Ryo Okumoto, keyboard wizard in Spock’s Beard, appears to have got bored with the hiatus that his main band seem to be on, and so has decided to form his own version of the band and record an album. Well, more precisely, half an album, the opening and closing tracks, which make up about half-an-hour of music. The remainder of the disc comprises a who’s who from the prog world, and sounds a little different in tone. This rather unlikely project sounds as though it could be disjointed, but it actually works brilliantly well, and that is down the songwriting glue, which is Ryo and Michael Whiteman from I Am The Manic Whale, who provide the consistency and cohesion to hold the whole album together. It has to be said in fact that Michael Whiteman’s input is critical to the success of this record, as his co-writing, in particular in the lyrics department, elevates this above what one might expect from a keyboardist’s solo venture. Ryo, you chose wisely.
So if we look at the Ryo’s Beard songs first, these will be a godsend to any Spock’s fans impatient at the lack of activity over the last four years. Mirror Mirror (the Star Trek episode where Spock appeared to have a beard) is the opening track, and an excellent statement of intent. It’s the sort of Spock’s Beard track that’s been missing from the last few albums, and Whiteman translates the plot of that episode into song lyrics with some panache. Musically, it is modern prog with all the cherries on top you could wish for. It’s muscular and dazzling, and tells a story whilst leaving plenty of room for the musicians to shine – and they shine brightly. Ryo puts in a great organ solo underpinned by Dave Meros’s grumbling bass; Alan Morse plays some tasty lead guitar lines, and Nick D’Virgilio gives a great vocal performance. It’s pure Beard indulgence, and it’s a marvellous start.
The other track by this line-up is the lengthy title track which is the climax of the record, and a true prog epic in every sense. Musically it is pure Beard proggery, moving through different sections and moods as the story unfolds. And it has to be said that the story is preposterous! Whiteman has displayed his sense of humour before with Manic Whale, but here it is unleashed on a tale of a monster with an insatiable appetite which terrorises Basingstoke. I won’t spoil the story by revealing how the happy ending comes about (it was obviously going to have a happy ending!), but there are several laugh-out-loud moments. Whether this sits comfortably with a prog epic is a matter of personal taste. I shan’t reopen the ‘does humour belong in music’ debate, suffice to say that I’m sure we as prog fans do tend to take ourselves a bit seriously sometimes, and this is definitely not the case on this piece. In terms of daftness, it would give Singring and the Glass Guitar (Utopia) a run for its money.
The rest of the album comprises four longish songs featuring many different guest musicians, and it combines modern prog sounds and production with interesting lyrics, and the overall effect is excellent. Chrysalis is a superb ballad featuring Randy McStine on vocals and guitar, and his performance is an album highlight. Whiteman writes lyrics with a call-and-response technique which works well on this song, and has become a trade mark of his composing style, and his backing vocals support Randy’s lead perfectly. The song imagines hiding from a world in ruin in a chrysalis until it is safe to emerge, and is an interesting take on a well covered subject.
Whiteman handles lead vocals on a couple of songs, and it is amazing how his vocal prowess has developed over the last few years to a point where he can confidently feature on an album alongside such great voices as Ted Leonard, Nick D’Virgilio and Michael Sadler. The Watchmaker (Time on His Side) is a great example, and if the next Manics album has material and performances this strong, it’ll be a cracker. It’s a time travelling song, well written and very catchy indeed. Ryo’s banks of keys are all over it, and Lyle Workman plays a great guitar solo. Michael Whiteman’s other lead vocal song is Maximum Velocity, a journey into space. Again, Ryo paints the picture with Mellotron and synths washing and burbling in all the right places. Musically it’s pretty ambitious, with enough complexity to keep most Spock’s fans very happy, with twists and turns aplenty. Guitars and keyboards duel as the journey continues to a climax, and suddenly it’s all over. To be continued perhaps?
Lastly, Turning Point, featuring Michael Sadler, begins with a Purpleish organ riff, but soon develops into a jazzy prog workout. Lyrically it’s a kind of prog I Won’t Back Down. Doug Wimbish provides the jazz funk bass, and Ryo weaves some magic on keys. It’s the least Beard-like song on offer, but nevertheless fits in perfectly well, and is a welcome contrast in style, and after a few plays has become one of my favourite tracks.
So the Manic Beard experiment seems to be, to my ears, a rip-roaring success, and one of the most unexpected releases so far this year. It’s well written, dazzlingly performed, excellently produced, and above all, it’s a fun listen, and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
01. Mirror Mirror (9:27)
02. Turning Point (6:53)
03. The Watchmaker (Time on His Side) (6:25)
04. Maximum Velocity (8:11)
05. Chrysalis (7:35)
06. The Myth of The Mostrophus (22:14)
Ryo Okumoto – Keyboards
Steve Hackett – Guitars
Michael Sadler – Vocals
Mike Keneally – Guitars
Jonathan Mover – Drums
Marc Bonilla – Guitars
Doug Wimbish – Bass (track 2)
Randy McStine – Guitars, Vocals
Lyle Workman – Guitar
Michael Whiteman – Guitars, Vocals
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Vocals (track 1)
Alan Morse – Guitars (track 1)
Dave Meros – Bass
Ted Leonard – Vocals (track 1)
Jimmy Keegan – Vocals
Raphael Weinroth-Browne – Cello
Mirko de Maio – Drums
Kevin Krohn – Vocals
Andy Suzuki – Woodwinds
Keiko Okumoto – Vocals
Toshihiro Nakanishi – Violin
Steve Billman – Bass
Rich Mouser – Mixing, Mastering
All songs written by Ryo Okumoto & Michael Whiteman
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 29th July 2022