“That was the best show I’ve ever played,” bassist Dave Meros muses, somewhat ruefully, as Prog recalls a superb Spock’s Beard live performance at the now long defunct Astoria in London in June 2001, when the band were promoting their fifth album, V.
“That whole tour was great but that gig in particular was where everything came together exactly right,” he elaborates. “The energy was massive, the sound was great, the audience was awesome – it was a perfect gig. It was one of those once‑in-a-lifetime things.”
At the time, Spock’s were demonstrating some real momentum. “There was a buzz building up for sure,” Meros agrees. “And then Snow came out and far surpassed V as far as CD sales. Our live attendance was the highest it had ever been. It seemed like every year the band would take another step up. It was a great feeling. But then we all know what happened…”
Just over 15 years ago, Spock’s Beard were profoundly shaken by the departure of their leader, vocalist and keyboardist Neal Morse, shortly after the release of their sixth album Snow. Before the shock announcement about Morse’s departure it seemed that Spock’s, then the great white hopes of a resurgent prog movement, were on the brink of a significant breakthrough to a much larger audience.
While V and Snow may have represented the band’s high-water mark commercially, it was Morse’s fervent desire that the group should continue without him. Meros, Morse’s guitarist brother Alan and keyboardist Ryo Okumoto have honoured their former colleague’s wish ever since.
With the band fronted by Enchant singer Ted Leonard since the subsequent departure of drummer/vocalist Nick D’Virgilio in 2011, it’s striking that Spock’s have now recorded more studio albums without the iconic Neal Morse than with him.
Looking back over quarter of a century, Meros admits that he didn’t originally think Spock’s would last over 25 years and build a catalogue of 13 studio albums. Indeed, when their debut album The Light emerged in 1995, the band had no great expectations.
“We just recorded The Light as a vanity project – we were just having fun,” Meros says. “When we started in 1993 we weren’t even aware that there was a prog rock audience. We thought it had died out and we were just doing it for fun.”
After playing a couple of low-key shows, the band decided to record the album properly for the princely sum of $4,000, just to see what it would sound like. Against the backdrop of a largely moribund prog scene worldwide, Spock’s had no preconceived notions of what The Light might achieve.
“We didn’t expect it to go anywhere so it was a nice little surprise when it did,” Meros reveals.
But The Light fired the starting gun on what has been a lengthy career and allows us to fast forward to 2018. While the respective departures of Neal Morse in 2002 and D’Virgilio in 2011 might have killed off many lesser bands, Spock’s have persevered and now seem in perhaps their best health in a long time. What’s more, they’re bolstered on new album Noise Floor – albeit only on a guest basis – by D’Virgilio’s return to the drum stool following the resignation of drummer Jimmy Keegan in late 2016.
While Spock’s have weathered considerable storms over the years with the departures of Morse and D’Virgilio, the decampment of the popular Keegan nonetheless represented another cloud. “It was obviously a shock to our world to have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what to do in Jimmy’s stead,” Leonard says.
However, it presaged a subsequent silver lining. Initially Okumoto spearheaded a challenging search for a replacement drummer for Keegan and received assorted submissions. As Meros points out, “We’ve been extraordinarily lucky having Nick and Jimmy. The hardest thing to find is a drummer of that quality who can sing high harmonies – that’s a rare bird.”
The search was soon paused, though, as the band started work on Noise Floor and discovered to their obvious delight that D’Virgilio was willing to return to the studio with Spock’s after a six-year absence.
“Shortly after we started the search, we got busy putting this album together and possibly lost sight of the process,” Leonard says. “We stopped pushing it once we knew Nick was going to do the album and then postponed worrying about who’s going to play it live. We were stoked when Nick said he would be willing to record the album.”
Understandably, Spock’s have sought to cajole D’Virgilio into rejoining the band but, at least for now, the drummer has declined. “He’s such a busy guy, so we know the prospect isn’t very likely,” says Leonard.
D’Virgilio has, however, performed live with Spock’s on a few occasions in recent years, most notably playing Snow with the band in Tennessee at Neal Morse’s Morsefest in 2016, on Cruise To The Edge and at the Night Of The Prog festival in Loreley. “It was a complete blast having all of us on stage for Snow, both in Tennessee and in Loreley,” Leonard enthuses.
With D’Virgilio unable to commit to significant time on the road for the foreseeable future, the band will be heading out on tour in the autumn with a new live drummer. As to whether D’Virgilio will ever return to Spock’s on a full-time basis, Leonard sounds dubious, irrespective of the drummer’s availability.
“For us it would be awesome, but I think it would be weird for him. I’ve likened it to when Peter Gabriel left Genesis and Phil Collins took over as singer. It would be like if Genesis got Collins back but only to play drums because Ray Wilson would sing. That would be extremely weird for Phil.”
