REVIEW: TRANSATLANTIC – “The Absolute Universe [Forevermore]”
Like the majority of people on this planet, I was more than happy to see 2020 go away. Of course, so far, ‘21 isn’t looking a lot better. But one thing that was great about last year was the number of quality prog albums to see the light of day. And this new year is, if anything, looking even better. For me and many prog heads, the return of prog supergroup Transatlantic is cause for a massive celebration. Comprised of Neal Morse (Neal Morse Band, ex Spock’s Beard), Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), Mike Portnoy (Neal Morse Band, ex-Dream Theater), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion), the band first joined together 21 years ago, and over the years have released four highly acclaimed and loved prog albums. They are now set to release their 5th album ‘The Absolute Universe’ and it is as gloriously over the top as prog can get. For starters, the album is one long song, cut into pieces for ease of navigation. This by itself would be fun enough. But to top it off they’ve produced three different versions of it for release, all of the different lengths, different arrangements, and at times different vocalists.
There’s a lot to break down in all of this. The short history of the album is that almost a year ago they got together and wrote a 90-minute piece of music, meant to be one song, and spread over two disks. Then of course the virus hit, and everything changed. The album was completed in the members’ home studios (with additional rewrites) with the intention of releasing it as envisioned from the beginning.
Then Neal got to thinking. And to the surprise of all (especially given his last two band albums have been doubles), he actually suggested trimming the piece down to around 65 minutes. This suggestion met with a mixed reaction, but they thought about it, until Mike came up with another idea. Put out two versions. To the band’s knowledge, no one has really done this before. Releasing two versions of an album/song Forevermore, the extended version as originally envisioned, and The Breath of Life as the abridged version. But then to make them as different as possible. So they did. Sections and new parts were written for the abridged version, lyrics changed on some portions, and since all four members sing, different vocalists as well. The results were an album/song that is the same, very familiar, but very much a stand-alone release on its own. They also have a THIRD version, which combines elements of both, and clocks in at an hour and forty minutes. This will be released exclusively on blu ray and hasn’t been made available to the media yet. It is also the version the band intends to perform in its entirety whenever they’re allowed to tour again.
In light of two very different versions, and keeping with the spirit of releasing two versions of the same song, I will be writing two separate versions of the same review. In this way, each is given its proper space to be discussed as its own piece, and also it avoids constant back and forth jumps between the two when they are compared.
The Breath of Life was arranged and refigured by Neal, with Roine arranging Forevermore. As such both leave their stamp most obviously on the version that they arranged. This is not to suggest that BoL sounds like a Neal album, nor that Forevermore sounds like a Flower Kings album. They both sound very much like Transatlantic, and the sound is the result of the chemistry and arrangement abilities of all four members. They have crafted a certain sound over the years, and The Absolute Universe hasn’t radically altered that. Neither version is likely to change the mind of fans or non-fans. So their signature sound remains in place, but different arrangers give both versions their own sound in addition to obvious musical changes, which adds to the fun of both.
This review will cover Forevermore, with emphasis on the differences between the two versions. The most obvious difference is this version of the song is 90 minutes long. Mike has wondered aloud if it is the record for the longest prog song (well actually their ultimate edition is 10 minutes longer so that one would take the record). It might be, I’m not familiar with one longer, but that’s beside the point. Given that this version is nearly a half-hour longer there are obviously songs here that do not appear of the abbreviated cut, but also many portions that are lyrically and musically different from what would otherwise be the corresponding section.
As stated previously, this can be seen as the Roine cut of the album, and one thing that really stands out throughout is the vast addition of guitar. This probably sounds odd, because obviously his guitar is all over every recording he has made, but there are added riffs and textures all throughout, and additional solos are all over the place. For fans of his guitar work, this cut is drool-worthy. This is just another example of the benefit of putting out the two versions because it would have been a pity for so much quality material to have been left on the cutting floor.
Like the previous version, this one also begins with “Overture,” unsurprisingly, as it has more to cover. There’s about a 3-minute difference between the two, and unlike the other, this includes vocals singing the main theme of “Belong” before moving onto the main body of the song. It moves directly into “Heart Like A Whirlwind” which is the counterpart to “Reaching For the Sky” from the other version. Musically they are basically the same, but the lyrics are completely different, and in this version, Pete sings a verse and has more noticeable vocals throughout.
Generally, I am loath to go track by track through an album, but as there is really only one track involved I don’t have much choice. Yes, I say this with tongue in cheek, but only as a reminder that the individual sections talked about are still simply movement within a larger framework, the pieces are broken down to make it easier to navigate, but the music plays through with no breaks and has to be viewed as a whole.
