My Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014 began in January with Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope. As I listened to it, I knew that this was instantly one of the best albums of this year — or of any other year. “Shine” and “Beyond the Sun” are for me the two lesser transition tracks, coming as they do between the prog epicness of “Into the Blue” and “Black as the Sky” and “Kaleidoscope.” But it’s all together a perfectly realized whole, and I cannot describe how much enjoyment I derived from listening to this album this year. It’s a spectacularly ecstatic prog experience with endless streams of happiness.
The band also blew our minds by adding an extra disc of cover tunes. My favorite on it became their cover of “And You and I,” which you think it would be impossible to cover, but hey — Transatlantic specializes in the musically impossible. They incarnate musical excellence at every turn, so give this extra disc a spin too and celebrate the prog renaissance year of 2014.
Stay tuned, dear Progarchists, as I complete my Top Ten Prog Albums of 2014 over the next nine days. This Kaleidoscope is just the first entry.
Then, when I am done, I will also reveal a bonus Top Ten list of Top Ten Rock Albums of 2014 — stuff that wasn’t proggy enough for my main list, but which is still exemplary and thereby ended up being listened to by me in heavy rotation nonetheless over the course of the year.
A 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.
Radiant Records posted this just today. Well worth watching and admiring.
Also, though I will offer a proper review soon, let me take this moment to praise the new Flying Colors’ album, Second Nature. I thought the first album was a great AOR album. It’s become my oldest son’s favorite album (all of the Birzers love everything Morse does, to be completely honest). For me, it was amazing, but it should’ve and could’ve been a bit more so.
Not only is Second Nature “a bit more so,” it’s a HUGE bit more so. I’m not even sure quite how to label it except as proggy-AOR or gospel AOR.
The song writing is excellent, but what really makes the album is the intertwining of McPherson’s and Morse’s vocals. They seemed a bit stilted as a team on the first album. On this album, they’ve clearly discovered how to play off of each other, to better the other.
The end result of Second Nature is something that can only be described as elegant.
Over a decade ago, American cultural critic S.T. Karnick published a seminal piece on progressive rock and its third-wave vitality in the pages of William F. Buckley’s magazine, National Review. At the time, he noted especially the greatness of Spock’s Beard.
Karnick is always worth reading, but this (below) will be of particular interest to progarchists–a review of the latest Transatlantic album:
Although progressive rock has had a low profile in the music world since the rise of punk and disco in the late ’70s, it’s still very much alive today, even to the point that there are real stars of this musical style. Foremost among these are the members of Transatlantic, and their latest album, Kaleidoscope, is a production worthy of their major talents. Just as a kaleidoscope creates fascinating images by juxtaposing numerous bits of colors and shapes that contrast with one another, Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope does so with sounds. Ranging from hard rock to classic rock to folk to classical, the sounds on Kaleidoscope shift and recur in patterns of real beauty.
First Things, a moderate to rightish Roman Catholic periodical, has a nice piece on Neal Morse, progressive rock, and Christianity this morning. Foht is a great writer, and he certainly offers much to think about.
On February 9, I had the pleasure of finally seeing one of my favorite bands for the first time—a progressive rock supergroup called Transatlantic. Because all of my friends are too respectable for such things, I made my journey to the concert alone. For a progressive rock supergroup, however, Transatlantic has an excellent pedigree: The band was founded in 1999 as a side project of four progressive rock musicians from America and Europe (hence the name Transatlantic): Neal Morse, then of Spock’s Beard; Mike Portnoy, then the drummer for Dream Theater; Roine Stolt, the lead guitarist of The Flower Kings; and Pete Trewevas, the bassist from Marillion.
Neal Morse represents part of the growing movement of Christian progressive rock, having converted to Christianity (of a sort) in 2002. The overall terrible quality of Christian rock is well-known, and since progressive rock is already a somewhat disreputable genre, you might think Christian progressive rock is the worst of both worlds. But you also might be wrong.
