If there was a Mr. Congeniality award in progressive rock, it would go to Spock’s Beard. I mean, last year the band released a concert DVD on which every single member, past and present, performed. It doesn’t get any friendlier than that. And the vibe on this concert film was so informal and down-home (it was performed with no theatrical elements whatsoever in a church gymnasium for a couple of hundred fans) that even if you find their brand of prog milquetoast, you still would have enjoyed it. That is the power of Spock’s Beard, a band known for their musical prowess, superb vocal harmonies, counterpoints, and friendliness. It’s been fifteen years since founder Neal Morse left the band (on the friendliest of terms of course), and although the band hasn’t reached the heights of yore, they’ve soldiered on with the best of intentions. Will Noise Floor, their thirteenth album, return them to past glories?
Well, refreshingly this is not a concept album. No dystopian futures that litter other prog albums to be found here, my friends! What we get is the usual mix of commercially appealing pop songs interspersed with some intricate, progressive tracks. Nothing mind-blowing, and nothing horrible — unless you count the amazingly bad video for “To Breathe Another Day,” in which each band member is filming themselves at home rocking out to the tune, none more exuberantly than bass player Dave Meros. I’ve now set up my garage in an identical fashion, and hang out there most evenings with the fan blowing. This video is like those Chinese crested dogs. But we’re here to talk about the music, and the song itself is prototypical Spock’s Beard: professional prog rock with excellent vocals and musicianship.
Noise Floor was recorded over a number of months, each band member playing their part in their home studio and literally mailing it in. The songs here range from upbeat pop (“To Breathe Another Day,” “Somebody’s Home,” “So This Is Life”) to intricate prog jams (the excellent “Box of Spiders” and bonus track “Armageddon Nervous”). Vocalist Ted Leonard has a very Steve Perry-ish voice, and it works for the commercial material present. Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto continues to be a focus for the band, with excellent playing ranging from moody background pads to elaborate solos, and of course Alan Morse continues to lay down impeccable guitar tracks. What I’m trying to say is that Spock’s Beard continues to be a crack band, and all the songs here are perfectly played and produced. While their counterpoint vocals of yore have disappeared, the harmonies are still there, and Noise Floor is a warm, vibrant record.
There isn’t really much bad to say about the album, or Spock’s Beard in general, aside from the fact that they are far from the most exciting band on the planet. Recent studio albums are well-written and competently played. But they’re a bit like vanilla ice cream: nobody hates vanilla ice cream, but everyone wants a bit more than just vanilla. A deep dive reveals no actual flaws or problems with the songs, but at the end of the album we’re left with an empty feeling: nothing presented has engaged us, has put a smile on our face. It’s all “okay.” When, after ten listens, all I can remember is the cheesy video, it’s not a good sign. But while Noise Floor is playing, I do feel warm and comfortable.
When all is said and done, Noise Floor is a solid, pass-the-time collection of pop-leaning progressive rock. The Mr. Congeniality of prog rock has given us another decent album, but nothing on here stands out enough to make non-Beard fans perk their ears up and take heed. It all sounds familiar and safe like I’m wrapped up in a Snuggie. And hey, I made it all the way through this review without a single Star Wars joke!