The changes continue with “Higher Than the Morning,” which is the same title as the earlier disk, but again with different lyrics, this time handled by Roine. It contains what I think are Transatlantic’s most politically charged lyrics. Now by political, I don’t mean political in the way that Roger Waters is, there’s nothing here that comments directly on any politician, political party, or even nation for that matter (remember that Sweden, the UK, and the US are all represented in the band) but in a more general “state of the world” and peoples place in its way. Given that the album later takes on the pandemic, it is an appropriate, and interestingly different take on things than the other version which is seen on a bit more of a personal level. Of course, that aspect comes in as well later on, but it becomes heard within a greater framework.
This brings us to “The Darkness In the Light” which is a rare way that remains the same in both versions. It is followed by “Swing High, Swing Low” which was talked about in the earlier review as being the sister version of “Take Now My Soul.” The feeling in both is very similar, a man’s reflections and spiritual yearning in a world gone insane, but lyrically separated. All this leads to the first large section of material that has no counterpart with the abridged version. Following “Swing High” the jaunty piano goes directly into the new pieces “Bully” and “Rainbow Sky.” Pounding jazz piano and guitar dominate “Bully” before the multi-vocal layers come into place on “Rainbow Sky” which is a Beatles love fest for lack of a better term. The band’s love for The Beatles has been established since their first album, and Mike and Neal have numerous videos floating around cyberspace of them playing “name that tune” to Beatles songs, so this addition shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
They then go into the dark and menacing “Looking For the Light” which is the same as the section with that title on the previous version. The difference, of course, is on this longer cut, two full pieces of music separate “Swing High/Take Now” and this piece. The fact that on both versions the transition is fairly seamless I think speaks to the amount of time and work put into making two versions of the same song. The disk ends with “The World We Used To Know” which doesn’t appear on the shorter cut. At just over 9 minutes it is one of the longest sections on either cut and as the title suggests is a reflection of how the world has changed. Mike’s drums are especially frantic and pounding on this, and Roine’s solos and textured guitar work shine brightly. The first few minutes are instrumental, so the whole band gets time to shine.
The second disk isn’t quite as different from the second half of the abridged version as the first disk is. Although there are additional sections not included, and the songs that are the same obviously come later in this story, so have a slightly different feel due to that. It starts off with “The Sun Comes Up Today” which is one of the newer sections, beginning instrumentally before Pete takes over on vocals. One thing I do especially like with the longer cut is that all four members get a bit more time in the vocal spotlight. Neal and Roine still get the lion’s share of course (I don’t think many will argue that they are the best vocalists of the group), but Pete and Mike have their own quality that adds additional color, which I at least enjoy hearing.
The next four songs “Love Made A Way (Prelude)” through “Belong” are largely the same as on the shorter version, though they all run a bit longer due to added instrumentation. Roine’s additional guitar is a bit more obvious here, which makes ongoing listening quite rewarding. The next new section is “Lonesome Rebel” which is a slower ballad sung by Roine, and is a bit more political in the same sense I talked about earlier, and adds a touch more grit before the largely hopeful ending sections.
The last bit of real heaviness and aggression come from “Looking For The Light (Reprise)” which lyrically and vocally is the same as the shorter cut, though running nearly a minute longer. It bleeds into the final new section, “The Greatest Story Never Ends.” The cut between the two songs is actually a bit abrupt, and not as smooth as is typical for the band and the rest of the album. It is mostly instrumental, but does have a noteworthy moment at the end with the band breaking into a vocal counterpoint of the “Belong” lyrical theme ‘belong/belong/ready to belong.’ It is noteworthy due to its striking similarity to the multi-part Spock’s Beard/Neal classic “Thoughts.” I don’t believe it is intended to be connected to it, but the first time I heard it the only thing I could think was “hey another addition to ‘Thoughts’ nice!” The album closes out with “Love Made A Way,” as I pointed out in the previous review with the exception of a short intro section that appears on the abridged version, the song is the same on both disks. I do think the long journey the listener takes on ‘Forevermore’ does make this ending a bit sweeter after “going through the wars” as the saying goes.
‘The Absolute Universe’ finds a group of musicians who are at the height of their technical and compositional powers. The only thing more mind-bending than the music, and the different versions of the music, is that they plan on performing the whole thing on stage. While it doesn’t necessarily break any new ground for the band, they have taken what they do and pushed everything up to 11. It will be a benchmark release for them regardless of how the audience responds, or what they decide to do down the road. We’re early in 2021 and there’s going to be a lot of new music coming out in the year ahead, but a work of this scope will be what everything to come will be compared against.
Transatlantic has created a unique album with a clear vision, and determination of what it wants to be. ‘Forevermore’ on its own is a massive work, with a lot to take in. If it was the only thing released its scope and depth would garner much praise and excitement throughout the prog community. Thankfully, though, the band’s motto has always been “more is never enough.” And I wouldn’t want to be without either.