Introductions to the Roundtable Review
Bridge Across Forever is the follow-up to the bands 1999 debut album SMPTe.
I don't consider Transatlantic to be real "supergroup", but it's quite interesting to see how the melting of different prog rock styles will work out.
BJ: This is probably one of the most anticipated albums of the (so far somewhat disappointing) year 2001. Last year's SMPTe was, albeit not a very original album, one of my favourites of 2000. Therefore I had great expectations for this second album, which promised to be more of a band effort, and less of a Neal Morse ego-trip, than the previous one.
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Prologue'. Welcome everybody to our weekly cooking show. Today we will help you prepare some fine dishes from the new book of recipes by Neal Morse, co-written by Peter Trewavas, Roine Stolt and Mike Portnoy. These fine chefs from the 'quantity above quality' school of cooking will guide us through the necessary preparations for a dinner with proggy friends that will already be known as 'the best supper of 2001' before they have even tasted a single spoon. But beware, not only the cover of their new cooking book is a rehash of their previous publication !
JJ: The first Transatlantic album was received by me with enthusiasm. And although it was received by the fans as the best album of last year, it got some criticism as well for being 'too Spock Beard-like' as a result of the prominent position of Neal Morse. With Bridge Across Forever the quartet managed to give some more room - both soundwise and musically - to the other members.
Roine Stolt brings in more vocal-parts, like the Walk Away part of Duel with the Devil and the mr.Wonderful part in Suite Charlotte Pike as well as a more prominent Howe-ish guitar sound. Portnoy made the album sound a bit harder and bluesier and Trewavas is much more audible in the mix (Stranger in your Soul). This latter point (in-audibility of the bass) was my only complaint on the first album. Now, he's more present than on any Marillion album and he shows he's a great bass-player.
So far what changed; what remained is great musicianship, lovely keyboard-solos (end of Walk Away), long arrangements and repetitive themes. Talking about repetition, no less than three themes (Motherless Children, If She Runs, and Lost and Found) are officially revisited in several tracks on the album. But there are more reoccurrences of melody-lines. It makes the songs fit together, but at the same time sometimes hard to recognise which song is what.
Duel with the Devil
After 15 minutes, the rest of the track mainly consists of themes that were introduced earlier, but played with some variations. This part certainly is not bad, but should have been a bit shorter, as we've heard most of it before. But all in all, this is great and pretty exciting opening track.
BJ: The track opens with a cello, before the band kicks in and the obligatory guitar solo starts. Immediately it becomes clear that the band continues along the same line as on SMPTe, although the whole thing is a bit heavier than on the previous album. Especially Portnoy's drums are far more prominent in the mix, and come closer to the Dream Theater sound than previously. Also, there is not such a blatant Neal Morse influence as there was in the opening notes of SMPTe. I'd say it sounds more like The Flower Kings than Spock's Beard, and heck, there's even a bit of IQ in it.
Naturally the Spock's Beard comparison comes back as soon as Neal Morse starts singing the first part, Motherless Children - this is Beard all over again.
The second vocal part, Walk Away has a very strong Yes feel, not in the last place because of Stolt's guitar playing (think Turn of the Century). Now here's a thing I missed on SMPTe: there is more than one singer in this band, so why not alternate the vocal parts between the singers! On SMPTe it was just My New World, that was sung by Stolt, and In Held (twas) in I where all four sang a bit. Here it is applied more. Walk away is sung by Stolt, while the backing vocals are mainly done by Portnoy. Great stuff.
A great organ solo with heavy guitars, powerful drums and some great bass precede a more relaxed bit, Silence of the Night, in which Stolt's distorted guitar is accompanied by a saxophone. Even though the melody is pretty much the same as the melody of Motherless Children, the first six minutes of the track, this is still a wonderful bit.
It is the next part where the track tends to drag on for a bit too long. Another Beardy organ solo, more relaxed, atmospheric music and... we're listening to Motherless Children again. This time it's played a bit faster and sung differently, but you can't hide the feeling that there hasn't been a lot of variation in the past 18 minutes...
