Monday, January 27, 2014

Album Review: Transatlantic, "Kaleidoscope"
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Full disclosure: The prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic is one band for which I lack any type of objectivity. Their first album, SMPT:e, which came out in 2000, was to my ears unrivaled by any music I'd heard since Yes' 1974 Relayer. And Yes happens to be another band about which I lack objectivity.

As a fan of progressive rock in general, and symphonic prog in particular, I figured I'd love this band before I ever heard a note of their music, and they didn't disappoint me. A few years before their first album came out, I'd discovered Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings, the bands from which two of Transatlantic's members hailed. Those bands were two of the leaders of the so-called third wave of progressive rock that emerged in the early 1990s, and although I didn't immediately warm up to the Beard, it was pretty much love at first listen for the Swedish monarchs. The song "Church of Your Heart," in particular, contained all the beauty, majesty, and compositional brilliance of any classic Yes piece.

Yet unlike, say, Starcastle in the late '70s, the Kings' music managed to be much more than just a Yes pastiche. Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Roine Stolt obviously drew his inspiration from the heady days when prog reigned supreme, but he built his own edifice on top of that foundation. Working from the template of symphonic prog -- with all its ornamentation, experimentation, multi-part suites, extended song lengths, light and shade, and an overall approach to music that blended the muscle and propulsion of rock with the virtuosic musicianship and melodic sensibilities of classical music -- Stolt added some contemporary flourishes and mixed it in with a bit of Scandinavian whimsy. Personified, the music would be something like a guitar-wielding hippie in a jester cap, fully aware that he was an anachronism in the dawning era of grunge, but playing on with unbridled passion, a knowing wink of the eye, and not a care in the world about what anyone else thought.

It's a strange thing that Spock's Beard didn't click right away for me. My first impression was that the singer sounded like a cross between John Lennon and Greg Lake, and the music was a strange amalgam of Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, and ELP. So there was certainly nothing for me to dislike about it! Maybe it was that the music at times sounded almost too polished and modern, as if these guys were really contemporary pop-rock musicians who could play like their prog idols in their sleep, but maybe their hearts weren't really in it. After hearing more of their music, I decided that the degree of their musical sincerity really didn't matter, because the music they made was just so amazingly good. Not only were all the ingredients of great symphonic prog present -- long-form suites, wall-to-wall Mellotrons and Hammond organs, busy and chunky bass lines, unusual time signatures, and top-notch vocal harmonies -- but the songs were absolutely packed with incredibly delicious hooks and melodies.

That was when it dawned on me that what I liked about the Beard was exactly what I liked about Yes. Not only were the band members consummate musicians, but they never lost sight of what made music enjoyable. You could get lost in the meandering excursions, but you'd always come back to those hummable, memorable moments. (Think of "Roundabout" -- classical guitar flourishes, a fiery organ solo, and a chugging, Clavinet-like bass line, coupled with vocal lines that practically beg you to sing along.) In a way, it was a perfect blending of musical ambition with commercial sensibility. So when Neal Morse -- the Beard's singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and second guitarist -- once referred to his band as prog's version of the Backstreet Boys, I understood exactly what he was talking about ... and it didn't faze me in the slightest.

That's exactly the same reason that I love the more pop-oriented prog-rock of Trevor Rabin's Yes of the '80s and early '90s. Nothing can top those progressive masterpieces of the '70s, but the Rabin version of the band tapped into something very special that struck a tremendous balance between fresh, contemporary, and exciting music and the exploratory grandeur of prog's heyday. Their 15-minute 1994 epic "Endless Dream," the final song on Rabin's final album with Yes, stands as the towering example of how both eras of music could be masterfully blended together.

To my ears, Spock's Beard did the very same thing. And boy, they did it well. By the time I heard Morse's performances on SMPT:e, I stopped doubting the sincerity of the Beard's music -- and the Beard's opus V, released just a few months later, cemented that view. You just couldn't make music this good if you weren't genuinely in love with what you were creating.

Transatlantic, then, was an ambitious side project whose name reflected its international makeup. Morse, an American, and Stolt the Swede were joined by another American, (now former) Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, and English bassist Pete Trewavas from Marillion. I liked Dream Theater and had followed them since their big breakthrough album from 1992, Images and Words. I knew the least about Marillion, though I did enjoy their 1994 concept album Brave.
The band's debut album did not disappoint. SMPT:e was everything a fan of symphonic prog could ask for. Extended instrumental workouts, brilliant musicianship, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and really, really long epic pieces. The opener, "All of the Above," clocks in at just short of 31 minutes. The band has tended to intersperse the big pieces with shorter, more conventional ones, but it's when these guys let themselves stretch out that they really excel.

