A conversation with Spock’s Beard’s Ted Leonard

Ted

In his first official Progarchy assignment, rookie Progarchist Adam Sears talked to Ted Leonard of Spock’s Beard about their new album, The Oblivion Particle, set for release on August 21st by Inside Out Music.  The Oblivion Particle is the follow-up to 2013’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, as well as Ted’s second SB album on main vocal duty. In addition to the album, they also cover everything black holes to cruise ships to venereal diseases.

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PROGARCHY  First off, just like to say that the new album is great! It has some of the stuff I’d expect from Spock’s Beard, but it had a lot of new fresh sounds.

TL   Yeah, there’s a bit of both, there’s a bit of harkening back on songs like “Tides of Time” and some of the other songs are a bit of a departure, like “Minion”.

PROGARCHY  You wrote “Minion” as well as “Hell’s Not Enough”, correct?

TL   Yes, I started writing “Minion” a long time ago, about the same time I wrote “Hiding Out”, which was about 2010, but it just kinda got shelved. Then I resurrected it, but I wasn’t sure what band I was going to submit it to, until it started shaping up and then it started sounding more Spock’sy than Enchanty to me.


PROGARCHY  What inspired you to write “Minion” and “Hell’s Not Enough”?

TL   “Minion”’s a little tough to get into without incriminating myself. But basically it’s about being in an oppressive relationship. Feeling like someone else’s little bitch, as it were.

PROGARCHY  Ah, yes. Been there, done that. I think we’ve all felt that way at some point.

TL   Haha, yep. Then “Hell’s Not Enough” is kind of an interesting song, given my background and the band’s background. It’s not a terror on religion in itself by any stretch- it’s more of a lash out at cult leaders and people who manipulate the week-minded. There’s a reference to the Jonestown thing, where it says
“Hook line and sinker, thank God you’re not a thinker, here take this fruity drink, you’re fine”. (laughs) So that’s what that’s all about.

PROGARCHY  I don’t remember where I saw it, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, but you have mentioned that The Oblivion Particle is the best project you’ve ever been involved with. Tell me why that is.

TL   You know, I don’t know if it’s necessarily better than BNaDs. If I posted that late at night, there’s a chance I was, ya know, gushing…

PROGARCHY  Or just overly excited?

TL   Yeah, or drunk… haha, but no, I do feel like it’s super, super strong. I think it holds up against BNaDs quite well. And I also think, for variety’s sake, it’s more of a wide array of styles wrapped up into one album. I think it’s super cool, because of that. And the sound quality of the recording is so well done.

PROGARCHY  I’m sure a lot of that is due to Rich Mouser. Did he engineer, as well as mix and master the album?

TL   As far as the engineering goes, there was a lot of it done in our houses. Some of the guitars were recorded at Al’s house and I recorded some of the vocals at home, then we did some at the studio. So he [Rich] engineered most of it, but we tried to do a lot at home this time. The bass is always engineered at home. We tried to save some money because BNaDs turned out to be pretty expensive.

PROGARCHY  On August 29th in Los Angeles, you are doing double duty, performing with not only Spock’s Beard but also with your band Enchant. What are a couple of differences in the group dynamics and your relationship with the two bands?

TL   Spock’s Beard approaches their career with more business sense, so there’s a degree of being business partners with them rather than being old buddies. But we are good friends, especially with Dave, because we hang out and play in cover bands. It’s a little different than the camaraderie of Enchant where we’ve known each other for a long time. Some of us have known each other more than half our lives. So we’re almost like brothers. We laugh like brothers and we fight like brothers. (laugh). It’s totally different than Spock’s, especially because I came into the band way later. But it was actually less weird then you’d think, ‘cause I knew the guys pretty well from before. So definitely a difference in the dynamics. They’re both good, just different.

PROGARCHY  You’ve been performing with Spock’s Beard for four years now. Do you still feel like the new guy or do you feel like you are now an accepted member of the band since you’ve now completed 2 albums and performed many many shows?

TL   Yeah, I think the shows have definitely solidified it, especially the cruise [Progressive Nation at Sea 2014], was a cool thing with Neal being there, being out in the audience, and then me being on stage with Neal in Transatlantic. I think what fans took away from Transatlantic was there’s no weirdness. Neal respects me, I respect him. So, I don’t feel like the new guy anymore. It has been quite a while and we have played a lot of shows. By the time you finish the 2nd album you start to feel that this isn’t an audition anymore.

PROGARCHY  So what should we expect to hear on The Oblivion Particle?

