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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Transatlantic

Whirld Tour 2010 Deluxe Edition – 2 DVD & 3 CD

Review by Scott Montgomery

This is ridiculous!  Really!  The degree of virtuosity, complexity, and sheer stamina involved in performing this music live is staggering…almost to the point of absurdity.  Well, if it be absurd, it is gloriously so.  How often does one hear “we’ve been playing for two hours and have only done two songs!” as Mike Portnoy observes in the middle of the show?   As if the sheer temporal epicocity were not enough, these two songs (and the other two thirty-minute epics) are richly composed, thematically varied, and almost impossibly demanding.   In a genre marked by epics, Transatlantic sets a new standard with this release.  If it were not so brilliantly composed and executed, this would come close to Spinal Tapism in its over-the-top out-progging prog itself endeavor.  But, the fact that it is delivered with jaw-dropping virtuosity and magnificent sincerity, renders this performance as a progressive Mt. Everest.  This is not only one of the finest releases of the year, but is a testimony to one of the pinnacles of contemporary progressive rock. If you are a fan of Transatlantic, or masterful symphonic progressive rock, then you most decidedly want this amazing set, recorded live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London on May 21, 2010 during the penultimate gig of the all-too-brief and aptly-named 2010 “Whirlwind” tour.  The very brevity of the tour (6 dates in North America and 17 in Europe – 23 shows in 11 countries) makes this an even more precious document, for those fortunate enough to attend a show on the tour and for those of us who did not share this good fortune.  This one is essential, ranking as the most extensive (and probably most essential) release by what is arguably the preeminent symphonic progressive rock group of the day.  The performance is splendid in both audio and video formats, making the Deluxe Edition a must.  Both the audio and video production are excellent.

Supergroups sometimes work and sometimes collapse under the gravitational force of super ego-collisions.  The latter was never the case with Transatlantic.  Equally, reunions of supergroups can be crap shoots – sometimes they work brilliantly, other times they crash or fizzle.  Despite their rather long hiatus, the band comes together in such a tight, organic way that it does not feel like a “reunion” as much as a belated third-tour.  If anything, the playing is simultaneously tighter and more fluidly flexible.  If improvement were a possibility with a group such as Transatlantic, then this would constitute one – however inconceivable that might be in light of their monumental achievements with their first two albums and tours.  Yes, if anything, Transatlantic has upped the ante yet again, delivering what may be the definitive statement of the epic heights that they have consistently scaled.  First of all, the very idea of a 3 ½ hour performance based on complex composition rather than extended noodly improvisation is itself impressive – indicative of both the band’s stamina and the immensity of material (despite it being culled from the band’s mere three studio releases).  The cast of characters should be familiar - Roine Stolt on electric guitars, Pete Trewavas on bass, Neal Morse on keyboards and acoustic guitars, and Mike Portnoy on drums, with Daniel Gildenlöw on electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, and percussion.  They are all master musicians of the highest caliber in rock (and even prog rock, which is saying quite a lot, yes?).  Each member of the band is rightfully acknowledged as a top-shelf musician, and the DVD/CD abundantly demonstrates the rationale for this acclaim.  Also, all five sing exceptionally well, both individually and together.  While Morse arguably possesses the most powerful and beautiful voice of the crew, all four (five including the remarkable Mr. Gildenlöw) are able vocalists, as well, and the mix of voices allows for great variety and rich vocal harmonies, as they can become quite a strong choir.  (It is nice to see a band that does not need to hire a troupe of ladies in short black skirts to provide a strong choragic presence).  The augmentation of the four-piece Transatlantic with the astoundingly versatile and virtuoso Daniel Gildenlöw (of Pain of Salvation fame) is a felicitous choice in that it helps flesh out the music’s dynamic richness and coloration in a live setting.  The sheer enjoyment of playing is apparent in all the musicians, even the stoic Stolt.  It is a pleasure to watch the camaraderie and interplay between these über-musicians.  Morse beams, as he veritably testifies.  Trewavas is animated as ever.  Portnoy is at his affable monster best.  Gildenlöw tends to exhibit the “rock star posture” more than the rest of the group.  While this is normally understated by his background placement on the stage, it is very much foregrounded when he launches to the front and center of the stage for a feature spot of guitar shredding on “Stranger in Your Soul.”  He plays magnificently, but the rock and roll jump-jive looks a bit silly in the context of Transatlantic’s symphonic majesty.   Nevertheless, he does seem to be enjoying himself immensely…and why not? 

