Issue 2009-052: Transatlantic - The Whirlwind - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Whirlwind ~ Overture/Whirlwind (9:54), The Wind Blew Them All Away (6:10), On The Prowl (6:03), A Man Can Feel (6:35), Out Of The Night (4:22), Rose Colored Glasses (7:54), Evermore (4:10), Set Us Free (5:03), Lay Down Your Life (5:11), Pieces Of Heaven (2:17), Is It Really Happening? (8:12), Dancing With Eternal Glory/Whirlwind [Reprise] (12:04)
Geoff Feakes' Review
Following much speculation at the beginning of the year regarding the comings and goings of certain persons the news finally broke in April that Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas, and Roine Stolt had returned to the recording studio to mastermind the third Transatlantic album. The announcement was less a revelation and more an affirmation of what every self respecting prog fan already knew but good news all the same particularly as the last studio album Bridge Across Forever appeared way back in 2001. Now that the new album from prog’s very own super group is finally upon us the burning question is was it worth the 8 year wait? Before I give my verdict I should put this release into some kind of context.
When the vocalist/keyboardist from Spock’s Beard, the drummer from Dream Theater, the bassist from Marillion and the guitarist/vocalist from The Flower Kings decided 10 years ago to pool their collective talents resulting in the excellent debut SMPTe even they must have been unsure if this was a one off venture. A second album fortunately followed which for my money was a huge advance on the first not least for the fact that it contained all original material. From their inception the band has enjoyed covering prog and mainstream rock ‘classics’ but here they were resigned to the bonus disc. One year later however Morse announced his departure from Spock’s Beard to follow a spiritual path which also effectively put Transatlantic on hold. The DVD’s Live In Europe and Building The Bridge/Live In America followed to fill the void although to fairly mixed receptions.
Since Transatlantic’s premature demise the profile of all four members has remained high in their respective parent bands and (in Morse’s case) solo career. For that reason a reunion was always going to be well received carrying with it an air of anticipation. A criticism often levelled at the previous albums was that the band's sound was too close to Morse’s own, suggesting that he was the dominant factor. If that’s true then those critics will probably be disappointed by a significant chunk of The Whirlwind. The band's most ambitious piece to date it’s a continuous epic in 12 parts spanning a total of 78 minutes. The opening track includes a lengthy Overture heralded by a symphonic blast of strings and bombastic instrumental contributions from all concerned. The only complaint from me is that presumably to give all four musicians equal prominence the bass is overloud in the mix. The main Whirlwind theme has a particular urgency here with a strong hook that could have very easily been lifted from their last album or any of Morse’s solo offerings. A little surprisingly Stolt sings the opening verses but Morse handles the main chorus in a manner that picks up from where Stranger In Your Soul left off. It’s as if they’ve never been away.
The following three tracks are for me less immediate or involving although they each have their moments. The biting lyrics to The Wind Blew Them All Away reveals the eco message behind the whole piece whilst the jam like On The Prowl is reminiscent of Floyd’s Run Like Hell with a galloping bass riff providing the requisite momentum. Things really perk up for the fifth part Out Of The Night with an uplifting melody and the Stolt/Trewavas lead vocal partnership embellished by full on Yes style harmonies. Stolt’s archetypal lyrical guitar work includes a memorable reprise of the main Whirlwind theme which continues to crop up at regular intervals throughout the disc albeit in different guises.
Rose Coloured Glasses is another typical Morse song building from sensitive chiming acoustic guitar and tubular bells beginnings to a stately vocal refrain with the man himself injecting just the right level of emotion without going overboard. Following Evermore and Set Us Free, both of which hark back to previous glories with fast and showy instrumental work, the gothic Lay Down Your Life sees Morse adopting a cod David Coverdale vocal posture which frankly left me cold. Much better is the penultimate song and easily the albums most original Is It Really Happening. Mellotron samples introduce a haunting Roger Waters like vocal chant which builds at an effective but unhurried pace with sparse piano, guitar and drums. At its peak a lightning fast instrumental coda takes over readily bringing Liquid Tension Experiment to mind ending with a dramatic flourish.
The concluding Dancing With Eternal Glory will undoubtedly divide opinions but to mind it provides an obvious finale. The tranquil intro sets the mood with classical flavoured grand piano from Morse and gorgeous steel guitar lines from Stolt. It soon develops into a lush and spiritually uplifting ballad that displays Morse’s now characteristic religious fervour in much the same way as say Heaven In My Heart from Sola Scriptura. Like it or loath it there’s no denying its potency or the compelling hook. Soaring guitar solos and string effects all play their part as two thirds in it segues into an epic reprise of the main Whirlwind melody sounding suitably majestic complete with a grandiose orchestral climax. Completely over the top of course but lets face it from Transatlantic we wouldn’t have expected anything less.
