Issue 2021-016: Transatlantic - The Absolute Universe - Round Table Review
It is a much over-used maxim, but in the case of Transatlantic, the phrase 'super-group' is probably warranted.
If you are reading this on DPRP, you likely already know all about the band and its members. As way of an introduction for any prog-virgins, Transatlantic is the collaboration between Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), and Neal Morse (Spocks Beard).
Their recording history under this cross-oceanic alliance started in 2000 and immediately received critical acclaim. Having, from early in their careers, mastered the art of packaging (and re-packaging) their releases in many guises, to place a definitive count on their output is like rowing on a grey, misty ocean.
We like to think at DPRP that we have covered all of their releases in some format. We began back in 2000 with their debut SMPTe, then a year later with Bridge Across Forever (2001).
Many regard their third opus, The Whirlwind, released in 2009 as their best, whilst 2014's Kaleidoscope is for many their most disappointing.
Amid various remixes, videos and box sets there have also been four live albums. Live in America, Live in Europe, Whirld Tour 2010 - Live From Shepherd's Bush Empire, London and the dubiously-entitled More Never Is Enough offer fans a thorough catalogue of how their music translates into a live show.
The Absolute Universe is the band's fifth studio album. However, it is never that simple in the world of Transatlantic, as it comes in three different versions. In essence what the band is offering, is two different visions of the same "new album".
First we have The Absolute Universe: The Breath Of Life (Abridged Version), which is available as a single CD edition, or a gatefold 2LP+CD, or as a digital album. This is a shorter version of the album with fewer tracks and some re-arrangements of others.
The second option is The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) which is available in either a 2CD Edition, a 3LP+2CD box set, or as a digital album. This is the longer version of the album with more tracks and some re-arrangements of others.
If that wasn't enough choice then you can go for The Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition. This is for those who cherish their completist complexity. The "limited", "deluxe", "clear" 5LP+3CD+Blu-Ray box set is contained within a foil-finished, lift-off box with extended 16-page LP booklet and a 60 x 60 cm poster. It includes both versions of the album over 5 LPs and 3 CDs, plus a Blu-Ray with 5.1 mix and documentary.
In other words; you can buy a short version of this album, you can buy a longer version of this album, or you can buy both versions either separately or together!
For this Round Table Review, some of our writers have been able to enjoy (or otherwise) both the long and the short versions (but not together in a boxed set!).
Round Table Review
Transatlantic — The Absolute Universe
Forevermore (Extended Version), CD 1: Overture (8:11), Heart Like A Whirlwind (5:11), Higher Than The Morning (5:29), The Darkness In The Light (5:43), Swing High, Swing Low (3:48), Bully (2:11), Rainbow Sky (3:19), Looking For The Light (3:59), The World We Used To Know (9:21)
Forevermore (Extended Version), CD 2: The Sun Comes Up Today (5:38), Love Made A Way (Prelude) (1:25), Owl Howl (7:05), Solitude (5:41), Belong (2:49), Lonesome Rebel (2:53), Looking For The Light (Reprise) (5:12), The Greatest Story Never Ends (4:17), Love Made A Way (8:02)
As a suitable title for Transatlantic's latest gargantuan venture, something like "Parallel Universes" would have been more appropriate, given the particular nature of this (these) release(s).
Now, if you'd allow me to be slightly mischievous, let's go back to their debut album SMPTe and how it already suffered from dissociative identity disorder, as there was both a standard release and a Roine Stolt remix. Along with The Absolute Universe this is a clear indication that there are strong personalities within the band, with different concepts of how their sound and presentation should be.
Bearing this in mind, in Neal Morse's world there's a punchier, dare I say more "American" album called The Breath Of Life, whereas over at Planet Stolt that same album is called Forevermore and is richer in detail, although not as immediate and definitely longer.
Admittedly, it is an intriguing proposition that guarantees both hours of entertainment as well as prog-heated arguments. Is it a stroke of genius or a blatant cash-grab designed by clever marketing wizards? Both are extreme statements and I shall disagree either way, as both iterations of TAV bring worthy things to the table. However it does beg the question of whether one unanimous, all-encompassing version would have sufficed. Why not just release the Ultimate Version featured in the Blu-ray as THE version, including the alternate versions of the main themes as a bonus disc? Is it an ego thing? Questions, questions...
Having said this, I'm not sure you need to own all versions, but you certainly should listen to them, if only to have some prog fun comparing track lengths, vocal arrangements and production nuggets. While the The Breath of Life (BOL) plays out very much like Morse's latest studio effort, Sola Gratia, Forevermore (FEM) might remind you of The Flower Kings's Islands in the way it unfolds.
