Spock's Beard is a band combines the progressive elements of Yes and King Crimson with astounding song writing and immediately pleasing melodies in a way that satisfies on many levels. I really loved their last album and I mean that in the Biblical sense. The songs were inventive and catchy, melodic yet progressive, and they always hit the spot, even the thirty-minute opus based on the short life of Kevin Gilbert. It seems that the band was just ramping up to Snow, a double CD concept album that has been compared to Tommy and Lamb Lies Down. The set comes in a nice hardcover book with lots of great photographs that illustrate the story of Snow, a teenaged albino with the gift to discern and change the future, as he wrestles with his changing identity from outsider to messiah to freak and back to outsider, all the while struggling to maintain his identity and humanity.
Here is where I get conflicted. There is some incredible music on this album that surpasses anything Spock's Beard has attempted but there seems to be quite a bit of filler. The first CD holds the lion's share of good tunes. "Made Alive/Overture" is perfect Spock's Beard with lots of intricately interwoven melodies in true overture fashion. "Stranger In A Strange Land" introduces Snow with acoustic guitars while "Long Time Suffering", also tasty, includes the obligatory a cappella passage. "The 39th Street Blues" is another outstanding track with some mind-blowing guitar sounds backed by grinding, distorted organs, interlaced with some Zeppelin influence and gutsy saxophone to round out the jazzy, aggressive rhythm. With acoustic guitar and flutes, the seven-minute "Solitary Soul" packs a wallop with rich Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal harmonies throughout.
A few other gems are to be found on the second disc, such as "4th of July" with a menacing piano and intriguing vocal harmonies, the angry, cathartic "Freak Boy" and "I'm Dying" with it's crunchy guitar riff and plaintive chorus melody. But to my ears there seems to be a lot of padding to make a full second disc, tracks such as "Freak Boy 2", "Devil's Got My Throat Revisited", and "Ladies and Gentlemanů", which is a three minute live keyboard solo that contains no discernable melodies found on the rest of the album. While Spock's Beard tends to end their longer songs on a dramatic note, "Made Alive Again/Wind At My Back" is melodramatic and little more than cheerleading, especially at six minutes of the same brief melody played over and over, it is nearly identical to "Wind At My Back" that closed the first CD.
While I am definitely of the camp that keyboards can be used to great effect in rock music, there is just way too much synthesizer in this release. Fans of this instrument will drool at the extensive keyboard solos in the aptly named "All Is Vanity", "Devil's Got My Throat", and the many, many, many other instances that deluge the album, but they just tired me out. I also got the distinct impression that much of the second CD served to propel the story to it's conclusion while not meeting the outlandishly high musical bar that had been set by the first CD and the earlier Spock's Beard albums.
Don't get me wrong. I like this album very much and many of the songs rank among the best Spock's Beard has ever recorded. With some judicious editing to reduce the content to a single CD, this could have topped their last album. As it is, I'd recommend this release to fans of rock opera, keyboard fanatics, and Spock's Beard die-hards, of which I include myself.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2002.