Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview

As we (and everybody else in the prog rock world) announced back in November, Transatlantic’s fifth album The Absolute Universe will be unleashed on February 5. This album will arrive not just in multiple formats, but also in multiple versions: the 60-minute, 14-track The Breath of Life (Abridged Version), the 90-minute, 18-track Forevermore (Extended Version) and The Ultimate Edition box set (both versions on LP and CD, plus a 19-track 5.1 version on BluRay).

Having had the privilege of hearing the abridged and extended versions, I’ll testify that The Absolute Universe thoroughly satisfies my craving for that special Transatlantic blend of prog past, present and future. Everything that I love about the band is there, to (and sometimes beyond) the point of gluttony; I’ve come away from each listen delighted, thrilled and moved. So it was another real treat when, the week before Christmas, I got to chat with Neal Morse about this new music. (Neal also talked to Bryan Morey about his latest solo album, Sola Gratia, a few months back.) In this interview, Neal tells us how The Absolute Universe came together, why a double album wasn’t enough, and more.

So first, thanks for talking to me!  I have been a Transatlantic fan for a long time back.  SMPT:e was actually the first thing I ever heard with you involved in it, and that got me back into prog after some time away from it.   

Right!  Good!

And then I saw you guys in 2010 in Chicago, and that was a great, great, great show!  I enjoyed that so much. 

That would have been The Whirlwind?

Yes, exactly right.

Was that at Park West?  Yeah, that was a great night!

Yeah, it was Mike’s birthday.

Right!  And they got us Giordano’s [“Chicago’s Famous Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza”] for after-show food!  [Chuckles] I remember the really good pizza!  It was a good night.

Yes, it was a great show.  I missed you the last time through [touring the Kaleidoscope album].  But now you’ve got this new album coming through the pipeline, The Absolute Universe.  And I guess my first question is: how does a new Transatlantic album happen?  Was there a certain person or a certain thing that kickstarted the process?  How did it come about?

Well, let’s see.  I think it started with me! I think I emailed everybody, if memory serves,  but that was a long time ago.  It would have been near the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019, I think.  I started the conversation, and then we started talking about schedules.  At first, it’s like “hey, do you wanna do it?” and everybody was like, “yeah, we’d like to, but …”  We had to find the right time when everybody had time for it, which wound up being the end of September 2019 in Sweden.

I remember starting to write some demos for Transatlantic in March, I think, of 2019.  And I think we went round and round about where to record and when to record for many months, till finally it was like, “OK, if we’re gonna do this, it needs to be in this window of time.”  And so, we all convened in Sweden and worked on it for about two weeks – wrote and recorded what I would call the template.  Not the keeper track, but the template for what became the long version of the album, Forevermore. 

We left there in early October, and then Mike came here into Nashville to do his keeper drums.  He would have done them in Sweden, but we ran out of time.  In fact, we were still changing the album and writing it right up on the last day, when we had to go to the airport.  And everything kind of fell into place right at the end; it was pretty amazing.

Anyway, Mike came here, did his drums in November.  Then I did my parts in December and January, and then I left to go to Australia to play some shows and take a vacation in New Zealand.  And that’s where I got away from the album, and I started working on my solo album Sola Gratia.

And then I listened to the Transatlantic album again in March, I think it was.  And I kinda had the feeling like – and this is really unusual for me, cause a lot of times I want to make things longer!  But I felt like maybe this album would benefit from some editing!   So, I started editing some things out.  I thought maybe some of the guys might like it as well, because when we were writing it in Sweden, several of the guys were wanting it to be a single disc, and they really didn’t want it to be a double.

Anyway, I sent off this edit with, I think, the subject line that read, “Am I Crazy?”  I thought they might just dismiss the whole concept right away.  But not everybody did.  Some of them were like, “maybe this is a good way to go.”  So then, we went round and round about that for a couple of months, trying to decide what was the best thing to do.

We were still trying to figure that out when Mike had the idea of releasing both!  And then once we agreed to release both, then the idea was to make the versions as different as possible.

Just being a little more general before we dig into the album – I have heard both versions, by the way, and I think both of them work really well.  As a set of outside ears, I’m calling them “peak Transatlantic” – it’s like “more never is enough,” and we’ll give you everything you want and more, but we’ll give you the longer version and the shorter version.  They’re great listening experiences, from my point of view.

Oh, good!  Well, right, that’s what we would like to hear!  I’ve been really interested, and I’m still really interested to find out what the fans think.  Of course, it’s all very subjective.  I was kind of given the overseership of the shorter version, The Breath of Life version, and Roine was given the overseership of the long version.  And so, it’ll be interesting to see how it’s all received and what happens. 

But I enjoyed doing all that extra work; it’s been like an extra month of work for me that I wasn’t expecting.  ‘Cause I thought I was done in January!  June and July was dedicated to more work on Transatlantic, and it went on and on!  I was listening to mixes, and doing things and re-singing things, and doing all this stuff!  So, all the way till November – this album gets the world record of time spent working on an album for me for my entire career!

