By Howard Whitman
Once upon a time there was a progressive rock band, a truly magical one that was going places. Just as the band peaked with the creation of its masterpiece – a two-disc concept album – the charismatic, all-important frontman quit. But all was not lost; the drummer took over as lead singer, and the band lived happily ever after.
Sound familiar? Probably, but we're not talking about Genesis here. A home-grown prog band, Los Angeles-based Spock's Beard, followed the same pattern when singer/composer Neal Morse left the band in 2002 and drummer Nick D'Virgilio added lead vocals to his job duties. Spock's Beard v2.0 made three CDs since Morse's departure, but then took a long break. The band recently re-emerged with an excellent CD, X, the first album to be independently financed (with a little help from their friends) and self-released by the band.
Spock's Beard has always existed in that sweet spot where Beatlesque melodic rock meets prog. More adventurous than Asia, more melodious than Dream Theater, Spock's Beard brings a refreshingly American spin to the Brit-originated prog rock format. Sure, they can play in 17/9 time like Yes or ELP; sure, they're all world-class players on their respective instruments; but like Genesis they've always put songwriting first. Their original take on this classic style has earned the band a devoted following, but they haven't always enjoyed smooth sailing over their 18 years of existence.
Spock's Beard has weathered its share of storms and is now back, stronger than ever. But theirs has been a long road fraught with twists and turns.
Seeing The Light
The Spock's Beard story began in 1992 when aspiring singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse asked his guitarist brother Alan to listen to some progressive music he was working on.
"Neal wrote 'The Light' (which would become the title suite of their debut album) and he played it for me on his little keyboard, and I went, 'Oh, nice Zappa ripoff," Alan Morse recalled. "I thought, 'Oh, it's kind of cool,' so he came over and I played some lead on it in my living room."
Recording on the album commenced, but it was, in Alan's words, "pretty much a shoestring operation. ... We were doing ADAT tape back then ... that was pretty much cutting-edge at the time. It was hilarious when we were mixing that thing. We had all four or five us crowded around the board and each guy was riding his own knobs. ... It's still one of my favorite records. Most of my favorite records were recorded on what would now be considered terrible gear."
Even if they didn't need sophisticated equipment, one thing the Morse brothers needed was a band. Fate played a hand in the arrival of their drummer.
"I met Alan and Neal at a bar in L.A., the Universal Bar & Grille," D'Virgilio remembered. "It was a blues jam. You had to put your name on a chalkboard; they'd call you up periodically ... and they called the three of us up. We hacked through some blues. We ended up talking about prog, and how we were all into the same kind of music. They had an organized jam at a rehearsal studio a few days later. Neal was talking about how he had written all this progressive music and had enough for a record, and that ended up being The Light. I went down to Neal's place and picked up the cassette and dug it and I've been with the band ever since."
With the drummer slot filled, the band needed a bass player. John Ballard, a friend of Neal's, played bass with the then-nameless band for about a year, but was replaced by Dave Meros.
Fate may have played a part in his joining as well. "Sometimes when you really need something to happen, it does," Meros said. "I was getting bored with traveling and playing this simple, blues-based stuff. In my mind I said, 'I really need something to fall out of the sky and land in my lap.' Al called and said, 'I'm going to send you a tape. Check it out.' I was like, 'Oh man, I've always wanted to play with a real obnoxious tone like Chris Squire.'"
Meros bought a Rickenbacker bass, just like Squire's, and the original four-piece lineup was complete. But that situation would soon change.
"It wasn't really a band then," Meros said, "it was a recording project. Neal did all the keyboards (on the album) ... we wanted to do some gigs and Neal couldn't do everything." So the band added a second keyboardist: Japan's gift to prog rock, Ryo Okumoto.
"I met Ryo in some club, playing in some funky blues band," Alan Morse said. "He was pretty awesome, so I thought maybe he'd be into it. He showed up for the audition with The Light completely charted out, and then just proceeded to play it almost flawlessly. So we said, 'OK, I guess you got the gig.'"
With the five-piece lineup in place, it was time to pick a name. "I came up with this big ol' list of names, and (Spock's Beard) was just a kind of joke," Alan Morse recalled. "It was an inside joke with Neal and me. If something weird happened, we'd say, 'Dude, that's like Spock's Beard from a parallel universe.'"
"Everyone would come in with a list of names," Meros stated, "and the serious ones sounded real pretentious. That's not who we are – we're just a bunch of dudes with 15-year-old senses of humor. ... The only (name) that never really wasn't completely objectionable to everybody was Spock's Beard. That was on everybody's list as a joke at the end, and finally we felt, 'Well, this seems to be the one that's surviving, so let's just use it. … We were fully expecting to be sued by [Paramount, owner of the Star Trek franchise].”
