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.

Continue reading “Neal Morse on Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe: The Progarchy Interview”

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”

Eric Gillette: The Best A Prog Fan Can Get

Gillette's first album.
Gillette’s first album.

As Brad Birzer mentioned in another post, Eric Gillette is the lead guitarist for The Neal Morse Band, having contributed to their album The Grand Experiment and currently touring with them. Before he hooked up with Neal, Eric released a self-produced album, Afterthought, which certainly deserves to be recognized in its own right for the excellent slab of prog it is.

It begins with three very heavy guitar-based instrumentals, “Afterthought”, “Change”, and “You’re Full Of It”. Fans of Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will eat these up, as they showcase Eric’s phenomenal guitar skills. Eric’s gift is his ever-present melodicism, regardless of how crunching the riffs are underneath.

The fourth track, “Lost” (featuring long-time Neal Morse collaborator Randy George on bass), is something very special. A 22 minute epic that begins with a fast Crimson-like guitar intro soon settles into a keyboard section reminiscent of classic Todd Rundgren while Eric sings, “Can you hear me? Is there anyone out there? I could use a helping hand…I will find my way; I won’t be afraid. I can feel you next to me.” After three blistering instrumentals, it is a startling and inspiring moment to hear his pure and strong vocals. “Lost” is a tremendous track, with not a note wasted during its entire length.

“Rising” is another instrumental, this time featuring fellow NMB member Bill Hubauer on keyboards. “Bring You Down” is another heavy track with excellent vocals. It brings to mind Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his best. Unlike NIN, though, Gillete’s lyrics are more positive: “You don’t have to face it alone/Don’t let it bring you down.”

“Out Of Control” is another guitar showcase that would give Jeff Beck a run for his money. As a matter of fact, if you miss those classic Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer jams, then “Stagger”, “Blue Sky” and “Miles Away” will satisfy. The latter song, in particular, is simply gorgeous, and I am sure it was no accident that the title suggests Miles Davis’ balladry.

The album closes on a gentle note with a piano-based acoustic tour de force, “Above The Sky”. Eric’s multitracked harmonies sing a song of hope and redemption: “Darkness turns to light/Now you can finally see what this all meant/ No more questions why/The answer’s right in front of you, so open your eyes/Above the sky”.

It is an extraordinary achievement for a young musician to produce a debut album of such high quality. It’s no surprise Neal Morse included him in his new band – Eric Gillette is the real deal, and we will be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

The Neal Morse Band – Alive Again and On Tour

Alive Again

Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.

They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”

The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.

This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.

There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”

Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.

As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!

It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.

You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.

Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.

 

The Making of Neal Morse’s “?”

Hello all,

Greetings from Team Radiant! We’re excited to share today the first ever Inner Circle release promo video! Get a sneak peek of what’s to come for members of the Neal Morse Inner Circle this month! Randy George has created a great behind the scenes time capsule video from the Question Mark Recording sessions that you all are going to love! See Mike killing it on “THE TEMPLE OF THE LIVING GOD,” Randy riffing out, and Neal spontaneously creating in this very special DVD experience. If you were ever wondering if you should join the Inner Circle, now is the time! Become a member of the Neal Morse Inner Circle by January 21st to receive this great DVD.

There are classics and then there are classics! In 2005, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, and Randy George got together to create what would become the legendary Question Mark album. What was once shrouded in mystery is now revealed in The Making of “?” DVD!

Blessings,

Megan Batista, Radiant Records