Transatlantic: The Whirlwind
Transatlantic made quite an impression on me when I heard the first two albums. It was love at first spin. Sadly the band had long been kaput by that time. Neal Morse had struck out on his own to do spiritually based music, and had left both his bands behind. I understand his decision to leave Spock’s Beard. They were just on different paths. But Transatlantic was a collaborative side project, so I didn’t see that as something that could never happen again. I figured Neal would do what he had to do, say what he needed to say, and then find room for something that was more secular. Well, I was right.
The first hint came when my buddy Eric Walker ran into Roine Stolt at O’hare airport. Roine told him that he was working on a project in the U.S., but was very guarded about the details. Eric was actually returning from a Montreal Marillion convention in April 2009 (yeah, talk about right place at the right time). Through investigation he also discovered that Pete Trewavas was not traveling with the rest of the band after the weekend, and was heading to Nashville (where Neal Morse is based). For people like us, that was a gigantic scoop. It may not have been official, but we knew.
For all the naysayers that said we were dreaming, vindication came with the release of “The Whirlwind” in October of 2009. As a matter of fact, it became known that the guys had convened in April to begin work on the project. Nice job Eric (or should I say Inspector Walker).
“The Whirlwind” is an epic to rival all epics. Transatlantic had done extremely long tracks before, but this album consists solely of one piece. It is broken up into movements, but the whole is one conceptual composition. The sound is still familiar, and doesn’t stray too far from the comfort zone of their previous work. However, they do broaden the scope. Anyone who has heard Transatlantic knows that there is no subtlety in showing its influences. Beatles and Genesis inspired riffs, among others, are par for the course. But they show even more this time. I was especially surprised to hear Zappa and Jan Hammer moments. Other than that, there are no really big surprises. The band does what it does very well. The time apart also seems to have been beneficial, as they are doing what they do even better now.
I have seen much criticism concerning the length of Transatlantic (or just about anything Neal Morse is involved with) compositions. The accusation is that they just try to fill all available space on a CD, striving for quantity instead of quality. I disagree. I am hard pressed to find anything that sounds like filler. Each time I have played it from beginning to end, and never got bored. Neither are any of the movements skipped.
I could try to break down “The Whirlwind, but there is no way I could do it justice. I like the traditional structure with an overture, and a reprise at the end. There are definitely ups and downs, and virtuosic musicianship. Let’s face it these guys are four of the best in the business. There are some absolutely striking moments. One of my favorites is “Lay Down Your Life.” It comes purely from hard rockin’ Beatles land. There are also some very nice, and unexpected jazz keyboard moments. On the downside, the melodies really are far too familiar. It’s high time Neal Morse got out of his compositional comfort zone. But, that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The music is hook heavy, and always captivating. They also do a very good job with bombast this time out. There are parts that almost make me forget I am not listening to a studio orchestra. In essence, “The Whirlwind” is a symphony. It could be the purest example of this in strictly rock form I have ever heard.
I bought the special edition, which includes a bonus disc. Neal Morse has been doing this for years now, but unlike other artists who provide additional discs, it is not the usual alternate takes and demos. There are four tracks that weren’t part of “The Whirlwind,” and of course the covers.
The two Roine Stolt tracks are likeable, but nothing to really rave about. I’ve never been much of a fan of Stolt as a composer, but with the other guys along he provides songs I will listen to on a regular basis. “For such a Time” sounds like standard Neal Morse, even if Pete Trewavas is credited. “Lending a Hand” is the one that stands out for me. Trewavas has come up with a cool psychedelic a la Beatles tune. It is really endearing, and quite different from Marillion.
The covers are real reason to have the second disc. They go back to the Procol Harum catalogue with “A Salty Dog.’ Apparently Mike Portnoy’s Dad was a big fan of this one. America’s “I need You” is right out of the blue. I never would have expected to see this done by a prog group. I actually forgot how good a tune it is. Blending it with The Beatles’ “I Need You” is a bit gimmicky, but it’s fun. Genesis’ “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” are what make it worth the extra money. They stay pretty true to the originals, but crank up the intensity as high as it can go. Portnoy practically outdoes Phil Collins on “Hogweed”, and has an amazing solo on Soul Sacrifice. Trewavas’ bass is just jelly on this one as well. They all get a chance to shine, but those two just blow it out. It ends with a little vaudevillian ukulele namesake tune tagged on the end of “Soul Sacrifice”
At the time when I first heard of Transatlantic Spock’s Beard was new to my ears, I had given up on any post Fish Marillion, and didn’t know any Dream Theater or Flower Kings. Now I am very familiar with the base bands of all these musicians, and it still strikes me that they all seem most at home with this collaboration. This is even more true eight years after their last album. There may not have been a lot of compositional growth, but more Transatlantic is still a good thing. I love this band, and I love this album (I knew I would). If you are a fan of any of these guys, and especially Neal Morse, go get it. You won’t be sorry.
Neal Morse – keyboards, acoustic guitars, percussion & vocals
Mike Portnoy – drums & vocals
Roine Stolt – electric guitars, vocals, percussion, additional mellotron, minimoog & sounscapes
Pete Trewavas – bass, vocals, occasional VST synth & orchestration