Round Table Review
Transatlantic — The Final Flight: Live At L'Olympia
Does the world need yet another triple Transatlantic live album? Well, when you reach "classic" status I guess more is never enough. Not only is this the band's seventh live offering, if I'm not mistaken, but also the fourth incarnation of The Absolute Universe, after the Breath of Life, Forevermore and Ultimate Edition iterations. It is the latter that this live rendition uses as reference, although with some variations here and there, in particular some vocal arrangements made to accommodate Ted Leonard's contributions, as well as Roine Stolt's inclination to significantly alter his guitar solos. Elsewhere, all songs are faithful to their studio counterparts, although I would have preferred the Forevermore version of The Greatest Story Never Ends. Oh well...
The world-class category of all musicians involved in this release is pretty much common knowledge in this day and age. Having said that, The Final Flight: Live At L'Olympia is certainly more about emotion and vibe than it is about musicianship and chops. Indeed, these are part-and-parcel of this nearly three-hour aural feast, but what oozes from the stage has more to do with "posterity" and passion than with precision and tightness.
Of this, there is plenty of evidence: The Darkness In The Light is a bit too fast for its own good, and there's quite the train-wreck going on at the beginning of The Final Medley. But I'm sure these went mostly unnoticed by the enraptured audience, as this was clearly an "I was there" event. Aren't (weren't?) all Transatlantic gigs such things after all? Just behold the roof being blown off after Is It Really Happening? to get the feel of what I mean.
While I prefer previous live offerings by the band, namely those released after the Whirlwind tour or 2003's Live In Europe, this is nevertheless a nice souvenir of a memorable evening. As for how "final" this actually turns out to be, I'm certain we'll get more live releases from this tour with different set lists, like those from Morsefest and Cruise To The Edge. More studio output? The only way to top The Absolute Universe would be by making something like a triple concept album which you could play the tracks in any random order and still it would make sense; this way effectively becoming the first infinite album in history. Watch this space.
Just as I'll never forget one November night at the London Astoria many moons ago, those lucky enough to have been at l'Olympia for this "final flight" can now re-live their experience for years to come.
Life has a few certainties for everyone to enjoy: the sun rises every day, that day is followed by the night, time is irreversible and Transatlantic release an extensive live album after each tour.
This time the album was recorded in the world-famous l'Olympia Theatre in the French capital of Paris on the last leg of their The Absolute Universe global tour. They played gigs in the United States, Canada and several countries in Europe as well as performing on the Morsefest festival and Cruise To The Edge 2022 event. Apart from the latter two gigs, the set was the same on each night (no encores!) with a special rendition (in fact the fourth version of their latest album of the album), augmented by a couple of epics from their back catalogue, clocking at an impressive 170 minutes in total.
On stage Neal Morse, Roine Stolt, Pete Trewavas and Mike Portnoy are again accompanied by Ted Leonard (Spock's Beard, Enchant) who also helped them out during the Kaleidoscope tour. Leonard seemed to merge effortlessly into the band which is quite an achievement, taking into account all the intricacies of the music and the fact that the average Transatlantic song lasts more than 30 minutes. Therefore, it is beyond my comprehension that he is not featured on the promo photos that were sent with the audio files. A real shame.
The first two CDs contain that special version of The Absolute Universe, played in two parts of almost 50 minutes each. I have to admit that I could not figure out the differences, apart from the fact that the titles of the individual parts indeed show a mix of all three existing versions. It is such a complex and long piece of music, and this band has so much musical quality, that differences in the musical performance could easily have been mistaken as another improvisation.
It is not very important, really. What really counts is the music itself and that sounds even more convincing than on the studio album. This version shows an enormous dynamic musical variety, features five lead vocalists alternating (even Trewavas takes the lead in Solitude which isn't everybody's piece of cake, but he does it quite well) and different musical moods. There is almost punk (Bully, eat your heart out Johnny Rotten) to typical Morse-type ballads (Love Finds Its Way), beautiful a cappella singing (The Sun Comes Up Today), to bombastic orchestral parts (Overture, The Greatest Show Never Ends), to fierce rock tunes (Looking For The light). It is all impeccably well played, the numerous breaks are perfectly timed, the numerous solos blend in perfectly, and the production of it all is just fabulous.
The third CD contains the epics which are all fan favourites, starting with the well known and highly valued Whirlwind medley, this time five minutes longer than on the previous live set. Of course the anthem We All Need Some Light is part of the set too, this time with lead vocals shared by Morse, Stolt and Leonard and a beautiful acoustic intro played by Morse and Stolt. It is one of those songs that never ceases to inspire and to attract, although it has appeared on every live set since its release.
The last song is a medley of Duel With The Devil, My New World, and Stranger In Your Soul: almost half an hour of pure prog heaven. Of course such medleys have been released before by the band, so there is nothing new, but they simply want to release the complete live set as it was played on the night, without exceptions. Hats off for that choice.
