Things have been problematic for the post-Neal Morse era of Spock’s Beard. They’ve produced some good songs during this time, but never a full album that gelled completely. The closest would be the first with Nick D’Virgilio at the microphone, Feel Euphoria, but the multi-part “A Guy Named Sid” was a clunky attempt to maintain the prog-rock expectations. The concept album Octane had some interesting songs but were conceptually hammered by lesser ones, and because they were so closely bound together, the whole collapsed at the center. The eponymous album seemed to want to put forth the notion it was a rock album, first and foremost, but gave me nothing to hang on to, either lyrically or musically, and once the thrill was over in hearing a new SB album, so was the impetus to hear it again. All this bode ill for the recent album X, celebrating the arrival of their tenth studio release.

And wouldn’t you know it, my lowered expectations have not only been surpassed, but decimated entirely. X is by far the best thing Spock’s Beard has done with D’Virgilio as frontman, and rivals a large portion of the Morse-helmed albums too. By balancing the desire to rock out with the discipline of more long-form songs, and by allowing a greater flexibility within those tracks, the band sounds more focused than they have in years. The opening “Edge Of The In-Between” shifts from a straight-ahead rocker to a slower tempo and digression, a jazzy instrumental portion, then back to the original theme in true suite form. At ten-and-a-half minutes it shouldn’t feel as natural and flowing as it does.

Essentially, all the stuff that drives hardcore rockers nuts about the prog genre are exploited here, but that’s what Spock’s Beard is, and it works for them. They’re not grunge-poppers, and on past albums when it seemingly sounded like that was their aim, the results disappointed. When they’re allowed to be themselves, as on “The Emperor’s Clothes” with the horn intro, keyboardist Ryu Okamoto gets a chance to go off in grand style. Alan Morse gets the opportunity to slam that hard guitar on “The Quiet House” without the group sounding like they’re emulating some other band, and this is the key to the CD’s success. It seemed like, for years, what Spock’s Beard was had to be forsaken by Neal’s departure, that they had to morph into something else because of it, in spite of the fact this had always been their band too. X finds them reclaiming their right to the entire catalog, not just the Nick years.

If there is a false note on the album, it is “Their Names Escape Me” where the fans that pre-ordered the album get a shout-out within the track. If it was a hidden track, such a self-serving stunt could escape without a lot of fuss. That it is made a part of the regular rundown marks it as a less a song and more of a contractual obligation. That the musical bed of the song is pretty awesome makes the thing more frustrating – I think even the fans would have hoped for a more substantial version, and credit in the booklet would have sufficed.

X finds Spock’s Beard in the enviable position of no longer being counted out, or of being disregarded because of bandmates long gone. It’s nice to have them back in such good shape.

X is available from Amazon.com.