Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe (Album Review)

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When the world is turned upside down, caught up in a whirlwind, we have to expect that art will follow in suit. As it turns out, the lockdown of the COVID era had a profound effect on the development of Transatlantic’s new album. Originally architected in the fall of 2019 during a mammoth writing session in Sweden by the four Transatlantic men – Roine Stolt, Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas and Neal Morse – the album’s progress subsequently took unexpected turns due to touring schedules, vacations and ultimately COVID. Thanks to lockdown, Morse spontaneously wrote an entire solo album “Sola Gratia” in the first part of 2020 and by the time he refocused on Transatlantic, he had formed the opinion that the 90 minutes of music written half a year earlier might benefit from some judicious editing to bring it down to a single disc. Not all of the band agreed, causing some tension and further delays. Ultimately Portnoy came up with the novel solution of releasing two versions of the album: more or less the original 90 minute version (“Forevermore”), and an abbreviated single-disc version (“The Breath of Life”). Everyone bought into the solution, as did the accommodating record company ultimately, and thus the flying dirigible prepared its course for uncharted skies across the universe, to boldly go where no prog band has gone before. These are the voyages of the starship Transatlantic.

Considering the unusual approach of the album’s release, this overview will be offered in an unusual way as well: in a Q & A format. As most readers will already be familiar with Transatlantic to some degree, this format will help us get right to the most pressing aspects of the album. Readers will also gain much insight into its creation from our recent interview with Stolt and Morse which has been transcribed and is available here.

What is the form of “The Absolute Universe” material compared to previous releases?

While many Transatlantic fans were most impressed by the band’s first two albums which featured lengthy album-side epics along with a few shorter songs, there also is a strong contingent (including some of the band themselves) for whom 3rd album “The Whirlwind” was their favorite. Although it was touted as one mammoth 78-minute “piece”, it takes the approach of 12 shorter songs woven together. Both versions of “The Absolute Universe” follow this form of “The Whirlwind” wherein a number of shorter songs (14 or 18, depending on version) form one complete listening experience, with repeating melodic themes occasionally referenced. At an early stage Morse was even hoping to make this a sequel to “The Whirlwind” and while that idea was nixed by his bandmates, several allusions remain in the lyrical content and even occasionally in the musical approach, though those might have been unconsciously included. For example, the acoustic Morse-written “Take Now My Soul” bears a striking resemblance to “Rose Colored Glasses” in its initial melody and chord structure. Likewise, Stolt’s haunting spoken lyrics of “Blackbird, blackbird, what have you done?” in “Owl Howl” echoes his creepy entrance of “So you think you’re in control?” during “A Man Can Feel” from “The Whirlwind”.

All of this bodes well for fans of “The Whirlwind” who should be especially receptive to these new albums, as they match not only the form but the quality of that effort. Those who prefer the long epics – or weren’t as enthralled with “The Whirlwind” – may be less enthusiastic about this new release. All the same, there’s no denying that this sounds just like what most people imagine when they think “Transatlantic”, so it’s hard to imagine many fans of past releases coming away without a smile on their face.

Transatlantic

How different are the two versions, considering they both contain many of the same songs?

They are rewardingly and sometimes mind-blowingly different. When Portnoy came up with the idea, it was agreed upon that Stolt would shepherd the original 90-minute version “Forevermore” toward its end result and Morse would take on the duties of editing down to a single-disc “The Breath of Life” (serves him right, it was his idea in the first place!). At that point, they both did their utmost to make the two versions distinct from one another, especially Morse who edited and repositioned huge swaths of music, added alternate instrumentation, re-wrote lyrics, asked different band members to sing on different sections and even wrote a new song to be featured only on his version. So, while 13 of the songs on “The Breath of Life” are essentially also on “Forevermore” (though sometimes using different titles), no two songs are exactly alike. Many have different run-times, lyrics, singers, etc…

Most predictably, “Forevermore” has more of Stolt. Like, a lot more. If you’re a fan of his guitar playing, there’s a bonanza of his perfected tone during solos and fills that have often been edited out of “The Breath of Life”, along with chiming bells, keyboards and even some alternate chord choices which lend more of a Flower Kings’ shade. While there’s still plenty of Stolt on Morse’s version, “The Breath of Life” does indeed feel a little more direct and accessible, or at least as accessible as a 65-minute album can be…everything’s relative, after all. Morse has done a marvelous job at injecting a little more light and love into his version, whereas Stolt’s “Forevermore” carries a bit more shadow and mystery.

Is one version clearly superior to the other?

