by Prog Nick
Some things go without saying – like power of music, the majesty of Prog and the amount of expectation that has been created in the lead-up to Transatlantic’s fifth studio release, The Absolute Universe. Social media has been aflame and predictions have reached fever pitch (especially regarding the release formats.) This was to be expected, because Transatlantic are THE Prog supergroup and the undeniable torch-bearers for modern melodic Prog. All the frenzied expectation was inevitable, and the inordinate level of speculation that we witnessed was bound to manifest itself. It all goes without saying.
But nothing could have prepared us for what has ultimately been delivered. The Absolute Universe is a release that is vast beyond description. It presents three distinct packages and two versions of the album, each a variation on the other, but different enough to qualify as a separate album. The two album version titles are references to previous Transatlantic lyrics, namely: Foverermore (Extended Version – 2 CD) and The Breath of Life (Abridged Version – 1 CD.) These titles will sound unnervingly familiar, being pay-off lines from previous Transatlantic songs. Both versions are available in a gigantic combined deluxe edition entitled The Ultimate Edition. The entire offering is so enormous that a review of all three presentations is impossible – quite frankly, there are not enough words to adequately describe all those notes.
This review will evaluate the Foverermore version, simply because at 90 minutes, it contains more content. But one comment on The Breath of Life is necessary: do not be deluded into thinking that it is just an abbreviated version of Forevermore. It is much more than just that. It certainly is a condensation of the double album into a shorter time, but it remarkably also delivers different content, some re-compositions, alternative material and discreet new deliveries, especially in the vocal department. It even has a song not found on Forevermore, the Neal Morse-led “Can You Feel It.” The condensed version has the unstated but clear feel of a Neal Morse edit. Its transitions are a little starker than those of Forevermore, but it most definitely offers its own delights. Do you need both versions? In my opinion, you will not regret the decision to purchase both (or all three), and you will certainly not feel that you have made an unnecessary double purchase.
On to Foverermore. Reviewing a work like this is no mean task, because a review is, after all, just words, and this vast album will, of itself, render you speechless. It is that good. If you were enamored of The Whirlwind and were mildly impressed by Kaleidoscope, this one, which stylistically meets somewhere in the middle, will silence any doubts.
The opening motif, introduced in “Overture,” is highly cinematic while surprisingly simple. It is just a five-note progression that could sit quite easily in a 1960’s thriller. It seems almost innocuous to begin with, but no band can develop a theme like Transatlantic can. By the end of the album, this central recurring theme has been turned and twisted, cooked and curled, and sculpted into every interpretation and treatment imaginable. While the theme is, in its unembellished form, simpler, say, than that of The Whirlwind, its simplicity allows for all sorts of other treasures to be revealed. It recurs with consistency throughout the album but there are, unsurprisingly, many more, and even stronger recurring themes, like the ‘Belong’ theme that we first hear in “Heart Is Like A Whirlwind.” With this motif, your ‘Now We’re Talking’ gene will kick in, and it will all get even better from there.
“Heart Like a Whirlwind” (“Reaching For the Sky” on the abridged version) starts things off on an uplifting note. Morse, Portnoy and Trewavas all provide excellent lead vocals and Stolt’s solo is inspiring. The catchy refrain ‘Heart is like a whirlwind’ immediately reveals that there will be some type of thematic re-visitation to Transatlantic’s third album, regarded by many to be their masterwork. The various recurring themes introduced thereafter are too numerous to mention, though it should be said that the lyrical reference to The Whirlwind surfaces in many different contexts. This time, the Whirlwind is less about the end-times and more about personal inner revelation set in a cosmic backdrop. No other band in Prog would be audacious enough to take one of the most beloved concepts in the genre and re-work it down to a personal perspective it in this way. But Mr. Morse and company are unafraid. Enough said – let your ears do the discovery, suffice it to say that the recurrence of many themes makes The Absolute Universe a concept album quite unlike any you have heard before. Can music render you speechless? Absolutely.
“Higher than the Morning” introduces the theme ‘Belong, belong, better to belong’. With a harmony chorus that would make CSNY proud, this is a highly alluring melody. Stolt and Morse trade vocals, and at one point there is a cynicism in Morse’s voice, perfectly in sync with the lyrics. Next song “The Darkness in the Light” is a solid rocker built around Trewavas’ legendary bass-growl. He exceeds even his own high standards on this song, which reminds us why he is who he is.
“Swing High Swing Low” (“Take Now My Soul” – on the abridged version, with alternate lyrics) will caress you like the loving mother’s arms so missed by its protagonist, until “Bully” takes that same theme to its most aggressive and agonized plane. Only Transatlantic could give a theme such varied treatment.
The band clearly made a conscious decision to feature all four members on lead vocals. A policy like this can go awry if not managed carefully, but these virtuosos know exactly what they are doing, and the policy generally gets more thumbs up than thumbs down. If a little forced at times, the ‘four lead vocalists approach’ certainly yields the result of keeping the listener’s attention. I grew to love it.
Lead vocal debate notwithstanding, when these four voices combine in harmony, there can be no argument. In “Rainbow Sky,” for example, The Beatles meet Queen and Jellyfish, and your Pop proclivities will be satiated to the full. There are hand-claps, heavenly harmonies and expansive Queen instrumentals (with Morse’s trademark keyboards) before things get heavy with “Looking for the Light.” In the latter song, Portnoy steps up to give one of the best vocal performances of his career – just perfect.
