The Transatlantic mothership takes flight once more as the quartet takes Progressive Rock to new levels with their versions of what makes up The Absolute Universe. Stand back as a prog length review hones into view.
Release date: 5th February 2021
Label: Inside Out Music
Format(s): stand back…take a breath…
The Absolute Universe: The Breath Of Life (Abridged Version) – Special Edition CD Digipak / Gatefold 2LP+CD / Digital Album
The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) – Special Edition 2CD Digipak / 3LP+2CD Boxset / Digital Album
and…The Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition – Limited Deluxe Clear 5LP+3CD+Blu-Ray Box-set – contained within a foil-finished lift-off box with extended 16-page LP booklet & 60x60cm poster
And now the music.
“We have always had the attitude that more of anything is never enough,” says Mike Portnoy. Indeed, the live album from their 2010 Whirlwind ‘Whirld Tour’ (get it?) recorded in Manchester (yes, I was there…) and Tilburg was titled More Never Is Enough. “In a way, it is bonkers,” he says about their return, “but we took on this challenge, and I know we’ve pulled it off.” And now we fans have the chance to take on the challenge of listening and assessing the set.
We should be used to it. When the quartet released their SMPT:e debut project back in March of 2000, one of the aims was to extend the opening track (All Of The Above) to beyond thirty minutes. Enough has been said about how Morse, Portnoy, Stolt and Trewavas got to this point after meeting up to thrash out some ideas and then heading off to do their bits at home.
Like 2009’s The Whirlwind, Forevermore runs as a collection of tracks that segue relatively seamlessly into one another in the best of the traditional fashion and has us awaiting and anticipating the first sign that Neal Morse is going to be in his trademark hand aloft pose or down on his knees at a particularly spiritual part.
And so to the 2CD/3LP Forevermore version. Being faced with the overall prospect of two and a half hours of music is pretty daunting, yet passing on the challenge is not an option, so we drop the needle (or press play, whatever your option) on the ‘first ‘ album, sit back, relax and see if the might of The Whirlwind can be matched.
The Overture is suitably grand and in the bigger picture, a perfect live set opener. Roine Stolt delivers the first of many irresistible guitar hooks, Portnoy is all over the kit (as he is for the remainder of the playing time) and Morse adds organ keys and synth runs while the Trewavas basslines seem particularly prominent. Each taking turns at being the star turn as they run through some of the musical themes we’re set to encounter. All in all, it’s not a bad eight-minute warm-up.
You can picture Morse beaming and arm aloft (finally) as he leads the keyboard riff into Heart Like A Whirlwind. The storm is still raging as we set off on an uplifting encounter with the sort of music you’d find populating a Neal Morse Band album or something by Stolt’s The Flower Kings cross-referenced with The Beatles, Gentle Giant. Morse takes the lead vocal and alongside Bono, he’s the supreme portrayer of emotion with each word he utters. Yes there may be some criticism from some quarters that there’s a certain familiarity but considering the amount of music that these four men create in their various bands, be prepared to accept that.
Portnoy and Trewavas are a tight pairing and it feels doing them a disservice to refer to them as a rhythm section as Stolt keeps popping up with reasons why he needs to be considered as man of the match. Inevitably, there are frequent references to Morse’s higher calling. The Darkness In The Light kicks off with a real funk groove which you can imagine the four jamming on and conjures up thoughts of Andy Tillison’s The Tangent as Stolt sing-speaks the vocal and Trewavas pops up with some nice basslines. Half an hour in and Morse asks “where were you when I was losing everything?” launching into the first of his emotive spiritual passages on Swing High Swing Low.
In fact, it’s worth pondering the Morse influence on proceedings as he seems to be at the heart of the parts where the pace relaxes until a burst of power sees the accelerator coming into play again. His regular outings with Portnoy and Randy George on the Cover To Cover series sees him constantly mining his influences as he does with the McCartney/Beatles pastiche on Rainbow Sky aided and abetted by Mr Portnoy, who by chance then takes over with the rawer Looking For The Light and Ringo style drum break that brings us to the end of the first half on The World We Used To Know. Something that’s possibly emerged from a jam
Bringing down the curtain with some impressive instrumental power not dissimilar in parts methinks to Spinning from The Whirlwind bonus disc, the Stolt/Morse combo takes us back into a world of whirlwinds and spiritual realisation/fulfilment where Morse could be on his knees – let’s see what’s to come. Time for the half time oranges and the girding of the loins in the knowledge that we’re only halfway through the main course
Transatlantic’s version of Beach Boys harmonies and another fanfare of sorts appear as The Sun Comes Up Today to provide a bright and bassy intro before Neal lulls with his acoustic guitar and a personal reverie on the prelude to Love Made A Way. You just know (‘prelude’ is a huge clue) that this is going to appear in anthemic guise in the near future. Owl Howl is as experimental and as heavy as Forevermore gets. With the ominous Stolt voiceover, it carries a sense of the enjoyment they had in creating something a little more off the cuff and less immediate and no doubt Morse and Portnoy will have led the calls for something that contrasts to the following inward-looking view on Solitude (“when it came it was far worse than expected“) sung by Trewavas. Go on, I’ll voice the opinion the lyric is a bit clumsy in the same way that Genesis’ “nylon sheet and blankets help to minimise the cold” doesn’t do any favours to Domino. However, Morse dons his superhero cape and comes to the rescue with a quick (I almost said interruption) burst of Love Made A Way reference and all’s well again.