Then it's time for a massive Steve Howe meets Dave Gilmour guitarsolo, which is so predictable that I could hum along to it the first time I heard it. After this we get... yet another Spock's Beard type organ bit, (including a tiny bit of Dream Theater) followed by yet again the same theme of Motherless Children, this time accompanied a children's choir, and followed by a repetition of almost the exact same guitar solo.
Although this first track sounds pretty good, with some excellent, massive prog bits, I can't help but noting that it's at least 10 minutes too long. I mean, the last 10 minutes are nothing more than repetitions of the themes of the first 15. But it sounds good though...
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Lesson 1'. Ingredients: one fine little tune called Motherless Children, another fine piece called Walk Away, a Spock's Beardish overture, a short cello intro (extracted from a song called Stranger in Your Soul) and one delicious guitar solo.
Create your first epic by following the next simple steps. Take the cello intro (don't throw away any remaining cello, you might need it later on). Add the Spock's Beardish overture, the Motherless Children tune and the guitar solo, followed by the Walk Away song. All of this makes a fine piece of music of 11 minutes.
What ?! Not long enough ? Well, since you haven't got any other ingredients, the only option you've got left is use some more of the same, creating a larger portion. Try this: add three different arrangements of Motherless Children, one more ounce of the guitar solo, two more spoons of the Spock's Beard overture and top it off with another double dosis of the guitar solo. How's that ? 27 minutes ! Well done ! You're a fine trainee. On to the next recipe.
JJ: From the first albums we know Transatlantic takes the time to explore things and on Bridge Across Forever this is no difference. For instance the Silence of the Night part of Duel with the Devil slowly builds on in a almost jazzy mood, which reaches its climax in a sax-solo. You hardly feel that this solo is part of the same song as the ferocious hammond solo, that concluded the previous section. Both long tracks require several listenings and patience. But if you have it, there's much beauty to discover, like the You're Not Alone part of Duel with the Devil with its nice harmonies and great transition to the opening theme reprise. Of course you already knew Neal Morse is a master of grand finales and with Almost Home you get one including keyboard and guitar-solo. Symphonic music indeed.
Remco: The classical opening of the new TransAtlantic album with cello and violin reminds us what this is
supposed to be: a symphonic rock album, based on a well-known classical music scheme of variations on a
theme (Thema Con Variatione in the official Italian phrasing). As in any composition with that
structure, the theme of the symphony that is the
album is laid down in the first movement, Motherless
Children. This theme reoccurs throughout the other movements on the album in various ways and
variations. The melody of the theme is extremely catchy, and is as such very well suited. Also, it is
a very beautiful melody, one of the best melodic movements I have heard in recent times.
The influence of Stolt on the composition can be heard here, also in the more experimental short interludes. Morse, of course, is also very present on the album with his typical Beardish organ whirls. Still, the album is much more of a tight band effort than the first album, even though this is supposedly a "live in the studio" record. Walk away, for instance, is much more influenced by The Flower Kings than by Spocks' Beard, but still the influence of Morse can be heard, especially when another flashing organ solo sets in. Combined with the excellent rhythmic support by Portnoy, this is the first time I felt that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, so in that respect the album is definitely a success. The problem is, though, that undoubtedly we will have the same winner of the DPRP Poll as last year ;-).
The next movement is a slow, jazzy part, again a variation on the Motherless Children theme, but very tasteful with great wah-wah guitar and a sax-solo. The theme next reoccurs not in the music, but in the lyrics in You're Not Alone. Almost Home features the theme with a choir, slowly building up to the climax of the track, almost in a Gospel way, and ends with four minutes of intense guitar playing, larded with tubular bells and a tapestry of keyboards. And before you know it, half an hour has passed and you still have the feeling you have got a grip on the track, that you know what happened and that you spend half an hour in another world, where things are better. This, to me, is what constitutes great music, and there is no denying it, this is great music.
Suite Charlotte Pike
This track has a strong retro feel. It consists of several parts and melody lines, and at times the band is doing wild sixties rock. As this piece is not too original and progressive, and therefore it's my least favourite on the album.
