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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Transatlantic

The Whirlwind

Review by Scott Montgomery

From the very beginning, I felt a sense of recognition, as SMPT:E is conjured.  Even before the first spin of the disc, the reappearance of Per Nordin’s space-blimp motif on the cover visually announces the return of Transatlantic with an iconicity that parallels Roger Dean’s artistic association with Yes.  The recurrence of this motif, cover design, and epigraphy of the band’s name extends across all three Transatlantic studio releases, fashioning a visual signifier that seems to allude to the musical consistency on the discs contained therein.  There is a sense of familiarity here.  It looks like a Transatlantic CD.  It sounds like a Transatlantic CD.  The music is immediately recognizable as that particular styling of quintessential symphonic prog that this super group has alchemically forged from the disparate elements of the members’ four backgrounds (notably, but not exclusively Marillion, The Flower Kings/Kaipa, Spock’s Beard, and Dream Theater). Though strong flavorings of the Flower Kings and early Spock’s Beard are present, Transatlantic has its own unique sound, and The Whirlwind sounds similar to the band’s previous studio releases.   However, unlike some prog-pundits, I do not see this is a bad thing.  This variance of critical assessment is essentially the result of a (much-discussed) conceptual divide in views of how we define/determine what progressive rock actually is.  On the one hand, we have the notion of newness - very much aligned with the historical development of the genre as something genuinely “progressive” in rock music.  On the other hand, we have a genre that now has a history extending over the course of forty years – a genre that has developed its own aesthetic language and even varied sub-genre forms.  The fact that we rarely agree on what makes prog actually prog is perhaps due to the fact that there are varying scenarios and paradigms for such a distinction.  Which is correct?  Yes!  I do not personally hold dogmatically to one or the other, as I frequently find much to enjoy about both familiar and novel sounds.  To those nay-sayers who insist that all great prog must be positively new, I wonder how they feel about Genesis’ archetypal Foxtrot which, however brilliantly, developed a sound already articulated on Nursery Cryme, or for that matter, the superlative transcendence of Magma’s Khöntarkösz, despite its clear stylistic concordance with the mighty, preceding Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandö.  Since when is it an aesthetic crime to sound like oneself, to develop and maintain a signature style?   Is The Whirlwind actually progressing the genre in an avant-garde sense?  Absolutely not!  Is it a magnificent work of grandiose symphonic prog?  Absolutely! 

Perhaps I should come clean at the onset and state that I adore SMPT:E and hold it as one of the finest releases of the genre in this first decade of the 21st-century.  Perhaps this is because I have a very personal appreciation of it as it was part of my own discovery of the fact that symphonic prog was, in fact, alive (even resurgent) at a time when I thought that it was largely an art-form sadly lost in the glorious past.  Having lost track of ongoing prog currents extending over the last two decades of the 20th Century (however much under the popular radar), this was something of a revelation to me – “Prog Lives!” This one still gets a lot of play-time in my house.  After this revelatory introduction to Transatlantic, and its attendant introduction to the wonderful world of contemporary prog, I was a little disappointed with the follow-up - Bridge Across Forever – which I personally found to be a bit heavy of sound and disjointed of composition.  Upon hearing of the reformation of the band and the imminent release of a third studio album, I was curious as to whether it would resonate with me the way the first album did, or whether it would further underwhelm.  Furthermore, the notion of a seventy-eight minute piece seemed to challenge – could it possibly hold my attention for the duration?  Would it adhere?  Would it come across as a disjointed, forced caricature of the prog epic taken to its absurdist extreme?  While challenging, even downright demanding in its duration, I find The Whirlwind to be very satisfying – repeatedly engaging me through its totality, even through several successive listens.  To these ears, it is a phenomenal success.  In short, if one is fond of Translatlantic’s previous releases, The Whirlwind will not disappoint, and may actually transcend its awesome forebears.  If one is not familiar with the band’s music, this would be a fine place to start (though I would suggest taking one’s first Transatlantic flight with SMPT:E).  Still, The Whirlwind may actually be my favorite Transatlantic release, though it still needs to wrestle SMPT:E for that title.