Both approaches being as they are enjoyable in their own right, I'm partial to Stolt's vision. Some brilliant pieces of music such as The World We Used To Know (the best mini epic The Flower Kings never recorded), or the catchy The Sun Comes Up Today (complete with Pete Trewavas's lovely out-of-tune singing) are exclusive to this longer release.
In Morse's defence it should be said that his exclusive track, Can You Feel It, works very well to build up the album's climax. His Reaching For The Sky also works better than Stolt's analogue Heart Like A Whirlwind. What I don't buy is Morse's view that fuller version is too long or too much. Listen, he put out two consecutive double concept albums (2016's The Similitude Of A Dream and its 2019 sequel The Great Aventure), which are each 12-15 minutes longer than Forevermore; and that wasn't a problem then. If you ask me, and I've always struggled with double albums, FEM is one of the best flowing, fat-free doubles I've ever heard.
Make no mistake, this is no reinvention of the wheel. Those seeking-out adventurous, challenging music might not find much of interest here, as Transatlantic are all about memorable melodies and vibrant playing aimed at creating an uplifting mood. Looking For The Light is where things are at their heaviest and Mike Portnoy probably offers his best-recorded vocal performance. Owl Howl brings some darkness in the shape of a modern Easy Money, but everything is quite safe overall.
Everyone is doing their thing and making the most of a tried and tested formula. Predictable? Indeed. But memorable all the same. Just listen to Trewavas' delightful bass lines to understand the essence of Transatlantic: melody, vitality and emotion.
Though I suspect The Whirlwind will remain their most popular release, and Bridge Across Forever a personal sentimental favourite, The Absolute Universe (in both its iterations) is nevertheless on par with anything this so-called supergroup has ever released.
The problem with this music criticism business is to be found in it's essential function; that one has to be critical. I don't relish looking for the negative in aspects of life that are designed to be enjoyable. This is why I didn't do English literature A-level.
So in order to come out of this with any sense of credibility, let's get the thankfully few and relatively minor thumbs-down attributes of Transatlantic's new album out of the way first.
It is fair to say that Absolute Universe, whether you listen to the extended or abridged (but still weighty) version, is not an instant hit. This is mostly because expectations are so high, with previous output from this "supergroup" of prog-royalty reaching such lofty heights.
Secondly, even after about 10 listens there isn't yet the soaring grandiosity of Stranger In Your Soul or the moody marvel of Into The Blue. This is partly because the snippets of music which make up the mega-suite are altogether more bite-sized, almost radio-friendly fare, very much like 2009's The Whirlwind.
And thirdly, as usual, there are the moments where Pete "reach for the skip-button" Trewavas gets his chance to shine vocally. Apologies for saying this but I have heard more pleasing sounds from a day at the abattoir.
All that aside, what remains is another fabulous slab of work that'll easily make this year's top 10 and has already occupied a corner of the prog-pop pantheon. There is so much to admire, most of it familiar to those who have heard Transatlantic before. I wish I could have come to it with entirely naive ears, as it would impress me so much more.
I'm sure my fellow reviewers will have done a far better and more granular job over the track details, but overall there is the great musicianship we expect, such as Mike Portnoy's glorious drumming, Neil Morse's perfectly placed keyboard and Mellotron flourishes, and the above-mentioned Pete Trewavas who to these ears has never sounded better with a rolling Beatles-esque bass guitar. Roine Stolt is as lyrical as ever, albeit occasionally a bit low in the mix. I'm sure on the inevitable 1000-hour-long live release (assuming there is a post-pandemic tour to support this album) the whole thing will even go up a notch. Indeed, once familiar with the songs, each masterfully strung together, it really does become a bit of a lovely sing-along.
You will be aware that the band have taken a novel approach to the release by offering options of the extended Forevermore version and the stripped-down single-disc Breath of Life. The latter is not just an edit though, but showcases differing arrangements, vocalists, and instrumentation. It is very cleverly done, and purists will want to digest both. There is even an "ultimate box set" with 5.1 mix on Blu-ray purportedly combining both approaches, which this reviewer really needs in his life right now.
I did not really discover Transatlantic until their album The Whirlwind in 2009. During that tour I saw them live and I was hooked as Transatlantic combines the symphonic sound of Marillion and The Flower Kings with the progressive metal sound of Dream Theater. Neal Morse's music was already a bit in the middle of that.