BJ: The track starts with a jam, wich sounds rather familiar to Lenny Kravitz' American Woman. It goes wrong (although not entirely clear to me whose fault it is) and the band immediately continues into a second take. Although it is quite funny to hear this mistake left in, I can't quite figure out why. I mean, there is a whole bonus disc which should contain jams and mistakes like this, so why put it on the album. But then again, it isn't too disturbing, and if nothing else makes a nice intro to the track.
Now the rest of the track... According to the diary on the official website it was meant as an ode to the Beatles and a way to use some unfinished bits that the four had lying around. The result is a rather messy track and the way the various bits are glued together make it sound like medley, rather than a real track.
It all sounds pretty good though, hey, it sounds like Beatles and that's still hip, even 30+ years later. Personally I'd say, one Oasis is enough, but clearly the Transatlantic guys see it differently. "Call it the Beatle inside of me" apologises Morse in If She Runs.
Once again, all four sing a few bits and to me that is the biggest charm of this track, which in any case sounds very nice, but seems a bit messy though.
What I can't really understand though, is why this track also contains parts of the two epics on the album. There is a bit called Lost and Found, which has a part 2 in Stranger in your Soul. Furthermore, the Temple of the Gods contains more lyrics of Stranger in your Soul (sung by -I think- Mike Portnoy this time) and Roine Stolt does an otherwise great -but in this context useless- reprise of (yet again) Motherless Children, the main theme of the Duel with the Devil epic.
The track finishes with a reprise of If She Runs, nicely played and sung in a different key and pace. A pity about the fade-out though (more on that later)
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Lesson 2'. We're going to make something we call a 'Farmer's Omelette' in Holland. A mixture of bits and pieces that normally would be considered a culinary crime when served on one plate, but when mixed, stirred and fried make a nice quick bite ! Check your cupboard for anything useful ingredient. What did you find ? A song called If She Runs, a jam based on
Lenny Kravitz' American Woman, a song called Mr. Wonderful, one called Lost and Found and one called Temple of the Gods. Fine, that should do for now.
Start with the Kravitz jam. Oops, you spilled something there. Never mind, start again, we'll leave the mistake in because it adds more time to the result. Quickly add the 4 different songs before the jam goes stale. Great, another 11 minute tune finished ! Wazzup ? Not enough ? Okay, what have you got left ? A bit of Motherless Children from lesson 1 and some more If She Runs ? Well, put these two in a bowl and stir them very slowly. There, another one and a half minute. But something is not right, we're missing an ending. I've got an ingredient we need for lesson 4; backing vocals for Sleeping Wide Awake, take a pinch and jam along with it for some more minutes. Voila ! Another 14+ minute epic is born.
There is one big danger in the approach of the 'Farmer's Omelette'; if your guests do not like one of the ingredients, they will not like the whole omelette since they will not be able to eat the ingredients separately. Personally I'm not that crazy about the Lost and Found & Temple of the Gods ingredients, while the If She Runs and Mr. Wonderful ingredients are among my favourites of the whole menu. I would therefore have preferred to have the ingredients served separately as small 'tapas'.
JJ: The Suite Charlotte Pike has a more bluesy feeling, probably as result of the jamming nature of it. By that this song is most different from the other tracks and putting it in between the two longer (this one is 14 minutes as well) tracks was a wise decision.
The almost medley-approach the four chose to follow here lead to the band talking about the 'Abbey Road'-track in their diaries on the Transatlantis-website. To add to this feeling they even refer to The Beatles both lyric-wise and in musical elements. The Temple of The Gods part almost feels like a strange cross-over between Get Back and McCartney's Band on the Run. But also the hand-clapping in this part is very Beatle-ish.
The Motherless Children-part is revisited. Was it sung by a children's choir in the opening track, this time Stolt is responsible. Leading into a reprise of If She Runs the effect of the second side (remember LPs?) of Abbey Road is created.
Remco: Suite Charlotte Pike treats us to a short jam session with the intro If She Runs, where
the Morse influence is very obvious, as it is a bit in the style of the Day For Night album.