TL    Sonically, we branch out- there are plenty of moments, keyboard tones especially- we’re not just relying on the four keyboard tones that Spock’s has always been famous for- the tron choir, tron strings, tron flute, and organ. And of course piano. There are a lot of analog synths going on- kind of a nod back to certain eras of Genesis with the tones, like Duke era to mid 80’s, rather than going for a strictly 70’s sound, which has kind of been the Spock’s thing, at least with the keyboards. There’s a sonic difference in what you hear from Dave too. On most albums, he’s mostly playing with a pick the whole time. With this album, he plays quite a bit of finger style. Tonally it’s not the same old Dave on every song. Another cool thing about this album are the piano highlights- there are three of them, that I can think of off hand that are really cool piano parts kind of out there by themselves. There’s one in the breakdown of Minon, there’s one in the beginning of the song that Ryo and Al wrote [The Center Line], then the bass comes in and does a really cool thing with them. As far as the overall vibe of the album- it gets big and huge, pulls back and gets really intimate, those are all typical characteristics of Spock’s stuff and this album is no exception.

PROGARCHY   Why is the album called the Oblivion Particle?

TL   You know, we’re going to have to invent a reason, because I get that question all the time, and I honestly have no idea.

PROGARCHY  Does it have anything to do with CERN or the Large Hadron Collider?

TL   Well, some people have theorized that it is the opposite of the “God particle”, or whatever they were trying to find. I can’t remember what that particle is actually called.

PROGARCHY  The Higgs boson. Yeah I’m kind of a nerd and like reading about that stuff.

TL   (Laughs) Yeah that’s right!  But I don’t know, I think it just sounded cool. But some of the songs have an invention theme like “Bennett Built a Time Machine” and “A Better Way to Fly”. It seemed kind of science-y, so we thought it would be cool to have a title that went along with that.

PROGARCHY    In “Disappear” when you’re singing “We could disappear” are you sure you’re not referring to the Large Hadron Collider’s theoretical creation of a black hole that may swallow us up?

TL   Yeah, I’m going to use that! I’m gonna fake like I’m that intelligent!

PROGARCHY  What is your favorite track of the Oblivion Particle?

TL   Ok, my favorite track, that I didn’t write, (laughs), is “A Better Way to Fly”. Although I love “Get Out While You Can”- it’s totally short and concise. It has me going into a Bono territory with the voice, so it’s a little different for me. I really dug that. You always try to do things a little bit different, otherwise people get sick of you. (laughs)

PROGARCHY  What was the most difficult thing about recording this album?

TL   I would say, the timing on some of the songs. Especially with some of John’s songs, like “A Better Way to Fly”. That one is going from 6 to 7 to sometimes 8, then back. There were times when I was recording along his scratch vocals, and I was just watching the wave form to know what beat to come back in on. Now that I’m trying to learn it for live shows, I’m sitting there just having to count ‘cause it’s really trippy. I’m comfortable doing songs in odd time, obviously, but this song is really giving me grief. And I’m playing a lot of keyboards on it too, so it’s like… ugh!!! That song is going to be the toughest one.

PROGARCHY  So you’re definitely going to be doing that song live?

TL   Yeah, we are, unfortunately. I love the song, but it’s giving me… it’s giving me fear. It’s a great song for Jimmy too, because he’s just pounding back there. He really comes out of his shell on this album, not that he ever was in a shell, but on the first album he wanted to keep it safe and not try to overstep his bounds. But on this album  he just kind of got free reign and he was like “I’ll take it”. On the last couple of tours when Nick and Jimmy were having their drum-off solos, of course Jimmy shined and did well, but now that he’s the ONLY drummer, we’ve had these nights where we’re like “Hey, take a solo!” and he just goes and does it completely off the cuff. It’s always like the best thing ever. I never get bored watching him take a drum solo, and usually get bored watching EVERY drummer do a solo. That’s usually a good time to take a piss! But he’s always doing something different and interesting and pulls it right out of his hiney. Al and I would be just sitting on the side of the stage just like laughing at how cool it was. So this time around it was just like “Do what you do! Tear it up!” So there are a couple of moments that come off like a drum solo in that song, which is good stuff!


PROGARCHY  Track 4 of the The Oblivion Particle is “Bennett Built a Time Machine”. If you were to build a time machine and you can change one thing in your past life, what would it be?

