I suspect that I might not be the only person who got a little erm ‘used to / over-familiar with / bored / fed up of’ (choose your own description or two) Morse and Portnoy collaborations, whether the Neil Morse Band or elsewhere. Samey-samey? Old hat? Going through the motions? Progressive? What progression? Now, I might be getting a bit too critical here. Especially as one who likes the comfort of pressing play and listening to or wallowing in the familiar. Like putting on my favourite, familiar slippers.
Five albums in, it would appear that the band Transatlantic attempt to combine the familiar with the challenge. The mighty foursome of Neal Morse (keyboards, guitar vocals), Roine Stolt (guitar, vocals), Pete Trewavas (bass, vocals) and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals), never ones to do things by halves, have done things to the power of two. Here’s Mike Portnoy: “We have actually come up with something unprecedented,” says Portnoy proudly. “We’ve got two versions of this album. There’s a two CD presentation, which is 90 minutes long, and a single one – that’s 60 minutes.”
So what? We’ve seen this kind of thing before surely?
But, as Portnoy goes on to explain…“The single CD is NOT an edited version of the double CD. They’re new recordings. What we have done are different approaches to the songs for this! We wrote fresh lyrics and also have different people singing on the single CD version tracks as compared to those on the double CD. Some of the song titles have also been changed, while others might remain the same, but compositionally what you’ll hear has been altered. You must appreciate that what we have done is unique. We revamped the songs to make the two versions different. Nobody has done this before.” OK you got me interested now, and also wondering how the heck I do a review. It’ll be as epic and mammoth as their efforts, methinks……
Trewavas chips in: “We did write some new music for the single CD. What’s more, there are also differences in the instruments used on some of the tracks across the two records.” But just to top it off: “There will also be a third version that brings these two together in a box set,” remarks Portnoy.
It would appear that this wasn’t some grand plan, but rather concocted on the fly. Back to Portnoy: “In September 2019, the four of us met up in Sweden to write and arrange the material for the new album. Roine and Pete weren’t able to come over to the States, as they usually do for this part of the process. So, it made sense for Neal and me to go to Europe instead. Over a period of 10-14 days, we mapped out the songs. Then we all went back to our home studios and did the recording. That’s the way we always do it. At one point, though, it was suggested that instead of doing what was by that time going to be a double album, we should just be content to do a single CD.”
“What happened was that everything kept expanding and expanding,” recalls Stolt. “Therefore we decided it made sense to make it a double album. It was Pete and Neal who then came out and said they felt this would be too long, and we should reduce it to one…But we were already recording, and it didn’t seem feasible to cut it back. There were so many pieces that each of us loved in what we were planning and didn’t want to lose. That’s when we ended up in discussions over the best way forward.” Such a democratic band, it would appear.
Trewavas reveals he was indirectly the person who effectively instigated what would become the master plan for two versions. “I wondered if people would have the patience to listen to so much music. Neal agreed with me, went away and came up with a shorter version of the album, which prompted those chats between us as to what we should do.”
Are you still with me? This is where things took off in a wholly unexpected direction, as the idea was born that would transform the album and take it into uncharted territory. “I came up the notion of doing both the two CD and single CD versions of the album in this very unusual way,” says Portnoy. “What I proposed was to make each of these editions different. We had further discussions about this possibility, and eventually decided to go down that route. Now, this was obviously going to cost a lot more money. But thankfully our label InsideOut agreed with this approach.
“By that time, we were facing the pandemic, so the extra writing for the single CD had to be done remotely. But that wasn’t a problem for us. We’re experienced enough to make this work.” No problem there then…..
So just to recap, the two versions of the self-produced album has a different title. The double CD is titled ‘Forevermore’, with the single variation called ‘The Breath Of Life’. There’s also an umbrella title for both versions, and this is ‘The Absolute Universe’. Got that? Even that took time to get together. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on emails between the four of us over those titles,” explains Trewavas. “We all had ideas. In the end Mike suggested ‘The Absolute Universe’, while ‘Forevermore’ was from Roine and ‘The Breath Of Life’ came courtesy of Neal.”
So it surely won’t come to surprise anyone that this meisterwerk has a concept. “Well, the idea of Transatlantic deciding to do a concept record this time around won’t shock anyone, right?” laughs Portnoy. “What we have is essentially one giant composition, split into chapters. The storyline is about the struggles facing everyone in society today. Politics comes into this, but at no point do we ever become political. The pandemic also has a significant role in the subjects we’ve written about, as you’d expect. So, what we’ve essentially done is talk about the craziness of 2020, with the single CD concentrates a little more on the impact of the virus.”
If there is one thing about Transatlantic over the years, it is the wealth of musical themes, and instrumental interplay on show. As Stolte says: “We didn’t start out with the idea of this being conceptual. The way things work with us is that we have a load of ideas, and these are developed spontaneously when we meet up. Everything happens in the moment. But someone, and I am sure it was Mike, just said one day in Sweden, ‘Let’s make this conceptual’. And we were all happy to go for that. “
So it’s all about the spontaneity and sparking of ideas when the band members get together. Time for Morse to speak: “When we met up in Sweden to begin writing this album we didn’t have any really preconceived ideas about what it was going to be. In fact, it was still developing when we left! We simply followed the music where it felt like it wanted to go and wound up with this pretty crazy conceptual piece! It’s become quite a natural thing for the four of us to write in a concept album way as we love to have themes recur; it’s really fun to play around with them, and find out all the different ways that you can treat a particular piece of music. It’s our favourite thing to do, to play around with these pieces and song bits and try to figure out how to fit them all together. It’s really quite a bit of work and a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
So, how does this new ground-breaking album compare to Transatlantic’s previous four albums? “I always try not to compare albums as much as possible,” insists Morse. “It’s very difficult when you’re trying to be creative, because your natural instinct is to constantly compare. But in order to create you have to kind of step away from that. Having said that, I would say this would have more in common with ‘The Whirlwind’ album (the band’s third, from 2009) than others that we’ve created.”