One band member actually had an encounter with the entertainment giant. Alan Morse told the tale: “We used to make up all these stories about the name, and every time we'd tell a different one about where the name came from because we didn't want to get into trouble. Finally, one day I said, 'I'm sick of doing this. Let's just tell people what the deal is.' So I was out to dinner with a bunch of people and I told them the story. One guy goes, 'That's interesting. Actually, I'm an attorney at Paramount. … But don't worry, it's cool.'”
Legal risks aside, the Trek connection has paid off for the band – sort of. “We actually got a gig at a horror and scifi convention because of our band name, not because of us at all,” Meros remembered. “Nobody even showed up. It was a giant convention, with 15,000 people over the weekend. We were in this big ballroom. There was about 40 or 50 people there. I guess everybody else would rather hear George Takei speak.”
Even if they didn't catch on with the scifi community, things were happening for Spock's Beard, as The Light was picked up by a small prog-oriented label, Symphonic Records. Meros recalled that label owner Greg Walker “spent more on the artwork than we did on the whole record.”
Even with a small launch, the 1995 release of The Light caught some attention upon its release. “Everybody dug it,” D'Virgilio said. “[Dream Theater drummer] Mike Portnoy even heard about it and started to say good things about us in his little circle.”
The band members were further encouraged when they played their first gig of note as Spock's Beard in 1995 at Progfest in San Francisco. “We had no idea there was anything like (Progfest),” said D'Virgilio. Meros added, “That was when we discovered that there was indeed a prog audience.”
Besides an enthusiastic reception from the cult of prog, this show also gave the band another break, as Thomas Waber, founder of German prog label InsideOut, was in attendance, and met and eventually signed the group.
The band started getting serious, playing more gigs, tightening up its act, and starting work on a second album.
Spock's Beard was on its way.
Released in 1996, Beware of Darkness showed a band that had matured by leaps and bounds since its first album. The addition of Okumoto in the studio on Hammond organ and mellotron added greatly to the mix while the other members grew in instrumental proficiency. The band was evolving vocally as well; one song, “Thoughts,” featured intricate acapella vocals, a homage to one of the band's major influences, Gentle Giant. Another highlight was the title track, a progged-up cover of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass classic.
The making of this album was not without drama. The band had been working with Kevin Gilbert, a producer/engineer of note who also was an artist and songwriter with credits including Toy Matinee and work with Sheryl Crow. D'Virgilio recalled, “He had mixed the first three tracks (for Beware) and we were scheduled to go to his place and mix another three, and we found out he died. The guys were waiting at the studio, wondering why he was late, and I had to drive over there and tell them that he wasn't coming. That was a little dark cloud over the record.”
With Gilbert gone, the band hooked up with a new engineer, Rich Mouser (who remains with them to this day), for the next Spock's Beard album, 1998's Kindness of Strangers. “That was the one where we decided that maybe we should start to cross over, a little more accessibility for non-proggers,” Meros stated. “We (still) do a lot of Kindness live; it's got that impact where the songs really translate well live.”
The trend towards accessibility continued with Spock's 1999 release, Day for Night, so much so that the album risked alienating the band's steadily growing cult of followers. “That, I think, is a bit stronger foray into trying to get a hit,” Meros said. “I can't really speak for what was going on in (Neal's) head but that's the feeling I got, (he was) trying to be more like Jellyfish of some of those alt art-rock bands going on right around then. That one got panned a little bit by the press.”
Despite this mixed reaction, the band's popularity continued its steady growth trajectory. “Each record was progressively making us a little bigger,” D'Virgilio stated. “Day for Night lifted us up to the next level for sure. … We started to go, 'I think something might be happening here.'”
Something was happening. The band was on the brink of making its masterpiece, to be followed immediately by the worst thing imaginable.
Spock's Beard got back to its progressive roots on its fifth album, the aptly titled V (2000), and the result was the band's biggest CD yet. “That was the breakthrough record,” D'Virgilio said. “We opened up for Dream Theater a couple of times, did a headline tour over in Europe, we were playing in the States and pulling in decent crowds. … We thought we'd hit the threshold. This was our time to really go for it, but I think Neal knew he was going to quit by then.”
“It was really the peak of Spock's Beard,” Meros added. “There was a buzz going on. It seemed like it might happen.”
What did happen was that, in 2001 Neal Morse decided the time was right to create the band's magnum opus – in classic prog tradition, a double-album rock opera to be titled Snow. Its creation would be fueled by tragedy.
“Neal had been writing Snow for quite a while,” Meros recalled, “and he was sending out demos to us … we did a bunch of rehearsals and we were going to start recording. Neal was thinking about it and said, 'You know, this record isn't right. I'm not satisfied with it. So let's just go home and I'm going to work on this.' That was on September 10th.”
When 9/11 happened the next day, with airlines shut down, Neal Morse drove home from Los Angeles to Nashville. This gave him time to rethink Snow from the perspective of those tragic days. In fact, The Making of Snow DVD shows him writing new lyrics while making the long drive.