The follow-up album, Bridge Across Forever, came out a year later, with musical themes weaving in and out of the separate pieces, creating something of a concept-album feel.
And then they were gone. Morse, following his spiritual muse, left Spock's Beard to pursue a solo career focused on what I'd call Christian praise music. Some of the music was fairly straightforward (but smart and catchy) rock 'n' roll, but Morse still managed to cook up some delicious prog-rock excursions. Portnoy became Morse's go-to drummer for his solo projects, but Transatlantic looked to be dead in the water.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Morse found himself with a 45-minute piece of music that seemed to call out for the Transatlantic treatment. The other members came together and added their own musical ideas, and the result was the third Transatlantic album, a 78-minute song cycle called The Whirlwind. It marked a triumphant return for a band that had been sorely missed.

Five years later, the quartet has come together once again to release their fourth album, Kaleidoscope. And that's what brings us here today, dear readers. I know, it feels as if I've spent all this time talking about Alice's Restaurant when I really came to talk about the draft. But I don't want to assume that all my readers are familiar with this genre of music. Not to mention that the long intro is my way of mimicking prog-rock style in prose. Yeah, that's it.

The first thing that struck me about the new disc was the song titles:
  1. Into the Blue
  2. Shine
  3. Black As the Sky
  4. Beyond the Sun
  5. Kaleidoscope
At first glance, this looks undeniably like a concept album. All of the titles either look skyward or reference light in some way (a kaleidoscope, after all, can't work without light). That would make sense, given Morse's spiritually charged lyrics last time out, on The Whirlwind.

But if there is a lyrical theme this time out, it certainly doesn't dominate the proceedings. If anything, the words convey a sense of being lost and confused in the material world, while striving to remember that there are helping hands and greater rewards that lie beyond this realm. The Christian theology isn't overt, but it's there, lending a sort of Yes-like air of spiritual positivity that uplifts but doesn't proselytize.

The album fades in on a dreamy bed of swirling keyboards and guitars, not too dissimilar to the mood Robert Fripp and Brian Eno set on their ambient 1973 collaboration "The Heavenly Music Corporation." Soon a cello appears, introducing one of the themes we'll hear during "Into the Blue." And with a roll of Portnoy's tom-tom, the band kicks in and we're off and running. A majestic synth line from Morse gives way to a frantic guitar-based riff, which in turn shifts into a slower, lumbering groove that contains definite shades of both The Flower Kings and Dream Theater. (Flower Kings fans will surely be reminded of the sinister riff from "Monster Within," on the Space Revolver album. Imagine that, with Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess playing one of his distinctive synth leads over the top of it.)

Just a few minutes into the album, it already feels as if the individual contributions of all four members have blended together quite nicely into a unified whole. That's not always been the case with Transatlantic, as it's sometimes easy to pick out parts that have the distinct musical character of one particular member. Nothing wrong with that, as far as I'm concerned, but it's interesting to hear a more collaborative approach to the music, which can't be an easy thing given the time constraints of the Transatlantic projects. Generally, the members convene for a week or two, bring their ideas to the table, flesh them out, record the framework of the album, and then put on the vocals, overdubs, and other finishing touches after they've all gone their separate ways. Pretty amazing what these guys can come up with in such a short window of time together.

Another notable thing about "Into the Blue" is that it's largely driven by two primary themes that dance around each other for the entirety of the track. Most Transatlantic epics have something of a hodgepodge feel to them -- more like a long medley of ideas stitched together with recurring musical motifs. This piece may just be the most fully realized epic the band has ever recorded, in the sense that it's those few ideas that keep coming back to propel the song forward. Less musical hopscotch; more continuity and flow.

Yet there's plenty of variety as we go along, by way of an intelligent use of contrasting musical moods. Morse's "The Dreamer and the Healer" theme delivers all the soaring spiritual splendor that Transatlantic fans have grown accustomed to (I hear a bit of the otherworldly Spock's Beard epic "The Great Nothing" in here), while Stolt's "A New Beginning" injects a darker and heavier mood. There's a sparse, funky-feeling bass-and-drum bit pinning down this section, with Portnoy playing all around the beat and Trewavas holding down the groove. Stolt's vocal delivery begins with an electronic treatment that gives his voice a sort of low-pitched growl, before the accented English of his natural voice appears. Portnoy sings a few lines of his own, and then we're off on a three-minute instrumental excursion that builds from a slow, spacious vibe to a roaring climax, led all the way by Stolt's incredible guitar work, which slowly builds from a whisper to a scream.

