- 2 Epics on One Album!
If there’s a band whose members certainly keep busy, it’s Transatlantic. Featuring an international lineup hailing from Sweden, USA, and England, the Morse/Portnoy/Stolt/Trewavas combination is truly magical. The year 2009 saw the reunion of the band after a 7 year hiatus when they released their masterpiece The Whirlwind, an album length piece of music full of emotion, catchy vocals, and complex musicianship to make you wow in excitement at times and shed a tear of joy at others. Five years and a slew of albums later from this all-star quartet in their respective bands leads us to us a stunning new album, Kaleidoscope, clocking in at approximately 75 minutes over the course of 5 tracks; just what the prog doctor ordered. But we’re not talking 13 minutes apiece average here. We’re talking two epics at a whopping 25 and 32 minutes respectively separated by a trio of shorter tracks that enrich the flow of the album and give us a bit of a breather as we ingest so much epic music.
I’ll perhaps be a bit unconventional today and depart from my tendency to review an album from front to back; this time we’re starting off with the title track, “Kaleidoscope,” an amazing piece offering 30+ minutes of music. The first thing that caught my attention about this one was how Neal Morse-like it sounds. From the start I’m hearing a lot that reminds me of the Testimony albums, everything from the interplay between guitar riffs and keys to some of the hints of eastern music in the first couple of minutes. When Neal’s vocals come in we hear what we expect: upbeat, even bouncy/catchy melodies and a chorus in a style we are very familiar with. Everything keeps chugging along in quality-Transatlantic fashion and then at around 8:40 there was something new that struck my ears. There’s this melodic melancholy section consisting of a super-juicy Roine lead playing a slow line with savory Mellotron 3 violins swelling in the background; it’s a total TFK moment. Pete’s moving bass part here is spot on, and when the snare comes in hitting on the beat it is intense. Transition here to Roine on lead vocals for a verse section which is foreboding with just a touch of jazz, great head nodding groove, and this sinister little riff that keeps coming in and out between sections, adding an evocative mood contrast. What’s up next is a real treat: a jazzy, Neal laying down some fantastic phrasing on the synth lead followed by perhaps the best of Roine’s guitar solos on the album over a bed of marvelous walking bass-lines by Trewavas. About 17 minutes into the track there’s a cello melody that carries us up, up and away as Stolt’s guitar eventually takes over the melody–supported by loads of strings–before taking us to a big change of pace. Neal pulls out the acoustic guitar and makes the setting a bit more intimate with a little acoustic folk part. The minimalism of the part works out quite nicely and certainly serves to augment the eventual Mellotron swells and little ringing bells. Simple, yet catchy, hooks in this section are a good argument for Portnoy’s frequent claims of Neal as a master songwriter. As we move through last 10 minutes or so of the song we get a lot of what us Transatlantic fans crave: screaming Hammond and proggy instrumentals to the max that perfect blend the styles of each performer before capping it off with a big Neal Morse style chorus.
Between the final track, “Kaleidoscope,” and the grandiose opener, “Into the Blue,” Transatlantic calms it down a bit with two ballad-esque pieces sandwiching a straightforward rocker. The first of these soft pieces is “Shine,” a song that recently saw the release of a music video and which many are most likely familiar with at this point. Basically it’s a sort of spiritual ballad that’s mellow all the way through. Of course, Roine’s solos on this one are uber-tasty, but what really came as a surprise was the Beetle’s-esque moment in the middle of the track where Mike Portnoy delivers fantastic vocals. For those who may or may not be Dream Theater fans and who have often complained about Mike’s vocals, I can assure you that his trippy hippy singing on this one really hit the mark and made me hoping for more of this sort of thing from Mike in the future. Following “Shine” is “Black as the Sky,” a rocking neo-proggy piece that banks on being catchy and hard-hitting, plowing through with big sound and loads of keyboard leads all the way. Finally, the trio of short pieces ends with “Beyond the Sun,” a song that will blind you with its uplifting beauty. The instrumentation is interesting here, pretty much just cello, piano, and Roine’s reverb-laded guitar leads doing all kinds of bendy Gilmour-esque stuff, making heavy use of of swells and ambiance. With excellent melodies and a gorgeous mood to boot, this piece is certainly heavenly and, as a bonus, leads in perfectly to the closer: “Kaleidoscope.”
I figured I should leave the best for last, and in the case of the new Transatlantic album, the most impressive piece certainly is the opener, “Into the Blue.” This massive track kicks off the record by deftly moving from a beautiful cello melody to a triumphant theme in Transatlantic style. The band wastes no time to go all guns blazing with Portnoy upping the intensity to 11 with fierce drum solos over a section that screams out The Flower Kings–always a good move in my book. From there we move into one of Roine’s signature heavy classic rock guitar riffs; soloing ensues on all ends before a simple (yet memorable) dark melody as the band preps us for the first verse. At this point the style makes a massive shift into the Neil Morse songwriter direction as Neal delivers “The Dreamer and the Healer.” Slow rotor Hammond takes over with sustained guitar, subtle shifts in bass, tron 3 violin swells, and a powerful sense of nostalgia carrying us to an uplifting chorus and beyond. Following a heavenly post-chorus full of synth leads and choirs, the song takes us back to the heavy guitar riff we saw earlier, but this time replaces it quickly with a bass line and Stolt on vocals, reminding very much of the last two Flower Kings records. The solo section here really gets powerful with Roine’s creative phrasing and some ultra-tasty drumming by Mr. Portnoy. The build here is absolutely incredible with Mike and Neal laying down dose after dose of added intensity with Mike’s drumming really shining all through the massive build up following the guitar solo, terminating in a gigantic sonic explosion.
After almost 17 minutes of pure prog bliss I asked myself, “how can it get any better?” Enter Daniel Gildenlow, frontman of Swedish modern progger’s Pain of Salvation. Over a ambient tapestry of sound, Gildenlow’s delicate, emotional voice, poignant use of dynamic and phrasing, and mammoth range prove here that he is one of the absolute best singers in prog. The section is very Morse, but Daniel’s voice is just what elevates it from great to spectacular. As sparkly acoustic guitars and Mellotron flute come in we get another verse before an explosive pipe-organ section with Neal’s voice entering the stage again; the contrast is, at first, a move from heavenly to ominous, but the chord changes do lighten it up a bit. From here to the end we see the return of principal themes teetering on a catwalk between foreboding and triumphant before taking us to a final uplifting chorus. When silence returns and you feel the sweat running down your forehead, you realize that in the next 11 months which will round out 2014 this song will be the standard by which all others are judged. It’s that good.
And there you have it. At this point I feel like I should be saying “Another year gone by and Transatlantic leaves all other albums from this year in their dust.” Unfortunately it’s only January, and there’s still plenty of time for many brilliant albums to come out, and I’m sure this year will see many mind-blowing prog releases. Regardless, when it comes to Kaleidoscope, the bottom line is that the Morse, Stolt, Portnoy, Trewavas combination once again delivers some of the finest epic pieces we could could ask for.