Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope [2014] – an album review

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope (2014) – an album review

For those that thought Transatlantic were pretty much done, after Neal’s magnum opus, The Whirlwind, here they are again, just a handful of years later, with an emotional return to form.

Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope front cover

tl;dr Version: They’re Back!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: What? What do you mean, who’s back? Oh, wait, you’re not a Prog fan, are you (then what the hell are you doing reading MY blog?)? Because if you aren’t a Prog fan, or if you’re one of those increasingly rare prog fans who doesn’t listen to new Prog bands, then you might not have a clue. Well, for all of you woefully under-informed music aficionados, I give you one of the finest Prog Rock Supergroups ever to grace this planet: Transatlantic.

Boring Version: Started in 2000 by then-Dream Theater drummer and bandleader Mike Portnoy, Transatlantic was and is a very cool side project featuring Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas, Flower Kings band leader/guitarist Roine Stolt, and then-Spock’s Beard leader and keyboardist/vocalist Neal Morse. It proved to be one of the most exciting projects around, and they did more in their short career to bring the Good Ship Prog back from the brink than ten other bands combined. Sweeping, majestic epics alongside gorgeous ballads and absurdist numbers to make you chuckle and reassure you that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Truly, they could do no wrong.
Well, almost no wrong. In 2002, they went into a seemingly permanent hiatus, as Neal Morse turned his back on secular music, to focus on a spiritually uplifting Christian music solo career. And with his departure, the Transatlantic dirigible sank from the heavens. No one was sadder than me.
Just when we’d gotten over them, however, they surprised everyone. Neal decided the time was right for Transatlantic to reunite in 2009 and record The Whirlwind, a truly breathtakingly ambitious disc with one 78 minute piece (conveniently broken into twelve parts for easier consumption).
My problem with The Whirlwind, which is a minor, personal one, is that it didn’t hit me quite as immediately as SMPTe (2000) or Bridge Across Forever (2001) had. Oh, it had all the right ingredients: Atmospheric themes, bombastic drums, stellar guitar and bass playing, musicianship and melodicism in equal measure, and no shortage of interesting musical ideas all vying for your attention. And it even had a whole disc of extra material to ponder if the main feast was a little too much to take in. Truly, The Whirlwind was and is a masterpiece. But again, it took its time sinking in, which is unusual for me, even with a sophisticated Prog piece. I don’t absorb every piece of music as quickly or as evenly as I used to, but I still fall in love with albums pretty frequently. And yet The Whirlwind is still an occasional listen for me, in no small part because it just demands so much patience, which is unusual for Transatlantic music.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce the return, after five years, of Transatlantic, with Kaleidoscope, an album that returns to the winning formula of bookended epics with shorter pieces in the middle, as well as that disc of extras, with over forty minutes of cleverly arranged and performed timeless classic rock covers. Perhaps not quite as ambitious as The Whirlwind, but no less brilliant musically, and truly a welcome shift in focus at a time when Prog Rock is back on the rise, winning converts old and new, and bringing the weary faithful out from under their weather-worn Selling England By The Pound and Seconds Out posters to stand in the sunlight once more.
(Woo, I’m all poetic and shit today. Look at me go!)