Portnoy is never afraid to reveal his inner Keith Moon and he does so on “The World We Used To Know.” Reminiscent of The Who, it starts off as a glorious instrumental that contains everything you have come to expect from Transatlantic at their strident best. After Portnoy’s Moon antics, Stolt’s dominant vocal and guitar introduce a more melancholy aspect that is no less pleasing, after which Morse takes it home with a huge climax. “The World We Used to Know” is a full epic extravaganza that ends CD1 on the highest possible note. Expect to have your soul uplifted as the song fades into silence. Of note: you won’t find “Rainbow Sky”, “Bully”, and “The World We Used To Know” on ‘The Breath of Life.’
A capella Beatles harmonies open CD2 with “The Sun Comes Up Today,” which may as well have been entitled “Overture 2,” Featuring the Remarkable Guitar of Roine Stolt’. Trewavas’ vocal provides a nice variation in the up-tempo section, and the ‘Higher than the Morning’ theme is revisited with a more deliberate focus.
“Love Made a Way (Prelude)” is a beautiful precursor of what is to follow in the climactic end-song of the same name. “Owl Howl,” on the other hand, very clearly and intentionally channels the band’s love for King Crimson. Stolt’s voice sounds particularly ominous here, and from minimalist Bruford-type percussion to the driving guitar line, a lurking, crimson musical ghost drives this song. Robert Fripp would be proud.
Ballad “Solitude” has an excellent, plaintive melody which provides the perfect prelude to Morse’s gripping return to the ‘Love Made a Way’ refrain, and Stolt’s magnificent guitar solo.
“Belong” starts with what sounds like a Church organ in space with a crowd of alien children in attendance. A cosmic tribal nursery school? Perhaps. The already-familiar ‘Belong’ refrain is presented in full, and Stolt’s unique guitar is again the catalyst around which the theme is anchored. Soon it becomes ‘See the Millions Waiting for the Sun’. The Transatlantic interstellar voyagers reach further into the Cosmos than ever before, and the silence of the Universe is brought to life with The Absolute music.
“Lonesome Rebel” features Stolte’s distinctive voice over a wistful melody. Describing a lonely man in a crowd, telescopes and a world in distress, the song shows that the isolated nature of mankind was on Stolt’s mind well before he wrote the last Flower Kings album. The song builds around him with various production mysteries (you will silently wonder whether there is a real mandolin playing the core theme) before the power returns in the next song.
“Looking For the Light” brings the Prog back to full flight, with the band striding like an army of titans. Portnoy is particularly powerful on this one, with drum fills that seem to last an age and an odd-time break as good as any in Prog. Trewavas’ bass-lines sound like the thunder of a cosmic rocket ship taking off. Complex, powerful and intense, this is the Transatlantic we so quickly grew to love back in the days of SMPTe.
There is a Sgt Pepper vibe to “The Greatest Story Never Ends,” in which the various themes are revisited in a full-forced, frenzied delivery, culminating in a perfect Gentle Giant-type vocal rendition of the ‘Belong’ motif.
Then, of course, the long, slow climactic finale arrives. “Love Made a Way” fully capitalizes on the ‘spiritual relationship’ that this album has with The Whirlwind. It is the yearned-for, riveting climax, and it will render you dumbfounded that yet another ‘big’ epic ending could have been made by this band without repeating themselves. Dumbfounded or not, you will be standing up and waving your hands in the air. One can just imagine Morse on his knees behind the keyboard with tears flowing down his cheeks when this one is performed live. A peerless epic ending, it will leave you mute with wonder.
And so the album closes, with the distant sound of tympani and keyboards fading into the ether, just like the disappearing spaceship. This, dear reader, is why we love Prog. If you ever needed reminding as to why you have been so dedicated to the genre, why you have spent so much money, put up with the derision of followers of more straightforward music, expended so much time and effort… If you ever needed reminding why you did it, this album will remind you.
It is an enormous amount to digest, but personally, I could not get enough of either version. There is a palpable spirit of joy in the album and one can hear the excitement in the performances. Rich Mouser’s production is, as always, breathtaking in its detail. (If this album is ever toured, it will be a great revelation to see exactly what – and how – the band delivers this content in live shows.)
The Absolute Universe will rightly cause a collective intake of breath in the Prog community. But again, some things are best left unsaid and for the listener to experience. The four members of Transatlantic have nothing left to prove yet they know no bounds in their ambition, and they keep producing masterworks of different hues. This time the colors include every side of the spectrum and every stripe in the rainbow. And we all know that the best rainbows are too good to describe – you just have to experience them.
The Transatlantic airship has now gone where no craft has ventured before. The Absolute Universe, in its various forms, is huge. It is ambitious, it is vibrant, it is expansive, it is detailed, it is dark and it is bright. It is very satisfying both musically and lyrically and it is, above all, immense. Is it brilliant? Well, some things just go without saying.
Released on Feb 5th, 2021 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: Darkness in the Light, Rainbow Sky, The World We Used To Know, Owl Howl
‘The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version)’
2. Heart Like A Whirlwind
3. Higher Than The Morning
4. The Darkness In The Light
5. Swing High, Swing Low
7. Rainbow Sky
8. Looking For The Light
9. The World We Used To Know
1. The Sun Comes Up Today
2. Love Made A Way (Prelude)
3. Owl Howl
6. Lonesome Rebel
7. Looking For The Light (Reprise)
8. The Greatest Story Never Ends
9. Love Made A Way
Neal Morse – Keyboards and Vocals
Roine Stolt – Guitars and Vocals
Mike Portnoy – Drums and Vocals
Pete Trewavas – Bass and Vocals
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