Given that the concert performance is the same on both the CDs and the DVDs, I will discuss them together, addressing both audio and visual elements.  The first DVD (and first and second CDs) contain the body of the concert, while the second DVD (and third CD) contain the lengthy encore set – thirty-six minutes – as long as some bands play for their main set!   The stage set is simple, with little in the way of visuals other than The Whirlwind cover art as a backdrop.  Transatlantic has never really developed a strong visual element other than Per Nordin’s great, emblematic “mothership” spacecraft design.  Given the band’s emphasis on pure, virtuostic playing, the simple setting keeps the focus all on the auditory side.  All said and done, it is really all about the music here.  But, this does not mean that the film is dull.  Far from it!  It is a treat to watch such a cadre of truly extraordinary musicians at their best.  Plus, the band members are quite animated on stage and the very real camaraderie between the musicians is a pleasure to watch…but even this visual emphasis serves to focus on the performance of music, not spectacle.  The film quality is excellent and the editing is good, providing fine views and a nice variety of shots.  My only (minor) quibble would be that it does frequently cut between shots a bit too fast for my comfort.  The intent seems to be going for a simultaneous presentation of the whole concert via many quickly juxtaposed views.  This works to give a holistic sense of the performance, but I enjoy it more when the camera does stay focused on a particularly interesting vista, such as Stolt’s supple and fleet fingers or Portnoy’s stick magic. To top it all off, the entire thing comes in nice visual packaging.  Transatlantic have had a very consistent visual identity in terms of their cover art and this new release is in keeping with that consistency.  In keeping with this, the cover design uses Per Nordin’s signature Transatlantic spacecraft juxtaposed above a live photo of the band and a world map below.  Thomas Ewerhard’s design and layout are excellent. The outer package contains individual fold-out sleeves for the DVD and CD sets – each with a multi-page booklet with pictures and text.  The photos and texts are informative and interesting.  All in all, it is good layout and packaging.  My only real complaint is that the CD holders in the digipack hold onto the discs too tenaciously.  I had to transfer mine to standard jewel cases to avoid the risk of breaking the discs trying to extract them from these overly-tenacious disc holders.  Well, if that is my only complaint, no worries – just transfer the CDs into more functional jewel cases and you’re set. Yes, this is it – not only one of the finest releases of the year, but probably of the decade.  This one is positively essential. 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
DVD extras
The Return Of The Giant Hogweed (with Steve Hackett)

Performed at the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park, London on July 24, 2010, this is the encore from the last show by Transatlantic, for “how long?”, as Portnoy tells the crowd when introducing Steve Hackett (who was himself to play on the festival billing the following evening).  The band clearly decided to wrap the tour up on a particularly high note, continuing their legacy of superb renditions of prog classics, only this time with an especially special guest.  What we have is a meeting of three generations of prog royalty.  OK, who would not want to check this out? 

This number continues the demonstration that, in addition to being one of the greatest epic symphonic prog bands of all time, Transatlantic is also a masterful “cover band.”  Not only can they play perfect note-for-note renditions, they ably glide between mimetic exactitude and nuances that provide a fresh vitality, taking the number beyond the slavish cover.  This is perhaps most pronounced on “…Hogweed” where Hackett masterfully weaves new tonalities and electricity into the song.  His mastery of sound modulation and inventive guitaristry are abundantly apparent, as he calmly plays with stupendous form.  Equally, the entire Transatlantic band plays with virtuosity – a worthy group to play “Hogweed with Hackett.”  Morse sings the song very well, ably handling all the power and dynamics of the lyrical delivery, while also playing organ and synthesized flute patches – essentially playing Banks and Gabriel simultaneously.  The energetic guitar relay between masters Hackett and Stolt during the fiery middle portion of the song is worth the price of admission alone!  To make it even better, the filming is very good – providing the much-desired close-up shots of all those magical fingers.  What a treat!

Behind the Scenes

The most extensive bonus feature is the entertaining two-hour documentary (“Behind The Scenes”) that essentially chronicles the progression of the tour – from the first day of rehearsals to the last gig of the tour.  The documentary opens with interviews with fans in line for the London gig (featured in the full-concert DVD) - mostly from England, but a few very happy (and lucky) Brazilians who traveled quite a long way for this show.  The musicianship and creativity of the band are universally stressed, acknowledging their near peerless status in the realm of collective prog virtuosity today.  The fan interviews are interesting and affirming, but I guess that I don’t really feel compelled to watch other fans opine…I would rather see some band footage…but that is coming.  But, that said, these snippets of fanviews provide good documentary reference regarding the significance of the performance captured on this amazing film. 