Into The Blue fades in quietly, like a dream, cosmic keys and slide guitar interspersed with guitar stabs, then joined by a gorgeous cello melody, and then the band picks up the theme and builds it into a quick overture, leading directly into a classic King Crimson-like section that gets your pulse racing as it builds, before shifting into an almost heavy metal iteration of said theme, which then storms into a classic heavy rock moment worthy of Deep Purple. This carries on for a moment, giving room for first a bit of keyboard, followed by a solid guitar solo section. This then transforms slightly, taking on a truly Crimsonesque feel, lightly quoting Lark’s Tongues, before retreating to a lovely little Yes-like passage, complete with Wakemanesque ARP sound (or is that Moog? I’ve almost got my classic synth sounds down).
Then the vocals. Lovely. Neal takes the lead on this, and the song proper goes through a few arrangement shifts, including some tasteful Mellotron and Hammond, and a gorgeous chorus section. Neal’s message is a broad one, as he teases out another of his beautiful faith analogies, but for those of us who don’t listen to Prog for spiritual enlightenment, it’s not at all too cloying or irritating. Just lovely.
This section leads into an unusually downbeat, classic rock vibe that’s a little hard to pin down. It’s a bit Deep Purple, with a fair dollop of Frank Zappa, and even ever so light hints of Supertramp. This shifts into a Beatlesque section that reminds us of Mike’s Beatle Medley of a decade ago. The bass line brings us back to that downbeat section, this time bringing in elements of Mellotron and a rhythm section that sounds for all the world like Yes with Frank Zappa on guitar and Robert Fripp on keys. The section develops into something straight off of Tales From Topographic Oceans, and then finally into a segment that has a lot more to do with King Crimson again, building and building, until it reaches white noise levels, followed by the crash, and that leaves us three fifths of the way into the piece. I believe this is the vocal debut of Daniel Gildenlow, who has performed live with Transatlantic from pretty much the beginning, but has never appeared on their studio albums. Twelve-strings creep up and give us a taste of classic Genesis and Kansas in equal measure. A very pretty synth melody leads into a section where Neal takes over the vocals and builds up another slow crescendo, again lightly quoting King Crimson, but in a more signature Transatlantic style. This too leads to another section, very reminiscent of classic Genesis, with synths to the fore.
The main vocal theme returns triumphantly to let us know that the end is approaching, and it’s a gorgeous musical moment, sounding like nothing so much as Transatlantic with perhaps a smattering of (oh please forgive me) Styx in the guitar line, but echoing out on a classic Yes vibe. And then it fades off into the blue.

Shine is a lovely little guitar/coral sitar piece, Neal on lead vocal. It’s very much in the vein of We All Need Some Light. The drums come in and Roine takes over the vocals, and the song just goes to the next level. Neal returns for the chorus, which leads to a gorgeous Claptonesque guitar figure, which transforms into a middle eight featuring Mike on vocals, and then into a proper guitar solo that really is signature Roine Stolt (I’ve been listening to Flower Kings for a long time). When the solo ends on a high, Neal brings it back down to just a bit of guitar and piano, harmony vocals backing him in this very pretty chorus refrain, and then it winds out with the return of the Coral sitar, followed by the return of Mike’s middle eight bridge, and it ends like all good guitar ballads, with the BIG CHORD.

Black As The Sky comes in on a Stygian Arena Rock vibe, triumphal, Oberheim-like synth and crunchy Hammond chords leading to Roine leading us through a thick bassline section intertwined with Mellotron, and a unison band Chorus segment, sounding like something I know I should recognize, like Chicago, but not quite. The instrumental section is heavily drum and bass driven, with a hot synth lead and little whip crack percussion stabs that pick up in frequency, followed by a truly hot, heavy synth lead part that is two parts Styx, two parts Yes, but burbling away on this. Then Pete comes in on vocals, followed by a mountain of Mike in the next line, and then Roine, and then Neal, and then the guitar takes us to someplace I’m sure I’ve been before, but I’m having trouble placing it. The harmony chorus returns, and I’m sure I should know what I’m hearing, but it’s gone. I’ll get it next time.

Beyond The Sun opens with harrowing spaceman pedal steel guitar and cello, joined by Neal introducing a vocal melody that has an almost celtic feel, before the piano joins in, and it starts to take on a slightly Yes-like feel. Well, not exactly Yes. Maybe a little closer to classic Elton John, only with Steve Howe on guitar. Gorgeous ballad. Not quite Bridge Across Forever, but very much in that stripped-down and achingly beautiful vein. This leads directly into…

