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Spock's Beard

Snow

Review by Steve Alspach

The parallels are amazing. A band, noticed for its work in progressive rock, releases for its sixth album an epic tale of a young man making his way in the world, only to have the band's lead singer surprisingly pack it in and leave the band. And no, I'm not talking about Genesis.

Neal Morse's bombshell announcement about leaving music came as a shock to many, but at least he's going out with a bang. Snow has done the damn near impossible - raising the bar that was set with Spock's Beard's last effort, V. Snow is a 2-CD concept album that will draw comparisons to The Who's operatic efforts (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway in terms of sensibility within progressive music. There are no 25-minute numbers here, but there is a continuity between the tracks, so the album sounds much like a long medley of songs. So what's the story of Snow, this albino teen? (What is it with these concept heroes, anyway? Albino; half Puerto Rican; deaf, dumb and blind - it's never the normal kids who stand out, is it?) Is Snow a visionary? Is he a sham? Is he just a human being like you or me? Or perhaps a bit of all three? Sorry, you won't find out here. I'm not sure I have the answer anyway. Buy the CD and find out for yourself. (And kudos to Thomas Ewerhard for the CD booklet design, which is extremely well done.)

The personnel on this album are: Neal Morse, vocals, keyboards, piano, and acoustic guitar; Alan Morse, acoustic and electric guitars, cello, backing vocals; Nick D'Virgilio, drums, percussion, and lead and backing vocals; Dave Meros, bass and french horn; Ryo Okumoto, keyboards, Hammond organ, and mellotron. Other musicians are Molly Pasutti, backing vocals; Chris Carmichael, violin, viola, and cello; Jim Hoke, saxophone, clarinet, and autoharp; and Neil Rosengarden, trumpet and flugelhorn.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Made Alive/Overture
 The album starts with a short preamble that has Neal on acoustic guitar. Meros' french horn gives the piece a flavor like the "Overture" from Tommy. The band then jumps in for an elaborate instrumental section that, in true overture form, touches on some of the musical themes of the album.
Stranger in a Strange Land
 A softer piece than the Overture, this song relies on the acoustic guitar (and a dobro at the beginning is a nice touch). This is more of an introduction to the entire concept.
Long Time Suffering
 This is a composition that could stand as a single, proving that progressive music doesn't have to be virtually inaccessible to most listeners. A mid-tempo rock piece, the harmonies on the chorus are trademark Beard.
Welcome to New York City
 This tune rocks out and struts its stuff. Here a NYC pimp approaches Snow with the time-old offer. Morse's vocals at the end, with the overlaid echo effect, are straight out of the end of The Who's "The Real Me", and don't think that it was just coincidence.
Love Beyond Words
This one is a beautiful piece that features a neo-classical piano interlude where Snow reaches the NYC pimp.
The 39th Street Blues (I'm Sick)
A power-chord rock number that again has pop sensibilities, the brass section is reminiscent of the Beatles horn arrangements.

The Devil's Got My Throat
 At times an all-out crunch rock piece, at other times an exercise in vocal arrangement, this one includes the obligatory nod to Gentle Giant. But it's only a nod at this time (as opposed to earlier albums that seemed to have an entire song dedicated to the kings of counterpoint).
Open Wide the Flood Gates
After the frantic power of the previous song, this one acts as a panacea. The mood is much more relaxed as Snow delivers his message. There is an instrumental section in the middle where no one really takes the lead, but the group plays as a very coherent unit. Molly Pasutti adds a soulfully gospel vocal towards the end.
Open the Gates Part 2
A coda that uses four different vocalists during the verses, this piece also features a theme that's used in the chorus of "I Will Go" that appears later in the album.

Solitary Soul
This track, with its slow rhythm and acoustic guitar work, draws parallels to "The Distance to the Sun" from the "Day for Night" album in terms of mood and arrangement. Guitarist Alan Morse shares a songwriting credit on this tune.
Wind At My Back
This is a strong sing-along ending to the first CD. In true musical fashion, this end of "Act 1" finishes on a strong, upbeat note as the homeless sing their praises to Snow.

Disc 2
Second Overture
A group composition, this has touches of Dream Theater in its speed, power, and intensity.
4th of July
Another group composition, the tone belies the usual association of July 4 with fireworks and pageantry.
I'm the Guy
A thumping 4/4 beat ensues, and Neal's voice assumes a low, smirky tone. This is another track that takes on a more conventional song structure.
Reflection
This is an interlude of sorts where the Narrator touches on Snow's rise, and also hints to his eventual fall. The music is a variation on "Stranger in a Strange Land."
Carie
Drummer Nick D'Virgilio makes his lead singing debut with Beard on this delicate ballad. Given that the song is Snow's plea to a young girl, Nick's pure falsetto, reflecting a vulnerable Snow, is a smart move.
Looking for Answers
Nick continues in the spotlight, singing his own composition. This is a catchy rock tune, made more so by a stutter-beat.
Freak Boy
The opening chords are strongly reminiscent of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part II." The sledgehammer guitar parallels Carie's vitriolic attack of Snow.
All Is Vanity
This song starts right in from "Freak Boy," and features an instrumental labyrinth of different themes, some of which appear for the first time since the Overture.
I'm Dying
  Among other things, our protagonist has lost his taste for mustard in this piece. Morse's vocals are appropriately shaky. A string section is added here to good effect and spirals out of control towards the end.

Freak Boy Part 2
Neal Morse' vocals are even more pained on this tune, but the story isn't going well at this point anyway. The song is a variation of "Freak Boy," but the rhythm is slowed down for a lethargic effect.

Devil's Got My Throat Revisited
 The Junkie who sang the original "Devil's Got My Throat" is back, complete with one of the highest screams this side of Ronnie James Dio.
Snow's Night Out
There are flashes of Yes and Dream Theater in this intricate piece. The horns add the perfect punch, and kudos go to Dave Meros for his bass work - he keeps up with the guitar and keyboard note-for-note in places, which is no small feat.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Ryo Okumoto on the Keyboards
Truly a song that needs no introduction. This is a rather short instrumental piece that sounds a bit like ELP or Triumvirat at times.

I Will Go
Snow reaches the end of his journey. This is a slow piece, primarily instrumental for the first two minutes. The vocals on the chorus are well done, and the composition is almost like a hymn.
Made Alive (reprise) / Wind At My Back
The opening preamble is repeated, and then the closing piece from the first CD is also, but this time it's from Snow's voice. The reprise of "Wind" is joyous, celebratory, emotional, and incredibly moving. Say what you will about Tommy, Quadrophenia, or The Lamb - none of them ended with this much punch. Neal's closing salutation at the end is that much more poignant given his recent departure. Good luck and Godspeed to you, Neal.

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