In fact, the track sounds more like the previous album, though the style ranges from jazz/jam to
ELO (the Mr. Wonderful part), to the "heavy" The Beatles (Lost And
Temple Of The Gods is one of the best movements, I have been whistling this for days. Here The Beatles meet Yes (yes, I know, Yes actually met the Beatles in real life on their first album, but think more of Howe's slide guitar combined with McCartney's piano or something). After having been deprived of the Motherless Children theme for almost 11 minutes, this returns in combination with If She Runs, in a Blues setting, to end in the same way as the first track: with a slow climax build.
Bridge Across Forever
BJ: What the F....?!? Some barely audible sound-effects introduce a slow piano-piece with Neal Morse on vocals. After a verse or two you'd expect the rest of the band to join in, but... they never come. This is just a Neal Morse solo piece. What the hell is this doing on this album? What happened to all the so-called band-efforts that we were supposed to find on this album. Of course it's no problem to have a track on this album, written by Morse, but if it's also performed by Neal Morse and Neal Morse alone, then what's the point of including it on this album? He just released a solo-album for crying out loud! And if nothing else, there's a bonus disc for this kind of stuff. After all, this is where you find Roine Stolt's solo-bits...
The song is also a strong contender for the worst lyrics of 2001 award, proving that a strong title doesn't make a strong song. And repeating that title every other sentence doesn't do the title much good either.
Maybe, just maybe, the track is written by Portnoy, the piano played by Stolt and the string section played by Trewaves. Maybe, I don't know since my copy came without any credits, but if this is the case, then I'll eat my words.
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Lesson 3'. What's that ? You forgot to buy some new appetizers to serve between the main courses ? Damn ! What are you going to tell your guest ?! Think fast ... what's that in the back of the fridge ? A solo tune called Bridge Across Forever ? It was meant to go on one of your solo albums or as a balled on the next Spock's Beard ? Sorry, but I think we need it now my friend. Just polish it a bit and slip it into the menu. No extra ingredients needed. No-one will notice !
JJ: The title-track is a gentle solo-song by Morse on piano. Lovely, but it would have fitted on one of his solo-albums as well. It adds to the album as a resting point, but not as a proof for the strength of the collaboration between the four. Why not using, for example, an acoustic guitar song by Trewavas?
Remco: Due to some unknown reason, the entire album is titled after the only track that has nothing to do with the rest of the composition, the Morse-solo-piano-track Bridge Across Forever (I think I would have called the album Motherless Children ;-). Somehow the intro reminded me of Hello by Lionel Ritchy. The rest of the track doesn't by the way. A nice sensitive, romantic ballad and a good idea to break the tension of the album.
Stranger in Your Soul
BJ: Stranger In Your Soul opens with a nice cello intro - wait a minute! Where did I hear that before? Oh, about 45 minutes ago - and this is almost the same melody. But before the track can be diminished as My New World-At The End Of The Day-Duel With The Devil-part 2, pounding drums start and lead into wonderful, menacing organ-chords. After the obligatory chaotic intro music which includes even more great organ stuff.
Once again, the epic is built on just a few melodic ideas, but this is less annoying than in Duel with the Devil, that is, as long as you don't play the track three times in a row. In any case, it's less predictable.
The first 12 minutes are the best, and after that it's mainly chaotic music alternated with calm vocal bits. The big piece in the middle is very Yes-like. Think Awaken without the church organ. Portnoy compares it to Close to the Edge and Supper's Ready and he's not even that far off. Only the later track has more variation.
But all in all, this is my favourite track of the album. It has heavy bits, massive bits, atmospheric bits, it's Spock's Beard meets Flower Kings meets Dream Theater meets Yes, and there's even a hint of vintage Marillion in it.
After the track has finished there's a two-minute silence and, tum-ta-dum, there's a hidden bonus track. Oh, wow, how original!
