Metal Blade, 2000

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For someone who’s occasionally mistaken for an aficionado of progressive rock, I don’t actually like very much of it.

No, really.  I may be a devoted-beyond-all-reason fan of Yes, but beyond the ever-shifting confines of that single outfit, the trail goes cold pretty quickly.  I’ve heard and enjoyed the same seven songs by Emerson Lake & Palmer and Jethro Tull as every other FM radio listener of a certain age, but the rest of their catalogs?  Meh.  Early Genesis leaves me cold; I can only really get into a few patches of the middle, post-Gabriel and pre-stadium-tour albums.  Sure, I like Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here a lot, but who doesn’t?  (Pink Floyd: the pop fan’s prog band.)  Rush, you say?  Fair enough, I do like Rush quite a bit, but how proggy are they really, at least since 1981? 

Moving into the modern era, Big Big Train is the rarest of rare, really the only modern prog band of which I would call myself a fan (except for maybe Circa, which is so Yes-like that I'm not sure it counts).  I’m just not that impressed with the big names on the modern scene.  Spock’s Beard can have a strong feel for melody and structure at times, but doesn’t typically grab me.  Ditto the Flower KingsMarillion I’m indifferent to, and Dream Theater I actively dislike

With that preface, imagine my stunted expectations for Transatlantic, a supergroup made up of members of the latter quartet of bands: Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy (drums), Marillion’s Pete Trewavas (bass), Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt (guitar and vocals) and Spock’s Beard’s Neal Morse (vocals and keys).  In sum: “Yeah, okay, whatever.”

Ah, but what ended up fascinating me while listening to this album is the way the four players' styles meshed.  I’ve always found Spock’s Beard and especially the Flower Kings a bit too bright and shiny, and not as heavy as I’d like.  With Dream Theater, the opposite is true; they’re the veritable Jerry Bruckheimers of prog-metal, with everything overblown, bigger and heavier than it needs to be.  (Marillion?  Somewhere in between, I guess.)  What I felt listening to SMPTe is that the four players’ musical personalities had balanced one another out in a genuinely appealing way. 

That’s as apparent on the truly epic opener “All Of The Above” as anywhere on this album.  Granted, when I saw that this first track actually outstripped the infamous my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Topographic Oceans suites by a good seven or eight minutes, coming in at 30:59, I strapped myself in for something akin to a dentist appointment.  Fortunately, while it does feel overlong, this particular epic hangs together reasonably well, with a mostly heavy rhythm section balanced by brighter, shinier guitars and keys.  More importantly, there are some definite musical motifs that are repeated to provide structure and coherence, especially in the opening and closing sections, and some wonderful little jams.  For example, around 4:00 in, Stolt starts doing this cascading riff that’s so good you immediately worry that they’ll flog it to death, but they don’t; they quickly move on to another section, and another, but unlike with the Topographic suites, these snippets hang together and flow organically.

When the Morse’s lead vocals come in at 4:55, you’re more or less immediately in Spock’s Beard territory, of course, though Stolt’s harmonies are frequently in evidence, and provide a nice fullness to their sound that’s characteristic of Yes’ multi-part vocal approach, but absent from the repertoire of too many modern prog outfits.  There’s another dynamic instrumental transition between 8:00 and 9:15, and if you were wondering how the keyboards hold up with a guitar player playing them, there’s a nice back-and-forth between Morse and Stolt between 10:00 and 11:00 where Morse shows he can definitely handle the job.  Et cetera, et cetera… yes, this is an epic that lives up to the label.

“We All Need Some Light” is the one solo composition here, a rather inconsequential mid-tempo Morse piece that clocks in at a relatively concise 5:45.  Similarly-sized “Mystery Train” starts out with a complex, angular bit of guitar-organ interplay over a staccato rhythm that reminds me of some of Dream Theater’s material and leads me to check the credits.  Ah, yes.  The way three of these five tracks are credited, the main writer, Morse or Stolt, gets the lead, and the other three get a “with” notation.  “Mystery Train” feature Portnoy’s name first in the “with” column, and it shows.  “Mystery” might be the most commercially inclined of the tracks here, but still ventures off in proggy directions and has a very spacey outro jam and denouement into Floyd-style found sound and studio noise.

The 16-minute “My New World” is currently my favorite track here, not so much on account of the vocals – Stolt takes them for the one track where he’s the lead composer, and I tend to prefer Morse -- but for the excellent balance and flow between the softer and harder sections, and very strong instrumental passages featuring all four players.  Stolt in particular does a wonderful job of alternating between hard, hammering riffs and nimble, elegant jazz licks.

For a closer, the boys reach back into the early prog songbook for Procol Harum’s “In Held (‘Twas) In I,” a genuinely quirky choice of a genuinely quirky song, demonstrating once and for all that prog rockers are not humorless; they can even mock their own pretentions.  Here Morse and Stolt trade off lead vocals to positive effect, and toward the end, Stolt takes another interesting solo where he adopts a bit of a Brian May approach, a rather regal tone... at least until he hits a pedal and begins channeling David Gilmour.

And in some ways that really says it all.  These guys are students of progressive rock history, with the chops to make the music their own.  In joining forces in Transatlantic, they’ve managed to find common ground that’s both familiar and unique, distinctly progressive and frequently appealing.  Supergroup side project though this might be, I hope this quartet – who continue to collaborate between albums and tours with their “main” groups – will continue to give Transatlantic the level of care and energy that went into this very enjoyable outing.

Rating: B+

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