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One Track Mind: Spock’s Beard – “South Side Of The Sky”

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Alright, confession time. There are large areas of the musical landscape I listen to pretty regularly but haven't written about and probably never will. And there's various reasons for that. For instance, popular releases are bound to be well covered elsewhere, adding my thoughts to it just seems redundant. Then there is the time factor, as in, so much music, so little time. But there's also music I enjoy but don't understand fully enough to articulate how I feel about it.

The third reason is a good explanation of why I hadn't really discussed progressive rock until now. I've been into it since it's seventies heyday, but there's always a fine line between artistry and pretentiousness. I'm not about to dissect nineteen minute, multi-suite rock symphonies to try and make a call as to which side of the fence it falls on. If it sounds good to me, I'm just gonna enjoy the ride and not worry about it.

So yeah, I dig me some King Crimson, Yes, ELP, early Genesis, Soft Machine and some of the various spinoff groups. That said, it's impossible to enjoy all of it; they did get a little full of themselves at some point.

The nineties saw a sort of a resurgence of the classic prog rock sound and newer bands like Porcupine Tree, Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings, Ozric Tentacles, and Echolyn are among those I can get into on most days. (Dream Theater is another obvious mention but they sound too metal for my tastes, although Mike Portnoy is a phenomenal drummer.) Some of these neo prog bands are almost carbon copy throwbacks to the sounds of a generation ago; others make a good attempt for bringing the genre forward.

Spock's Beard probably falls more into the former category. They wear their Yes influences on their sleeves. The good news is that in spite of being largely unoriginal, they are all fine musicians who can recreate the drawn out, constantly shifting pieces sprinkled with melodic folk interludes of the classic Yes period with near perfection, and it's leader Neal Morse is a better than average vocalist and a superb songwriter. Since there's no more Close To The Edge's forthcoming from Yes, this is as good as it's going to get insofar as "new" classic Yes is concerned.

Sock's BeardMorse left the band after 2002's thematic opus Snow, but around the same time the band released a DVD twofer set Don't Try This At Home/The Making Of V. The first DVD contains live concert footage, while the second chronicles the making of 2000's CD release V.  There's also a bonus third CD, an audio disc full of outtakes, acoustic versions, and demos. It also has Spock's Beard most direct tribute to their forefathers, a cover of Yes' "South Side Of The Sky". This track can also be found in a limited edition bonus companion CD to Snow.

"South Side Of The Sky" happens to be my favorite Yes song, so hearing a rare cover of it piqued my interest. The original closed out side one of Yes' 1972 breakthrough Fragile album. It's hard to explain why I like it so much (I did say that prog music is probably better left undissected) but it seemed to pull together all of the bands strengths. The ensemble playing, the gorgeous harmony vocals and that masterly mash-up between grounded English folk and unbound space-rock.

Then there's that sublime classically-styled piano solo smack dab in the middle of the song by keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman. Even as a member of the Wakeman Is Too Indulgent Club, I thought he produces a perfectly understated, thoughtful creation that provides stark relief to Steve Howe's staccato guitar that precedes and follows it.

Since this song is one I don't think needs much messing with, it was nice to discover that Spock's Beard evidently agreed and didn't deviate all that dramatically from the original. The snow storm sound effect is replicated and Morse's voice is even phased out at the end of every refrain early seventies style, just like Jon Anderson's ("It seemed from all eterni-teeeeeeee…yah!"). This is a cleaner, more aggressive sounding 21st century recording, but the arrangement is nearly identical.

That said, there are some real distinctions with SB's rendition. First of all, it's set to a lower key, since Morse's voice isn't as high pitched as Anderson's. Secondly, the song begins and ends with a bombastic interval not part of the original, complete with heavy vintage sounding synth and a Chris Squire-like bass staggering line synced perfectly with the drum shots. Most notably, however, Wakeman's piano solo is replaced with a classical acoustic guitar. It's as if the band decided the solo was too sacred to touch and opted to refer to it indirectly. Like to 1972 version, it doesn't seem too long even at nine minutes. Come to think of it, nine minutes isn't that long for this kind of music, anyway.

So, there you have it, my first stab at prog rock. Did it make any sense? If it didn't, just stream the deadgummed audio file, turn up the volume a bit, and enjoy the ride. For a fun comparison, there's the original just below it.

Listen: Spock's Beard "South Side Of The Sky"

Listen: Yes "South Side Of The Sky"

"One Track Mind" is a weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too. Downloads are low quality rips available for only about a week.

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About Pico

  • Vern Halen

    Ha ha ha….. actually, I’m impressed! The Bearded Ones do a real nice job of this – sounds close enough to the original, but a little more intense. I always thought the original was too jaunty for a song about death by freezing (if that’s what it’s really about).