I agree. It sounds like a consumate, perfect whole that glides between sections, encompasses some inspired grooves and moods (The Flower Kingsian “The Darkness in the Light” being a current favourite of mine where Trewavas has some gorgeous tones and sounds). It is Transatlantic exactly how we remember them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More of that later.
“In some respects, it is similar to ‘The Whirlwind’,” agrees Portnoy. “In that it is one song split into multiple tracks. But by no means can you call it a sequel to that one. It’s more a spiritual relationship between the two than any other connection.”
Talking of which, the Morse influence is definitely there musically (check out “Love made a Way”), and those of you averse to any overt Christian preaching may take umbrage at the use of words like soul, light, greatest story etc in titles, but I don’t feel particularly preached at. What I do feel is overwhelmed by their musicality, their technical brilliance reinforced through a soulful feel to their music, and an astonishing number of musical themes, ideas, tricks and techniques combining into a sumptuous whole. But individual brilliance is still present and correct, with Stolte’s guitar particularly elegant and eloquent.
It would appear that I happen to be on the same wavelength as the band on listening to it. “Our job as composers and creators is to create from nowhere as best we can,” feels Morse. “And then trust that it will be a blessing to people when they listen to it.” Yup, I get that. Nice job, boys.
Portnoy believes this album takes the Transatlantic philosophy to a fresh level. “We have always had the attitude that more of anything is never enough. But this time we have taken that idea to a new extreme. I am sure ‘The Absolute Universe’ as a whole will be any prog fan’s wet dream! In a way, it is bonkers. But we took on this challenge, and I know we’ve pulled it off.” I think I get what he is saying, and here is where the good old days of having a record sleeve, fold out, inserts and other paraphernalia would work well, not just a tinny download. The opportunity to wallow, listening to the unfolding epic whilst exploring the concept both tangibly and in mind. But those who do purchase this epic will feel the full benefit. It is top notch, top quality, top drawer stuff.
And the band like it.
For Trewavas, ‘The Absolute Universe’ is a momentous project. “I think it is right up there with the very finest albums we’ve done. As the others have said, it compares very well to ‘The Whirlwind’, which I believe represents Transatlantic at our best. As on that album, we took our time to write and arrange everything, and that shines through. I am very excited for people to hear it.” And Stolt adds: “I know what we have done here is special, I hope others will find it as rewarding to listen to it as we did in making it.”
I did find it rewarding, Yes I still looked for the overt Morse versus Stolte sections, being a longtime Spock’s Beard and Flower King fan. Yes I did look for overt Trewavas influences, and enjoyed the times he was in the limelight vocally and instrumentally. But I also enjoyed the wholeness of the band, their collective work as well as their interplay. The same but different. Familiar but fresh.
And here’s the kicker. You can be just as satisfied listening to the abridged version as you will be to the unabridged. Your sonic meal is just as filling. Your aural experience is just as complete. With the longer version, the band take time to expand their scope – “Rainbow Sky” being a kind of release of their inner Beatles, for example. Or ‘The Greatest Story Never Ends’ with its throwaway Spocks (Gentle Giant) multi-vocal acapella section. It’s like having either a main meal, or main and pud together. You are either pleasantly full or well stuffed (in a good sense).
So, remember what I said right at the beginning? I have become used to and over-familiar with Morse and Portnoy collaborations, bored of them and fed up of seemingly samey-samey, old hat music and thinking they were going through the motions. Each album nothing particularly new or innovative. However, what I have realised in listening to this album is that there is room for both – the progressive element, and the familiar sound style. Pressing play to this release gave me comfort, reminded me of the quality of music that these four gentlemen produce when they get together, and allowed me to wallow in awesome prog goodness. Now, pass me my slippers, will you?
Band comments were taken from the official press release written by Malcolm Dome, London, October 2020.
The Absolute Universe: The Breath Of Life:
1 Overture 00:05:53
2 Reaching For The Sky 00:05:40
3 Higher Than The Morning 00:04:32
4 The Darkness In The Light 00:05:43
5 Take Now My Soul 00:03:31
6 Looking For The Light 00:04:04
7 Love Made A Way (Prelude) 00:02:13
8 Owl Howl 00:05:26
9 Solitude 00:04:24
10 Belong 00:02:22
11 Can You Feel It 00:03:17
12 Looking For The Light (Reprise) 00:04:57
13 The Greatest Story Never Ends 00:02:57
‘The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version)’
1 Overture 00:08:11
2 Heart Like A Whirlwind 00:05:11
3 Higher Than The Morning 00:05:29
4 The Darkness In The Light 00:05:43
5 Swing High, Swing Low 00:03:48
6 Bully 00:02:11
7 Rainbow Sky 00:03:19
8 Looking For The Light 00:03:59
9 The World We Used To Know 00:09:21
1 The Sun Comes Up Today 00:05:38
2 Love Made A Way (Prelude) 00:01:25
3 Owl Howl 00:07:05
4 Solitude 00:05:41
5 Belong 00:02:49
6 Lonesome Rebel 00:02:53
7 Looking For The Light (Reprise) 00:05:12
8 The Greatest Story Never Ends 00:04:17
9 Love Made A Way 00:08:02
‘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