TL   Well, I think, just like the song goes, there might be some historical moments that would be interesting to be a part of, but it would be really hard to slip into it unnoticed, unless you go dressed for the period I guess. I think what most people think of when going back to the past is revisiting pivotal moments in their own life, like maybe they could have changed things, but we all know how that turns out with the paradox factor. I can think of a few moments in my own life, where things would be vastly different. But then I’d come back and realized I created a black hole or everyone’s dying from some strange disease I introduced by accident, maybe a bad venereal disease because I somehow changed the course of events that led my past self into sleeping with someone I shouldn’t have. So yeah I come back 20 years later, and the whole world is a wasteland.

PROGARCHY  Maybe that should be the plot for the next Spock’s Beard concept album?

TL   (laughs) Yeah, there are not enough venereal diseases in concept albums.

PROGARCHY  Or in prog in general.

PROGARCHY  After your European Tour in September and October, Spock’s Beard is going to play Cruise to the Edge in November, which will be on the same ship you guys performed on at last year’s Progressive Nation at Sea. What was it like performing on a boat in the middle of an ocean?

TL   Yeah! Washy Washy, Happy Happy! Yeah that’s going to be really nice, and I’m going to be doing double duty again! Well, when we were in the theater, it was kind of a rocky night and you could actually feel it while on stage- even just walking around. It just made you feel like you were drunk, which you know. I’m familiar with performing drunk. That’s happened, but not often. I usually don’t drink that much when it comes to prog, but I have done plenty of cover band gigs where I’m like “Oh my God, I don’t even know how I’m going to do this third set!” I usually have like a beer before, a beer on stage, or maybe two. So by the end of the show, there might be three beers in my system, but it’s usually a two hour show, so it’s pretty tame. And then afterwards it’s a completely different animal, especially when you know you’re getting on the bus in a total controlled environment. You spend three weeks out on the road and you just have to come home and detox. I can’t imagine if we were out there, like some of the big bands, for six months at a time. I would be just like Keith Richards. I would totally just look like that by now already.

PROGARCHY  (Laughs) Let’s get back to the cruise… how was it playing the outside pool deck area?

TL   Oh, that was amazing! Especially when I opened with Transatlantic. You could see the port going by and the boat getting up to speed, so you could really feel it. It was really super windy. I needed the music for that band, but my charts were just flying all over the place. Luckily, the guitar tech saw it and started taping it down for me. But it was incredible. And the reception was awesome for both bands, but especially for Spock’s Beard on that first night, by the pool… that was really cool. And when everyone knows that Neal’s on the boat, to get that kind of reception out of the crowd was pretty cool for me. Then of course the second night in the theater when he came out and did the thing, that was just so cool. I think the weirdest part of that night for me was singing “Walking on The Wind” with Neal right in the front row. I was like, “Well damn, you should sing this  too, dude!” But it was cool, it turned out really cool.

PROGARCHY  And here, I will add my Chris Farley style Interview question… remember when I saw you guys play at Progressive Nation at Sea, while I was in the hot tub? That was Awesome!

TL   (Laughs) Yeah, hopefully I have time to do that for some bands on this one, maybe Marillion. That’d be cool!

PROGARCHY  Ted, thanks so much for your time. Congratulations on the new Spock’s Beard album and good luck with the tour! I’ll see you at the CalProg show on the 29th!

TL   Cool! I’ll see you there!

Prog 2013 – An Unordered List

Last year was an incredible year for Progressive Music (note: upper case), but in my opinion, 2013 has been even better. Thanks to this community (Progarchy) and the ever-lively Big Big Train Facebook group, I have been exposed to more new prog in 2013 than in any year since the halcyon days of the early 70s. As a result, my wallet has been considerably lightened, but my musical universe has been enriched way beyond mere monetary value.

What follows is a brief review of my top ten purchases in 2013 – albums received for review or borrowed from friends are not included, however much I enjoyed them. The list is alphabetic, as each of these albums is my favourite when I’m listening to it, depending on my mood.

Steven WilsonThe Raven That Refused To Sing: A superb album from start to finish, replete with powerful, hard-rocking passages, beautiful melodies, jazzy interludes, lush arrangements, and oodles of emotion (not something SW is renowned for). Much as I enjoy SW’s guitar playing, I’m delighted that he has handed over most of the guitar work to the incredible Guthrie Govan and stepped back to be more of a musical director – he has always been an excellent songwriter, but I think his compositions have benefitted greatly from this change of focus. I also think this is Wilson’s strongest and most confident vocal performance ever. Of course the rest of the band members are all outstanding, but in particular I love Wilson’s use of Theo Travis’ woodwinds to add an extra dimension that was sometimes lacking in the Porcupine Tree soundscape.

