Kaleidoscope

Transatlantic

Radiant Records, 2014

http://www.transatlanticweb.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/17/2014

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a strange-but-true story: for an alleged prog aficionado who counts Yes and Big Big Train among two of my favorite groups ever, I don’t really like very much progressive rock. After 18 years of reviewing music, I’m still trying to pinpoint the reasons why.

Let’s see if the new album from progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic can’t help us with our diagnosis, shall we?

Transatlantic features stellar players from four different major league prog outfits: Neal Morse (keys/vocals, ex-Spock’s Beard), Roine Stolt (guitar/vocals, Flower Kings), Pete Trewavas (bass, Marillion) and Mike Portnoy (drums, ex-Dream Theater). One thing is easily stipulated from the top: these guys are fantastic musicians.

They are also faithful progressive rockers; each of their bands has been among the proudest flag-bearers of modern progressive rock. As Transatlantic, they have continued to perpetuate the form. Their first album SMPT:e featured a 30-minute epic, two 17-minute pieces and a couple of shorter tracks. Their second album The Whirlwind consisted of a single 77-minute long piece of music (which was, frankly, a bit much for this listener). The new album Kaleidoscope consists of two 20-minute-plus epics, with three six- to eight-minute songs wedged in between like the fixings in a sandwich.

At this point we’ve covered all the reasons why I should really love this: great musicians playing traditional prog forms, with a variety of song lengths. Now for the hard part: I don’t.

Why is that? “Into The Blue” opens the album with a long instrumental jam that moves through several moods and stages, and it’s pleasantly proggy in its way, but somehow—and I may be projecting in part due to my strong aversion to Dream Theater—they feel too heavy and show-offy to really appeal. Then when the music falls back to just Morse on organ and lead voice, I can’t help hearing echoes of Styx circa 1978, by which I mean overcooked vocals carrying a significant cheese factor.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Moments like the sunny guitar solo over warm synth and organ tones between 9:00 and 10:00 do sound a bit like Yes, but much of the time, I don’t hear it. One of the distinctive features of Yes music is carefully arranged multi-part harmonies, and while Transatlantic has two principal vocalists in Morse and Stolt, they don’t do much harmonizing or counterpointing. For the most part, this 23-minute epic feels like it’s oriented to the darker, heavier, more bombastic side of the band.

“Shine” follows, a modest, pretty ballad that finds Morse and Stolt trading lead vocals over acoustic backing. It’s a pleasant change-of-pace that fades quickly from memory. Next, Stolt takes the mike for the immediately contrasting “Black As The Sky,” whose rather Deep Purple-ish vibe features Trewavas’ pulsing, intense bassline and Morse’s rippling Hammond organ runs fueling a sense of headlong momentum. “Beyond The Sun” strips things back down to piano and soaring slide as Morse resumes the lead vocal slot and reinforces my sense of the issue here; his vocal approach feels perfect for a Broadway show, big and melodramatic, but also somewhat affected and generic.  

The 32-minute closing title track is epic in both structure and tone, and it certainly has its moments—specifically, the opening, extended instrumental sequence; Portnoy’s stellar under-jam drumming between 13:40 and 14:00; and the huge, rather elegiac closing sequence—but in the end it comes off as more clever and impressive than emotionally engaging, somehow less rather than more than the sum of its many parts.

Here’s one key point of diagnosis on the whole why-doesn’t-Jason-like-most-prog question: it’s all about the vocals. The quality of the vocals (and to a lesser degree the lyrics) is absolutely critical for me, and they’re the biggest weak spot on this album. Morse’s are showy and overly melodramatic, Stolt’s are agreeably lived-in if a bit strained at times, but the real issue is that the two don’t support one another effectively; their voices don’t seem to mesh well, and the vocal arrangements rarely rise to match the complexity of the instrumental work supporting them.

Compounding the issue, the lyrics fail to engage, coming off somewhat bland and nondescript. I grant you that most of Jon Anderson’s lyrics don’t make literal sense, but their poetry is undeniable, and that lyrical quality and reach-into-your-subconscious resonance is absent here. (It seems doubly ironic, then, that Transatlantic recently backed Jon Anderson for a mini-set of Yes songs on the Progressive Nation at Sea cruise hosted by Portnoy. They obviously love and admire the Yes sound—it’s just a more vocally complex and emotionally engaging sound than they seem capable of generating.)

Transatlantic has won a passionate fan base, and this very talented quartet clearly enjoys working together. Their fans—and many other prog fans—will likely enjoy this album a lot. I can only report, with regret, that I am not among them.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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