I want you all to know what’s happening with the shipping of the Transatlantic Kaleidoscope packages from Radiant. Some of the products we received on time, and some we didn’t. As of today, Tuesday, we just received the LPs. (They are AMAZING BTW) I was warned that we might not get them on the 15th as requested because they just take a long time to make and ship. But I wanted to make a vinyl anyway… I just wanted to let you know that if you ordered the transatlantic vinyl it’s just arrived here in Tennessee after being stuck in customs for a little over a week. Apparently, customs in the US is a ridiculous hassle…you wouldn’t believe the hoops we had to jump through… Ask me how I know 🙂
Also, the art books that came from Europe were delayed and we didn’t receive them til last Friday. We asked for them to get here as early as possible and apparently that was as early as they could get here.
I just wanted to make sure you all know that we are doing everything we can to get these out in the next couple days. Some of you may get them early, but others will get the packages a little later than the release date. Please be patient and I sincerely apologize for any disappointment you may have.
Also, Megan and Julie (and everyone else on the planet I can convince to help us!) are crazy busy trying to get your orders out so email responses will be slow.
The great news is that the product itself is killer! When you get it you will be in love for sure! I know I am… We finally got the artbooks and my mind is permanently blown! Oh yes, other not so good news, we cannot get any more Artbooks from Europe as they are sold out. I’ve been talking to Thomas and begging him… But he says it’s just not possible at this time unless they get any returns from the shops. So there won’t be any on the tour either unless something happens unforeseen. Again, my apologies… I thought I ordered more than I did. It was my mistake.
Anyway, we at the Radiant team are working practically round-the-clock to get you your stuff as fast as possible. We ask for your patience and your forgiveness for our shortcomings.
The opening few moments of Kaleidoscope transition perfectly from the band’s previous outing, The Whirlwind. The atmospherics and sound effects cause the listener to imagine the Transatlantic blimp/starship landing in a Close Encounters sort of way.
The band, it seems, readily survived the whirlwind, and they’ve come back to tell us about their adventures.
Despite the opening few moments of transition (over six minutes, actually) from the last album, Kaleidoscope has far more in common, in terms of structure and themes, with SMPT:e and Bridge Across Forever than it does with their 2009 masterpiece. It’s eclectic, to be sure, but . . .
. . . this is pure and glorious Transatlantic in every way.
And, what can one say about Transatlantic that hasn’t been said? These four guys not only embody traditional symphonic prog in their music, they live it and promote it and love it and cause lots of other folks to feel the same. A Transatlantic album is never just another offering, it’s always a moment in prog history.
Cohesive Community or Autonomous Individuals?
Yet, for me, it’s hard to think of Transatlantic as a band as much as I think of them as four friends, getting together to jam next to each other. Big Big Train, for example, always sounds like a group of brilliant individuals who have agreed to build an album while working firmly as a cohesive unit, a community without bounds. TA, though, sounds like four very separate individuals who want to play next to and around one another. It’s even a blast listening to TA albums, thinking, oh that’s Neal’s part, that’s Roine’s, that Mike’s, or that’s Pete’s.
One picture in the accompanying booklet even mysteriously shows a white board with the parts of each member. Were I still sixteen, I would spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of it all in some gnostic fashion. Sadly, that was 30 years ago, and I have no such time, though the desire remains.
While thinking of modern prog groups, BBT reminds me much more of 1973 Genesis, while TA reminds me of 1971 Yes. Not that either is retro, as they both are their own and no one else’s, of course.
Or, to put it in military terms, BBT is an Anglo-American Marine unit and TA is a group of late medieval Berserkers, ready to challenge the enemy through individual honor. To take this a bit further, Andy Tillison of The Tangent would be leading a cavalry charge uphill.
Ok, enough comparisons, but even the title of the new TA album is revealing, as a series of overlapping, reflecting images. Appropriately, each song title deals with a color or a type of light.
