Octane is the eighth studio album from leading American progressive rock outfit Spock’s Beard and the second since the departure of the band’s inspirational leader Neal Morse three years ago.
Minus Morse’s writing ability, last album Feel Euphoria saw the band drifting towards a sound that was much more rock without the prog, so old school fans looking forward to this latest release may be approaching it with a sense of trepidation.
Unfortunately these fans’ worst fears are realised, particularly in the very forgettable, and typically American rock styled, Climbing That Hill and As Long As We Ride. Meanwhile, power ballad I Wouldn’t Let It Go owes much more to Bon Jovi than Genesis or Yes, despite some bizarre ice cream van music as it fades.
The fact that Nick D’Virgilio moved from behind the drums to becoming the band’s singer after Morse’s departure already draws the obvious comparisons with Genesis. And, although they have never sounded like Collins, Rutherford, Banks et al, even more parallels can now be drawn as “the Beard” develop a mainstream sound and leave their prog roots behind.
But have they really been left behind? The answer at the moment is no. The first half an hour of the album is composed of the seven-part A Flash Before My Eyes, while the manic NWC and complex arrangements of The Planet’s Hum have all the hallmarks of classic Spock’s Beard.
However, unlike previous multi-part epics like The Light and The Great Nothing the elements that make up A Flash Before My Eyes are hardly inter-linked at all. The only things fusing them are some very spooky spoken voices and atmospherics from Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard between tracks one to seven.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this album is that we don’t get to hear a proper keyboard solo from poor old Ryo until the seventh song. Anyone familiar with the band’s previous work will testify just what a change from the norm this is.
When it does finally arrive however, it is part of the very dramatic Of The Beauty Of It All, which is a clear highlight of the album with its ballad first half and pure progressive second section.
A key element to this band’s success over the years has been their technical ability as musicians and – although not as often as in previous releases – we are reminded of this throughout the album. The complex NWC offers guitarist Alan Morse (yep, he is Neal’s brother) and keyboard wizard Okumoto the chance to express themselves. D’Virgilio also backs up his claims that he is a drummer first and a singer second with some mesmerising work in this instrumental.
As for D’Virgilio’s vocal talents, well the school report should read “spends too much time trying to sound like someone he is not”. Whether it’s his impersonation of ex-Stiltskin singer Ray Wilson (whom he played alongside for Genesis on their Calling All Stations album) on The Ballet Of Impact or his death metal voice on Surfing Down The Avalanche, he would be advised to sing naturally in future. When he does he proves what a good voice he has, as the beautiful ballad Watching The Tide testifies.
As with their first post-Neal Morse effort, this one too has been released shortly after a solo album from their former front man. And just like that last time, it is Morse’s solo effort, One, that sounds much more like “the new Spock’s Beard album” than the actual Spock’s Beard album does itself.