I’ll keep that in mind.  This time around, if you had to summarize what each person in Transatlantic brings to the table, how would you do that?

Oh.  Well, that’s kinda hard, cause everybody is quite complex and has a lot of different parts of their personality and their gifting.  But I guess if I was gonna say where their center of gravity was [chuckles], I would say Mike’s generally the overview guy.  He’s kind of the big picture guy.  And Roine would be the hypercreative guy, like super-creative, really pretty out there.  I would be a little bit more of the theme and songwriter kind of guy —  but you know, everybody does a bit of all of this.   And Pete also is quite a songwriter, but Pete brings in energy and a fun element to the band that I think is really important.

OK!  That makes sense, because to my ears, one of the key elements when I’m thinking about Transatlantic’s music is, it’s not a “you and Mike” album.  It’s not a Flower Kings album, or an album that Roine would be spearheading in some other format.  It’s certainly not a Marillion project, and it’s not a project that Pete does outside Marillion.  There’s a chemistry that comes together with the four of you that you don’t get separately.  Does that make sense?

Yeah, yeah, it’s really a magical thing!  We know that.  Like, as soon as we sat down to start plunking around ideas, we got settled in the studio and started playing,  it was like, “Oh, wow!  Sounds like Transatlantic!”

Yeah And again, that’s part of – for me and I think for many other fans – especially now that we know all you guys, we’ve dived into your various projects and such.  The fact that it is this unique chemistry, and it’s also retro-prog and cutting-edge prog at the same time.  Does that make sense?

I like that concept!  But we don’t think about any of those things.  We’re just who we are, we’re just following the muse, man!

So, I as understand it, you’ve got the Abridged Version and the Extended Version, but you’re also going to have the BluRay on the Ultimate Edition, that’s going to be even longer!  How did that work?

Yeah, that’s right.  The third version is the 5.1 mix version, and that kinda has everything in it, as much as possible!  I mean, sometimes you can’t have everything in it — there’s two different verses and two different vocals for a verse, so you have to pick one.  The overture’s slightly different.  There’s a lot of things that are different on the 5.1, so check it out and see what you think, see what you like better.

I will definitely do that!  One of the things I noticed listening to both versions — all four of you have always been part of the vocal mix in Transatlantic.  It may be the case that people think you and Roine are more forward, but Mike and Pete are always in there.   I’ve got to say they really shine with their lead vocals this time around.  Mike on “Looking for the Light,” Pete on “The Sun Comes Up Today” and “Solitude,” those were real high points me.  Again, was that something that just evolved in the process, or was that a conscious decision to have them step forward?  How does that work?

Well, Mike did a suggestion of a vocal division of the album for the long version.  And I think that’s kind of what we followed along with, if I remember.  But then on the Breath of Life version, that wound up getting changed quite a bit, because we wanted to make it different.  And also not just different.  I just had some ideas like “oh, it’d be great to have Pete here,” and changing it up and having different singers.  I’ve always liked bands with four singers – the Beatles, Queen, lots of other bands had multiple singers.  So, I’m sort of used to that.  We like that very much in Transatlantic.

Yes.  I also heard a harder edge in some of the tracks.  Not metal, cause you guys by and large don’t go in a metal direction.  But a really, really hard rock vibe, kind of Deep Purple “Highway Star,” stuff like that.  Again, any idea where that element came from?

Well, I think some of the heavier things, they came from Roine’s demos.  Roine brought in over an hour of demos for this record, a lot of amazing stuff, really great.  Like “Owl Howl” was largely from his demos, and “The Blackness in the White,” I think it’s called.  Or “The Darkness in the Light,” I think?  I just work on the albums, I don’t always remember the titles!

Well, that’s OK; I’m sure Bach didn’t remember all his cantata titles, either!

[Laughs] And then, I always like to use a lot of distorted organ on rock stuff like that.  Cranking up the organ distortion, that gives it a heavier feel as well.

Definitely. And again, that was part of the fun of that; “Owl Howl” was definitely one of the tracks I was thinking of that has that.  Both versions of “Looking for the Light” have that as well.

I can remember that on “Looking for the Light,” that [hums his organ riff] – I had been listening in the fall of 2019 to [Emerson Lake & Palmer’s] Pictures at an Exhibition quite a bit.  And that little organ bit there is influenced by – there’s some moments in Pictures that are kinda like that.

And I’m an ELP fan from a long time back, so I can hear that now in my head.  And of course, beyond the music, there’s also the story.  I know in the publicity Mike talked about this being about everything we’ve gotta deal with this year.  But also, as with so much of the music you’ve made, all the way back to Spock’s Beard, it seems to me the lyrics and a lot of the through line points toward spiritual transformation, towards conversion if you will.  “Love Made A Way” is very much the kind of song that we’ve heard on Testimony, The Whirlwind, things like that.   But the question I was gonna ask is: how does your expression of that theme differ in Transatlantic than – just to name some albums where you have a new album or a live version out – how is that playing out differently than in something like Jesus Christ the Exorcist or The Great Adventure or Sola Gratia?

