Artist: Spock’s Beard
Album Title: The Oblivion Particle
Label: InsideOut Music
Year Of Release: 2015
If 2015 was already a strong year for progressive rock music, it is just about to get even stronger, thanks to this little beauty of an album. I am of course referring to Spock’s Beard’s latest offering, ‘The Oblivion Particle’. Over the years, despite one or two alterations to the line-up, Spock’s Beard have consistently released progressive rock music of the highest calibre. Rightly so, this has ultimately led to theirs becoming a name synonymous with ‘quality’ within the genre.
Spock’s Beard 2015 is comprised of Alan Morse (vocals, guitar), Dave Meros (bass, vocals), Ryo Okumoto (keyboards, vocals), Jimmy Keegan (drums, vocals) and Ted Leonard (vocals, guitar). And, with ‘The Oblivion Particle’, the quintet may just have delivered their best album yet.
It is rare if an album of the prog variety manages to immediately impress me, as they tend to take their time to work their way into my affections. However, with ‘The Oblivion Particle’, whilst it was not love at first listen, I knew that this would be a record that would provide a great deal of enjoyment. And so it has proved. Moreover, I have now really taken this album to my heart and I’m finding it hard to extract it from my playlist.
My overriding first impression of album number twelve was of a collection of songs that, whilst new, felt strangely familiar and welcoming. Within moments, it was obvious who I was listening to. I don’t mean this to sound derogatory, quite the opposite in fact but ‘The Oblivion Particle’ instantly felt warm and comforting, as if being greeted by one of your oldest and well-loved friends after a lengthy absence. However, having delved into it in much more detail, I’m also pleased to report that, as familiar as much of the content is, there are plenty of differences to explore within the nine compositions.
‘The Oblivion Particle’ opens with arguably the most ‘normal’ and traditional of Spock’s Beard compositions, ‘Tides Of Time’. The track is full of complexity but never at the expense of the song. It is a song that contains a really nice tempo and flow, strong melodies and some rich keyboard tones that give the whole thing an almost theatrical pomp as it develops, ebbing and flowing dextrously from one idea to the next. In addition, the vocals of newish recruit Ted Leonard (Enchant, Thought Chamber), who joined on the previous record, ‘Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep’, fit the music like a glove. Note perfect, emotive, strong and with an impressive range, Mr Leonard and Spock’s Beard are a match made in heaven.
Aside from all this, the track also immediately flags up one of the principle tweaks in the Spock’s Beard sound this time around, namely a slightly heavier veneer. This might set alarm bells ringing with those who prefer their prog on the softer side but you needn’t be worried because I’m not talking thrash metal riffs, screamed vocals or relentless machine-gun drumming. Instead, the increase in heaviness can be heard within the occasional guitar riff which might utilise a dirtier or grittier tone, an increase in the controlled bombast and decadence of the occasional crescendo or the overall urgency of the odd segment within a larger composition.
As you might expect from Spock’s Beard, every piece of music contains within it a myriad of sounds, styles and influences from across the musical spectrum, but it is the way in which all the ideas are fused together into a cohesive and digestible whole which sets this group of musicians apart from others. The entire record feels well thought-out, smooth and sufficiently accessible despite their willingness to play around with everything from pop to hard rock, from jazz to classical. It should sound messy and disjointed but it never does.
The increased heaviness is once again in evidence within the opening riff to ‘Minion’ that takes over from an a capella melody and which is accompanied by a prominent and rumbling bass. The excellently expressive bass work is a key component of a track that contains a hugely addictive chorus and which works the full gamut between creating some of the most powerful material and also some of the most subtle and beautiful sections where there’s little else other than a tinkling piano melody and emotive vocals. As if that wasn’t enough, the song also introduces the first of many intriguing and ‘new’ keyboard sounds courtesy of Ryo Okumoto that litter ‘The Oblivion Particle’. It is clear that a certain amount of caution has been thrown to the wind and there’s been a demonstrable embracing of experimentation in this area, something which only enhances the listening experience as far as I’m concerned.
Speaking of experimentation, it doesn’t cease with the keyboards. Not content with being masters of their own instruments, ‘The Oblivion Particle’ sees Alan Morse introduce the autoharp, banjolele, electric sitar and mandolin to his repertoire and drummer Jimmy Keegan takes up lead vocal duties for the first time on ‘Bennett Builds A Time Machine’ meaning that every member of the quintet now contributes vocals to the music, another huge string to the Spock’s Beard metaphorical bow.
The highlight of ‘Hell’s Not Enough’ is the decadent and flamboyant drumming from Jimmy Keegan that drives the closing crescendo with real power thus completing the transformation within the composition, which steadily builds from a quiet, understated acoustic opening to an entirely different beast altogether.
One of my personal highlights on ‘The Oblivion Particle’ is the aforementioned ‘Bennett Builds A Time Machine’. It can only be described as a bright and breezy composition with an extended, slightly darker instrumental work-out in the mid-section. The whole song is fantastic and strikes me as the song that perhaps the Beach Boys might have written if they played progressive rock; the melodic intent is wonderful and the debut lead vocals courtesy of Jimmy Keegan have a lovely 60s pop feel to them. It really is a delightful song from beginning to end, with a properly uplifting, feel-good factor to it.
More highlights can be found within each and every one of the tracks on ‘The Oblivion Particle’ but to name a few, there’s the more straight-up hard rock attitude of ‘Get Out While You Can’, the utterly stunning and majestic ‘The Centre Line’ which is driven by a galloping tempo and which contains yet more delicious melodic hooks as well as some peerless musicianship. The fact that it is book-ended by a classical piano work-out is the icing on the cake. ‘To Be Free Again’ is arguably the most epic track on the record. It offers a groovy, chunky riff that’s simply brilliant before changing styles almost entirely, straying into territory that’s the most cinematic and atmospheric anywhere on the record.
‘The Oblivion Particle’ is then closed out by ‘Disappear’. I feel like I’m turning into a broken record but there’s no getting away from the fact that the chorus is sublime, containing possibly the most immediate hooks on the album as well as interesting violin embellishments from David Ragsdale. It conveys more in the way of positivity too, ending the album on a note of genuine hope and I’m left feeling happy, content and somehow enriched by the whole experience. I’m not sure that the lyrics are in keeping with these feelings, but that’s its effect the music has on me, without doubt.
So, to conclude, what else can I say but reiterate that ‘The Oblivion Particle’ is the sound of Spock’s Beard at the very top of their game. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure that ‘classic’ melodic progressive rock can get much better than this. I shall wait to be proven wrong of course but in the meantime, as far as I’m concerned, this will sit at the very pinnacle of the genre.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld