It’s fair to say that Transatlantic are not exactly renowned for subtlety or brevity. The much-lauded supergroup doesn’t do anything small, consistently crafting immense prog epics that seem loftier with each new release. Now, twenty-something years into their existence, they are taking ‘epic’ to a whole new plane of existence. In the glory days of their own heroes, a 20-minute piece of music that took up the entire side of an LP was about as epic as it got (‘No bands on the vinyl! This thing is huge!’) Fast-forwarding to the present day and the ‘Ultimate’ edition of Transatlantic’s fifth and latest sprawling monstrosity – which covers no less than ten sides of vinyl – one can only stand in awe of the sheer scope of it. I suppose this is to be expected from a band whose motto is ‘More never is enough’ – these cats make Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans look like a 45 rpm single.
The appropriately titled The Absolute Universe is to be unleashed in its numerous incarnations on 5 February. With two and a half hours of music to sift through (and that’s just two of the versions – there are three), reviewers and readers alike can get swamped quickly. For the purposes of this review, we’ll focus on Forevermore, the 90-minute ‘Extended’ version, and the one I predict will prove the most popular. Written in Sweden, it was in fact the initial version of the album, later tinkered with and re-assembled as The Breath Of Life – an alternate ‘Abridged’ version coming in at a more easily digestible 64 minutes. The band is quick to point out that it wasn’t a case of simply axing some tracks to shorten the run time, however. There are actually some major differences between the two versions, like alternate and new recordings, songs exclusive to both, and even different members singing on different tracks. So get those wallets ready, folks (he said with a sly grin).
Naturally, a third, even more expansive version (the aforementioned ‘Ultimate’) is yet another option, with further differences, more material, a surround mix and visual accompaniment. If this all seems a bit confusing or overwhelming, that’s because it is. But as the listener becomes more immersed in and more familiar with it over time, they can begin to stand back and make sense of it all, as the charms of this music reveal themselves more with each listen. And although a daunting task, it’s rewarding to take in this whole new piece in one sitting, as it was designed.
Musically, Forevermore is largely familiar territory for the band; a sweeping and dramatic progressive rock journey with nods to the past greats of the genre as well as their own previous material (if there’s another album in their catalogue it can be most closely compared to, it’s certainly The Whirlwind). From the customary overture to the musical and lyrical reprises, recapitulation, virtuosic talent, soaring emotional vocals and melody galore, it’s pure Transatlantic in all their over the top zaniness, but this isn’t to suggest they don’t pull out a few new tricks along the way. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics focus on the state of the world these strange last few years. It’s not all doom and gloom, but the observations made are occasionally of a somber nature, echoing how we’ve all felt at times during this state of upheaval.
Roine Stolt turns in some of his finest performances on a Transatlantic album to date. Perhaps co-writing the album in his home country super-charged the ageless Swede, as his guitar work and vocals are in top form, and the flavours he adds to the mix can steer things in directions the others might not have traveled. It probably comes as no surprise that Stolt was the overseer of this more guitar-centric volume, whereas The Breath Of Life, with its slight shift in focus, was more Neal Morse’s baby. Stolt’s stamp is prevalent, often during the most engaging parts of the album – like his tasty solos in Heart Like A Whirlwind and Swing High Swing Low, or the mainly instrumental Belong, with its curious intro and huge Flower Kings vibe. He takes the reins on lead vocals a fair amount too, like in the powerful The Darkness In The Light, the breezy Lonesome Rebel and the lengthy movement The World We Used To Know. The latter is a particularly brilliant piece that opens with a long, frantic instrumental and transitions to a more traditional song that eventually sees the vocals shift to Morse.