I attended the Dutch leg in Tilburg's O13, one of their favourite venues. I enjoyed the whole evening thoroughly but driving home that evening I realised that it had been a far less special evening than the gig that I witnessed on the tour before that, for at least two reasons. First there was the lack of spontaneity, all was exactly as expected. After almost three hours, I can imagine they didn't want to do encores (nothing to complain about the lengths of their gigs) but last time there were some surprises such as prog legend Thijs van Leer guesting with them on two songs. Secondly I was a little annoyed by the lacklustre performance by Stolt who appeared either ill or tired (then everything is forgiven, of course) or simply not very inspired (which I would find unforgivable), resulting in several mistakes in his guitar playing. Maybe the fact that the venue wasn't sold out also contributed to a slight feeling of disappointment?
I didn't have those disappointed feelings at all after listening to this set. It is just another convincing proof of the exceptional qualities of this bunch of musicians as a live band, as well as of the unique style of music they play.
This release comes without a DVD; maybe that will be released later this year? Another special feature is that the CD set also has all the announcements made by Mike Portnoy. It absolutely contributes to the live feeling of the set. The added value is that we also hear him doubt whether this group of musicians will ever perform together again as Transatlantic in the future. That adds to the rumours that this is indeed the end of this phenomenal band, as they themselves strengthen with their comments after this gig, published on the website.
If this is indeed their swan song then they should be proud of it. For prog fans, there is much to enjoy on this set. It's a more-than-fine rendition of The Absolute Universe, the rest is a fine but a bit over-complete set of songs, but it is foremost almost three hours of fantastic prog-rock played live. Hopefully time will do its job, so that they fancy to play with each other again in a few years time. If not, then The Final Flight is an excellent testimony of Transatlantic's career.
How does one describe how good it must have been to have had the opportunity to attend what will become one of history's finest progressive rock concerts. Playing for over 3 hours is akin to playing a marathon set of tennis at the Davis Cup finals. This is a long concert by anyone's measure, only being surpassed for me in duration when Led Zeppelin toured "down under" in the early 70s. During that time, Zep played for over four hours for the outrageous sum of A$4.00. That works out to just A$1.00 an hour. Amazing!
For anyone new to the band, Transatlantic must surely represent the pinnacle of musical brilliance between bands from different corners of the globe. Since their creation in 1999, Mike Portnoy (ex Dream Theater), Neal Morse (ex Spock's Beard), Roine Stolt (Flower Kings) and Pete Trewavas (Marillion) make up one of THE most successful progressive rock acts the world has witnessed.
To acknowledge their own brilliant contributions to the main bands of whom they are members is a given. When they appear as a global union and are able to play the type of music they have created so well to an accepting audience in Paris, must be one of the most pleasing experiences for all in attendance.
The band originally released The Absolute Universe in 2021 in two alternative formats; an abridged 64 minute piece called The Breath Of Life and an additional release offering four more songs which was titled Forevermore. When they resumed touring again, they released a third, 96 minute Bluray version in 5.1. surround sound. To help extend the concert to the three-hour mark, the band then cherry-picked some further material from their catalogue to deliver the ultimate package. This is being released as a limited 3CD + Bluray digipak as well as a 180g 4LP + book and digital album to please all types of fans no matter what their preferred format happens to be.
The quality of production and overall sound with the concert is really special and sounds great on decent stereo equipment. But being such a fan, I would love to have seen the concert in the flesh or experience the live concert as a DVD or Bluray. Sadly neither option was available due to time / distance issues but this is certainly one concert where the live footage would surely enhance one's enjoyment of the underlying music. To try and allow for the loss of any visuals while enjoying the music, I had to make do by watching a few YouTube clips of the concert that were recently released as official videos.
What is always pleasing about the music that Transatlantic plays is that the fan is treated to an epic style of highly-melodic story-telling that takes on gigantic proportions as many of their songs become epics in their own right and often extend to around 30 minutes in duration. The Whirlwind Suite and The Final Medley are two cases in point. If a prog fan can't find value in either of these songs, then perhaps they need to resume their knitting. This is as good as it gets with music performed in the 21st century.
Long grandiose keyboard passages from Neal are underpinned by some stellar bass work from Pete, stunning drumming from Mike and the outrageously brilliant guitar flurries from Roine. Special mention should also be made to include Ted Leonard who, while standing quietly at the back of the stage, adds vocals, guitar, keyboards and percussion. The whole package exudes confidence, professionalism and musical accessibility beyond belief but also proves that time away from this project did not prevent them from pulling off a major coup such as they offered in Paris.
Well done guys. Let's hope that the rumoured break-up of the band does not come to fruition and that you keep the pedal to the metal for years to come.