The 2014 album Kaleidoscope did not really do it for me, the one big composition on The Whirlwind worked for me better. Although in this case it is two giant compositions, in this respect, The Absolute Universe is more in line with The Whirlwind than other works from Transatlantic.
As mentioned in the introduction, The Absolute Universe comes in two different packages. It is important to state that the double CD (Forevermore) is not just the single CD (The Breath Of Life) with some additional songs. The additional songs are recorded in their own right, with sometimes different singers and sometimes different instruments. I have listened to prog rock for a long time, but this is a first.
In this review if necessary I will point out the differences between the releases. During the reviewing process I found out that it is impossible to spot all the differences, it will need many more spins for that. Maybe a nice opportunity for a 'spot the difference' competition.
Overture is usually a short instrumental intro but for Transatlantic short means over eight minutes, almost six for the single CD release. Just like on the The Whirlwind the melody of the Overture is heard repeatedly over the album but it is not as dominant as on The Whirlwind.
I know some people who found The Whirlwind to be too repetitive, and it is more balanced-out on The Absolute Universe.
First real song has a different title on both releases. On the double release it is called Heart Like A Whirlwind and on the other release Reaching For The Sky. Different title but almost the same song, and in style it could easily be on The Whirlwind.
Higher Than The Morning reuses some melodies from earlier songs. The double CD version has a nice guitar solo that is not on the single CD. The Darkness In The Light is probably the same on both releases. Same title and same length but by now I really wanted to stop comparing the different releases. Both releases sound so very alike, it is only when you have heard this album for many years that you will notice all the differences.
Swing High, Swing Low (named Take Now My Soul on the single CD release) is a nice mellow song with acoustic guitar, piano and great soloing by Roine.
Bully and Rainbow Sky are only present on the double CD release. Bully is a short song with up-tempo jazzy stuff and Rainbow Sky is a slower song with Beatles-like music.
Looking For The Light is a heavy, slow-pounding rock song, that is heavy on the bass. Portnoy and Trewavas really crank it up here
The World We Used To Know and The Sun Comes Up Today are only present on the double CD release. Two lengthy songs. That is surely not in favour of the single release.
The World We Used To Know has a mellow melody, a lengthy guitar solo, and is a very The Flower Kings-like song. On The Sun Comes Up Today I think Pete is singing and the vocals do not sound as powerful as on the other songs. After a small prelude to Love Made A Way, it is again time for the slow, heavy stuff with Owl Howl. Again Trewavas and Portnoy are in the spotlight, but with Roine on the vocals this song sounds like an eerie The Flower Kings song.
Solitude is a ballad and again I think the vocals are from Pete. Not bad but not my favourite Transatlantic vocalist. Belong is mostly instrumental and a reprise of the general melody. Very typical Transatlantic.
The next song is different on the two releases. On the double CD we have a country song with acoustic guitar called Lonesome Rebel, whilst on the single CD we have Can You Feel It that is all over the place with many changes and neo-prog keyboards. Then we get a reprise for Looking For The Light. Strangely the reprise is longer than the previous version, so why not call that a prelude?
Never mind, as in that respect everything is strange about this release. i just enjoy the reprise of this heavy song. I really like this heavy stuff and at the end is a nice seamless transition to The Greatest Song Never Ends. This song features a very nice part with vocal harmonies that are mostly heard on Spocks Beard albums, but those harmonies only seem to be on the double CD version.
The final song is Love Made A Way. It already had a prelude earlier in the album and just like the prelude this one is longer on the single CD release. The versions for this song differ a lot but by now I am really done comparing the two releases. Both versions are very fine pieces of music, so perhaps avoid comparing the releases, and just enjoy the music.
The Absolute Universe is a very good release and Transatlantic show again that they are at the top of progressive rock. However the approach of releasing two different versions does not work for me.
I do not know how far the difference of the releases should go, but to me they sound very alike. Which one you decide to buy and/or prefer to play depends on how much time you have or want to spend. For the sake of the review I tried to spot all the differences but now the review is done, I can simply enjoy another fantastic release from this band; great sound, great artwork and brilliant music. If you like symphonic/progressive rock then this album is a necessity.
It's been a while since I listened to Transatlantic so it was time to get re-acquainted.
As far as I can tell it's a first that an album is released in two different versions, with different recordings as well. Points for creativity! But is it a service to the fans or is it a way to make more money? As long as the music is worth it, right? Well...
With three team members writing about both versions I think it's OK to stick to the shorter version of the album.
I don't think people are expecting something really progressive or new from this band. What we have here is a collection of pop tunes with a few sections of symphonic prog, a mix of Beatle-esque and 1980s song structures. You hear things you've heard many times before. However, I have to add, you've probably heard them better as well.
