Tag Archives: O2 Academy Islington

Spock’s Beard – Islington Academy

Ryo Okumoto

Spock’s Beard were one of the first of the third generation of Progressive Rock bands, emerging in the mid 1990s when the genre was at its all-time lowest ebb. Over the years they’ve gone through a few ups and downs, including two changes of singer, and have survived to become something of elder statesmen of the scene. They came to Islington Academy to promote their 12th album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature newest vocalist Ted Leonard.

They had two support bands on the tour, and with the customary early curfew due to the following club night, the opening act Synaesthesia were already on stage playing to a near-empty room at the ridiculously early time of 6pm. This extremely youthful band had made a strong impression at HRH Prog last year, and again on supporting Marillion back in April, but on this occasion they didn’t seem quite as together. There were moments of impressive guitar work, especially during the final song, but the set as a whole seemed to lack groove and coherence.

Hungarian four-piece Special Providence were far more impressive. The instrumental band were the missing link between prog-metal and jazz-fusion, a concept which had the potential to be truly awful in the wrong hands. But Special Providence turned out to be one of the best previously-unknown supports act of the year, with tight grooves, fluid guitar and an emphasis on solid composition rather than endless soloing.

Ted  Leonard

Spock’s Beard kicked off with the opening number of the latest album, “Tides of Time”, all swirling keyboards, hard rock riffs and anthemic instrumental passages, pretty much the quintessential SB sound. Their music is rooted in 1970s sounds, the keyboards and guitars of classic first-generation progressive rock and the vocal harmonies of west coast rock, all presented with a modern sensibility without the self-indulgent excess.

One of the things that makes Spock’s Beard an entertaining live band is not just that they’re all talented musicians who clearly enjoy being on stage, but they also have a sense of showmanship many of the peers lack. The most charismatic figure is not frontman Ted Leonard or lead guitarist Alan Morse, but keyboard player Ryo Okumoto, his battery of keyboards down at the front of the stage and deployed side-on so the audience can see him play. His love of vintage 70s keyboards is one of the defining elements of the band’s sound. Though this gig didn’t see a genuine Mellotron or Hammond B3 on stage, there was still a real Moog with twiddleable knobs.

The bulk of the set came from the new album or its immediate predecessor “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”, all of which comes over impressively on stage. They did throw in a couple of much older songs from the Neil Morse era, both from 1998′s “The Kindness of Strangers”, “The Good Don’t Last” and the acoustic “June”, the latter turning into an enthusiastic audience singalong.

Although he often seems to play second fiddle to Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard wizardly, Alan Morse is a great if sometimes underrated guitarist, and is far more than just a foil. This was readily apparent whenever he cut loose, for example the climactic solo in “Waiting For Me” which closed the main set.

After a brief acoustic excerpt of “Bennett Build a Time Machine”, they encored with a real oldie, the multi-part epic “The Water” from their 1995 début album, stately anthemic passages alternating with jazz-rock workouts, with a few bars of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” thrown in for good measure, and the infamous “**** You” passage predictably became another singalong.

And so ended an excellent performance. Even twenty years into their career Spock’s Beard have avoided the all-too-easy the trap of turning into their own tribute act playing sets filled with crowd-pleasing early material, instead challenging and winning over the audience with a heavy emphasis on their most recent albums.

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Mostly Autumn, Islington O2 Academy, 1st Sep 2012

Photo © Howard Rankin

Mostly Autumn came to the O2 Academy in Islington for the second night of the tour promoting the album “The Ghost Moon Orchestra”. It’s their first headline appearance in the capital since 2009, three years ago, previous appearances having been restricted to co-headlining with It Bites last year, and a support for Wishbone Ash back in 2010.

While by no means full, the show still attracted a respectable crowd, and there was a buzz of anticipation before the band came on stage with the instrumental “Distant Train”. After that familiar opener from last year’s greatest hits set, they launched into “Unquiet Tears” from the new album. It began with a goth-clad Olivia Sparnenn accompanied by just the two keyboard players for the ominous and brooding opening section before exploding into a symphonic metal monster demonstrating just what she can do as a vocalist. From then on, set was a mix of old and new, drawing heavily from the new album combined with old favourites and a few more recent highlights. The sound early on was somewhat muddy, although it improved as the show went on; to be fair a seven-piece band with two guitars and two keyboard players is never going to be easy to mix.

The early part of the first set had a very strong hard rock feel. The revived “Never the Rainbow” sandwiched between two new songs gave a Deep Purple vibe, with a lot of Hammond organ from Iain Jennings. Parts of second set had more of the atmospheric celtic-prog mood of old, older epics such as “The Last Climb” alongside new album standout “Tennyson Mansions”. They threw in a few surprises, including songs from “A Weather For Poets”, the bonus disc from the now sold-out special edition of the new album. The new material comes over very strongly, and even the couple of songs which weren’t entirely convincing on record come to life on stage.

Olivia Sparnenn was on fantastic form. Unlike the last couple of tours she’s singing a far greater proportion of the lead vocals, and remained centre stage throughout the set. She’s really in her element now the band have a setlist filled with songs written for her voice. She’s taken a while to grow into the role of fronting the band, but after two years there can be few doubts that she was exactly the right person for the job. Her take on “Evergreen”, for so long one of Heather Findlay’s signature tunes, was flawless, and she really lets rip on the newer material. The former Breathing Space number “Questioning Eyes” never fails to raise the hairs on the back of the neck, and new songs such as “Unquiet Tears” and “Wild Eyed Skies” give a hint of how Nightwish might have sounded had she got the gig with them a few years back.

Anne-Marie Helder deserves a mention. While her own band Panic Room have achieved a significantly higher profile of late, her role in Mostly Autumn is more a supporting one, on keys, flute and backing vocals. But she still plays an important part in the sound. Her harmony lines, often a counterpoint to Olivia’s lead line added a lot to many songs. She’s not playing as quite much flute on this this tour, although she did get her moment in the spotlight during “The Last Climb”. Bryan’s lengthy guitar solo on the same song was mesmerising too; his playing has been getting better and better over the last couple of years.

By the final encore of “Tonight” bringing a very lengthy set to close with another of Olivia’s magnificent soaring vocals, it was clear that this was the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the Mostly Autumn story. They packed a very powerful punch despite a few sound problems early on. It’s still the early stages of the tour, and the new songs have yet to fully bed in, so they are sure to raise their performances to still greater heights as the tour progresses.

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