To return to my question at the start of this review, in the final analysis and with one or two reservations then I would say yes, the band's third album has definitely been worth the wait. Whilst many I’m sure will note the frequent similarities to previous offerings there is enough standout moments and sparks of originality for me to warrant a recommendation. The performances are as you would expect exemplary throughout and special mention has to go to Mr Portnoy whose drumming is nothing short of phenomenal. I should add that my review was conducted from a single disc promotional version but The Whirlwind is available as a 2 CD Special Edition containing a bonus disc and also a 3 disc Deluxe Edition complete with a ‘Making of’ DVD. Buy and enjoy.
Edwin Roosjen's Review
Transatlantic is the best example of a super-group to me, with four talented musicians from four of the greatest progressive rock bands ever: Dream Theater (Mike Portnoy), Marillion (Pete Trewavas), Flower Kings (Roine Stolt) and Spock's Beard (Neal Morse). These super-groups are certainly no guarantee for quality output but Transatlantic is not one of those failed experiments with two years in a row winning the DPRP-poll with albums that are branded as classic. When Neal Morse left Spock's Beard and almost the entire music business, it was highly uncertain if another Transatlantic release would ever see the light of day. When after six years a new album was announced - a shiver went through the world of progressive rock, splitting the fans into two sides. One side that immediately branded it "Album of the year" and "Instant classic" whilst others claimed it would be the next repeating of the Neal Morse trick, a complaint he received on almost all his solo albums since he left Spock's Beard.
The basic version of the new album The Whirlwind is a single disc with a running time of almost 78 minutes, during which the title track is nicely split up in easily digestible parts. Of course there are many different editions of the album with bonus tracks, covers and a DVD.
The opener, Overture/Whirlwind, is very Spock's Beard like, so sceptical people will immediately scream that they were right in the fact that the new album was going to be more of the same. The first six minutes are instrumental and the last part with vocals sound as if it were directly from Snow. The Wind Blew Them All Away is slower and less energetic than the opener. The song starts with acoustic guitar but the best thing about this song are the beautiful guitar solos by Roine. The start of On The Prowl is for Pete Trewavas on his bass, joined by Neal on the keyboard. Many jazzy bits in the first part in contrast with the rock vocals in the second part of the song. A Man Can Feel has the sound of the Flower Kings, Roine at his best. Out Of The Night features the central theme that is also in the first song, used many times on Spock's Beard albums and also sounding a lot like Spock's Beard.
Rose Coloured Glasses is a mellow song with many great instrumental passages. Evermore is completely the opposite of that. Many odd timing and the keyboard is more prominent on this song. As expected many melodies return during this album and Set Us Free features some of those melodies. Lay Down Your Life is a slow and pounding rock song that mostly keeps the same rhythm. The short piece Pieces Of Heaven changes a lot during the short time it lasts. I cannot keep myself from thinking that Roine Stolt could take this song and stretch it into a ten minute epic. Is It Really Happening starts slow and keeps building up to a very heavy ending. The beauty of the first part I like the most, the ending I think comes from the hands of Portnoy, many Dream Theater influences. Dancing With Eternal Glory is a pleasant surprise, I was expecting a long reprise of all the melodies and tunes but the reprise part is a lot shorter than I expected.
In the end The Whirlwind is exactly as I expected. I expected it to sound like Spock's Beard/Neal Morse and this album sure does. I expected it to have many great solos by Roine Stolt and it does. It also has the great drumming of Mike Portnoy but he does not stretch the strange timings to the limit as he does on the Dream Theater albums. The contribution of a bass player is very underrated but the contribution of Pete Trawavas is noticeable. In its entirety I think the album is more balanced than the previous Transatlantic albums but I think that only time will tell where The Whirlwind will end up. An album like this is almost impossible to scale after only a limited listening time with MP3's that contain annoying messages. But as expected I think that The Whirlwind is a great album that will appeal to many fans for a long time, records like these are the reason I like progressive rock.
Tom De Val's Review
I feel I should preface this review with the fact that, when the first two Transatlantic albums appeared around the start of the new millennium, my head was in a very different place, prog-rock wise. Back then I couldn’t get enough of the ‘retro-prog’ revival that was finally gaining some critical and commercial appeal, and was revelling in each new album produced by the scene’s leading protagonists, Spock’s Beard (then very much led by Neal Morse) and the Flower Kings. Add to the fact that I’ve always been a big fan of both Marillion and Dream Theater, and you can imagine I was very excited to hear about the new ‘supergroup’ that became known as Transatlantic. I must have listened to the resulting albums – SMPTe and Bridge Across Forever – hundreds of times. Even back then, I found SMPTe a bit patchy, but it did have the superb epic All Of The Above in its favour, and I’ve found myself enjoying the Procul Harum cover more now than I did at the time. Looking back at a review I wrote for another site at the time of Bridge Across Forever, I was extremely complimentary about it – I would be less so now, not least because of the dragging out of a few musical ideas for much longer than they need to be – but it still has its stellar moments.