The musical aptitude that these four giants bring to the field is astounding, and all show well on this CD.  Mike Portnoy’s power and magnificently frenetic chops are abundantly apparent, providing explosive energy while maintaining a solid drive.  Pete Trewavas’ bass is thankfully more prominent in the mix on this CD, as its buoyant punch provides the beating heart of the music, demonstrating (yet again) that he is among the finest, most tasteful and versatile bassists in rock.  The trebly crispness of tone and contrapuntal, but solid drive occasionally conjures Chris Squire.  It is largely this very prominent bass sound that gives parts of the song a strong Yes sensibility.  Roine Stolt’s guitar is as rich, crisp and evocative as ever, whether building layers of coloration or soaring and singing in one of his deliciously distinct solos.  The exquisite beauty of his flourishes, runs, and dynamic variance bring Steve Howe to mind.   Neal Morse’s keyboard-work is splendid as ever, providing both abundant texture and some tasty solos.  It is also nice that all four members sing as well as wield virtuostic instrumental chops.  The variance of voices adds a very nice element of vocal diversity, allowing for different lead voicings as well as a wide array of harmonizing possibilities.  Though Morse and Stolt do the majority of the lead vocals, there is considerably more vocal input from Trewavas and Portnoy on this CD.  In fact, The Whirlwind feels like a more tightly collaborative project than previous Transatlantic releases.  As far as I understand, the band has said as much as well.  It is precisely this more unified feel of group collaboration that makes The Whirlwind adhere so nicely.  It does not sound like an assembled bunch of fragments, but rather the result of a successful fusion of four musical minds into one genuine group effort.  Perhaps this is why it sounds more consistent and unified than the previous Transatlantic releases.  This is truly a magnificent band effort. Those purchasing the Special Edition are treated to an additional hour of Transatlantic – four originals and four cover versions of classics.  Here is a disc of bonus goodies that I actually want to listen to considerably more than once.  This disc is very much song-oriented, in contradistinction to the more symphonically-structured first disc.  “Spinning” and “Lending A Hand” are my favorite tracks on this second disc and make its purchase worthwhile in and of themselves.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
The Whirlwind
“The Whirlwind” is epic even by prog epic standards.  Though subdivided into twelve parts, it is a grandiose, single piece, clocking in at 77:56.  It is not so much a song-cycle as a single, grand song that is genuinely symphonic in its compositional coherence.  It is structured like a symphony, introduced with an overture that evolves into an eponymous opening theme which is reprised over an hour later, bringing resolution to the journey.  It is symphonic prog in both compositional structure and coloratura.  Audacious? Yes.  This is a bold endeavor for any piece of music.  The critical question in assessing such a work is whether or not it succeeds, whether it holds up to its own aspirations.  My assessment is that it absolutely does, as is the case with the best epic compositions (including the magnificent “All of the Above” which opened Transatlantic’s first offering).

This grandiose symphonic epic is divided into twelve parts, which I like to consider movements, which seamlessly flow together into a unified aural journey.  Let me take them one at a time.
I: Overture/Whirlwind

The song opens, appropriately, with an overture that serves as an excellent introduction while stating themes that will recur further along – pure Transatlantic.  Five minutes in, the number takes on a distinctly Yes-like flavor, seemingly invoking “Close To The Edge”.  When the “Whirlwind” theme enters, led by Trewavas’ driving bass, the first “Full Moon Rising” section of “All Of The Above” is strongly suggested, linking The Whirlwind to SMPT:E within the span of the first few minutes.  A lovely, brief, delicate coda, accentuated by Chris Carmichel’s strings, seamlessly leads into the next movement.

II: The Wind Blew Them All Away

Crisp, delicate patterns picked on acoustic guitar, lead to this good “song” section, with strong Neal Morse flavorings.  This movement has a very distinct Spock’s Beard feel to it, augmented by Morse’s initial singing (and doubtless compositional dominance).  Two minutes in, we are treated to a nice solo from Roine.  I can’t help but hear a wee nod to “In The Cage” in the powerful, staccato riff that emerges just before the four-minute mark, and brings the song back to a vocal variation on its main theme.  Dissolution into feedback carries it into a formless space from which the next movement emerges.

III: On The Prowl

Trewavas’ bass brings it from the formlessness and leads it through a solid driving groove jam, joined by Portnoy’s drums, laying a propulsive underlining to Morse’s electric piano solo (all reminiscent of sections of SMPT:E’s “All Of The Above”).  Stolt enters, adding nice color while Portnoy kicks up the energy before it all settles back into a Trewavas-propelled groove that opens up a nice interplay between guitar and synthesizer in a very Flower Kingly instrumental section before Morse’s vocal portion brings it back into the realm of Spock’s Beard (V).

