REVIEW: TRANSATLANTIC – “The Absolute Universe [The Breath Of Life]”
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 64 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. One for each version (with a common introduction and conclusion). 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 nonfans. 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 is for Breath of Life, and in the manner of most exceptionally long songs begins with “Overture.” which sets up the main musical themes that will pop up throughout the album. The two biggest musical cues are tied to Neal’s melody for “Love Made A Way” and Roine’s “Belong” melody. Both appear frequently throughout both versions. As this is the abridged version, the overture is also about four minutes shorter as well. As the album is meant to be a single song, it can be taken as a concept album. Without a full set of lyrics getting a full grip of the whole thing is a bit awkward, the gist however is life’s journey and its complications. Special notice is given to the Ego, and if selfishness as a virtue should be a thing seriously considered.
Of course, the global pandemic and its effect on people is also a key component to both versions. It is never explicitly stated, but lines about the world shutting down, isolation, and finding a way through crippling darkness make it clear that world events helped shape the writing. This angle is a bit more obvious is this version than the longer version. Keeping with a theme the band has explored since its inception the idea of love being the way through our issues and darkness is central to the album. It is certainly a piece that is spiritual in nature, but fans worried that Neal’s religious beliefs will take over the album need not worry, it never goes far in that direction.
I’m not going to go portion by portion comparing the differences between the versions but will hit upon a few notable differences where the music stays the same essentially but the lyrics and vocals change. On this disk, the early track “Take Now My Soul” is clearly referencing the beginning of the pandemic, and singing how the streets empty. Neal sings the first verse, the second however is taken over by Mike (who becomes a better vocalist with each album he’s on). The companion piece is “Swing High, Swing Low.” The lyrics are still sung by Neal are totally different, and are much more the words of a lost man wondering where God or any glimmer of peace could be found. It has a considerably darker tone to it. The chorus however remains very similar.
Other pieces such as “Owl Howl” appear on both versions, but on the longer version, the portion comes much later in the song. It is also several minutes longer on that version. In both cases however they lead into “Solitude,” a piece written and sung by Pete, that rather perfectly sums up the pain of isolation that so many have been living through. Pete’s presence is rather special on this album, more than ever his bass work is front and center, and it becomes very clear how much he holds the band together. His considerable chops are also on full display, bass often takes a back seat to the pyrotechnics of guitar, keys, and drums, so it’s a treat to really have a hard punch of bass throughout.
As both versions are quite different, some sections appear on this version that doesn’t show up on the longer ones, and visa versa. On this disk the section is “Can You Feel It” and it’s actually one of my favorites. With a strong and ear-catching melody, and Neal’s lyrics, it provides a perfect bridge between the darker aspect of “Solitude” and instrumental “Belong” and the positive more uplifting ending to the album. Of course, the way it is handled on the other disks is unique in its own way, which is the benefit of having both versions; we aren’t cheated out of anything.
The final section is “Love Made A Way” and that remains for both versions. This version is a bit longer though, with a longer intro with strings that are omitted from the extended. The rest remains largely the same, though I think the keys are a bit more pronounced in this shorter version than in the longer, and the quiet outro is about a half minute longer as well. Regardless it ends the album on a high and uplifting place. The end of a long journey through oneself, the world, darkness, and finally moving into the light. All things that have been themes since their first album all those years ago.
There is clearly much more to be discussed, but those will have to be handled in the Forevermore review section, as the biggest difference, and additions are to be found there.
‘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. ‘The Breath of Life’ can easily stand on its own as a complete work. If it was the only thing released it would garner much praise and excitement throughout the prog community. Thankfully though the band’s motto has always been “more is never enough,” and we have an entirely new version to discuss next. And I wouldn’t want to be without either.