By John Sturm
Out on January 27th through Inside Out
Pre-order at Radiant Records
If you have even modicum of interest in all things prog, you'll probably already know all about Transatlantic. So you can skip this next bit if you like. For the uninitiated, Transatlantic formed (initially as a side project) way back in 1999 when Roine Stolt, Pete Trewavas, Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy joined forces. With their shared love of progressive music and, most importantly, The Beatles, it was always destined to result in music that was dense, epic and insanely singable. Since then (including a 7 year hiatus) the band, and yes they are a band and not a side project or a super group, have released just 4 studio albums. But as I always say to my wife it's not the quantity it's the quality (her response is unprintable I'm afraid). Each album packs in more music on one disc than most bands achieve over a 20 year career. And with Kaleidoscope, Transatlantic have yet again proved themselves to be prog titans without equal. Right, that’s the history lesson over you OG Transatlantic fans can join the rest of us now.
So in the pantheon of Transatlantic albums how does this stack up against the older ones. Structurally it follows SMPT:e and Bridge Across Forever more than The Whirlwind as it is bookend by lengthy epics. What this album reinforces is just how much of a band this is. Much has been discussed on prog forums (fora?!) about the amount of Neal Morse input on the material, something certainly more prevalent on the first 2 albums but there has been a shift, starting on The Whirlwind album, towards a sound that is most definitely the sum of its parts now.
Opener 'Into The Blue' certainly lives up to its name as it feels like you've been dropped into an ocean (laboured metaphor ends here) as strings weave and bob a suitably grand entrance for the band stomps into view. Transatlantic know how to write a grandiose introduction make no mistake! Over the course of 35+ minutes we shift from mesmerising melodic sections that soothe and caress to a wonderful section featuring Trewavas, Portnoy and Stolt that sounds like it could fall of a cliff at any time, so precariously balanced is the playing. It's almost woozy as things build towards the first appearance on a Transatlantic studio record by touring guitarist/keyboardist/singer/SIYS head banger Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation). His voice so pure and clear it’s like a lighthouse in the dark.
Lead single from the album, 'Shine' caused much discussion over at Mike Portnoy's forum. It seemed to split fans into either loving it or feeling slightly concerned by it for various reasons. I'll be honest; when I first heard it I was not particularly impressed. But I tempered my reservations with the idea of waiting to hear it in the context of the album. And I'm glad I did. This is a fantastic song. The George Harrison vibe fully in play with the use of a sitar throughout bolstered by the harmonies and a fantastic vocal performance from Neal Morse and Roine Stolt elevates this song from good to great.
So how could you follow this sweet soul-ed track? A hard task for sure, but 'Black As The Sky' swaggers into view bursting with keyboards and mellotron and all manner of ‘In The Cage’-isms and swagger. Featuring more lead vocals from Stolt, this is a belter of a tune and by Transatlantic standards a short punchy track too. Only this band could make the ominous line "A game for the few / they tell who will live / and who will die" sound as cheery as it does on this tune. The ‘In The Cage’ comparison earlier is based entirely on the utterly brilliant last half of this song. Trewavas and Portnoy again uniting in a passage that swings and grooves and leads into a phalanx of keyboards and organs, snarling and stabbing their way through the music. It’s so 70’s prog you can practically smell the incense (this is a good thing in case you had any doubts).
'Beyond The Sun' seriously challenges 'Bridge Across Forever' as the best and most emotive ballad that Morse has written for a Transatlantic album. I'm a sucker for mixing strings and vocals, so got sucked in right from the start. Morse's vocal delivery is impassioned and frayed with emotion. Never afraid to put his heart into his voice, Neal really delivers on this song. It's goose bumps/hairs on the back of the neck stuff when his melody line goes into his upper register. Couple this with the lyrical theme of meeting again after death..... it's well and truly hooked my heart.
And so to the other epic on the album the majestic (and unintentional Metallica referencing, I’m sure) title track ‘Kaleidoscope’. At 31 minutes this is the longest track on the album yet manages to make it feel like at least half that. There is a wonderfully tense build-up around 9 minutes that makes you think the band are about to unleash the heaviest riff you’ve ever heard but in true prog fashion they go the complete opposite way and Stolt’s unique vocals wash in over a strummed guitar and then heads towards a funk riff. It’s brilliant. I must give a special mention to the instrumental section that starts at around 17 minutes in. It’s cinematic in its scope and so emotive with Stolt’s tasteful playing and string accompaniment. Magnificent.
When I saw Transatlantic in Manchester on the Whirlwind tour I was blown away by just how much Roine Stolt is key to their sound, something that isn't always readily apparent on the records. He really is the star of this album and of this track specifically. His guitar swoops and soars, adding texture and colour without being intrusive only to then change to a buzz saw-y jagged form riffing its way through the song with funk and groove not normally associated with prog. Just like every single song on this album (and across all their other albums too) the vocal harmonies are stunning and beautiful, their Beatles influence at it’s most prominent in these moments.
The choice of album title couldn’t be more apt for this album. A kaleidoscope is a cylinder with mirrors containing loose, coloured objects such as beads or pebbles and bits of glass. As the viewer looks into one end, light entering the other creates a colourful pattern, due to the reflection off of the mirrors (thanks Wikipedia!). I couldn’t think of a better description of this band myself. Each member has a musical background that differs from each other yet when they write together, when they reflect off each other, something wonderful happens. It’s a sound that is instantly recognisable as their own. It’s proof positive that this is a true band (like I asserted about a bazillion paragraphs ago). This music could only be made by these four people.
So is the album any good? Of course it is you fool! How does it stack up against their previous works? Well what’s your favourite album of theirs? Ok, it’s as good if not better than that. No, really it is.
This is quintessential and essential progressive music.
This is a band of musical giants.
This is the sound of friendship and of desire to do something different, to do something exciting. This is the record you need to hear.
This is Transatlantic.
And I love it.