It's an alternate ending to the Suite Charlotte Pike (the final version ends with a fade-out), where you hear how the jam ended. And it sounds great!! I can't understand why they didn't leave it in the mix in the first place! I mean, there's a straight-from-the-studio-jam at the start of the track, why not finish it the same way? I don't get it. They decided to cut it and end the track with the fade out, so what is it doing here then? There's a whole bonus disc for this kind of stuff after all. Or is this supposed to be some sort of Transatlantic DIY kit, where you can mix your own favourite version onto a CD-R at home?
After this jam-bit there is a cross-fade into a longer version of the sound effect that start Bridge Across Forever. A DIY-kit indeed.
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Lesson 4'. On to the 'grand dessert', for some the highlight of the menu ! Ingredients: the cello introduction you saved from lesson 1, another Spock's Beardish overture, some of the Lost and Found that remained after lesson 2 and three nice tunes called Sleeping Wide Awake, Hanging in the Balance and Stranger in your Soul. That's about all the ingredients we have left; we used everything else on the previous 3 courses. We'll start by using the
cello intro, but to avoid creating the same taste as the starter, we'll change the key. Next up is the overture. Now add Sleeping Wide Awake (including the vocal melody we have used for the end of the third course) and Hanging in the Balance, followed by the remains of Lost and Found, which you'll sweeten slightly compared to the harsh bits you used in Suite Charlotte Pike. Stir these three slightly, so reprises of Sleeping Wide Awake and Hanging in the Balance get mixed with the other layers of the cake.
In order to make this another 26 minute epic, we'll fill the last 13 minutes with 3 different arrangements of Stranger in Your Soul, using the technique we've learned in lesson one. Don't forget to throw in reprises of the Spock's Beard overture and Hanging in the Balance, as well as various reprises of all 3 versions of Stranger .... Phew, one nice piece of work !
'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Appendix to Lesson 4'. The doggy bag. The bits and pieces you have left can be offered to the lingering guests who would not mind taking a bite home for the dog. The remaining bits of the end jam of Suite Charlotte Pike and that sound collage that sounds like a failed attempt to create a Revolution #9 (an irritating song to begin with) will be good enough for old Spot.
JJ: Stranger in your Soul is by far the best track on the album, also from a production point of view. The many harmony-vocals (like in Lost and Found part 2) and instrumental accents (e.g. great drum and bass-section in the opening part) are a joy for the ear. Although the sound is very full, every element is audible, like Portnoy's high-hat in Sleeping Wide Awake.
One of my favourite parts on the album is the Hanging in the Balance in this track. The dark riffs (do I really hear a Dream Theater influence here?) with spooky vocals by Stolt really rock. But also the other parts of this song (with the exception of the slow, atmospheric Awakening the Stranger-part) have a rocking edge Transatlantic didn't show before.
Remco: The same violin and cello melody (although one note in the scale up) is featured again as an opening to Stranger In Your Soul. And again we delve into a half hour of musical adventure, where Stolt is probably responsible for the first part Sleeping Wide Awake. Hanging in the Balance is powerful and for the first time edges even towards prog metal (a bit). Now it's time for some Beatles/Yes again with Lost and Found pt 2 (where the Yes part tends to be stressed by the bass this time) and another flashing guitar solo follows. Awakening The Stranger opens with only some Wakeman like piano playing, and becomes a piano ballad later on, and the violin opening of the track reoccurs here to be worked out and exploited to its fullest. In the full band part Slide it starts to sound like some parts of The Light, forceful and even Genesis-like. With a Flower Kings like part, almost over the top, the album ends. Oh no it does not, since after a couple of minutes we are treated with a couple of bars of studio time, some "Division Bells" and psychedelic noises. Yawn.
BJ: Composition wise it is a very, very weak album. Two epics that are based on very few musical ideas, stretched beyond infinity, a medley of other bits and pieces glued together and then a little Neal Morse ditty which has nothing to do with Transatlantic. But weak as the compositions may be, I have to admit that he albums sounds indeed very, very good. Especially Stranger in Your Soul has an incredible feel to it.
I really have mixed feelings about this album. At one hand you can see it as a prog lover's ultimate wet dream, with one orgasmic climax after the other. Yet on the other hand it's not much more than a hastly put together collection of tired prog clichés.