We then turn to rehearsal footage, beginning with the initial April 12 gathering and first run-through warm-ups.  Five days of rehearsals are condensed into this pre-tour segment.  It is interesting to see the run-through bits, but naturally the full-bore complete versions in the concert are infinitely more satisfying.  Transatlantic have always been generous with the release of behind-the-scenes footage, and this adds to that tradition, here mostly shot with Neal Morse’s camcorder.  There is a loose, choppy home video, film everything at random style to the footage – a verité quality.  Oftentimes the shots are a bit too jumpy for comfortable viewing, but it all provides an informative, and ultimately, enjoyable document of the entire tour experience.  The genuine sense of camaraderie and mutual respect is consistently evident.  The charm of these individuals comes abundantly to the forefront.  Watching/hearing the band members discuss how much work it really is to prepare for these performances – musically, technically, and stamina-building – is revelatory for anyone who has not given much thought to what it would take to play Transatlantic’s music (but, I suspect that everyone watching this footage is probably cognizant of all this in the first place).  A spontaneous jam on “Drive My Car” prompts Portnoy to observe that this is the first Transatlantic release that doesn’t feature any Beatles songs.  Of course, given the unpredictability of Transatlantic, this proves to be inaccurate. 

From these rehearsals, we follow the band chronologically through the April North American and May European legs of the Whirlwind Tour, complete with soundchecks, breakfasts, and everything in between. While it is interesting to see, particularly in terms of the friendly, interpersonal dynamic of the group, much of this footage is likely to be watched only once, and even then only by fanatical fans or scholars researching the history of prog in the early Twenty-first century.  As with the non-musical bonus footage from their other DVD releases, I am not likely to watch this material with any regularity, except for the wonderful inclusion of bits-and-pieces from performances on the tour.  These tantalizing live snippets are what really make this tour documentary worth subsequent viewings.  The inclusion of bits of cover songs abundantly demonstrates how one can never tell what Transatlantic will throw into the mix.  Though most of the songs contained are incomplete, there are some very amusing highlights – “Manchester England” from Hair played in Manchester, Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” with Portnoy singing and playing bass, a nearly unaccompanied bass-pedal solo by Portnoy (the most subtle of prog references…..alluding to Peter Gabriel’s puckish announcement of Michael Rutherford’s single-note “solo” on the Genesis Live album), Portnoy conducting spontaneous band inventions à la Zappa, a rollicking “Smoke on the Water” with a bit instrument switch (Trewavas on keyboards, Portnoy on bass and vocals, Gildenlöw on drums, and Morse and Stolt on guitars), a spontaneous tongue-in-cheek version of “Hooked on a Feeling” with Portnoy and Gildenlöw providing the signature “ooga chaka” chorus, and an impromptu version of the Beatles’ “Birthday” to celebrate Mike Portnoy’s B-day…..so much for a non-Beatles tour!  These bits underscore the fun and sense of play that balances the seriousness of the band’s musical output.  This is a band’s band – simultaneously tight and loose.

The eighteen-minute interview – more a conversation among the band members – is quite interesting.  They discuss a variety of topics, including the hiatus and reunion of the band, the band chemistry, the Whirlwind album, reflections on the tour (on the eve of the final performance), and future plans.  Among the more interesting bits is the discussion of the writing process, including the band’s reactions to Neal Morse’s “religious” lyrical contributions.  Most refreshing is the commentary that it is all for the pure enjoyment of the music and the chemistry between the musicians who all have “day job” gigs in more consistently regular bands.  The notion that Transatlantic is something special and genuinely heartfelt comes through.  Regarding future plans, Portnoy expresses hope, noting that he does not consider this a side project anymore.  General agreement that this could be a recurring project every 2-3 years certainly gives hope that there might still be more of the Transatlantic voyage.

Encores – Disc 3
Bridge Across Forever

“Bridge Across Forever” (6:03) begins the lengthy “Encore Set” as the shortest number of the evening, clocking in at a mere six minutes.  A very gentle first encore is largely performed solo by Morse, with subtle texture by Stolt and Gildenlöw.  Suitably atmospheric and ponderous, bordering on elegiac, this provides a soft, short, quiet yin to the yang that comes immediately afterward in the form of the intense, epic, and rollicking second encore – “Stranger in Your Soul” – that is heralded by Portnoy’s thunderous drumming.  The sheer power and majesty of the second encore quickly overshadows its mild predecessor.  But, the brief respite of “Bridge Across Forever” adds a lovely counterpoint of quietude and traditional song structure amidst an evening of monumental works.  This is not a token short song throwaway – Transatlantic does not ever really play as such.  Rather, in its brevity and simplicity it adds further variation to the overall mix of the performance.

