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars It's going to be quite easy for some long-time and more casual fans of popular American prog band Spock's Beard to quickly (and unfairly) dismiss their thirteenth studio album, 2018's `Noise Floor'. On the surface, the band have offered up one of their most streamlined works to date (with quite an AOR-driven sound to the fore), so the more commercial elements of the band are front and centre, with the tune being the biggest priority over instrumental showboating. That song-driven edge has always been at the heart of the band so should really not be surprising, but careful (and repeated!) listens are essential to reveal plenty of interesting and exciting details woven in to pretty much every track on the album, even ones that initially seem fairly straight-forward. Thankfully, `Noise Floor' still retains that muscular heavy rock sound present on all the Spock's discs since founder Neal Morse took off that has really become one of the defining and instantly identifiable qualities of the core four-member modern version of the group, and in many ways it makes for one of their most deceptively lavish efforts so far.

Gutsy opener `To Breathe Another Day' sets much of a template for the disc - ballsy hard-rock with unpredictable time- changes and grander symphonic flavours all grafted to tightly compact tunes with lofty lead vocals. Enchant singer Ted Leonard (now on his third full studio album with the band) is given even greater prominence than on his previous Spock's discs, and his confident and powerful delivery is sounding more natural and better than ever. Much attention has been made of former drummer/frontman Nick D'Virgilio stepping back in to provide drums for the departing Jimmy Keegan, and as great as he was in the band, Nick's complexity, power and daring are once again centre stage and a very welcome return for the group (even if it proves to be a one-off again come their next album). And, of course, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto plies his synths over everything with finesse and great colour.

Exhilarating orchestration permeates all of `What Becomes Of Me' (did Nick bring the fancier Big Big Train touches back with him?!), an eclectic and sprightly piece that jumps in a dozen directions, nice driving riffs one moment, dreamy pop-rock harmonies the next. Parts of `Somebody's Home' fit into the `obligatory pensive Spock's power ballad to make your wife smile in between all the bouts of proggy tantrums' slot, and as always the guys have this sort of thing down to a fine art, with plenty of warm acoustic guitars, smooth vocals and reflective words delivering one of the best melodic moments of the LP, and there's fleeting little reminders of the fancy Gentle Giant influence that infiltrates most of the Spock's discs.

`Have We All Gone Crazy Yet', the longest track here at eight minutes, crackles with the lively fun the band is known for, and with its constant blistering instrumental bursts - a nice jazzy undercurrent from sparkling electric piano here, some tasty King Crimson-like guitar strangulations there - it's a safe bet this one could become a live favourite with fans. `So This Is Life' is a lightly psychedelic ballad with fleeting Beatles touches even down to the orchestration, jammed full of lovely sighing sun- kissed harmonies, and Alan Morse really nails a hazy early Seventies Pink Floyd/David Gilmour-esque grandness to some lightly soaring guitar reaches. The energetic `One So Wise' then darts through a range of tempos back and forth with Dave Meros' bouncing and buoyant thick bass constantly given the spotlight between sleek Mellotron shivers and a rousing chorus.

Worry not, prog fans - `Box Of Spiders' is your sole instrumental track courtesy of Ryo, and as always from the Spocks, it's a delirious good'un, unexpectedly laced with Goblin-like spectral synths, jagged Hammond stabs and psychedelic keyboard violations whilst simultaneously being blasted by twisting-turning heavy jazz-fusion guitars/bass/drum spasms and a bit of runaway piano pomp - phew, got all that?! Album closer `Beginnings' is not the most memorable vocal track on the disc, but it finds a decent balance of being lyrically weighty and ultimately hopeful. It's greatly enlivened by cool multi-part harmonies from the different fellas around uplifting Mellotron rises, and the cool scratchy Hammond-driven instrumental spurt in the middle with some fiery guitar wailing gives the track some much needed energy.

(All versions of the album come with a welcome `bonus disc' referred to as the `Cutting Room Floor' EP, and most of the contents see the band delivering almost radio-friendly pop/rock pieces. `Days We'll Remember' is a lovely Kansas-like ballad with Genesis/Steve Hackett-esque strains and a big chorus, and Ryo's keyboards hum beautifully on this one. Classy pop- rocker `Bulletproof' is inspiriting, and `Vault' has plenty of alternating acoustic/electric guitar passages and slick vocals, but `Armageddon Nervous' (groan!) will most please the proggies, being a loopy, relentless and playful little instrumental snippet.)

`Noise Floor' is not reinventing the wheel, but it sees this modern incarnation of Spock's Beard playing to their strengths, surging with confidence and also having a lot of fun. Excluding the bonus tracks at the end, it's also a welcome change to find the Beard essentially releasing a single vinyl length album that runs around just over fifty minutes, so it mostly avoids the padded out `filler' bloat that many of their previous albums were sometimes plagued by. What you're left with is a punchy, assured, hard-rocking song-based album that still delivers plenty of prog thrills where needed, helping make `Noise Floor' another fine addition to the Spock's Beard catalogue.

Four stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |

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