SW

Spock’s BeardBrief Nocturnes and Dreamless SleepI love Nick D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming and was concerned when I heard that he’d left Spock’s Beard, but I needn’t have worried. I thought X was an excellent album, but Brief Nocturnes is even better. Ted Leonard not only brings his powerful and emotive vocal delivery to the band (I think he’s the best vocalist the Beard have had to date), but also his strong compositional skills, which were always evident with Enchant. And Jimmy Keegan is a monster drummer, a worthy full-time successor to the vacated “batterie” stool (he’s been touring with the band for years). Ryo’s keyboard work has also been going from strength to strength since Neal Morse, the uber-controlling force, left the band, while Alan Morse and Dave Meros seem to be even more energised by the injection of new blood into the band. A strong set of songs, powerfully delivered by a great band.

SB

Sanguine HumThe Weight of the World: Sanguine Hum are one of my favourite “new” finds. This Oxford-based band deliver layered and beautifully structured compositions with plenty of dynamics, which never fail to surprise and delight. One reviewer described their approach as “polymath”, but I think this may give the wrong impression – while their music is precise, it is never clinical, and while complex, it is never complicated for the sake of it. Although I slightly prefer their first album, “Diving Bell”, “Weight of the World” is an excellent album that gets repeated listening, and will continue to do so.

SH

RiversideShrine of New Generation Slaves: “SoNGS”, to my ears, is the best Riverside album since their impressive debut “Out Of Myself” in 2004. With greater emphasis on songwriting rather than thrash, and more varied textures that their last few albums, this album is imminently listenable, apart from the rather tiresome first few minutes of the opening song, which seems to stutter along for ages before it gets going. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, is definitely bleeding back into Riverside, which I’m delighted about. More, please Mariusz…

Riverside

HakenThe Mountain: For me, the find of the year. Two months go I’d never heard of this band, but now I have all three of their albums and can’t stop listening to them. “The Mountain” is a real tour de force, with light and shade, strong melodies, excellent harmonies, tight ensemble playing and impressive pyrotechnics that are just right in context of each song, when they explode. I think their “Gentle Giant” moment (The Cockroach King) is one of the finest since the great band themselves were performing – far better than Spock’s Beard’s efforts (which are nevertheless uniformly good), and rivalling Kevin Gilbert’s genius in his “Suit Canon”. This band has everything (except a permanent bass player – sad that I’m living on the wrong continent, too old and simply not talented enough to audition for the post… !). Great album, and great band with a stellar future.

Haken

CosmografThe Man Left In Space: I’m a sucker for good sci-fi – combine it with superb songwriting and musicianship from wide range of musicians and I’m in there, lead boots, space suit and all. The first time I heard this album, I thought some of the the interludes caused the album to lose momentum musically, but repeated listening has completely dispelled that impression. I now think this is a beautifully balanced album, lyrically and musically, and I’m really looking forward to the next Cosmograf album (which is always a good sign).

cosmograf

Big Big TrainEnglish Electric Full Power: “English Electric”, parts 1 and 2, were already two of my all-time favourite albums, but the combined and expanded package, “Full Power”, has raised the bar even higher. I have already written full reviews of the individual albums (here on Progarchy and elsewhere), so suffice to say that the re-ordering of the songs and the additional material has created one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had since I first became “aware” of music. Brilliant songwriting, meaningful lyrics, exemplary delivery, superb, lush production. And of course, there’s also the magnificent packaging…

BBT

AyreonThe Theory of Everything: Two adjectives often associated with Ayreon are “bombastic” and “overblown”, but I prefer to use adjectives such as “majestic” and “melodic”. Arjen Lucassen has more musical ideas than is reasonable for any single human being, and he seems to be a helluva nice guy as well. “The Theory of Everything” is his best work, including side projects, since “The Human Equation”, which was my first encounter with his music and still my favourite. However, I’ve only had TTOE for two weeks, and already it is threatening to nudge THE aside. With a stellar cast of musicians and singers, including major prog alumni John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess and Steve Hackett, he’s created another intense epic work that soars and delights, while examining the very human themes of genius, deception, ambition, pride and love. As a scientist, I also appreciate the recurring symbol of the lighthouse, representing intellect and science casting illumination through the gloom. Brilliant album.