Stranger in Your Soul
Some bands might have chosen to end on that air of quiet finality, but Transatlantic has other plans – one more massive piece of music to round out the evening on a suitably epic note – the mighty “Stranger In Your Soul” (30:00).  This song is so varied that it is difficult to describe.  There are moments of utterly spine-tingling beauty, intricate twists, instrumental virtuoso, bravado, storming jam-outs, superb vocal interplay, heavy bombast…it pretty much has it all.  This is probably why Neal Morse has termed it “the epic to end all epics.”  (A hyperbolic claim to be sure, but one for which a strong case can be made).  What could be said, other than this is a particularly spectacular version of this song?  It also contains some of the most visually interesting moments in the concert, serving as a genuine “big” finale.  As the song builds, well into the number, Morse intones “this is the part where everybody goes completely insane!”  And indeed it gets a bit wild and wooly for your standard, serious prog concert.  Morse jogs over to the drums, joins Portnoy for a while as they execute a perfectly seamless transition as Morse takes over the kit and Portnoy walks to the front of the stage.  Preparing to engage in his tradition of crowd-surfing, he preps the crowd to carry his (not insubstantial) person to the back of the theatre, while the band steams forward powerfully.  After a crowd fondle (“that guy grabbed my butt…it was awesome!”), Portnoy rides the crowd back to the stage where he joins Morse at the drums.  They perform another ridiculously fluid and seamless transition on the drums and Morse returns to the keyboards.  The Morse-Portnoy interplay continues with synchronized growls and Morse’s request for a particularly astonishing Portnoy crossover roll.  It’s great stuff – both sonically and visually! 

Morse’s rich, clear voice finally begins to show the strain of over two hours of strong singing.  This actually works as he sings the lyrics “and when I strain my voice, I will be assured,” as it seems to accentuate the strain and subsequent reassurance.  And still he sings marvelously with power and conviction.  There is an almost ecclesiastic joy and zeal in Neal.  The whole band brings it to a mighty, majestic conclusion.  Woof!!!  A monumental, epic song closes a monumentally epic performance which began with the epic-of-all-epics. 

Five master musicians gather at the front of the stage, acknowledging the audience and basking in the appreciation of a truly super supergroup.  They have achieved something genuinely grand.  Portnoy leaves the stage with a tantalizing allusion – “Thanks…we’ll see you again.”  One certainly hopes so!  In the meantime, thank goodness this was all recorded.

Set 1 – Disc 1
The Whirlwind

Five master musicians walk onstage and soon launch into the magnum opus “The Whirlwind” (79:52) - an epic composition that is, to my knowledge, the longest single prog epic written and performed live as a single song.  This is positively jaw-dropping.  This ridiculously complex number is exquisitely played.  It is comprised of many parts, yet it holds together comfortably as a single grand-scale composition.  Watching this is an astounding experience, and one that simply must be seen.  That said, it certainly is more often that I listen to, rather than watch, this performance.  How many times does one really watch eighty minutes of continuous music?  Certainly less than one listens to the same music. 

In many ways this live version of “The Whirlwind” exceeds its studio sibling.  Perhaps the astounding endurance of the whole endeavor is part of it, but there is a vibrancy that is palpable…it is played with fire…and even some sense of play.  The first six minutes constitute a grand introduction/overture, before sliding into the distinctly Yes-like first vocal movement.  No, it does not sound derivative, but rather fresh and unmistakably signature Transatlantic.  There is too much to even address here – just listen/watch and enjoy!

Twenty minutes in, when Morse intones the “rock the house” lyric, the crowd’s response prompts Portnoy’s chiding encouragement to give it up more enthusiastically.  It is OK and even expected to cut loose.  After all, the band cuts loose and plays with the music it is playing.  At the sixty-seven minute mark, the band does enjoy an exceptionally brief “pause” which leads to a solo Morse vocal/piano part, which soon leads back into a new “movement” toward the finale…still thirteen minutes away.  This is really the only pause in the entire, bravura performance.  There is a very symphonic nature to the composition, which is arranged in seamlessly-woven movements.  By the seventy-eighth minute they hit the finale crescendo, bringing the theme back to the initial statement in the overture – the symphony resolves itself in its completion.  The crowd erupts in rapturous applause, the musicians beam triumphantly, and Portnoy announces a short intermission and promises a lot more music to come.