Reaching For The Sky sounds so familiar that it was actually quite hard to listen to. I was distracted by looking what it sounded like and not in a good way. The break sounds so forced and not fitting at all. Higher Than The Morning's chorus sounds like a dismissed Yes demo and was really a cringe-worthy experience. The chorus of the next track too - everything you'd expect to happen does happen - second vocal line included.
Take Now My Soul has a nice melody in the solo, and the following track Looking For The Light has a good, layered verse, the joy of which is completely destroyed by the super-cheesy chorus.
Although you clearly hear some Flower Kings in there, it's closer to Neal Morse's music than any of the others. I doubt there are Morse fans that don't like Transatlantic or the other way around.
Another thing are the vocals. I've heard Morse sing better than this. Or is it one of the others? Well, none of the singing stands out as anything special, but in most of the songs it's not even good. The nasal and out of tune singing on Solitude literally hurt.
I like the drumming, and the bass playing when it's a bit higher in the rather dry mix. The guitar melodies, solos and fillers - those are the best parts. But what it is with the songwriting completely eludes me. Sounds like a lot of head and no heart and the head was not very creative. The production is pretty good as was to be expected, but the mix is empty and feels cold.
Things get a little heavier in Owl Howl, but it also remains a bit empty. The quieter instrumental section with its creepy sounds and keyboard solo are the best, actually! Ending with a long Love Made A Way might be logical but it was the hardest time I had finishing listening to an album. As if I'm listening to a bad 1980s pop rock band's attempt at a power ballad. I really tried, but this is just not good!
My getting reacquainted was a failed experiment. I am not getting this at all and really wonder - if this had been done by any other group of musicians, would it get the same amount of attention or even high grades?
I have a lot of respect for each of the musicians, but think this output is far below par for each of them. I don't know who wrote what but it all sounds over-familiar and old-fashioned that I get the feeling they were on auto-pilot. Heartless, forced, lazy writing, and the singing is just not good. Proggy pop-rock by numbers, and definitely not my numbers. I think it's safe to say I'll never listen to Transatlantic again.
Well, there are two versions of The Ultimate Universe. A long one (Forevermore), and an abridged, restructured version (The Breath of Life). They contain a few different songs, alternate mixes, different vocals and so on. I will be referencing the longer 90-minute version, with some commentary on the abridged version towards the end.
There is nothing particularly surprising to be found on either version. That isn't a slight, because I am certain that no one was expecting a drastic change in their style. The music contained on this album is grandiose, melodic, impeccably-performed and produced-to-perfection. No surprises there, but is it good?
Well, I'll start by saying that the musical template employed here has been used regularly by Neal Morse and the (many) bands that he is a part of. Enough so, that I now go into these albums preparing to be a bit critical. Case in point, beginning with an 'Overture' is overplayed at this point. When it started, I admittedly rolled my eyes a bit. Suddenly though, I'll be darned if didn't suck me right in! Yes, it was predictable, but somehow it didn't matter. I still enjoyed it. As the album continued, much of it felt very familiar in terms of style, but I didn't care. I was significantly entertained.
The overall structure and the transitions from song to song are flawless. The recurring themes are placed perfectly and most importantly, tracks such as Heart Like A Whirlwind, Higher Than The Morning, The Darkness In The Light and The Sun Comes Up Today are amongst the best of the band's career.
Also of note are, Owl Howl (with its King Crimson's Starless vibe) and Love Made A Way. The latter feels like a standard end to a Morse project, but it is nonetheless excellent. Also, the closing notes of the track make for a stunning end to the album.
Ultimately, as much as I could nitpick things about familiarity and such, these gripes would be trivial. The fact is that these four talented musicians bring out the best in one another. Yes, there is a consistent formula utilised, but when done this well, it absolutely works. Once again, Transatlantic have produced a stellar example of symphonic progressive rock.
Forevermore is likely my preferred edition, but The Breath of Life definitely stands on its own merits. I guess the biggest question about the abridged version is whether it is worth having if you own the longer edition of Forevermore. In my opinion, the answer is "yes". There are enough interesting differences to make it a unique listening experience. I enjoy the alternate songs and favour some of the arrangement choices. Plus, there are times when listening to the shorter version is going to be more advantageous.
All things considered, The Ultimate Universe feels a bit like musical comfort food. I know exactly what I am getting, but I love it nonetheless. If I want something more musically-revolutionary, I'll look elsewhere. For my money, no current band produces this particular brand of powerful, classic prog rock more effectively than Transatlantic.