That section of music is what makes me think of Stolt, in so many ways, as the MVP of the Transatlantic project. Morse is an incredible songwriter with a rare gift for hooks and melodies, but it's Stolt's guitar work that so often takes Transatlantic's music to another level. His style is hard to pin down, but if I had to point to just a few examples, I'd say his approach is rooted in guitar hero-style classic rock, with a bit of Allan Holdsworth's jazzy inflections and Martin Barre's blues-tinged playing, with some wah action and subtle bends here and there for flavor. But there's also a very melodic, vocal-like quality to his playing that comes awfully close at times to the way David Gilmour makes his guitar sing and cry like no one else. Stolt manages to blend all those styles into something that's uniquely his own. On this track, he shines brilliantly with his guitar mastery.

Daniel Gildenlöw.
A soft, ethereal section follows the big outburst, as we return to the "Dreamer and the Healer" theme, highlighted by a soaring guest vocal from Daniel Gildenlöw, whom Transatlantic fans know best as the fifth touring member of the band. The mastermind of Swedish band Pain of Salvation, Gildenlöw has gone on the road with Transatlantic as an auxiliary player for every tour since Bridge Across Forever, but this is his first appearance on a Transatlantic studio album. His delivery here is so gorgeous that I have to wonder how much he could bring to an album if he were ever invited to be a full-fledged contributor.

Morse takes control of the proceedings from here to the end of the piece, punctuated by some more blazing guitar work from Stolt, before the grandeur dissipates and flutters off into the ether. Now that's how to open an album. When a 25-minute piece feels like it whips by in about five, you know the musicians are doing something right.

Next up, we get to cleanse our palates with a shorter, more straightforward piece: the Morse-driven "Shine." Transatlantic has made it a tradition to balance the full-blown prog excursions with some gentler ballads from Morse, and this time out was no exception, as we get both "Shine" and "Beyond the Sun." First up is this lovely piece, starting off with Morse on acoustic guitar, setting a mood very reminiscent of some of the softer moments on his Christian-themed solo albums. Morse's voice, as always, is packed with soul and emotion here, with just a little bit of a raspy edge. Morse never over-emotes in his delivery, but when he's feeling the emotion of what he's singing, you, the listener, can feel it, front and center. There are few in the rock business who can match his soaring heights when it comes to conveying a mood through song.

Stolt and Portnoy take their own vocal turns, and Stolt turns in a pair of tasty solos before things wind down. We also get a brief reprise of the main lyrical theme from "The Dreamer and the Healer" just before the end. This is a very well-crafted piece of music, destined to take its place among other great Transatlantic ballads, notably "We All Need Some Light" From SMPT:e and the title track from Bridge Across Forever. 

Neal Morse. Photo:
Next up, smack in the middle of the album -- third of five tracks -- is a real barn-burner. "Black As the Sky" is uptempo and intense from start to finish. Morse leads the charge with regal synth and choppy Hammond organ on the intro, and Stolt handles most of the lead vocals (though all the other guys take a brief turn as well). I think this song had to mostly come from Stolt's hand, as it carries on some of the darker themes from the latest Flower Kings album, Desolation Rose, where Stolt's usual hippie idealism steps aside for a sobering look at a world ruled by corruption, deception, greed, secrecy, nationalism, religious extremism, and war. "Black As the Sky" is, best I can make out, about those who rule the world from the shadows, using money, surveillance, and violence to control those who are either oblivious to what's really going on around them, or powerless to do anything about it. "You pray for some justice / but no one can hear / so you look to the skies," Stolt sings, carrying forward the skyward-looking lyrical theme on the album. 

Of all things, the chorus on this one reminds me a bit of something Styx could have cooked up in their prime -- one of those hard-rocking pieces from James Young, perhaps, with all three vocalists belting it out in unison. But the middle instrumental section is totally "The Colony of Slippermen," from Morse's synth tone to the way the groove unexpectedly shifts from triplets to sixteenth notes and back again. If they play this song in concert and don't veer off into an extended Genesis quote at this point, I'd be shocked. They're not shy about playing covers, and in fact they've performed "Firth of Fifth" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed." After about a week's worth of listening, this is my favorite track on the album so far.

Roine Stolt.
"Beyond the Sun" is up next, and it quickly sets a somber mood, with a cello and a swooping steel guitar trading lines before Morse joins with vocals and piano. The album credits say mixer Rich Mouser played the steel on this song, so I'm not sure any of the other members of Transatlantic are present here. Moreover, in the "making of" DVD that came with the deluxe Kaleidoscope package, there's a mention of having four songs -- not five -- written for the album. So my guess is this was a later addition from Morse.