“He got home and completely rewrote Snow,” Meros continued. “He trashed 90 percent of it and started from scratch. I thought, 'Oh my God. He rewrote a double record.' … It was a lot better, but it was a completely different record.”
The two CDs told the story of John Sikeston, an albino nicknamed “Snow” who has, according to the story summary on the band's Web site, “a special kind of a gift for seeing into people's lives.” Some saw the plotline as an allegory for the saga of Neal Morse, a gifted man who could “heal” people with the power of his music. The album's subtle-but-omnipresent Christian themes turned out to be a foreshadowing of what was to come.
On the surface, all signs were positive. The band had strong support from InsideOut (“We got a big fat advance to make Snow,” D'Virgilio said) and was looking forward to its most spectacular tour yet, triumphantly playing its greatest recorded achievement to date. Then the worst happened.
“We'd finished the whole record, and came to this little studio to record some acoustic stuff,” D'Virgilio recalled. “We did the recording and then listened to Snow, and (Neal) decided to tell us after that that he was leaving the band.”
“He was going more and more in a Christian direction, which isn't something I am particularly into,” said Alan Morse. “I never figured he would bail until he just came in and we were all like, 'WHAT?' We were all pretty shocked, especially since we had just finished making this record, it was a lot of work, and we can't even go on tour for (it).”
“Every record is a big struggle,” Meros said, “and that one, being a double record, and him going through a personal transformation, it must have been 10 times the struggle for him.”
Whatever his reasons, Neal Morse had left the band he started.
The departing Morse planned to make Christian-themed solo projects, but for his brother and the remaining Spock's Beard members, the future was anything but sure.
“We didn't really know (what to do),” Meros stated. “We just decided we really liked playing with each other and this band had been the best thing any of us had ever done. We couldn't just walk away from it. We had to at least try. ... (Neal) was really supportive of us and he really wanted us to keep going. ... In some ways, it was a gigantic gift. He started this band and made it what it was, and right at its peak, he handed this whole franchise over to us with his blessing.”
In retrospect, Snow actually had some clues as to the band's next move, since it featured D'Virgilio singing lead on two songs, one of which, “Looking for Answers,” he wrote, marking the first time a band member besides Neal Morse had a solo composition on a Spock's Beard album.
Replacing Neal Morse presented multiple challenges. Not only was he the band's lead singer; he also played keyboards and guitar, was instrumental in the albums' production, and perhaps most significantly, wrote nearly all of the band's material.
Okumoto and Alan Morse, both virtuosos, could handle the instrumental parts. The big questions were, who would write the songs – and who would sing 'em?
Different scenarios were considered. “We were all looking for singers,” Meros said. “Thomas from InsideOut was suggesting Ray Wilson,” who briefly replaced Phil Collins in Genesis for 1997's Calling All Stations – an album that, coincidentally, features drumming by D'Virgilio on four tracks.
While Wilson fronting Spock's Beard would've been interesting, the fact that he lived in Europe made this scenario difficult. But someone already on the Spock's team wanted to borrow a move from the Genesis playbook.
“Nick said, 'You know what? I want to (take over as vocalist),” Meros stated. “I told him 'You have to stay on drums. Nobody can do this gig better than you.' 'No,' he said. 'Let me try. I swear to God I can do it. … If I can't do it, you can all get together and decide, and then I'll go back to drums, but at least give me a shot.' So we went 'OK', and the rest is history.”
A strong vocalist in his own right, D'Virgilio had already sung on his solo album, Karma (2001), on various outside projects, and on Snow, but this transition wasn't a slam-dunk. “I had to convince the guys,” he said. “It took them a little while to accept that, but they ended up going 'Yeah, it's cool.' But they asked what we were going to do when we play live, and I said 'We'll worry abut that then' and we went from there.”
“Nick's the only one who could really pull it together singing,” Alan Morse said. “Ultimately, he was really into it. It seemed like it worked well for Genesis. It was like, 'OK, do we want to bring a whole other personality into this thing?' It didn't seem like that was such a great idea. We just felt like we (had) to hit the ground running. We wanted to hit people really quick with something so that they'd know we were still around.”
The parallels to the Genesis story did raise some concerns. “We didn't think about it at first,” Meros recalled, “but when I got home that night I thought, 'Wait a minute. The singer that everybody based the band around quits, the drummer becomes the singer, and that was after the sixth record, which was a double concept album. The prog fans are going to have a field day with this!'”
Pushing such worries to the side, the band moved forward, beginning work on its first CD without Neal Morse. The future was uncertain, but one thing was sure: Spock's Beard would continue.
Part II of this article will run online later this month, with recent live photographs of Spock's Beard. You can read the article in its entirety in the next print edition of Goldmine. In the meantime, sign up to win a Spock's Beard 'X' fan package in our Goldmine Giveaway by clicking here!
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