Kaleidoscope comes in with a musical blast. Very much Transatlantic in feel, guitars and bass and drums and keys all pumping away, before shooting into a piano-and-guitar-driven overture section that has a few themes all kind of vying for dominance. Can’t say precisely what it reminds me of, but there are some classic overtones to the segments. Then a guitar line leads us into another segment that feels like a main theme, big and bouncy, with perhaps a little bit of Argent or is it Gregg Rolie-led Journey, followed by some ELP, and then the theme shifts to a major key and Neal comes in on lead vocal, quite musically uplifting, as is the chorus, which sounds a little like At The End of The Day pt II. The verse section returns, and the chorus again, which gets a rich band vocal harmony, and this shifts into one of those overture themes, and then a lovely electric guitar figure (perhaps again like something from classic Styx or maybe Journey) eventually fades into a synth-sounding guitar with Mellotron that then shifts into what I can only describe as a slightly gothic, almost Black Sabbath bridge moment of doomy magnificence (perhaps a little closer to Dream Theater a la Metropolis II). This then shifts to Roine singing a slightly Moroccan Roll part that feels like one part Kashmir, two parts Perfect Strangers, and a dash of Flower Kings for obvious reasons. The chorus is even more classic Flower Kings redux, and then the Moroccan Roll figure returns, followed by the chorus again, and then we go into an ARP solo section that eventually clarifies into a slightly Stevie Wonderesque moment, and this is followed by a very early-Journey musical moment, which then gains undertones of the moroccan roll theme, and then…
…Well, it’s Pete Trewavas’ ballad section, something like, oh, I don’t know, Peter Frampton singing a Burt Bacharach song? A fair bit of classic Elton John. I’m even hearing just a little bit of Beatles in there. This goes on for just long enough before it breaks down and dissolves vocally into a cello and piano movement. Then the cello gets slightly electrified, and a string section buoys things up to a bit before the guitar takes over and takes us to a gorgeous moment that I think has more to do with Roine in Transatlantic than anything else. This slowly transforms into an acoustic section, the guitar playing a slightly Jimmy Page-like figure, and Neal comes in singing a new theme, and then the main theme from way back in the beginning of the piece comes in acoustically, featuring the band in chorus. This next leads to a great quote of early Yes, perhaps a little more Steve Howe than Peter Banks, but then again, perhaps not, and then the main theme returns in full force, only skipping and riding on a classic rock drum vibe, which then opens up into a piano-with-strings segment that then twists into something darker and more sinister, synths and guitars Hammond organ and a mountain of drums and over and over until you feel a little queasy from dizziness, and then the music shifts into a King Crimson figure, shifting into a strange space where percussion and synths do Zappa-esque things, but the music isn’t quite like Zappa. MAybe a little bit of Return to Forever? No? Can’t place it, even when the guitar takes up the Zappa figure, and then it all turns around into another Crimsonesque figure that also has a hint of Sabbath dancing with Deep Purple and maybe some Steppenwolf, and what the hell is this? It finishes on an ELP moment, and then the Hammond brings back the main theme (which one, Lee? Overture?), which grinds its way into the major key chorus section that stomps its way to the finale, which is a little hard to place, but it’s got a bit of—get this—late Duran Duran in classic rock mode (yes, dammit! It’s got that thing Warren Currucullo did in Pop Trash, only with a Jeff Beck solo on top. What? That doesn’t sound like Beck to you? Ah well, I’ll get it right next time.), and fades away slowly.
Quite a piece of music. I may have to listen to it a few more times, but right now, it’s time for…

And You And I opens JUST like the original Yes masterpiece. The thing you have to remember is that Yes was once often imitated, but rarely duplicated. The sound as they go into the acoustic verse section with that signature 12-string guitar figure is a little crisper and more buoyant (there’s that word again) than the original recording, but faithful to the original arrangement. Actually, taken as a whole, it’s staggering how faithful this is. Yes themselves haven’t sounded this close to the record in decades (NOTE: I didn’t have money to catch them when they came through town recently playing this very album in its entirety, so I don’t know how close they got this time around). The only thing that will throw you is the lack of a Jon Anderson voice and the key they would play it in to get to where Jon Anderson’s voice used to soar. I think Transatlantic got to play this with Jon on their recent Prog Nation at Sea tour (if ever I set to sea, it will be to hear dozens of prog bands). Midway, Roine takes a turn at lead vocals, as Neal does his best Rick Wakeman mini Moog solo imitation, and the band builds and fades the piece, again, just like the album. I know, I know, I’m getting all mushy about a cover tune, but this is one of my personal favourite Yes tunes, and there are really only two ways to do it: faithfully, or as a complete departure, and both have their plusses and minuses, but if you’re going to do it faithfully, you have a mountain to climb.
And they did.

Can’t Get It Out Of My Head sounds gorgeous. ELO is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine, and this tune is a sentimental fave from back when I was involved with a woman who got away from me. I don’t miss the woman so much as I miss those days, but hearing this stellar rendition as Roine does his best Jeff Lynne impression, and the strings and synths and… ah hell, trust me, it’s another virtually flawless faithful interpretation. There’s the angelic choir. Perfect landing.