Lyrically, it conjures up memories of the "Rose Colored Glasses" section of The Whirlwind, which spoke of a sad goodbye on this earth but a longing to meet again someday, after this life is over. Musically, it has the spacious, stately beauty of "Bridge Across Forever." There are also some echoes of the Spock's Beard song "The Distance to the Sun." It gathers together all those influences and melds them into something with its own plaintively beautiful essence.

Serving almost as a musical prologue, "Beyond the Sun" moves without a break into the album's nearly 32-minute title track and grand finale. "Kaleidoscope" is much like past Transatlantic epics, in that several disparate ideas have been weaved together into a larger structure. But just like those epics of old, the end result is an exciting roller-coaster ride from start to finish. A handful of themes, heavy on organ and piano and with a distinct Stolt-like melody line bobbing in and out, wind around each other to kick things off.

Pete Trewavas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Just after the three-minute mark, a bright, organ-heavy riff takes over, bearing the characteristic poppy-prog sound that defines so much of the best Spock's Beard music. The summery-sounding verses and chorus practically defy you not to tap your feet and sing along -- this is Morse doing what he does best. When Stolt's first solo gets under way, we're left musically somewhere between the Spock's song "Day for Night" and "All of the Above" from SMPT:e -- both very sonically pleasant places to be. (Incidentally, the recurring "Ride the Lightning" theme established here has nothing to do with the Metallica album and song of the same name!)

We move from there to a section featuring Stolt's vocals that sways back and forth between lighter-sounding Flower Kings fare and a heavy, ominous riff, though the lighter moments belie the subject matter -- the human and environmental toll of drilling for oil.

After an abrupt stop, it's on to a laid-back, Beatles-flavored section sung by Trewavas. "Walking the Road" is punctuated by a simple but memorable melody and a synthesized trumpet interlude that only serves to amplify the "Summer of Love" vibe here. This section, following a slow-paced Stolt solo, flows smoothly into an acoustic guitar-driven revisitation of the "Ride the Lightning" theme.  

Mike Portnoy. Photo:
The band builds in intensity on its way to a lengthy instrumental break, leading off with some blazing synth and organ work before slipping into a Stolt-influenced passage that puts me a little bit in the mind of Zappa filtered through The Flower Kings -- just a bit of that whimsical, slightly jazzy flavor Stolt often brings to his music.  From there, the section takes on kind of a kitchen-sink feel, as we move through previous themes, and even a few passages that bear a strong resemblance to some music from past Transatlantic albums. 

We come to another stop, and Morse's growling organ leads us into one of those anthemic, wave-your-lighters half-time codas that Transatlantic is so good at. It's the "Ride the Lightning" theme again, and that's where the album says goodbye lyrically. For the final two minutes, dramatic Mellotron chords pin down one last great solo excursion from Stolt -- and on and on it rolls, as the song rises into the clouds and fades away, "Supper's Ready" style.

And that's it -- unless you have the bonus disc, which is wall-to-wall cover songs. Every Transatlantic album has offered a deluxe package with bonus tracks -- some alternate takes, some songs that didn't make the cut, and lots and lots of covers. Most of them are done up pretty faithfully to the originals, and this time out is no exception. One cut, Focus' "Sylvia," is an instrumental, while Portnoy sings on King Crimson's "Indiscipline" and Procol Harum's "Conquistador" (Transatlantic's third Procol Harum cover!). Morse handles "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Nights in White Satin," and Stolt sings on ELO's "Can't Get It Out of My Head." Stolt and Morse share the vocals on the Small Faces' "Tin Soldier" and on Yes' "And You and I." The Yes piece gets a little bit of a twist, as the band opens with the booming "Apocalypse" theme, a la the live Yessongs version, rather than with 12-string acoustic. Stolt takes a few tasteful liberties with his vocal lines, and the sublime ending of the song, with his guitar swirling on and on, higher and higher, into a soft fadeout, is a downright spine-tingling moment.

Well. All I can say is that this album was well worth the five-year wait, and I hope we don't have to wait five years for the next serving. Portnoy made a comment in the making-of DVD that with four albums under their belts, Transatlantic doesn't really feel like a side project anymore. Selfishly, I'd love for these guys to stick together full-time and make this their life's work. But Stolt and Trewavas still have commitments to other bands, and Portnoy is involved in several different projects himself. We'll see what happens next. In the meantime, Kaleidoscope will be in heavy rotation around here, and I'm looking forward to seeing these guys next week at the Seattle stop on their tour.

The year is young, but so far, Kaleidoscope is my top album of 2014 -- and I think it will be hard to beat. 

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