The four rip into the reprise of Looking For The Light that ups the tempo and the intensity from disc 1 and Morse’s passionate delivery invoke the sense that we’re building up for what we listeners hope will be the big finish. Portnoy throws in some mind-boggling runs as we’re encouraged to “keep looking for the light“. It has to arms aloft again as The Greatest Story Never Ends sees the Morse philosophy shining through; the Gentle Giant/Spocks acapella section heralding the grand Forevermore theme and a desperate return to Morse holding it together for a return to “where were you when I was all but over” ant that anticipated return to the hope of Love Made A Way and all the Forevermore themes and a fading cinematic closure. Neal, I hope you’re down on your knees.
Listen to The World We Used To Know (from the extended version) here:
And what do they do for an encore? Another hour of the abridged version – The Breath Of Life. Yes there’s another Overture (shorter) and segue into Reaching For The Sky (which was Heart Like A Whirlwind on Forevermore) and the analysis can begin of what’s the same and what’s different as we assess whether or not we’ve got our money’s worth.
A little tip might be to resist the temptation to head to The Breath Of Life and get more familiar with Forevermore if you want to appreciate how they’ve twisted and tweaked the concept. The Looking For The Light intro isn’t quite as hefty and if you do the simplest checking of timings, there are some instrumental and vocal shifts and anomalies with which you’ll become familiar as time progresses.
The Darkness In The Light seems the same but different – maybe there’s something in the mix – but it’s becoming a personal favourite part of the sequence with Stolt’s quirky delivery and that funky Trewavas bass straight from Prince’s band; the likes of which I can’t say I’ve heard him try out with Marillion. It’s possibly an essential lyrical piece in the bigger picture too.
So what’s new? The Take Now My Soul section is a new title where Morse takes Swing High Swing Low and offers an alternative vocal and Can You Feel It provides an exciting start to the final lap and race to the finish providing a much smoother segue into Looking For The Light. However, without wanting to put the album under the microscope and get bogged down with what will become apparent over time and as the album(s) work into the consciousness, the recommendation is to simply step away and enjoy a shorter take on The Absolute Universe. Lyrically there’s apparently a tighter and more obvious focus on the impact of topical events aside from the general 2020 craziness that Forevermore expounds upon.
The Breath Of Life verdict is that having feasted on Forevermore, I’m not sure how much more I really need. Perhaps I should take some time with the abridged version and then head back to Forevermore, I dunno. Still, that’s all part of the discovery. However, from the moment when Morse interrupts Solitude with a burst of Love Made A Way, the last twenty-five minutes of The Breath Of Life is unforgivably outstanding. I’d like to say a whirlwind…
Here’s Overture/Reaching For The Sky (abridged version):
So when the jury is back in, what’s the verdict? Lyrically, we’ve deliberately skipped the obvious references and analogies to the state of world affairs. Stolt has done it with The Flower Kings’ Islands album and it’s old hat now and alongside the musical offering, I know what I’m going to focus on.
Ultimately, one might ask “is it all too much?” PROG magazine posed the question as to whether an astute (and strong-willed enough to stand up to four strong personalities) producer could condense the mass of music into one more palatable piece. To be honest I don’t think it needs it. Never at any moment in listening to the whole kaboodle did I ever think things were starting to drag. Treat Forevermore as a separate entity and take the single version as another piece of work. That may seem obvious but looking at the whole may well be confusing, daunting a bridge (across forever) too far.
For me, I’ll state categorically that this is as good as anything I’ve heard from this combination. Perhaps I’m hardened to the ways of Transatlantic as well as being fiercely partisan (although no, I don’t believe I wear rose coloured glasses), but the imposing sight of The Absolute Universe coming into view has been tempered by the experience of some unforced and joyous music. The fabulous Transatlantic foursome has taken on a project, pushed beyond the limits and come up smelling of roses. Let’s face it. Amidst the musical chemistry and muscle-flexing, the lush strings and the way they constantly reprise and revisit certain themes, there’s no-one who does Prog quite like Transatlantic.