|Progressive Rock CD Reviews|
Gluttons for Punishment (Live in '05)
Review by Josh Turner
It's been years since I've gotten to see Spock's Beard live. It's not for lack of desire or anything. They just haven't passed through the neighborhood in a very long time. To tell you the truth, the last time I got to see them live was one of the best concerts I've ever attended. If given the chance to see them again, I wouldn't dream of missing it.
With the departure of Neal, chances are I'll never get to see that particular line-up again. On the other hand, I don't think that really matters. Spock's Beard has evolved and written so many engaging pieces since Neal began his spiritual solo excursion. There's still much of the legend left to behold. Even though I'm not sitting at this concert live and in person, getting a chance to participate, even if it's just playing through the playback, has me just plain giddy.
I adore Octane. I've been curious how it would turn out live. I have also wondered how they may pull off some of the older pieces. I always thought Nick had a great voice, and even more so, that he was an immensely talented drummer. For quite some time, I've wondered what would happen with him out front while, more importantly, someone else sat behind the drum kit. This double album answered all my questions and satisfied all my worries. It had my jaw jutting while my eyebrows rose on more than one occasion. This product passes my inspection with straight A's and flying colors. Even though Neal has flown the coup, they've released their best "live" album to date.
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
|Track by Track Review
Right off the bat, you know this is a live recording. You hear from a host of people who eagerly express their enthusiasm for this band. The Mellotron hums while the musicians take the stage. With a flurry of claps, the crowd lets you know of the band's arrival. Like a torch-bearer running into the coliseum, it's a welcoming ceremony whose sole purpose is nothing more than to open up the eve
|A Flash Before My Eyes|
|The Ballet of the Impact|
In the first few seconds, the keyboards groan while the guitars wail. Abruptly, the emotion changes into a strangely solemn state of mind. Their playing is filled with passion. With their instruments, they divulge an intense devotion to the music. Aside from Nick's short conversations with the crowd and some audience ovation, this is a quality remake that follows along nearly note for note. While it's sensational songwriting that works very well in the studio, it's unusually agreeable in concert. I probably prefer the original as the sound from the studio might be a tad bit sharper. Nevertheless, it is quite impressive how they pull this one off live. Ryo adds a few sprinkles here and there that weren't heard in the original. Dave's bass, however, is hushed and held in reserve. His performance is unblemished, which is why I would have liked to have heard him more of him up front. Al's guitar innovates upon the familiar passages. All the tweaks work just fine and give the listener enough of a reason to try this alternate version out. For something that's performed on-the-fly, it's uncommonly clean and tidy.
|I Wouldn't Let It Go|
While Nick fulfills his duties, the syllabus he provides has some slight changes. The singing is different in this piece, but I doubt he's called in the substitute teacher. Rather than be retentive and tight, it's more exuberant and loose. There are harmonies present here that weren't found in the original. It's a more enlightening lesson. The camp counselors pull out their acoustics while everybody sings along. We sit close to the fire and warm our hands over the amber hues of kindling flames. It doesn't take long for the others to join in on this jolly display of joviality.
|Surfing Down the Avalanche|
I'm fond of this song as it's grown on me more and more over time. It has that rebellious feel of Alice Cooper's "Schools Out" along with the aggression I savor so much in the edgiest Audioslave. Nick asks the crowd how they're doing and we get an invigorating response. Al's style in this piece reminds me of Eddie Van Halen and there's even times where he sounds a little bit like Slash. Grenades quickly plummet from his guitar. The explosions are fierce, releasing armor-piercing stilettos. To offset this hostile assault, Ryo's organs chime like a rocking gospel choir. These virtuous vibrations divert attention from the accident up ahead. At this stage, the concert hasn't lost an ounce of momentum.
I really like how this one turned out. Everything is slick and lubricated by the time we get around to this one. It's easily the highlight from the epic. The sound byte that starts it off is as spooky as a ghostly specter. The engine has been broken in gracefully after the odometer hits this melodic milestone. Now it's time to see what this baby can do. As much as I like the studio rendition, this version might actually be a little better. Again, Ryo tweaks his technique and pretties up the song with several superfluous notes. Al's solo is packed with sentiment as his guitar serenades the listener. It's everything from energy to emotion. I don't know if they're using lighter fluid or gasoline, but like a spark to a fuse, it incinerates quicker than one would expect. This bomb detonates as if it was packed with diamonds and blows the doors off their hinges. Then again, it's just a ballad.
|Climbing Up That Hill|
Jimmy sets the start with several clicks of his sticks. They continue doing what they've done so well in the previous numbers. Everybody hits all their targets with lethal precision. Likewise, it has that extra oomph you only find in a live round of ammunition. It's fully-automatic, making this one dangerous ditty.
This passage is sad, sparse, and sweet much as Pink Floyd demonstrated in many of their transitional pieces. In the studio, this part seemed to drag. However, in the concert setting, it moves along at just the right speed.
|Of the Beauty of It All|
You would really have to have a special ear to tell this was a live performance. With all the hand-crafted goodies left out on the snack table, you'd think this baker spent all night cooking in the kitchen. Who would have known these sweets came straight from the grocer's freezer? I'm amazed at how the band can perform this material in such a spirited, yet technically-proficient manner. They couldn't have ended the opening suite in a much better light. The lone whistler at the end plus the audience's applause is our only indication that the ballistics don't match.