Personally I myself have had a bit of an overdose of Neal Morse epics in recent years. All of the Above, At the End of the Day, Healing Colours of Sound, My New World, Great Nothing, A Whole 'Nother Trip.... And these are just the ones from the last two years!
But then again, I rate Stranger in your Soul higher than any of these! And what I definitely like about this album, I've mentioned it before, is that it's not just Neal Morse singing. Even though Morse is the obvious leader, Stolt and to lesser extend Trewaves and Portnoy, also have some vocal bits. There's even an Ayreon-like bit where all four alternate singing connecting sentences, one after the other. I like this, there aren't many bands with four singers (10CC, anyone?) and the fact that all four of Transatlantic can sing, is far better exploited than one SMPTe.
The whole album was composed and recorded within 10 days (which is, I think, 6 more than the previous album, but of course a far cry from the time it takes to record the average album). This is of course the most obvious reason for the "emptyness" of the compositions. I wonder what the result would be if these four guys would take a bit more time to record an album, to fully exploit their talents and abilities (and create, for example, a full-length Suite Charlotte Pike with less Beatles and more of their own). I feel like I'm reviewing a new, hot amateur band. "The potential is there, but they need more time to expand their writing skills".
Bridge Across Forever lets itself describe best as an Hollywood production like Pearl Harbour: An all-star cast and dazzling effects blow the audience away, yet after the show is over people wonder if the movie hadn't been a better movie if they had put a bit more time and effort in creating a decent storyline in between the battle-scenes, so that it would have become a good movie, and not just a good looking movie. Bridge Across Forever is a great sounding album, but with some more attention to the lyrics and melodies it could have been a great album.
Considering our readers, I will still put a recommended tag on the album. I'm almost sure the bonus disc, which didn't come with our promo copy, will fully justify the mark.
Ed: 'How to cook a big menu with minimal ingredients and get away with it - Epilogue'. You've done a fine job. With minimal ingredients you've prepared an enormous dinner in which the food is pushing the boundaries of the plates. For some it might be too much, and I personally have my doubts about the Morse school of cooking. An opposite of 'haute cuisine', the sheer abundance of 'much of the same' is just not to everybody's taste. Nevertheless, I do like this menu better than the previous cooking book SMPTe and I have to admit I can't help but enjoy the new recipes of Morse and Co., no matter how much I'd like to criticize their way of cooking. It's hard to explain. It's probably for the same reason why we eat 'fast food'; because it's just so damn good ! Ladies and gentlemen, supper's ready !
JJ: Maybe two 25+ minute songs is a bit too much for some of you and maybe you think 'I've heard elements of this somewhere before'. Putting that aside, Transatlantic created a delicious album once again. When you imagine the short time they took to make it (16 days) you realise what a great effort this is. Simply go with the flow. Both album and Stranger in your Soul are serious contenders for 'album' and 'song of the year' title.
Maybe, with the bonus-disc adding even more value (Shine on you Crazy Daimond) for money, I should give a 9, but since I didn't have the chance to hear that one, I'll stick to a more 'reserved' mark at this moment.
Remco: There is no denying it, this will definitely be one of the best albums of the year. It is quite a surprise to discover the Thema Con Variatione composition style on a rock album, but indeed this can work quite well, as TransAtlantic proves here. Some may find this reoccurring of the main theme in different ways annoying, but I can see it is quite a powerful way to create an album with four ego's since at least this forces them to stay within set boundaries. However, within the tracks there could have been a bit more variation in composition, especially in keys. I have the impression that Morse composed the main themes and vocal melodies, but Stolt was responsible for most of the instrumental sections. But be it as it may be, the overall quality just drips off.
BJ van der Vorst: 8 out of 10.
Ed: 8 out of 10.
JJ: 8.5 out of 10.
Remco: 8.5 out of 10.
Note: there also is a Bridge Across Forever limited edition 2CD with a bonus CD containing Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Studio Chat, And I Love Her, Smoke On The Water, Dance With The Devil, Roine's Demo Bits and an Interactive Section.