IV: A Man Can Feel

Beginning with what is essentially a brief, dynamic flourish closing the last movement, it settles into an understated theme centered on a staccato harpsichord-sound beneath Stolt’s distinctive vocals.  This movement sounds very much like early Flower Kings, particularly middle sections of “Stardust We Are”.  A lengthy, gradual, but intense extended crescendo is driven by the monstrous propellant of Portnoy’s mighty drumming.

V: Out Of The Night

An ever-so-natural transition brings us to this next movement in such a fluid way that it belies its enumeration as a separate song segment, further accentuating that “The Whirlwind” is more of a single, extended song with many minor symphonic movements than an assemblage of different song parts.  Again, a Flower Kings-esque break is indelibly propelled by Trewavas’ bass suggesting the driving groove of “Yours Is No Disgrace” and bringing the Yes-flavor back to the forefront.

VI: Rose Colored Glasses

Dropping down to a gentle dissolve like the ending of “Close To The Edge”, this movement soon remerges as a softly acoustic-based, very Neal Morse song – gentle, exquisitely textured, almost delicate.  The central portion of the tune is punctuated by a break with a nice, quintessential, soaring Roine Stolt guitar solo.

VII: Evermore

Morse’s shimmering piano figure picks it back up, engaging a staccato call-and-response with the full-band, before delving back into another delectable Yes-groove that somehow manages to sound distinctly Transatlantean.  Soon, it is back to comfortable, but delicious Flower Kings territory.

VIII: Set Us Free

Again, there is a pleasant redolence of “All Of The Above” in the punctuated drive and superb interplay between lead and harmony vocals.

IX: Lay Down Your Life

A big, almost orchestral stomp ensues, evolving into a movement that is less to my tastes, as it veers toward the heaviness that I found a bit overbearing on Bridge Across Forever.  Morse’s voice sounds aggressively strained as he spits out the lyrics.  My appreciation aside, Morse’s delivery suits the tenor of the song.  Fortunately, this soon flows into the more symphonic instrumental of “Pieces Of Heaven”. 

X: Pieces Of Heaven

Following the heavier, more aggressive “Lay Down Your Life”, this brief (2-minute) instrumental section is a nice contrast, again demonstrating the superb use of dynamics in Transatlantic’s epic compositions.  This recalls early Flower Kings (with the addition of some pretty monstrous drumming from Mr. Portnoy…adding a stomping kick often outside the FK lexicon).

XI: Is It Really Happening?

The previous movement flows directly into an atmospheric space, punctuated by a brief Clair Tory “Great Gig In the Sky” vocal snippet and into a chilling newsreel voice-over regarding “one of the worst catastrophies of modern times…”  A somber, brooding bass pulse lugubriously underpins a plaintive, questioning vocal.  Slowly building, as the other instruments add color and texture, the repeated mantra-like litany of lyrical queries develops into a gentle instrumental passage accentuated by shimmering piano from Morse.  As though expressing increasing intensity (frustration?), big, powerful drumming, propelled by Portnoy’s seemingly inhuman double-bass attack, adds a Dream Theater punch to an otherwise Genesis-like melodic second half of the movement.

XII: Dancing With Eternal Glory/The Whirlwind (Reprise)

 This anthemic ending seems to anagogically lift both song and listener upward – back into the whirlwind, serving as both majestic conclusion and resolution.  A glorious ending to a glorious adventure spanning nearly eighty minutes!

I will admit that I have not personally been able to stomach Neal Morse’s evolution into Christian evangelization, so I was a bit concerned about being put off by potential preachy-ness.  I was quite pleased to not feel hit over the head with a need to share one’s personal spiritual beliefs.  I am genuinely happy for Mr. Morse in his own discovery of religious comfort and succor, but I just don’t wish to join him in this particular theistic experience.  I very much appreciate that his deeply-felt religious aspirations do not override the music of The Whirlwind.  Sure, there is some reflected in the lyrical content, particularly in the final movement – “Dancing With Eternal Glory”.  This is a very natural manifestation of the Weltanschauung of a songwriter as profound as Neal Morse.  Personally, I find the album more palatable in that it largely eschews any self-induced niche identification with Christian Prog.  I know that I am not alone in having had some trepidation in this regard, and I can comfortably note that there is no need for worry – this is pure Transatlantic – no CPR necessary to revive it.