For most Transatlantic fans whose credo is “More Never Is Enough”, one would think that the longer version would be a slam dunk. In many ways, given Stolt’s guitar mastery and orchestral stylings, along with the number of additional songs included in the 90-minute tracklist, it’s easy to assume that “Forevermore” would be the standard version, with the single-disc version being relegated to an occasional curiosity. For some, that may indeed be the case. But to Morse’s credit, when one fully takes in “The Breath of Life” there is a deep appreciation of the musicianship and artistry involved and the conclusion has to be made that some of these versions are equally essential. Thus, neither is the authoritative version. For example, to this reviewer’s ears the re-written melody and lyrics to the verses of Morse’s “Reaching For the Sky” from “Breath” flow better than the original version on its companion “Heart Like a Whirlwind” from “Forevermore”. Likewise, the arrangements/instrumentation of many songs vary from minute to minute in each version, some of which may be preferred on one version or the other and vice versa. Starting with the “Overture” the listener will find a wide range of stylistic changes on each version. So, while you might love what Stolt plays in one section on “Forevermore”, you then find the same section on “Breath” is maybe even better with a different arrangement, even though Stolt’s guitar is no longer featured. Ultimately it has to be said: “It’s ALL worthy! So glad I can have it all!”

We should also mention that a THIRD mix, the 5.1 mix on Blu Ray (available in the Ultimate Box Set, or separately as a standalone via RadiantRecords.com), was not available to reviewers ahead of time but reportedly combines many elements of the two version together. However, in many cases this version will still have to choose between two sets of lyrics, melodies, singers, etc…, so it’s not like you can cram “Breath” and “Forevermore” completely together. Therefore, this will provide a third listening option!

What are the songwriting highlights?

As has become increasingly common for Morse with “Similitude”, “The Great Adventure” and other albums, there are a handful of themes that are repeated throughout the album in very different guises. “Love Made A Way” is the most ubiquitous of these and it is a moving theme indeed. Used at least four different times throughout the album, it always signals the clouds parting and revealing the sun and blue sky above in typical Morse-ian fashion. Predictably, this is also used for the albums’ grand finale in a similar approach as “Broken Sky”, “A Love That Never Dies”, etc…  For those who care, there is a definite absence of overt religious imagery on this one, with the power of “Love” becoming Morse’s main vehicle to express his faith. Stolt introduces a much shorter repeating theme with “Belong, belong, better to belong” which shows up briefly a number of times, especially in the “Forevermore” mix where it is delightfully Morse-ified with his signature “acapella Gentle Giant breakdown” style during “The Greatest Story Never Ends”. There are other grand instrumental repeating themes which solidify this as a coherent whole epic piece – just as “The Whirlwind” did before it – and which add to the overall emotional impact.

As far as individual songs go, there are numerous special moments, filled with extremely catchy vocal choruses such as “Higher Than The Morning” where the group harmonies have never sounded better. Stolt has a couple of delicious darker moments which make their entrance as if a vampire’s black cape is descending on the proceedings, covering the light of the full moon. “The Darkness in the Light” brings it down at one point for a tasty understated Stolt guitar solo accompanied by funky bass pops and grooves from Trewavas. The none-more-creepy “Owl Howl” will surely be a fan fave, the latter-half boasting an off-the-charts jam where Portnoy initially lays back in the groove, hitting triplet fills against the quarter note pulse as the never-ending chord progression slowly builds in intensity until finally releasing into a full-on Portnoy pounding. Ecstacy-inducing for sure. Interestingly, both of these songs appear to have had the least editing/tinkering with between the two album versions, although the finale of “Owl Howl” does lead to two very different places.

The two versions of the album contain their own highlights as well. “Rainbow Sky”, perhaps the happiest dittys on “Forevermore”, hits that power-pop note that Flying Colors, The Neal Morse Band and The Flower Kings have all explored, to dazzling effect. “The World We Used to Know” feels like classic Stolt, beautifully capped off with a moving Morse section included towards the end. “The Sun Comes Up Today” kicks off the second disc of “Forevermore” with a gorgeous Beatles-esque vocal opening (they’ll surely need Ted or Daniel to pull that off live in concert) before leading into a Trewavas-led bouncy track. Not to be outdone, “The Breath of Life” version touts its own exclusive uplifting track in “Can You Feel It” which carries a different vibe than any other piece on the album (a touch of “Similitude”, perhaps) with huge drums and harmonies. Utterly radiant.

How about the musicianship, vocals and sound of the album?

It’s hard not to fall in love with Trewavas’ bass playing in Transatlantic and on “The Absolute Universe” he absolutely shines. His attack is relentlessly good, blending tone with technique and hardly room for a breath. At the Portnoy birthday bash on Cruise to the Edge, where Transatlantic did a brief set after many years being inactive, he remarked to me, “Boy, I had to get in shape for this to play so many notes again!” That ethos undeniably continues on these new songs where he never lets up. Vocally he is featured in many spots (sometimes differing depending on the album version), most successfully on the high-energy driving numbers. Reportedly he authored several of the themes on the album as well, including a spotlight on the slower “Solitude” which alludes back to Whirlwind-era style lyrics.