Personnel changes aside, Noise Floor is arguably Spock’s Beard’s strongest album in the post-Neal Morse era and is characterised by some of their most melodic and compact material to date. That said, there’s no formula or grand design behind these characteristics.
“Any time we sit down to write a song, it’s not usually with an intention to steer it in one direction or another,” Leonard states. “There was no intention to make the album more melodic or less complicated or anything like that. As songwriters we approach it with what’s appropriate for the song. There’s not a whole lot of forethought to trying to fit a song into some mould or whatever.”
So it’s largely coincidental that the longest song on Noise Floor only just exceeds eight minutes?
“It just worked out that way,” says Meros. “With our long songs we don’t set out to write a big epic. Instead there will be a song that starts growing and pretty soon it’s 20 minutes. The length of a song isn’t important to us. In fact, we had a couple of demos for this album that were cut down from their original length.”
“We didn’t set out to avoid writing an epic for this album, but sometimes when you’re writing a song, it can feel like it’s done at a certain point,” adds Leonard. “When a band stretches a song out for the sake of it, I think you can hear it. Of course we all love our crazy prog moments, but what sets us apart is the songs and the fact that there are hooks that sink into you.”
Speaking of hooks, Noise Floor opens with the decidedly uptempo and direct To Breathe Another Day. “We definitely stuck the most energetic song up front,” Meros agrees. “We knew we had a number of mid-tempo songs on this album so the placement of certain songs was strategic.”
Intriguingly, To Breathe… was originally written by long-time Spock’s Beard collaborator John Boegehold with Kansas in mind when that band were considering using songs penned by outside writers for their 2016 comeback album The Prelude Implicit. Boegehold’s Days We’ll Remember, which features on the Cutting Room Floor bonus disc accompanying Noise Floor, has a similar genesis.
While Kansas ultimately elected to essentially keep their writing in-house by co-opting producer/songwriter Zak Rizvi into the band, Spock’s have no qualms about utilising outside writers, with Boegehold and Stan Ausmus both making contributions.
Perhaps as a reaction against the Neal Morse era of the band, when their erstwhile leader dominated the writing credits, Spock’s are far from territorial about songwriting. “There’s a lot more variety regarding who contributes to this album than there was on [previous release] The Oblivion Particle,” Leonard explains. “Most of the time when John writes we do pretty much what he writes, but we took some liberties with To Breathe Another Day, especially with the drums and even with the song structure.”
“It sounded a bit more like a Kansas song originally,” reveals Meros. “We pumped up the energy from its original state.”
Following the almost AOR tones of To Breathe…, Noise Floor gets proggier as it continues, culminating with closing track Beginnings via some more complex material, not least Okumoto’s instrumental contribution Box Of Spiders. “That song, which couldn’t be weirder, was placed to break up the sing-songy songs, so it’s perfect right there,” Meros says. “It sounds like what it would look like opening a box of spiders!”
Noise Floor also represents Leonard’s third album with Spock’s, although his association with the band dates back two decades – the other group he fronts, San Francisco proggers Enchant, opened for Spock’s in the States and Europe way back in 1998. However, having joined Spock’s when Enchant were on an unofficial hiatus, he regards the former now as his principal musical home.
“Since then Enchant have made an album [2014’s The Great Divide] and we’re making another one this year. But Spock’s has been the priority. At the point I joined, there was nothing going on with Enchant.”
Stepping into shoes vacated successively by Neal Morse and D’Virgilio might appear a daunting task but Leonard has taken it in his stride and made the role his own. “From a live perspective I never felt uncomfortable fronting the band,” he says. “When you’re called in to be the lead singer of a band, you can’t tiptoe in, you have to jump in. Audiences are like bumblebees – they sense fear!
“From a recording perspective, this album is finally me just being me vocally. On the previous two albums I accepted direction a lot more. I was more stubborn this time.”
He acknowledges both similarities and differences between his roles in Spock’s and Enchant. “The camaraderie and energy on stage in both bands is the same. Enchant stretches my vocal range a little bit more but Spock’s requires more of me musically. I love that in Spock’s I get to play some stuff that’s a little more challenging.”
The band’s challenge in 2018 is to ensure that they continue to stand out from the prog crowd in an oversaturated market. Given the quality of Noise Floor, they remain at the forefront of the scene. However, Meros is realistic about what they can still achieve.
“Originally I thought that Spock’s could really go somewhere and become our only band, with all of us making a living from it. I don’t have that hope for us any more,” he admits. “I don’t think that’s possible, especially in today’s music business climate. So it’s more about legacy.”
With a rich back catalogue and strong live reputation, Spock’s have strong foundations on which to continue to trade. “None of us want to be stagnant – we all want the next album to be better than the previous,” Leonard says, “so I think it’s more artistic ambition at this point than monetary or anything else.”
This article originally appeared in issue 88 of Prog Magazine.