ayreon

The AristocratsCulture Clash: This band has literally blown my socks off (it’s OK, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, so I’m not too uncomfortable). I bought the “Boing! We’ll Do It Live” DVD earlier this year, and was mesmerised by the incredible technical abilities of the three musicians, Govan Guthrie (guitar), Marco Minnemann (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass). But this is not just a musical show-off band – not only do they write splendid (instrumental) music that crosses a vast range of genres (truly Progressive), but their obvious enjoyment of the music, and each other, is completely infectious. “Culture Clash”, their second album, sees them settling into their relationships and interactions, and writing music specifically for each other – and it’s a sheer delight. Want more!

aristocrats

Antione FafardOccultus Tramatis: I get to listen to a lot of new music while I’m working, putting science textbooks together. Much of it tends to slip by me while I’m concentrating on the work, but every now and then an album wrests my attention from whatever I’m doing and forces me to focus on the music. “Occultus Tramatis” was one of those albums. Canadian bassist Antione Fafard has put together a star-studded cast of jazz, jazz-fusion and progressive rock performers including Jerry Goodman and drummers Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio and Gavin Harrison, and produced an outstanding album of prog fusion, which despite its musical complexity and ever changing time signatures is nevertheless fresh and rewarding, revealing different possibilities every time you listen to it. Each track has its own feel, with changes of pace, a variety of complex rhythms and contrasting instrumental arrangements, but the album still still has an organic flow. I listened to my review copy twice straight through, and immediately ordered the CD. Challenging, but excellent.

af

Honourable mention:
Thieves’ Kitchen – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy: I marginally prefer The Water Road, but this is a strong collection of jazzy prog songs.

Roy Harper – Man and Myth: Powerful, emotional work.

The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose: Their darkest album to date, but a real return to form. May have made it into my top 10 if it had arrived earlier.

Amplifier – Echo Street: Gorgeous guitar-based, atmospheric music.

Airbag – The Greatest Show On Earth: Only arrived last week. Excellent album that is rapidly growing on me.

Notable omission:
Lifesigns: This is a strange one for me. I really like the instrumental work, but some of the compositions seem to meander for long periods. And I can’t get into the vocals – the delivery seems flat and unidimensional to me. Sorry.

Not considered (see above, but added to my wish list):
Comedy of Errors – Fanfare & Fantasy
Days Between Stations – In Extremis
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
KingBathmat – Overcoming the Monster
Levin Minnemann Rudess – LMR
Magenta – The Twenty Seven Club
Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1
Persona Grata – Reaching Places High Above
PFM – Da Mozart A Celebration
Shadow Circus – On A Dark and Stormy Night
Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut
The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
TesseracT – Altered State
Verbal Delirium – From The Small Hours of Weakness
Von Hertzen Brothers – Nine Lives

Verdict:
So much to listen to, so little time.  Prog has never been healthier.

Craig Farham/faroutsider

My favorite prog track of the week: “Chuta Chani”

Every few days or so I go to the ProgArchives.com site and check out new material and reviews. The most recent visit was rewarded with the discovery of the Italian neo-prog band, Profusion, who recently released their second album, “RewoToweR”. The band’s site offers this description:

There are many languages ​​that lead the climb: rock, metal, fusion, pop, acoustic-tango. Each floor is a different dimension from the previous, but never isolated. Just as you can look at the title letters in both directions, the tower is also an ascent and descent together, until it gets to be a maze. The “RewoToweR” building is not like a “Babel of different languages” but the attempt to speak, through experimentation, a new and modern language.

Yes, that’s a bit cutesy and a tad hyperbolic, but the music is quite good, even outstanding, with assured playing, tasteful arrangements, and hook-heavy songwriting that is at turns playful, ambitious, mythical, and, on occasion, a little corny (see “Treasure Island”, a song about pirating).

The song “Chuta Chani” is a perfect example of what the band has to offer. Melodic violin solo intro? Check. Crunchy, tasty riff? Yep. Great bass line? Of course. Guitar with a hint of Middle Eastern spice? Indeed. Clean, strong semi-exotic vocals? In spades. Catchy bridge and chorus? Oh yeah. Breakneck keyboard solo with classical motifs? And how! Short chorale section to conclude? Why not? The singer, Luca Latini (described on the ProgArchives.com page as a “pop-soul singer”) has personality to spare. Normally, I’m not too taken with English lyrics sung with a strong accent, but Latini makes it work (at least for me) because he has fabulous tone and range, and he does inject so much enthusiasm and energy into the proceedings. And, despite the accent, he reminds me quite often of the criminally underrated Ted Leonard of Enchant (and other projects), which is high praise. Here is the band’s video for “Chuta Chani”: