Transatlantic: SMPTe. 15 Years Later.

IMG

Maybe it’s the professional historian in me, but I love dates, and I love anniversaries.

This year is the fifteenth anniversary of Transatlantic’s first album, the rather stunning and never aging SMPTe.

I’d not heard of the project until one of my students handed me a copy of the CD in the fall of 2000, about six months or so after its release.  I knew Morse (I’d been one of the first–if not the first–persons in Bloomington, Indiana, to purchase THE LIGHT from Spock’s Beard), I knew Trewavas (having been a Marillion fan since BRAVE), and I knew Mike Portnoy, having purchased every Dream Theater release since 1992’s IMAGES AND WORDS.  Roine Stolt?  Didn’t have a clue at that point, though I’d heard of The Flower Kings.

My first reaction upon seeing the CD cover was one of elation.  This looked like a very modernized Yes cover.  And, of course, I loved the starship/blimp.  I thought the album title, SMPTe, was kind of weird, as I didn’t quite get why the names of the members were so important, but, then, it was a “supergroup.”

Looking at the credits, I thought, “Ok, this is a Morse project.  I wonder why he isn’t finding enough fulfillment in Spock’s Beard?”  Not that I knew much about anything going on in any of the bands represented in Transatlantic.  I knew the music, but I didn’t know any details about any of the bands.

In fact, the only real music news I kept up on at the time was for Rush, Yes, Tears for Fears, and Talk Talk.  Admittedly, I did a very good job of keeping up with these bands, but I was aided by some really good user groups and news groups (remember those?!!?).

When I put the Transatlantic cd on my stereo, I was completely floored.  The first minute of sound effects not only grabbed me, but all 31 minutes of the epic rooted me in place.  I was utterly blown away.  Yes had given us songs at 22-24 minutes, and Rush had come close, but 31 minutes?  Holy schnikees.  This was flat out amazing.  Then, “We All Need Some Light,” which I thought sounded much like a Spock’s Beard song.  Thus, I Iiked it.  And, it was the perfect breather after “All of the Above.”  I didn’t fall in love with this track, though, until I heard it live on LIVE IN AMERICA.

The third track, “Mystery Train,” really caught my attention as well, pulling me back into the depths of the album.  I loved the psychedelia of it, and I was especially taken with the Beatle-esque refrain.  This was an updated version of something off of the MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR–yet it was an homage not a mimicry.

If I’d been captivated by tracks 1 and 3, I was once again thrown into a tizzy as I listened to the sixteen minutes of “My New World.”  The references to the Doors and Jimi Hendrix sold me.  And, I’m a sucker for Stolt’s voice.  As soon as I heard this album, I immediately purchased all of The Flower Kings up to that point.

SPACE REVOLVER, by the way, became and remains one of my top ten favorite all-time albums.

As I looked back over the first four tracks of SMPTe, I came to realize how very different each song had been.  There was no distinctive “Transatlantic” song.  They each hit me in different ways.

Then, as though I deserved dessert (which I didn’t!), Transatlantic gave me a remake of one of the best Procol Harum songs ever written.  Granted, it wasn’t “Simple Sister” but it was the next best thing.

When Transatlantic played live over the internet, I listened.  When the live album of that recording, LIVE IN AMERICA, came out, I bought it–the day it came out.  And, I’ve done the same with every single live or studio CD since.  I will admit that I was horribly shocked by Portnoy’s language on the live releases.  At the time, I was only recently married.  My wife comes from a very conservative Texas family, and she knew nothing about prog.  As I was listening and Portnoy said inappropriate things, I cringed.  Astoundingly, my wife either didn’t hear Portnoy or chose not to hear.  She’s now as much a Morse/Portnoy fan as I am.  So, all’s well that ends well!

I will admit that it’s a bit hard for me to accept that I first heard SMPTe fifteen years ago.  At that point, I was newly married, and my oldest child was just a year old!  Now, he’s sixteen, and he has six siblings!  Sheesh.

And, my wife is now a prog fan.  Again, the times do change.

A huge thank you to Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas, and Stolt.  That one album from a decade and a half ago introduced me to the Flower Kings, and it made me realize that third-wave prog was and remains pure, unadulterated love and beauty.

Reflections on Transatlantic’s “KaLIVEascope”

TA4liveA kaleidoscope takes a mishmash of glass bits, pieces of plastic and paper, and combines them into symmetric images. Random elements are jumbled together and reflected into scenes of beautiful harmony and balance. Just like the kaleidoscope’s mirrors create beauty from seemingly incompatible pieces of broken glass, Transatlantic takes four exceedingly talented and strong personalities and combines them in ways that generate some of the most beautiful and powerful music today.

Transatlantic has just released a mammoth live set from their European tour in support of their recent album, Kaleidoscope, and it’s a scorcher. There are several different editions, and the smallest consists of 3 CDs/1 DVD (which is a steal at 23 USD). The CDs document their more than 3-hour-long show at Tilburg, The Netherlands, while the DVD covers their Cologne, Germany concert. The Tilburg show is really something special – Transatlantic and Neal Morse (as a solo artist) have performed there many times, and an obvious bond exists between the band and the audience. The DVD is very nice, because throughout the concert here is a huge screen behind the band with continually evolving kaleidoscopic/fractal patterns that enhance the viewing experience.

Transatlantic have grown tremendously as a group. For the uninitiated, it is a “super-group”, with members coming from some of the most successful prog acts ever: Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors, solo), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, etc., etc.), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion). Their first couple of albums, SMPTe and Bridge Across Forever were great, but one got the sense that the various members brought their own songs to the projects, and not a lot of collaboration happened. The musical interaction on their third album, The Whirlwind, was excellent, but the music had a sense of familiarity that was getting worrisome.

Fortunately, on Kaleidoscope, Transatlantic have truly come into their own as a group. It’s hard to tell where one member’s influence ends and another’s begins; they have established their own unique sound, and when all the parts lock together and take off, there isn’t another band that can touch them. The DVD documenting the making of Kaleidoscope confirms the collaborative nature of the songs – I had assumed that Neal Morse was the primary creative force, but surprisingly, Mike Portnoy comes across as the main driver of the composing and arranging.

For KaLIVEascope, the boys are supported by multi-instrumentalist Ted Leonard, which frees up Roine to concentrate on his gorgeous lead guitar lines. Mike Portnoy has to be the hardest-working drummer in show business – he is indefatigable through hours and hours of incredibly complex and lengthy songs. Neal Morse is the primary lead vocalist, and in both the Tilburg and Cologne shows he again demonstrates his uncanny ability to reach out and connect with the audience. Finally, both the CD and DVD mixes give bassist Pete Trewavas the prominence he deserves. I’m a sucker for energetic and melodic basslines, and Pete does not disappoint.

Both shows open with “Into the Blue”, off Kaleidoscope. Then comes “My New World” from their debut. Their performance of this song is a revelation, as Roine sounds like a fire’s been lit under him. It’s now one of my favorite songs from their extensive catalog. “Shine” follows, which is one of their most straightforward “pop” songs. There’s a 30 – minute “Whirlwind” medley, then Neal sings a brief “Beyond The Sun” alone. They immediately segue into the epic “Kaleidoscope” which is performed exceptionally well on the Cologne DVD. A highlight is a jazzy section where Neal and Roine bring to mind the classic live work of Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck.

At this point, most bands would call it a night and leave the stage utterly spent, but there’s much more music in store. Neal and Roine perform a beautiful duet on acoustic and electric guitars. Next is the perennial crowd singalong, “We All Need Some Light”, and then the show proper concludes with an electrifying performance of “Black As The Sky”. I’ve seen all of Transatalantic’s live DVDs, and on this song they are at the absolute top of their game. (Video is below)

For encores, the Tilburg and Cologne setlists diverge: Tilburg includes “Nights in White Satin”, and Focus’ “Sylvia/Hocus Pocus”, featuring Thys van Leer himself(!). The evening finally concludes with a rousing medley of “All Of The Above/Stranger In Your Soul”. The Cologne show skips the covers, and goes straight to the medley.

Transatlantic is not a super-group; they are a cohesive unit. They are far greater than the sum of their parts, and it shows in these performances. Even earlier material sounds new; they’ve achieved that mysterious ability of gifted musicians to anticipate each others’ next move, and push themselves to higher and higher levels.