A Beautifully-Fractured Whole
When the video of “Shine” appeared online, a number of proggers on the internet loved the song, of course (who doesn’t love TA?), but worried about the direction of Transatlantic, wondering if the whole album would have such a praise and worship feel. Fear not! As a song, Shine, seems like nothing else on the album. Except, perhaps, for Neal’s one solo contribution and paean to hope, “Beyond the Sun.” The latter, though, bleeds directly into the 32-minutes finale, “Kaleidoscope,” and serves as an effective prologue.
The first song, “Into the Blue,” doesn’t really pick up until several minutes into the song and past the atmospherics, the transition from The Whirlwind. At 25 minutes, this is an adventure. Rather than it building and building, it builds, falls, and builds again several times. At moments, it sounds like pure TA, at other times, it sounds very much like a sequel to TFK’s Desolation Rose. Even the creepy, ominous voice that appeared on TFK’s “Bavarian Skies” and “White Tuxedos” makes a cameo here on “Into the Blue.” Very welcome, though, is the cameo vocals of Daniel Gildenloew. Of all of the songs on the album, this is by far the most religious, lyrically, especially the references to St. Paul’s writings (Galatians and Romans). The religion never becomes blatant, though, and it will probably seem merely a Jon Anderson-like love of the Cosmos for most listeners.
Everyone who loves TA has already had a chance to hear “Shine,” so I won’t go into details here, except to state that it 1) fits the albums; and 2) has a sitar part at the beginning I didn’t catch in the video.
My favorite track, by far, is “Black as the Sky.” Every member of TA is in top form, but especially good are Roine’s vocals and the rhythm and interplay of Mike and Pete. Phew. Amazing. I hope they start off the concert with this. Talk about a rocking intro, one sure to enliven the entire crowd immediately. The song, though, did make me a little sad. If this were still 1982, this song would absolutely dominate album rock radio in America, and TA would be one of the best selling artists and bands in music.
The fourth track, “Beyond the Sun,” the only song credited to a single member of TA, Neal, is best described as something Anderson and Wakeman could have written around 1989. Neal’s voice, of course, sounds absolutely nothing like Anderson’s, but this track is as ABWH as it gets.
As mentioned earlier, it blends perfectly into the final track, the grand epic, Kaleidoscope. Pure TA. As Mike said in one concert, “nothing but epics.” This is epic symphonic prog, to be sure, and it ends the album as well as “Into the Blue” opened it. The difference is that the lyrics of this song are as psychological as the lyrics of the opening are religious. Ultimately, this song deals with accepting the pains of the world and making the most of them. The interplay of Neal’s and Roine’s vocals is especially good, and it’s rather jaw dropping when Roine’s voice, in the third movement of the song, sings “And so the king of karma lost his only son.” It’s one of those just perfect moments that we proggers so often crave.
Covered and Uncovered
The bonus cd has 8 additional tracks all covers, featuring music from Yes, Elton John, the Small Faces, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, and several others. Clearly, Morse and Portnoy love covering their favorite tracks as so many of their albums attest. Generally, as is usual with Morse and Portnoy, the covers are not reimaginings of old songs (think of Glass Hammer’s reimagining of “South Side of the Sky”), but truly straight-forward covers of each. To my mind, the best covers on disk two are ELO’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and “Tin Soldier” by the Small Faces.
The third disk, a DVD, has the Shine video and two vignettes. I only received Kaleidoscope, Saturday afternoon, so I’ve not had the chance to watch these yet. My apologies! I will, and I’ll either post something separately or add to this review.
Admittedly, I’m at a point, where there’s nothing from Stolt, Morse, or TA that I won’t buy, devour, and cherish. So, my view is probably not as objective as it could be. I can state this, though: this is a work of beauty, a work of four musical warriors taking on the music scene and doing so with integrity, class, and majesty.
Kaleidoscope is a more than worthy follow-up to The Whirlwind, contains some truly stunning moments, and returns us, at least in form, to the best of TA before the six-year long hiatus. Very highly recommended.