The sheer audacity and endurance of performing the eighty-minute “The Whirlwind” followed by a second set largely built on two additional thirty-minute(ish) epics and another thirty-minute one for an encore surely constitutes one of prog music’s most aspirant moments (heck, one of rock music’s most aspirant moments).  The scope and magnitude is mighty.  Perhaps the closest parallel can be found in Yes’ astounding Tales From Topographic Oceans tours in 1973-1974, which involved a set of the entire Tales From Topographic Oceans and a set of the entirety of Close to the Edge. I have always considered this tour to be among rock’s most aspirant moments (and successfully so) in terms of musical virtuosity, visual presentation and sheer audacity.  But even this mighty feat is surpassed in terms of endurance by what Transatlantic has done here.  “The Whirlwind,” played without break, is nearly the same length as all four pieces of …Topographic…  And this is followed by a set that begins with another piece of thirty-minutes time (an epic nearing the length of the length of the lion’s share of the Close to the Edge album….but there are yet two more still to come – Geez!  Ridiculous?  Call it what you like, but I call it successful and astonishing in extremis.  I believe that this is a significant moment in rock history.  (As such, it should be appreciated by rock aficionados and historians even beyond the greater realm of progdom).

Set 2 – Disc 2
All of the Above

So, after a first set comprised of a single symphonic rock epic approaching an hour and a half, what does one do to open a successive set?  Clearly, by going back to the first song on the first album, the band’s epic “All Of The Above” (30:19), which is actually composed in a similar structure to the dramatically more expansive number of the first set.  For me, this will always be the signature epic/song for the band, as it was here that I first fell in love with their music.  While tight and magnificently rendered, this is not a slavishly studio-consistent rendition.  As ever, the band plays with the structure and teases splendid new nuances from familiar forms.  Does one need another version of this piece?  Yes, absolutely!  It is a live version that is true in spirit, and largely in formal execution, but that warrants repeated listening.  Even with such tightly orchestrated songs, they find room to roam, to keep breathing life into the song.  Phrasing, accents, nuances, and downright deviations add a vibrant newness to the number.  There is a big jam in the middle that is very different from the studio version – very live.  They even interpolate a brief iconic quotation from Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” the complete cover version of which is included in the essential Deluxe Edition of “The Whirlwind.” 

We All Need Some Light
At the end of that second epic number, Portnoy notes that the band has been playing for two hours and only done two songs thus far.  “In a night filled with epics, we also do want to take a slight little breather… and turn the stage over to Mr. Roine Stolt and Mr. Neal Morse.”  This leads to a lovely guitar duet of acoustic twelve-string (Morse) and electric six string (Stolt).  The multi-talented Morse demonstrates what a fine guitarist he is.  Weaving a tapestry of intertwined melodies and textures, the two turn this “breather” into a rich, exquisite introduction to the sweet “We All Need Some Light” (8:40) which builds delicately and lyrically.    A very tasty guitar lead duet toward the end, gives the gentle song a nice musical thickening.  In puckish Transatlantic spirit, the vocal roles are inverted, with Stolt singing the lead vocals and Morse singing the occasional vocal response.  This is a nice way to breathe some variation into a familiar tune – further evidence of the band’s flexible capacity and willingness to explore and play. The audience sings along in a loud choir – all is well.
Duel With the Devil

The second set reaches its finale with a magnificent rendition of “Duel With The Devil” (28:31).  I will admit that this was never my favorite of Transatlantic songs, perhaps a bit too heavy at times, but this rendition has converted me entirely.  This makes me wonder why I did not immediately glom on to this one, since I really enjoy this live version – it is positively brilliant.  Perhaps it is the very live nature of it that makes the heavy parts more appealing in the way that they play off the gentler parts, and such dynamics are almost more exciting live.  (Instead of using a pre-recorded string section, however, it might have been nice to see them play this exquisite string introduction themselves, just to hear what they would do with it.)  Of course, they play with the score a bit, adding a brief, but nice, Portnoy drum solo which leads to a buoyantly dreamy jam highlighted by a great guitar solo by Stolt, who again demonstrates that he is one of the most tasteful guitarists around.

A brief “Highway Star” interpolation that flits in and out is typical of Transatlantic’s puckishly fluid approach to incorporating snippets of old classics into their own “new classics.”  Appropriately it appears immediately after the “will you ride off in the distance like some highway star?...” so naturally the band rides off a bit on “Highway Star.”  One of the refreshing things about Transatlantic is the referential play with rock’s own history.  (More of this is on display in the tour documentary that is a special feature on the DVD).

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