Pete Trewavas, ever the unsung hero, delivers his inimitable bass flourishes with a delicious tone and a keen ear for melody, always serving the songs to the best of his ability. He is Squire, Entwistle, Rutherford and McCartney rolled into one, and the decades he’s spent anchoring Marillion’s music with such finesse serves Transatlantic’s challenging material well. Live, he’s often the hardest-working guy on stage, and it’s difficult to imagine either band with any other four-stringer decked out in those trademark Converse All-Stars, fleshing out the sound with such fluid chops and backing vocals. He grabs the lead vocal mic on a couple of these new tracks, too. Solitude, for instance, is a strong and oddly catchy ballad that slowly expands and sees Morse adding his own vocals.
Morse himself is in his glory on this album, and delivers some truly fantastic playing. Even if the guy couldn’t sing a note or write a song, he could have had a career as the keyboard player in one of the big prog rock bands – people forget that he really is that good. But he does write and sing, of course, and he runs the gamut on Forevermore. From sunny, major key belters to earnest, soulful crooning to slick power-pop stylings, he can’t be accused of not giving it his all. The midway one-two punch of Bully and Rainbow Sky make for a fun pair, with the former a raucous, attitude-laden rocker and the latter a bouncy, piano-driven Fab Four-type piece that Morse shares with Stolt. These tracks with dual lead vocals are often among the best in their catalogue.
Mike Portnoy, as always, brings his infectious quadruple-Starbucks energy to the table, his playing skills undiminished by time or age. He loves all types of music and it shows, whether he’s laying down a simple power groove or peppering the tracks with flurries of notes from every piece of his huge kit. But his arranging skill is the most noteworthy feature of his involvement. Shaping an album of this magnitude is no small task, and Portnoy’s effort in assembling everyone’s ideas pays off. He also steps to the mic and snarls a gravelly lead vocal in the sludgy Looking For The Light; a deep, heavy piece loaded with succulent Stolt leads.
The boys all get together for an a cappella intro (reminiscent of The Beatles’ Because) in The Sun Comes Up Today, another chance for Trewavas to belt out some lead vocals on a more upbeat track. I don’t think he’s ever pretending to be the best singer in the band, but there’s a likable, charming quality to the pieces he sings that really adds a pleasant flavour to the Transatlantic stew, and I found myself going back to these more often. Major highlight and Best Song Title award is given to Owl Howl, a mysterious and quirky piece with Stolt creepily warbling lyrics like ‘Blackbird, blackbird, what have you done?’ before the second half of the piece dissipates into experimentation, culminating in Morse and Stolt trading off while Trewavas lays down a wandering bass pattern. Delicious.
Still another highlight is the jammy Looking For The Light (Reprise), with the quartet locking in to a serious groove and delivering some dark and heavy passages while maintaining a firm level of intensity. A brighter, triumphant vibe exudes from The Greatest Story Never Ends, which squeezes in a group vocal nod to Gentle Giant (once a common feature in Morse’s Spock’s Beard days, and a welcome injection here, too). The template for the lighter-waving finale from The Whirlwind is employed here for Love Made A Way, with – you guessed it – earlier themes reoccurring, before a hypnotic and cosmic ending trails off to conclude this mammoth piece.
Ultimately, there is simply too much to say about a work this vast without losing people’s interest. By and large, fans are going to love the album, but they clearly have decisions to make: Abridged? Extended? Ultimate? And in what order does one listen to them? My advice is to choose one version and stick with it for a while, because as magnificent as it is, it’s still a ton of material to absorb if you go in all at once. Transatlantic may well be setting a new trend with The Absolute Universe. It will be interesting to see how other bands approach this brave new world now that the doors have been blown open and they see it can be done. In the meantime, has this band crafted their best work yet with this towering opus? That’s really tough to say… it’s a mightily impressive work, but the mothership is only just landing, and the dust will take longer to settle this time. But my gut tells me that it just might be.
Overture · Heart Like A Whirlwind · Higher Than The Morning · The Darkness In The Light · Swing High, Swing Low · Bully · Rainbow Sky · Looking For The Light · The World We Used To Know · The Sun Comes Up Today · Love Made A Way (Prelude) · Owl Howl · Solitude · Belong · Lonesome Rebel · Looking For The Light (Reprise) · The Greatest Story Never Ends · Love Made A Way