Well, I don’t know!  I had the idea for “Love Made A Way” in Sweden, at like 3 in the morning.  I felt like God gave that to me to give to the band, and I was really glad that they liked it [chuckles] and wanted to put it in there!

I don’t know how it differs.  To me every melody, every song is kind of its own thing; it’s its own thought.  I think I was thinking a little bit of [Yes’] “Heart of the Sunrise:” [sings] “Love comes to you and you follow.” “Love made a way/when there was no way out.” And I’m always looking for kind of the heart and soul of the piece.  You’ll have all these songs and all these bits, but what’s the heart and soul of it?  What are you really trying to say?

For me, most of the great progressive rock pieces have those elements.  Like “Heart of the Sunrise” at the end, with his voice soaring, [sings] “Love comes to you and then after/Dream on, on to the heart of the sunrise,” like go on in love.  Or the end of Pictures at an Exhibition, [sings] “There’s no end to my life/No beginning to my death.” It’s very powerful and spiritual.  I think that the kind of grandness that these epic albums are, they kind of call for that kind of thing.  And I’m always just thrilled when, somehow, we’re able to come up with something like that, that really lifts and really fits, and really feels to me like it completes the whole epic.

OK.  And from my perspective, you’ve got a really good track record of coming up with those things, whether in your solo career or in Transatlantic.  And I think you’re right that “Love Made A Way” is like the keystone or the cornerstone that completes the building there.

Yeah, great, thanks, man!  Thanks!

You’re welcome!  Now, this of course screams to be played live.  When that day for playing live comes again, whenever that is — are the four of you planning to head out for a tour of some type?

Not yet!  I think everyone’s feeling a little leery of scheduling anything.  And so we’ll just watch and wait and see.

That’s fair.  I did see Morsefest this year, and I thought that was a pretty good way to try to make that happen in that format.  And I enjoyed it very much; I watched it through the online portal, and I thought it was a great experience.

Oh, great!  I couldn’t believe how blessed it was, really.

But let’s be theoretical, and let’s kind of get to the point where, OK, you’re going to go out there. The question that I’ve always had is: given the epic lengths of so much of your output – I saw you at Park West, you played The Whirlwind; that was the first half of the show!  One big track, I mean, how on earth do you put a setlist together after five albums like that? 

That’s a good question!  That’s something that we’ll have to hash out as a band.  Honestly, I lean on Mike a lot for that kind of thing.  He has a really good sense of what’s gonna be great for the audience.  I really believe in letting gifts work; if somebody’s gifted in the area, man, let’s use it!  And I feel like that’s an area where Mike’s gift is, and I’ll lean on him there.

Cool.  And again, that makes sense of what Transatlantic is, because as you’re saying, you’re all bringing your gifts to the central thing, which is this work of art you’re creating.  And it just makes sense for you, as you say, to take Mike’s gift for the big picture, and Roine’s wonderful improvisatory creativity, and your themes and Pete’s energy and his upbeat, fun attitude and just mash it all together and see what happens.  I don’t know if you’d ever consider a multi-show residency?  “Transatlantic for five nights!  We’ll play everything!!

Right, yeah!  That’d be great, right?  [Chuckles] “And we’ll rehearse for two months beforehand!!!”

That’s the thing – you might go crazy trying to put that together!

Yeah, totally.

Well, is there anything that you’d like to say about The Absolute Universe?

Just that I hope everybody enjoys it and takes some time with it.  It’s a lot to digest.  And the two versions are not just edits of the same thing, they’re very different.  And so, I hope you’re all blessed by it.

Thank you for that.  And I would say congratulations on this new package, this new duet of albums.  Again, whatever version or versions that people go with, if my experience is any indicator, I think that they are gonna be uplifted and as you say, blessed by it.   I loved hearing it; can’t wait for my Ultimate Edition to show up in February.  And thank you for putting it together, along with the rest of the guys.

Thank you, man!  Thanks.

So we will look forward to The Absolute Universe and to hopefully seeing you guys on the road whenever it can happen again.

Sounds good, bro!  Take care!

The Absolute Universe is available to preorder in Abridged Version (1 CD or 2 LP + 1 CD), Extended Version (2 CDs or 3 LPs + 2 CDs) and Ultimate Edition (5 LPs + 3 CDs + BluRay) configurations from Inside Out Music, Burning Shed, Radiant Records (the exclusive US distributor for a stand-alone version of the 5.1 BluRay) and Marillion (the exclusive UK distributor for the stand-alone BluRay).

All of Neal Morse’s music (solo albums plus recordings by Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, the Neal Morse Band and more) is available to stream via his Waterfall subscription service.

— Rick Krueger

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