PROG-ROCK SUPERGROUP ALERT! Transatlantic

All star summit among
members of Dream Theatre, Marillion, Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings yields
pure prog gold.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Back around the turn of the century, your humble scribe was
known to comment, half in jest, that there were only nine guys playing prog-rock
music at the time, but that together they comprised something on the order of
two-dozen bands. The joke was on me, actually, and definitely on all those
other rockcrit types that perpetually turned up their collective noses at any
sniff of “progressive rock.” In the decade since, however, acclaimed rockers
like the Mars Volta, Muse, and even Radiohead have made waves by embracing a
“prog” aesthetic, while bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theatre
mainstreamed 1970s-styled prog-rock (the former) and progressive metal (the
latter).

 

Transatlantic is one of those bands made up of guys from
other bands, a prog-rock “supergroup” if you will that was founded by
Dream Theater’s drummer Mike Portnoy – perhaps prog’s biggest cheerleader in
the press – with the multi-instrumental talent Neal Morse (solo artist and
Spock’s Beard founder), guitarist Roine Stolt (Sweden’s Flower Kings), and bassist
Pete Trewavas (English prog-folk legends Marillion). Transatlantic released its
debut album SMPTe in 2000, following
it up with Bridge Across Forever a
year later, and since that time have made their presence felt on the growing
prog-rock scene with a couple of epic tours, a pair of acclaimed live albums,
and a full-length DVD release for the faithful.

 

Transatlantic’s various members would go on to other musical
projects through the end of the decade, but when Morse contacted Portnoy about
an exciting new composition called “The Whirlwind” that had
“Transatlantic” written all over it, they called up the other guys
and got the band back together one more time. Convening in Morse’s Tennessee studio, the
four talents collaborated and expanded upon Morse’s original concept, building
it into a lengthy twelve-part, almost 78-minute song-cycle that is ambitious in
scope and breathtaking in its execution.

 

The new set, The
Whirlwind
(Radiant Records/Metal Blade), kicks off with a brief atmospheric
intro – a jumble of voices, pastoral music, crashing waves – before swelling
into an instrumental tsunami of whirling synths, exploding drumbeats, and
cutting guitar. The nine-minute-plus title track sounds like Return To Forever
meets King Crimson, with angular, almost jazzy fretwork, slashing keyboard
runs, heavy melodic basslines, and some of the most blustery, badass drumming
that will ever punch your eardrums into submission. As the lyrical storyline
unfolds across the songs, the soundtrack never falters. The four band members
share vocals and back up one another’s voices, and the chemistry between these
virtuoso instrumentalists matches their passion, resulting in a seamless
integration of sound and harmony.

 

Throughout the wild musical ride that is The Whirlwind, the engaged listener will
pick up strains of Beatlesque melodies, Genesis-styled folk-rock, King
Crimson’s avant-experimentation, the soaring harmonics of Yes, and much, much
more. The synthesizer work-out at the beginning of the machine-gun paced
“On The Prowl” sounds like nothing so much as a Rick Wakeman/Keith
Emerson swordfight, but when the song lapses into vocal mode, enchanting
harmonies are bolstered by Stolt’s raging six-string, and fluid keyboard/synth
textures. The song changes musical directions so frequently and at such
breakneck speed that you’d have to place your head on a swivel to catch it all
in one sitting.

 

Portnoy’s madman drumming leads into “A Man Can Feel,”
the gloomy, atmospheric intro sounding like something from Peter Gabriel’s
worst nightmares before metamorphosing into a glorious example of neo-prog
excess, with rampant keyboard runs, thundering rhythms, lightning-fast time
signature changes, and bursts of Stolt’s razor-sharp guitarplay. “Lay Down
Your Life” staggers out of the gate with a plodding, discordant menace as syncopated
drumbeats, screeching classical stringplay, and chainsaw riffs create an alien
soundscape that is quickly wrestled to the ground by the band’s joyfully
reckless harmonies and a roller-coaster ride of instrumental mayhem.

 

As is the style these days, The Whirlwind is available in a number of various configurations,
and the prog-rock true believer will want to pony up the extra shekels for the
two-disc version which includes a bonus CD of songs from the session that
didn’t make the first disc, or something to that effect. An extra-special,
three-disc edition includes a DVD with “behind the scenes” footage
that, while interesting upon initial viewing, is probably only really
attractive to the sort of obsessive that alphabetizes and catalogs their music
(ahem…).

 

As for the eight bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of The Whirlwind, they’re of just as high a
quality as anything on the twelve-track regular album, they just didn’t fit
into the grandiose fabric of those performances. The songs here on disc two
showcase the more pop-oriented side of the band, featuring four originals and four
inspired covers that highlight both individual member’s songwriting chops, but
also the band’s overall flexibility. Stolt’s “Spinning” is a charming
pop/rock confection with lovely fretwork, a catchy melody, and an aggressive
keyboards/synthesizer segment that redefines the meaning of “shock and awe.”

 

Morse’s “For Such A Time” is a commanding ballad
with gentle vocals, shining guitarwork, thoughtful lyrics and emotion, and such
a carefree toppling of folk-rock conventions that it puts the efforts of a
hundred simpering, beardo indie-rock troubadours to shame. As for the covers,
the early Genesis song “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” is as
whimsical as the original, while a shot at Procol Harum’s “A Salty
Dog” falls a little short of the mark – enjoyable, but ultimately
negligible in improving upon the original. While a cover of America’s “I Need You”
may seem a stretch, the band’s innate melodic sense and vocal harmonies provide
just the right amount of winsome emotion to pull it off in spades.

 

It’s the raucous Transatlantic take on Santana’s “Soul
Sacrifice” that really drives this over the top, though, with Portnoy’s
imaginative percussive work mimicking the original song, but adding stylized
and powerful improvements. Stolt’s guitarwork is stunning, incorporating
Santana’s Latin influences while taking solos into entirely new territory with
slashing chords and flying one-off notes. I’m guessing that Morse and Trewavas
are helping out with some bang-a-gong of their own in the percussion
department, and the entire song is an energetic reminder that these guys are
all true classic rock fiends at heart.

 

And that, gentle reader, is what cements Transatlantic’s
status as modern prog-rock royalty…more than the sum of each band member’s
talents, or the influences of their individual, groundbreaking bands, these
four guys have a pitch-perfect sense of where rock music has been, which allows
them together to build upon the past and take the music into exciting new
directions. The Whirlwind is a
masterpiece of progressive rock, but it is also a return to values such as
melody, harmony, instrumental talent, and intelligent lyricism that is sadly
missing from much of what dominates the charts and radio airplay these days.
It’s also why prog-rock continues to grow in popularity and ambition. Much as
they did at the dawn of the new millennium, Transatlantic continues to lead the
way….    

 

[Photo Credit: Radu Catrina/ www.thedwarf.com.au; courtesy Wikipedia
Creative Commons]

 

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