Portnoy of course is the glue that holds and drives the Transatlantic ship. While he doesn’t write much of the music, his arrangement abilities – tying different themes together and charting out how to coalesce the songwriting contributions from the other three – is perhaps the band’s biggest secret weapon. Vocally he just keeps improving, his voice sounding truly commanding on “Looking for the Light”, as well as several verses he shares with Morse on other songs, depending on version. In the drumming department it’s business as usual: simply some of the best percussion you will hear on any prog album this year. On the “(Reprise) Looking for the Light” into “The Greatest Story Never Ends” he’s an absolute monster.

Stolt is simply off the chain throughout much of the album, especially the “Forevermore” version. We’ve already spoken about several of his specific highlights, but just to say again that it’s impressive how consistent he is in both his writing and playing, and how much work he has put into the double-album edition to truly deliver something special.

Morse has so many strengths that his keyboard skills can almost be taken for granted which is ironic given that he could easily be in prog’s Top 10 of contemporary keyboardists. Even though Bill Hubauer can fill much of that role with the Neal Morse Band, in Transatlantic Morse really comes into his full reign as a keyboard player. Jams such as in “(Reprise) Looking for the Light” and the “Overture” workouts prove what a natural he is, while good taste is evident in his choice to feature a simple but potent extended mellotron section at the end of “Higher Than the Morning”. Vocally he continues to retain his range, opting for a convincing falsetto when necessary but with plenty of power in his normal range, not to mention the emotion conveyed which is what makes him stand out as an artist. The numerous songs featuring vocal layering on the album reaches epic proportions, as has been the case lately with The Neal Morse Band, but the sonic payoff is huge.

Speaking of sonic payoff, special mention must be made of Rich Mouser who – stationed at the mixing board for several months – deftly demonstrates his skill and patience throughout the process as the musicians change their minds…then change again…then add last-minute editing requests long after the deadline. Mouser has a magic skill to bring all of these pieces together and produce a flawless result. As has become his norm, the album sounds crisp, warm and beautifully balanced. Bravo.

Transatlantic

How best to approach this listening experience?

Although everyone’s arc is unique, I find it takes at least five listens of an album (at least by these musicians) until it really starts to sink in and be fully appreciated. One suggestion is to take “The Breath of Life” for several spins first, then at some point work up to the “Forevermore” mix. If you’ve read this far and are realizing you’ve only ordered one version, it’s time to remedy that (as budget allows) and get the other version, too. For those who want to take it even further, the 5.1 mix awaits with its own spin on “The Absolute Universe”.

Hopefully this overview has provided some context for not only the strengths but the layout of the albums. In summation, “The Absolute Universe” is yet another feather in the Transatlantic cap. No, it’s not revolutionary in any songwriting sense…this definitely sounds like Transatlantic as you know them, so if you’ve never really cared for the band, this won’t be the album to change your opinion.  But the songs are inspired, interesting and moving. The performance and production is top tier. And they do get extra originality points for their unprecedented presentation of the material. Most any Transatlantic fan will find plenty to dig their teeth into and “Whirlwind” fans will be ecstatic to find a worthy “spiritual companion” to that album, as Portnoy puts it.

Released by: InsideOut Music
Released on: February 5th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock

“The Absolute Universe” Track-listing:

“The Breath of Life”

  1. Overture
  2. Reaching For The Sky
  3. Higher Than The Morning
  4. The Darkness In The Light
  5. Take Now My Soul
  6. Looking For The Light
  7. Love Made A Way (Prelude)
  8. Owl Howl
  9. Solitude
  10. Belong
  11. Can You Feel It
  12. Looking For The Light (Reprise)
  13. The Greatest Story Never Ends
  14. Love Made A Way

“Forevermore”

Disc 1:

  1. Overture
  2. Heart Like A Whirlwind
  3. Higher Than The Morning
  4. The Darkness In The Light
  5. Swing High, Swing Low
  6. Bully
  7. Rainbow Sky
  8. Looking For The Light
  9. The World We Used To Know

Disc 2:

  1. The Sun Comes Up Today
  2. Love Made A Way (Prelude)
  3. Owl Howl
  4. Solitude
  5. Belong
  6. Lonesome Rebel
  7. Looking For The Light (Reprise)
  8. The Greatest Story Never Ends
  9. Love Made A Way

9.3 Excellent

After a lengthy absence, Transatlantic finally return with their most jam-packed album yet. The overflow of ideas takes an interesting twist in its presentation as not only is there a double-album offered but also a shorter single-album version with different arrangements of the material. This truly original approach offers more perspectives with which to enjoy Transatlantic’s prog adventures than ever before. Featuring emotional songwriting, radiant harmonies, and some of the best guitar, bass, keys and drums in the business, Transatlantic continues to impress. Sure to be one of the top highlights of 2021 for many a prog fan.

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 8
  • Production 10
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3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Excellent, comprehensive review. Many thanks for your, what I’m sure was torturous, hours of time spent digesting and dissecting TA5 for us. It’s the Ultimate addition for me. Hopefully my wife won’t leave me for ignoring her for as long as it takes.

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