Conquistador brings us back to Mike paying tribute to his beloved late father, with another faithful interpretation of a classic Procol Harum song. This happens to be one of my favourite PH tunes, so I’m enjoying it immensely. Mike’s voice is really good for these numbers, even though it’s not quite as soulful as Gary Brooker’s. The guitar solo soudns spot on to me. The orchestration is perfect. What an amazing take.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road shows us who Neal’s hero growing up was. It’s a painstakingly perfect rendition of another personal fave. I might as well be listening to a mix tape of my favourite classic 70s songs. Oh wait. That’s basically what this bonus disc is, isn’t it? That’s it, I know what I’m doing if I ever get my band back to work on the big album; we’re doing a bonus cover tune disc! Yes, dammit! Oh wait, the music. Great song, great performance, and if you don’t like it, the door is that way.

Tin Soldier is delivered by Roine, and while I’ll confess that this isn’t one of my personal faves, it’s a great rendition. Neal jumps in using his metal voice for a bit (pretty sure that’s Neal; Mike’s metal voice is a little higher pitched). Wait, no that’s definitely Mike screaming at the end.

Sylvia gets a count-in, and I have to admit, it sounds great, but I barely remember this tune. Hey, sorry, folks, but I can’t know them all. This sounds like a Nice instrumental. Did I get it right? I mean, that’s definitely Neal playing proto-Keith Emerson chops on Hammond, and the guitar figure is harmonizing with the keys, and I Know there was guitar in The Nice, but seriously, I haven’t dug into The Nice yet. If I promise to check it out soon, do I get a cookie? I’m at my uncle’s and he has the internet under password, which he failed to give me before leaving for the funeral, so I’m stuck without Youtube or Wikipedia or Google or… Oh wait, here comes…

Indiscipline opens perfectly. Scratchy guitars and broken drum rhythms and then the song takes off and the famous polyrhythmic segment kicks in, and it’s nice and super heavy the way I always thought it would sound if it weren’t an 80s tune. Mike delivers the Adrian Belew lyric, and it just rocks. I will tell you that Mike puts his own slant on the lyric, but it’s just as cool as Ade’s version, and the music is spot-on. One of my favourites from this era of King Crimson. Amazing. It also has some keening electric guitar that does a fair summation of David Cross’ electric violin playing from the Lark’s era Kc.

Nights In White Satin is delivered faithfully and lushly, complete with Dvorak orchestration and Mellotron choral parts. The flute is spot on. Wait, who the hell is playing that? Anyway, it’s great. I love the way they even got the reverb and tweezed Mellotron string section to sound just like the album. Lovely. They close it with the Days of Future Past symphonic album closer, and it proves to be a perfect Transatlantic album closer too.

Okay, by now it’s obvious that I’m a fan, and I’ll admit I’ve been waiting for a chance to review one of their albums in my blow-by-blow style I wasn’t writing album reviews when The Whirlwind came out). I’ll be honest and admit, this album is proof that you can get what you want and still want more. But I mean that in both the positive and negative senses. See, as I said at the top, the Whirlwind was more than I bargained for, where this album is exactly what I had hoped for from Whirlwind. So which is better? I don’t know. I almost regret that they had to go back and recapture their classic formula after having blazed such a bold trail with their previous album. It makes me feel guilty that I was one of the ones who didn’t quite get Whirlwind for a while, and that people like me made this album necessary. That’s my sad attempt to admit that I may prefer this album, but I feel like I shouldn’t, because the thing rock critics are supposed to do is look for The New. Well, I like new things too, but the things I like most about this album are that it’s got fresh production values, but it’s steeped in Classic Rock history. It’s not quite as mind-blowingly revolutionary for me as their first two albums were, but it successfully recapture much of that magic and doesn’t leave me slightly confused and overwhelmed like Whirlwind did.
So, would you go out and buy this album? Well, it’s been out for a few months, and I think they have videos for two of the shorter originals. You can probably get a good sense of whether it’s right for you by googling Transatlantic and checking out their videos, which should be pretty new. I don’t remember them having much in the way of studio rock videos from their previous albums. Personally, I think it’s a great album. Maybe not the greatest thing they’ve ever committed to disc, but a very sincere and powerful attempt to please their fans and nail the Transatlantic sound.
Now I just hope they follow up with another bold masterpiece before they go on hiatus again.

© 2014 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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