Disc 2
Spinning

This opening ten-minute Stolt composition (with additional credit given to the rest of the group), sounds very much like the Flower Kings, combining Beatle-like catchy pop melodicism with brilliant musical passages that nod to early Genesis.  The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me as a favorite – a very catchy song, but one that also has a fine, complex “proggy” feel as well.  (Think, perhaps, “My New World” from SMPT:E).  Heck, the second disc is worth it for this tune alone!

Lenny Johnson

Continuing Stolt’s Beatlesque leanings, this short song (gasp! – only 4:20 – almost the length of a “normal mainstream song”) has a nostalgic, circa 1970, feel with its delicious vocal harmonies.  The John Lennon influence is particularly prominent in both the writing and Stolt’s singing.  Not nearly as “proggy” as “The Whirlwind”, this is a pleasant and well-crafted song nonetheless.  On most any non-prog album, it would be a great song.  On a Transatlantic album, it feels like a nice, but not essential bonus.

For Such A Time

Here we find Neal Morse (with additional songwriting credit to Trewavas) more overtly expressing his Christian faith, even dropping the “G Bomb”, in what is doubtless a very earnest song with anthemic pretensions.  But it works – it is a lovely, simple song that has an inspiring sense of lift both musically and lyrically.  The overt Christian message aside, this number feels akin to the beautiful “We All Need Some Light” from SMPT:E.

Lending A Hand

Pete Trewavas shows his own Beatle-influenced compositional abilities in this pleasantly dreamy nine-minute song.  Here is a prog song containing a lovely, lilting melodic hook that one might actually hum while ambulating down the street.  Augmented by some of the CD’s finest production and subtle soundscaping, this seemingly simple number boasts a sonic richness that warrants many repeated listens.  Its extended closing dissolution and return fade-in brings one back to “Strawberry Fields” (curiously covered on the first live album).  I wonder if they had a Ouiji board in the studio and channeled George Martin…  Classic Symphonic Prog?  Not really.  It is more John, Paul, George, and Ringo than Jon, Chris, Steve, Bill, and Rick – but what’s so bad about that?

The Return Of The Giant Hogweed (Genesis)
Nice choice, this is the one on this disc that best fits in with Transatlantic’s illustrious history of selecting a prog classic and rendering an impressively faithful cover that possesses a vibrancy that is not always to be found in most museum-piece-replica covers of these songs.  They nail this one pretty damn well!
A Salty Dog (Procol Harum)

This being one of my favorite Procol Harum tunes and one of Gary Brooker’s finest vocal performances, perhaps I will be forgiven for saying that I feel this is the least successful of the covers, particularly in terms of the vocals, which are more-than-adequate but somehow miss the old-as-the-sea profundity of Brooker’s reading.  This is a fine and lovingly accurate rendition to-be-sure, but it seems to lack the spark that fuels some of the other covers.

I Need You (America and The Beatles)

Here’s a fun juxtaposition that I have never considered before.  Transatlantic seems to always have a knack for fashioning clever medleys that work very well – both in terms of remaining faithful to the originals while adding a playful element of surprise.  The transition from America to The Beatles (a transatlantic voyage) is so perfectly puckish that it brought a smile to my face the first time I heard it (and on many subsequent listens too).  The nice “Day Tripper” nod on the guitar adds a playful element of spot-the-riff.

Soul Sacrifice (Santana)

Now here’s one I sure didn’t see coming.  Not only providing an opportunity for Mr. Portnoy to display his prodigious talents, this allows the entire band to demonstrate impressive versatility in their ability to boogie as well as prog-out.  Stolt adds a sharp bite to his guitar sound, at times coming remarkably close to the seemingly inimitable sound and feel of Carlos Santana.  This one rocks out magnificently, if not very differently from the original. A nice little surprise is the little “We Are Transatlantic” ditty that is tagged onto the end of “Soul Sacrifice” (after some dead air time), in the tradition of Abbey Road’s “Her Majesty” and Tony Levin’s delightful King Crimson Barbershop Quartet ditty.  It is always refreshing to hear such magnificent musicians also demonstrate a puckish sense of humor, not to mention an ode to the vinyl LP.  After the crackle of a phonograph, the dulcet tones of the mighty ukulele emerges…

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