Fast-forward to the present day, and this style of music figures much less highly on my play lists. Neal Morse has, to my mind, regurgitated the same ideas once too often, and I really struggled to even listen all the way through his last album. Whether his single minded pursuit of just one subject matter is a hindrance is open to debate, but musically he seems in a bit of a cul-de-sac. Likewise, the thought of wading through another patchy 140-minute long Flower Kings effort doesn’t fill me with joy. Marillion I still enjoy, although surely even the most loyal fan would admit that Pete Trewavas’ influence on the musical style of Transatlantic is minimal, whilst Dream Theater’s latest left me pretty unmoved. For all that, however, I still felt a vague tingle of excitement and anticipation when it was announced that Transatlantic were re-convening for the long-awaited (by some) third album. Perhaps it was the memory of those previous albums, or the concert I saw by them at London’s (sadly now demolished) Astoria which, although marred by poor sound, still counts as one of the great prog gigs I’ve seen. Or perhaps it was the thought that, although the direction was bound to be influenced primarily by Morse (and to a lesser extent, Stolt), the presence of Trewavas and Portnoy might serve to curb the indulgences they might go in for on their own work and sharpen their song writing. So when the chance to participate in the customary DPRP round table I was quick to put my hand up. I am not disappointed that I did – whilst The Whirlwind is pretty predictable and has a number of faults, it has not been a chore to listen to and certainly has its share of fine moments. Whether it deserves the accolades and attention that will almost certainly be heaped on it is another matter…
To start with, you should probably lose the thought that The Whirlwind is a ’77 minute epic’. As I suspected, it is not, rather it consists of 12 separately titled pieces which are joined together (pretty well, I might add) and flow as one. Sometimes the pieces are musically linked to earlier ones (as you’d expect from a band who in the past have never used a section once when it can be used six times) but others are pretty much stand alone.
I won’t go into massive detail about the individual parts, as I’m not sure the album warrants it and I’m sure my colleagues have covered the material in enough detail. Predictably enough, we open with what has almost become de rigueur for a Morse-led project, an all encompassing overture which sees some of the main musical themes established. Getting some of the negative things out of the way first, I have to say that some of Morse’s keyboard sounds, whilst in a way comfortingly familiar, are beginning to get very jaded and almost sound out of place on some of the occasions they are utilised. Its also rather unfortunate that the main musical theme, used as it is in many different guises over the course of the album, is not one of the strongest the band have come up with, and does get rather tiresome when it appears yet again in its umpteenth incarnation. It also seems to appear at strange times, cropping up at the end of a musically-unrelated song just, it seems, to tie the whole thing together so it can justify the ’77 minute epic’ tag.
OK, moans out of the way, time to concentrate on the positives. One is the sound – it is fantastic, there’s a real sonic punch that lifts even the more mundane material to greater heights. Chief beneficiary of this is Pete Trewavas, whose bass sound is excellent throughout – as, I should say, is his playing, which seems highly dextrous and energised – probably having to flex a few more muscles than he does in Marillion these days!
Of the songs (or ‘parts’ – whatever), the first to really catch my attention is On The Prowl; driven by a lively Trewavas bass line which clearly shows why the band thought covering Return Of The Giant Hogweed on the bonus disc might seem a logical thing to do, this has a relaxed energy about it, with Stolt clearly influencing the jazzy feel of the piece (Stolt’s influence on this album definitely feels more pronounced than on the first two albums) and Morse contributing some great Hammond work. A Man Can Feel has a soulful, poppy chorus, whilst the harmony vocals are in full effect on Out Of The Night – although why the band still think it a good idea to give Trewavas and Portnoy lead vocal spots remains something of a mystery. In contrast, Roine Stolt’s vocals sound in good nick, and his jazzy guitar licks on this track are very fine indeed.
Stolt clearly leads the charge on Evermore; driven by sinewy bass and some funky guitar work, there’s a real energy here – and, as in many places, the clear fun the four players are having shine through. Stolt’s lead vocals are suitably impassioned and there’s some strong harmony work again. Lay Down Your Life is a lot of fun too, even though it mines the same Beatles sequence (the song suite that takes up the second side of the Abbey Road LP) as the Bridge Across Forever track Suite Charlotte Pike. A couple of songs are clearly primarily written by Morse; the slightly sombre ballad Rose Colored Glasses (written for his ill father) and the suitably grandiose finale, Dancing With Eternal Glory. Both attain a level of emotional resonance, yet also fall prey to a criticism that could be levelled at all three Transatlantic albums – they simply go on too long, milking limited musical ideas until the well runs dry.
