Released: 2002, Radiant/Metal Blade
“For the 12 days of Christmas, Satan brought to me, twelve progressive bands and some headphones under my tree”!! What better time of year to stay indoors with the headphones on listening to Prog? ‘Tis the festive season after all…. and sometimes sitting by the fire, drinking hot chocolate and listening to death metal bands screaming about eating babies just doesn’t cut it. This month we bring reviews on Blue Oyster Cult, Enchant, Explorers Club, The Jelly Jam, Jughead, Jordan Rudess, Magellan, Planet X, RPWL, Spock’s Beard, Threshold and Ty Tabor. After hearing some of the dozen mellower bands in this months Progressive Music feature you may be motivated to stay inside for the next three months and practice! Happy Holidays!!
As a self-confessed prog metal fan I am surprised that I have not discovered these guys as of yet, despite my obviously more intelligent and enlightened prog loving buddies who have been singing this bands praises for years. I mean, this is their 12th CD after all. I’m late on the bandwagon, so what?
SNOW represents virtually everything that is good and right about progressive music (you’ll notice I did not say “metal”) This is a two CD, two-hour concept album that captures brilliantly the incredible creative capacity of an innovative band to write great music that displays an extremely high level of talent in terms of composition and performance.
Snow is the story of a young albino man with psychic powers, and like most concept CD’s each song tells one part of his journey through life. Of course the music reflects the lyrics with varying degrees of tempo, intensity, mood and feeling as it corresponds to the unfolding story. Spock’s Beard have done a masterful job at that. One element I like is that the songs get revisited at different points later in the disc and so it has more of a grandiose Rock Opera feel to it than a merely linear concept story. Spock’s Beard have taken the best of Rush, Dream Theatre and Savatage (especially Streets) and blended them into a very refined work of art.
As with many concept CD this is a thing of beauty to behold. A hard book style case with a 26+ page booklet, full colour of course with lyrics, credits and so on. A nice touch is to have a photo that corresponds to each song. There are actually 26 songs on this disc including the aforementioned Overtures and re-visitations. I mention this because oddly enough, not one song cracks the nine-minute mark. In fact most of them are three to four minutes long, which gives a sense of many traditional songs linked into a whole as compared to one giant song! Scenes in the play as it were.
Now here is the major complaint. WARNING SPOLIER AHEAD. IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE PLOT DESCRIBED STOP READING NOW!
Neal Morse wrote virtually all the music and lyrics. Apparently this is his first attempt at a concept album and unfortunately his inexperience shows. The story is really weak. It is unoriginal and consequently very predictable. It is formulaic almost to the point of being a script for the NBC Family Movie of the Week and to compound these weakness the story has huge gaping holes and piles of ambiguity in it. Far too many details are left out leaving the reader/listener what the hell is going on. I consider this to be a major flaw and took off a whole mark. With a simple story-line huge holes should NOT be an issue. I can understand if it had multiple characters are elaborate sub-plots there might be room for confusion but it is just about one guy and he STILL made it confusing!
How did he recover from the drug addiction? Did he get back with Carie? Was she ever pregnant with his baby? What happened to the church? What happened to the pimp? I found it so frustrating all those unanswered questions.
The characters were very underdeveloped. As Snow begins his adventures in the city he meets a variety of people, a pimp, a hooker, a junkie, a bum etc…what a surprise, good meets bad. These characters come of as one-dimensional stereotypes of the worst kind. The hooker with a heart of gold, the homeless guy who is just down on his luck, the evil business people who corrupt him, the rich drug addict, boring, boring, boring!! Add some life into these characters, give them names, give them roles and personalities.
On the Savatage album Streets, they accomplished the same basic story in half the time and their characters were more developed as well.
Now I fully understand that you cannot conceivably do it all in a short amount of time. However, Morse did not use his allotted time of two hours wisely. Consequently the pace was uneven. Disc two spends an entire six songs and 20 minutes with Snow lamenting his broken heart after Carie rejected him. That whole scene could have been combined into a very powerful 10 minute scene that would have allowed for more character development. OK, he got dumped. He’s sad. He’s a bum now, we get it! Do we need six songs to hammer home that simple point? Why not combine the two utterly fantastic instrumental songs, “Snow’s Night Out” and the ludicrously titled “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto on the Keyboards” into one piece? They are describing the same emotional torment/descent/ of Snow. Did Ukumoto threaten to quit unless he got a song named after him?! Instead we get six songs, all great saying how bad things are for Snow when that time should have used much more wisely.
The whole character of snow was flawed, well, not flawed just too simple. It is a classic story of the golden child goes on a journey, seeks fame and fortune gets it, meets the girl, his career drags him down, he treats her poorly, he eventually realizes he has been a jerk and misses her, he approaches her but it’s too late, she dumps him, he gets sad, spirals down, bottoms out, has a giant revelation and gets saved and lives happily ever after. Yuk. It reads like a Disney movie plot. The idea of a psychic, albino priest with the ability to see the future and heal the soul has incredibly massive potential but it gets bogged down with the introduction of a female love-interest (it’s always a woman) halfway through. Literally, I was reading the lyrics along with the music and I was thinking to myself, This is so predictable. Now he’s gonna meet a girl and it’s all gonna come crashing down”. And lo and behold…I was right.
Maybe the plot wasn’t supposed to be a giant, convoluted mystery, and, Yes the whole thing is a giant metaphor for the power of love and, Yes, the fact that he is a freak with “powers’ was a side issue… BUT… Spock’s Beard decided to take the interesting elements out of the story and focus on what in reality is a simple love story. Like I said, maybe that was the point. The only reason I mention these flaws so extensively is that if you decide to do a concept album, the story must be good. If you expect the listeners to sit and listen for two straight hours, it better be damn entertaining!
Aside from that complaint, I really enjoyed this CD. I would have liked a little more guitar work and as mentioned earlier a little more even pacing and character development. The longer songs have an epic and grandiose feeling without being pretentious or self-indulgent. The short songs match the mood and tone of the songs very well. The narration was a nice touch. Did I mention they are incredibly talented composers and performers? My favorite track is “Devil’s Got My Throat” which ends with an amazing acapella, multi-track vocal layover effect simulating a crowd of homeless people flocking to see the new powers of Snow. Great song!
This would have been a 4.75 if not for the weak story which was executed poorly and a slight lack of heaviness. Am I converted the being a fan? Yes. Will I go and buy the other CD’s? Well, I’ll start with the five other studio albums and go from there. One final point, many people I realize feel that story, plot and lyrics are not important in their own listening experience. If you don’t really follow concept album lyrics, knock this one up a point on your personal scale. Despite my complaints this is destined to be one of the greatest prog rock concept albums of all time. High praise early on I realize but it is just that good. Visit the band at http://www.spocksbeard.com