Parallel Universes: Transatlantic’s Dueling Epics

This is probably the only time I’ll have a legitimate reason to use this cool new WordPress feature.

Transatlantic have reached the ripe old age of 21, and with that they’ve released a brand new album. Wait, that isn’t right. They’ve released two brand new albums. Well, no, they haven’t really done that either. What they have done is released two versions of one album: one at ~65 minutes and the other at ~91 minutes. The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life is the short one, and The Absolute Universe: Forevermore is the long one. For the sake of clarity (both mine and yours), I’m going to refer to the albums as the extended version and the abridged version.

Now why on earth, you may ask, would a band want to release two different versions of an album? Excellent question. I was a bit miffed when Big Big Train did it with Folklore (the vinyl and Hi-Res audio version was longer with some tracks from the Wassail EP and a slightly altered track listing), and I’m a bit miffed that Transatlantic has done it. Apparently the band couldn’t come to an agreement on whether they should release a longer version of what they had written or a condensed version, so they decided to release both.

The abridged version is $9.99 on iTunes, while the extended edition is $16.99, so it’ll cost you just under $30 to buy the downloads. You may need to take out a loan to buy physical copies. And don’t think you can get away with buying just the extended version thinking you’ll just get the abridged version plus some extra tracks. Nope they’ve gone and changed things in the tracks that overlap, so in many ways they’re very different. There’s also a third version on Blu-Ray only that combines the two into a ~96 minute version. Good grief. I haven’t heard that version, nor do I intend to.

If you’re going to buy only one of them, I suggest you buy the extended version. It has a much better flow to it with smoother transitions than the abridged version. Even though it’s longer, it isn’t packed with filler. To my ear it sounds more like a Transatlantic album. There are more songs with Roine Stolt on lead vocals. Yes of course he sings on the abridged version, but he sings less in the second half of that album. That makes the abridged version seem to morph into a Neal Morse album as it comes to a close. “Lonesome Rebel” towards the end of extended version remedies that by restoring some balance. In addition to Roine’s stellar vocals, the mix of wonderful electric and acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies really makes this track stand out.

Similarly the abridged version lacks brilliant track “The World We Used to Know.” The song has a fantastic bassline from Pete Trewavas, and Roine’s vocals steal the show. It also has a great melody in addition to a great proggy instrumental section. At over nine minutes, it’s the longest song on the extended version. It’s a mini epic set right in the center of the album, and it strikes me as being a centerpiece. With the vocal harmonies it also sounds wholeheartedly Transatlantic. It’s my favorite song on the album, and the abridged version really lacks something without it.

I would have much preferred a repetition of the chorus from “The World We Used to Know” elsewhere on the album instead of the recurring “Love Made A Way” theme because the latter doesn’t sound like Transatlantic. Therein lies the biggest problem with the abridged version, as well as both albums overall. At points it’s hard to distinguish The Absolute Universe from Morse’s other prog-oriented albums. When I hear the songs that have “Love Made A Way” I can’t help but think that I’ve heard it before, even if it hasn’t been with the same words. The final track, also called “Love Made A Way,” drags on a bit because that main line gets repeated a lot, especially considering it pops up multiple times throughout the album. I’ll grant that it is very catchy, but by the end of the album I’m kind of sick of it because it appears so often throughout the record. It also sounds a bit formulaic. It reminds me a lot of “A Love That Never Dies” on the Neal Morse Band’s (NMB) The Great Adventure. Ultimately I think Transatlantic missed a chance for something truly satisfying by ending the album(s) with the “The World We Used to Know” theme instead. Or they could have come up with something completely different rather than reusing the same lyrics and melodies multiple times. They could’ve ended both albums sounding like Transatlantic instead of like a Morse solo album or NMB album.

Transatlantic is at their best in the complex instrumental passages and when they either play around with various people singing or doing vocal harmonies, which they do a lot on the album. They sound like no one else but Transatlantic when they stick to that. When they stray from that “formula,” it can begin to sound like a Neal Morse Band or Neal Morse solo album. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that I’d prefer a Transatlantic album to sound like Transatlantic.

Vocally Pete Trewavas shines on “Solitude.” The earnestness in the way he sings the track really grabbed me, and it’s become a favorite on many repeated listens. It’s a calmer song, but Stolt’s guitar is fantastic and Morse’s keyboards build nicely over the course of the track. The lyrics are great:

When it came it was far worse than expected
For many nights and days and days
So I curled up in my comfortable place
And huddled with my possessions
And wondered what is worth fighting for
When I felt so far away

There in the dark with my solitude
Looking for answers to questions why
Asking myself, what will I become?
Searching for clues that will ease my mind

So I locked the doors and I turned off all devices
And I seemed to live in metaphors in oh so many ways
And in the darkest dead of night
I came to a conclusion
There was only onе solution
That could help me find a way

Therе in the dark with my solitude
Finding the answers to questions why
Solving the clues so I understand
Seeing myself and what I've become

Lyrically the album has a lot of depth that may take years of listening for me to unpack completely. At points it sounds very relevant to the lonely world we’re all fighting through right now. “Solitude” most clearly reflects that, but it goes beyond mere comment on loneliness caused by the coronavirus. It critiques materialism and the modern world that encourages it: “So I curled up into my comfortable place / And huddled with my possessions / And wondered what is worth fighting for / When I felt so far away.” Later in the song Trewavas states he came to a conclusion, and Morse explains that conclusion with the “Love Made a Way” theme. I think the theme works well here as an answer to the questions Trewavas poses earlier in the track.

The next track, “Belong,” has a wonderful retro vibe with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Gentle Giant. The lyric “Better to belong” couldn’t be more true.

Be long, be long - better to belong
Be long, be long - better to belong
Move on, move on - better to move on
We are ready to move on

See the millions waiting for the sun
Move on, move on - better to move on

Dig it again, dig it again

I can’t help but wonder if “sun” is a typo. With Morse involved I immediately hear the line as “See the millions waiting for the Son,” with the Son being Jesus Christ. As a Christian myself I can certainly say I’m ready to move on from the filth of this world, and I know millions of Christians are eagerly awaiting Christ’s return. I don’t know if that’s what is meant by these lyrics, but this is what stood out to me. Later on in the album we’re told to “keep looking for the light,” so maybe I’m right.

Lyrically the album sort of seems to be all over the place, yet it remains cohesive. Back in 2019 Morse wanted to write something connected to The Whirlwind. The band ultimately rejected that idea, but some of those callbacks to that album remain. Then Morse began writing in a more autobiographical way reflecting on the selfishness of his twenties, with some references to Ayn Rand’s works. The final batch of writing occurred once the pandemic was in full swing, so that added a third aspect to the lyrics. Nevertheless all along the band was looking to write an album that looked at what it means to be human, and the pandemic certainly put a spotlight on that topic. It only made sense that this album would reflect the world in which we are living because human nature never really changes. Nothing is new under the sun, as Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes. Lyrically and thematically the album feels like it is telling a story, which in a way connects it to The Whirlwind. Maybe Mr. Morse got his way after all.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit too critical in this review, especially since I really like the album. The musicianship is second to none in the prog world, but anybody who follows progressive rock will already know that. What good is a review where the reviewer blows smoke up the band’s rear ends by rehashing what’s been said many times before over the last two decades? (Ok I’m probably guilty of doing that with reviews of other albums in the past.) With that said I highly recommend The Absolute Universe: Forevermore, and if the band had only released the abridged Breath of Life version, I would highly recommend that too. I mean, it’s Transatlantic. There wasn’t much of a chance of me not enjoying it.

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