    You know, you don’t hear a lot of Yes covers out there, likely due to the technical expertise needed to play “progressive” music. Oddly enough, robert Downey Jr. did a nice cover of a Yes song on his debut – “Your Move” I believe, from Close to the Edge.

  • Paul Roy

    Great review of the Beard. I too love their rendition of the great “South Side Of The Sky”. It was a mind-blower seeing Yes perform it live during their 35th Anniversary Tour. I haven’t purchase anything from Spock’s Beard since Morse left. Is any of the new stuff worth it?

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Vern–

    “Your Move” comes from “The Yes Album”, which to me is kind of jaunty like “South Side”, but definitely cheerier. I’ve heard about Downey’s version but hadn’t listened to it yet. That must be pretty interesting, to say the least.

    I do like the more aggressive approach taken by The Beard, it does seem to fit the lyrics better. Good point. I still have to give the original a slight nod due to Wakeman and the wordless harmonies following his solo. And I always get a kick out of Howe sneaking in blues licks into cranial tunes like this (remember how “Going For The One” starts out?).

    Paul–

    Thanks for the thumbs up on my piece. I’ve heard SB’s first post-Morse release Octane once and while it wasn’t outright bad, it’s obvious they miss Morse badly. It seems he took a lot of the Yes influence with him. His first post- Beard album Testimony is much better. Even though it’s got an evangelical bent, I’ve seen positive customer reviews even some self-professed atheists and other non-Christians.

    -P

  • Vern Halen

    My ‘pologies – don’t have either Yes album or Edge anymore – used to have them on 8 track, though, and they’ve kinda blurred in my mind (probably because they both had green covers!).

    Had Going for the One on 8 track too, and Tormato as well. I guess I’m going to have to look into their catalog again – currently all I have is the first album with Trevor Rabin and a remastered Fragile.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Excellent Review…

    Wow… I can’t believe I’m gonna be the one to say this but I don’t really like SB’s version. Maybe it’s because YES Fragile was such a stunning album for me at that time or maybe it’s that Fragile was accessible but still complex and interesting. “South Side..” was one of the best tunes of that release(for me). If it is about dying from freezing than I love the fact that they didn’t follow that emotion with dark music.

    Honestly, when I listen to Snow i don’t really here the Yes influence. I can hear Kansas but maybe I’m just not that proggy enough. I prefer the Metal/Technical Jazz Fusion types,i.e. Watchtower,Cynic,Atheist,Aghora…Oh well, I definitely want to get this DVD just to see them perform.
    Again, EXCELLENT Review…

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Appreciate the comments, Brian, thanks. I probably did oversimplify it a bit to state that SB’s only significant influence was Yes; you can hear echoes of other classic prog bands like Kansas and Gabriel-era Genesis in their music for sure. I still think Yes was the biggest influence. Maybe I get that impression because Dave Meros’ bass sounds a lot like Chris Squire’s and the song structures are so similar (heavy metal in one passage and dainty English folk the next).

    You get so many widely different interpretations when it comes to prog rock; sometimes it changes for me on each listen. That makes it tough to review IMO, but fun to discuss.

    -P

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I definitely agree because without YES,Kansas,Genesis,ELO,Marillion and many others, you wouldn’t have these excellent musicians who appreciate prog so much to come out with such a fresh approach. I guess that’s why I like Spock’s Beard…It sounds familiar but it’s their own.

    Though, I need to pay homage to Dream Theater & Opeth because they really opened the doors for these new bands.

  • duane

    Nice writeup, Pico, and good comments, too. I agree with your take on the pretentious/self-indulgent charge that’s often hurled at proggers. Screw it. In the long run, we have benefitted by having access to some fine music.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Nice discussion we’re having here. I might have to take another stab at a prog record just to get you guys to come back, lol.

    I’ve got a question (some may say “challenge”) for prog fans. You know where I said in the review that “the song begins and ends with a bombastic interval not part of the original, complete with heavy vintage sounding synth and a Chris Squire-like bass staggering line synced perfectly with the drum shots”? That interval is giving me deja vu, I could almost swear that the Beard took that from another song, most likely from Yes. But I can’t pin down where. Can anyone tell me if that interval is indeed lifted from another song and if so, which one?

    -P

  • Mark Saleski

    true, there aren’t a lot of Yes covers out there…but there was a band that pretty much cloned their sound: Starcastle.

  • Vern Halen

    A hunch – is it a lick from Emerson, Lake & Palmer?

  • http://absolutemichigan.com marco esquandolas

    “You know where I said in the review that ‘the song begins and ends with a bombastic interval not part of the original, complete with heavy vintage sounding synth and a Chris Squire-like bass staggering line synced perfectly with the drum shots’?”

    This is Perpetual Change by Yes from the Yes Album…

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    This is Perpetual Change by Yes from the Yes Album…

    …and we have a winner. Thanks marco, I thought I had heard that riff somewhere before.

    -P