In their 20 years together, Spock's Beard have built a reputation for invention, musicality and sheer restive energy. Yet perhaps nothing they have done before can properly prepare you for their 11th studio album. `Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep' is an album that will constantly surprise.
For one thing, this represents the studio debut of a new line-up. For another it sees the return of an old friend.
Let's deal with the former first. Because long-time members Alan Morse (guitar/vocals), Dave Meros (bass/keyboards/vocals) and Ryo Okumoto (keyboards/vocals) are now joined by vocalist Ted Leonard and drummer Jimmy Keegan.
"Jimmy's been our live drummer now for about 10 years," says Meros. "But this is the first time he's been in the studio with us. He's very creative, as well as being a killer drummer, and he also has an amazing voice. So his presence has definitely brought an extra dimension to what we do.
"Ted is a vocalist who's is capable of many different vocal styles and there was always the possibility that he'd bring something very different to our sound, but he got the Spock's Beard vibe straight away and it sounds like he's been singing with us for years. He is also quite a good guitar player and songwriter and that is very evident on this new CD."
As for that aforementioned `old friend', well that sees a return for Neal Morse, who left the band in 2002. Well, a return as songwriter anyway.
"Al and Neal are brothers, of course, and keep in regular contact with each other. What happened was that Al spoke to Neal and told him he was working on some ideas. Neal said he'd love to help, so Al went down to Nashville, where his brother's now living, and they collaborated on the songs `Afterthoughts' (for which Leonard later wrote the lyrics) and `Waiting For Me'.
I have to admit that I was worried, because Neal might make us sound a bit "retro-Beard". But the tracks turned out really well."
Co-produced by Al Morse, Rich Mouser and John Boegehold (who once again also has a hand in the songwriting process as he has done since 2003), the album again sees Spock's Beard stretching out into new musical areas.
"This happens with every album we do. They each sound different from what has gone before. I think `Brief Nocturnes...' is sonically superior to anything we've done before. Maybe part of the reason for this is that we spent the best part of a year working on it. Not in one stretch, but we'd go into the studio, do some recording, then take a break and return for some more work. That would give us a little time to live with the songs and have time to make changes when necessary.
Inevitably, there are some supreme, standout moments on the album. One of these is `Afterthoughts', which is the latest in the ongoing series of songs in the `Thoughts' cycle. "It's quirky, with four-part vocal harmonies which are reminiscent of Gentle Giant."
And then there's `Submerged'. "Ted had originally written and recorded this for his solo album `Way Home' (released in 2007), and it's a real stadium rocker. We've adapted it to our own sound, but still stayed faithful to Ted's original arrangement. I wouldn't say it's strictly Prog Rock, but fits what we do and is a great song."
As always, Spock's Beard take fans on a irresistible journey. And Meros says the band are also fully aware of ensuring the songs aren't too overproduced.
"There was a stage when we went over the top with orchestrations, and that made it impossible to recreate the songs live without a lot of help. Now, we ensure everything you heard on the album can be played onstage."
So, what does Meros hope fans will get out of `Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep'?
"Well, some will be shocked that Neal is involved. But I hope they appreciate the musical surprises here. This album is quirky, edgy, reminding us a little bit of older times in the band, but also taking us further forward. I am proud of what we've done. I believe this is the way Spock's Beard should sound in 2013."
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