Overall then, I have to say that this new Transatlantic album almost entirely met my expectations. I expected stellar musicianship, plenty of energy, some fine songs and an over-arching musical theme that ties things together. I also expected it to be rather bloated, far longer than it needed to be, and for a few musical ideas to be repeated infinitum until they got rather tiresome. When I heard the final product, all boxes were duly ticked. Ultimately, it’s a Transatlantic album, and fans will get what they are looking for. I enjoyed it, for all its flaws, but am looking forward to a break from the album, after almost constant listening over the last week for the purposes of this review. Will it make my top ten list at the end of 2009? No, but I have no doubt it will be in many others.
Ed Sander's Review
'It's Morse of the same, isn't it ?' 'Actually, I think it's the same Stolt story.' This is how a conversation with one of my fellow DPRP team members started after hearing the new Transatlantic album for the first time. I've never made a big secret of the fact that I think Transatlantic is a very overrated band. That's not to say they're bad, on the contrary, their music is quite enjoyable. However, I don't share the opinion that they're the best thing since spice racks. My main complaints about Transatlantic have been that they sound too much like projects of their members - especially Neal Morse - and miss their own distinctive sound. The second that their albums contain either too much mediocre material (SMPTe) or a continuous rehashing of the same meagre bit of music (Bridge Across Forever). Considering this, I am somewhat disappointed in myself that I rated both albums with an 8 when they were released. I should probably have been (even) more critical, especially considering that I rarely play these albums anymore.
Having said all of this, I do admit that I really like All Of The Above from the band's first album and there's some excellent segments of music to be found on Bridge Across Forever even though they are being recycled a bit too many times. Still, I was extremely skeptical when I received the promo of the band's new album. The first couple of spins confirmed that there were no big surprises or changes of style. This was once again typically Transatlantic and very much driven by the styles of Morse and Stolt. Then again, after giving the promo more spins my initial indifference changed to a more positive attitude and before long I actually found myself ordering the limited 3 disc edition online (and not just to get rid of the voice-overs present on the promo). Indeed, despite all it's flaws (more on those later) this new album was definitely the most consistent and coherent album the band have released to date. Unlike the other albums this one does not sound as something that has been quickly knocked into shape and there's much less stuff here that sounds absolutely redundant or over-repeated.
The Whirlwind is a concept album that seems to deal with ecological an political issues. As one would expect, the full piece has some recurring themes, both lyrically and musically. Lyrically there's a lot of references to the wind in most songs, while musically the theme's of The Whirlwind and Is It Really Happening appear on the album at different times and in different forms. Unlike the whole 'Motherless Children' and 'Stranger in Your Soul' thing on their previous album I never find this annoying since here it's more of the glue that binds the different songs together, whereas on Bridge Across Forever it sounded like the result of writer's block. I do think however that the album is much, much to long. I have no problem listening to half of it on the way to work and the other half on my way back, but the near 80 minutes is simply too much in one go for my attention span.
What's more, I find the albums finale Dancing With Eternal Glory suffers from the same weakness as the 5th section of Morse's Testimony album: annoyingly overdramatic and not adding anything to what's been heard in the previous 65 minutes. As far as I'm concerned they could have dropped this track altogether. It would also have saved us the semi-religious references that Morse has once again slipped in. The Wind Blew Them All Away, the second song on the album, sounded like a very premature finale to me, so it could easily take that spot on the album instead.
Without repeating the descriptions by the other guys above, I find the following to be the highlights of the album: the joyfulness and energy of the main Whirlwind theme, the bass intro and free-formed nature of the first half of On The Prowl, the vocal harmonies of A Man Can Feel and Out Of The Night, the great acceleration in Is It Really Happening with Portnoy going berserk, the quirkiness of the short Pieces Of Heaven and the wonderfully emotional Morse approach of Rose Colored Glasses (another fine alternative for an album finale). While not among my favourite moments, tracks like Evermore and Lay Down Your Life help to add the necessary diversity to the record.
Whereas Geoff dislikes the prominence of the bass guitar in the mix, I actually find it one of the strengths of the album. In some of the tracks the bass is massive ! It's got that same sound as Dave Meros has on some of the Spock's Beard albums and I think it's one of the strong points of this new CD. It proves that Peter Trewavas has much more up his sleeve that what we hear from him in Marillion these days. If only that band would once again make a song with the same driving energy as Trewavas displays here! The guitar solo's on the other hand sound a bit flat to me sometimes. Not being all that familiar with Stolt's work I'm not sure if this is caused by his style of playing or if it's the production. I get the feeling though that he tries to sound rather Gilmouresque but fails a bit too often. Maybe some echo would have done the sound a lot of good. But besides this the production of the album is top-notch.
Okay, okay ... I'll admit it. This is not pure genius, but it is the band's best album to date and I do recommend it. There!