They waste no time digging their way back under your skin. This rolls off the assembly line fine-tuned and ready for a test drive on the autobahn. The motor under the hood of this classic muscle machine is a monster. You'll be gulping and trying to catch your breadth form the moment the gas pedal is engaged. If there was any doubt Nick could carry the team into the new season, this song should squelch anybody's suspicions. He sets fire and burns the house down to the ground. Nick's voice may not be the real deal, but it credibly counterfeits the song's original voice. It's so close and convincing evening sharing much of the same tonal qualities. If you didn't know better, you'd think Neal was making a guest appearance, but unlike Neal, his voice never cracks in this concert (Sorry, Neal). Do I dare say this is an improvement? As a band, they never sounded so good live. This is the pinnacle of their metamorphosis as they shuck away their former skin. While Neal was there for songwriting, keyboards, vocals, guitars, you name it; they adequately fill in all the gaps. It's like the grainy grout you find between the cracks of the bathroom tile. Ryo has stepped up to the plate while Jimmy backfills on the drums. As for Nick, he couldn't be any more comfortable front and center. Yet, it's still the same old classic it was way back in the beginning. Everything still works like new and nothing is lacking. You'd be hard-pressed to even notice a difference up until the end. In the closing minutes, we get some amazing instrumental arrangements from Ryo, Al, and Jimmy that weren't entirely present in the earlier editions. This song is undoubtedly the highlight of the album.
Like the intro to Flower King's "Rumble Fish Twist," this one is outlandishly experimental and outrageously improvisational. It's a little bit longer than the studio version (more than twice the original), making it well-suited for a live audience. What's interesting is that congas and various percussions are much more audible in this interpretation. I can only imagine Nick was itching to contribute something since it's completely instrumental. Jimmy has an unrelenting solo on the drums and it's wickedly intense. The song finishes high above as the man in the mountain leads us up to the summit.
|At the End of the Day|
This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Without Neal, it's still a charm. Infrequently would I give a live song all that much attention, but I've considered making an exception here. Nick's voice continues to clone Neal's, however, there is variation from some of the other vocalists (that would be Al and Dave). Oddly enough, Jimmy's angelic voice convincingly replaces Nick's heavenly high-notes. Meanwhile, Jimmy lightly taps upon the high hats. Ryo gives us solos that are subtlety subverted. Dave ("The Rock" of Spock's Beard) gives us the grooviest of bass lines in a section that's set aside exclusively for him. When given the opportunity to step upon this soapbox, he wastes no time showcasing his talents. As a whole, this song is very similar to the original painting and where it's not, they're using authentic prints. It's a fun remake of an all-around fantastic song.
|The Bottom Line|
This song along with maybe "Onomatopoeia" and "Ghosts of Autumn" shows the group still had promise when Neal parted ways. This lean, mean, fighting machine is aggressive, animated, and alert. It's lacking a bit of the might and mass found in its premiere take on Feel Euphoria, but after some time in the gym and a little more practice, this will be more than ready to rumble in the jungle.
This is one special feature. When I saw them in concert, Ryo was on fire as he set the crowd ablaze. His solo that night was like molten mist from the mouth of a dragon. In this one, however, Ryo is as cool as ice. He's the Silver Surfer, covering the landscape in the frostiest glaze.
|Ghosts of Autumn|
This is another exhilarating piece off Feeling Euphoria. It's great to see they didn't abandon their creations after countless critics tore the album up. Even though it had some rough edges, there are still several endearing tunes one can find on that release. These particular songs are more than qualified to play with the time-worn veterans as well as the ruthless rookies. This one just happens to be one of the shiniest stars from Feel Euphoria. The performance here does it justice and then some.
|As Long as We Ride|
This rocker is a great close to the Octane album. It's an even more acceptable end to this event. You will be sure it is over and if it was, this concert would conclude on an extremely high note. They send us on our way from 0 to 150 in a record-breaking rocket coaster. Then they go on to breach the skies. You don't even have the time to catch your breath as we're launched well beyond the stratosphere. They even give us that infamous concert close where everybody bangs everything within their reach before settling on a final note together. In this melee, we even get multiple cowbells. There is nothing else to throw in, unless they started playing the kitchen sink. It's an overload of stimulus and then just like that they suddenly slam on the brakes.
If they stopped right there, that would have been enough. This, however, puts it outside the atmosphere and boosts it light years away. This piece is an unexpected visitor, but I'm sure you won't turn it away. Like "Harm's Way," this is a clear indication of who owns the rights to play this material and let's not forget, ownership is nine tenths of the law (or in this case four and a half out of five). They coddle it as if it were their very own child. They nurture and nurse it until it's full-grown and healthy. If I had to render a decision, I'd give guardianship to them for their careful and attentive parenting of this piece. While Spock's Beard released many gems with Neal, there was actually a time where it looked as if they were entering the days of the dark crystal. In the end, everything worked out fine for them and their fans. Their trials and tribulations were nothing more than temporary. The eclipse merely marked a new dawn, one that's brought them both peace and prosperity. This is easily the best live album to come from them. There isn't even a close second. With Feel Euphoria and Octane leading the way, the leaders race while this one follows close behind. It's an open and shut case. Spock's Beard is back in business. They did a great job on this album and should hold their heads high. If you planned on wrestling this album to the ground, you'll suffer broken bones if you don't submit quickly. We all the great bands out there, the opposition is fierce, but they have the genes to champion the genre. While this is neither a cramped cell nor a stay in solitary confinement, missing this one will surely require some sort of rehabilitation. The wires are exposed and you're made to suffer with each shocking jolt. For a session of sensational torture, Gluttons for Punishment hurts so good.
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