Tag Archives: Neal Morse

What’s in a name…


What indeed?

In the case of prog-pop supergroup, Flying Colors, one might argue the case for a moniker that promises more than it can reasonably hope to deliver. Factor in the title of sophomore release, Second Nature and the musical nostrils detect an air of, what? Complacency? Pretencious indulgence? If the latter is the former, less so.

In point of fact, the (album) title has been hanging around on the substitute bench for quite some time. Aficianados of the neo-prog revival will doubtless be aware that two members of FC have previous together: Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse have collaborated extensively over the last decade and a half; as the American half of Transatlantic; on most of Morse’s solo records and also in tribute acts such as Yellow Matter Custard, paying homage to their shared love of The Beatles. Second Nature was a working title for what eventually emerged as Transatlantic in 2001 (S.M.P.T.e) and was also mooted as a name for that band’s second (and best) album, Bridge Across Forever. It’s perhaps not coincidental that that two-words cliché has finally come to rest on the sleeve of a record that, at times, bears more than a passing resemblance to the project on which Mssrs Morse and Portnoy first joined forces.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda.

Open Up Your Eyes also opens the album, and there’s no denying a more than passing similarity to TA and solo- Morse material. It’s a 12-minute ‘epic’ that wouldn’t have been out of place on a TA album and more than justifies its running time: full of melody, harmony and hard-rockin’ hookiness…

The album also finishes with a long-form piece, albeit one quite unlike any previous. Cosmic Symphony is an, er, symphony in three parts; the first of which comes closest thusfar in living up to Portnoy‘s boast that FC dip their toes into the nu-prog/indie-art-rock waters occupied by Muse/Radiohead. Casey McPherson‘s vocal and the timbre of the song bear an uncanny resemblance to Muse circa The Resistance. As a piece, the languid mood reminds me particularly of Montréal, the narrative-based centrepiece of Marillion‘s Sounds That Can’t Be Made.

In-between, the album ploughs, for the most part, the same hooky, hard-rock groove as FC‘s eponymous debut. McPherson is a stronger, rockier singer than (Neal) Morse; Dave LaRue a less melodic, less conspicuous low-end presence than Pete Trewavas and (Steve) Morse : in short, FC adhere closer to rock convention than TA, which is no bad thing following the – relative – disappointment of Kaleidoscope, which generally found (Neal) Morse‘s superior melodic gifts sidelined in favour of fancy, less-memorable arrangements.

Bombs Away irritates me, featuring a melody that feels familiar yet I can’t place.

Points are lost – lyrically – for The Fury Of My Love: it’s the kind of misogynistic, ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ crap that one hoped rock might have deserted decades ago. On the plus side – melodically – it echoes vintage Tears For Fears. But in the main, Second Nature rescues victory from the jaws of a defeat that seems pre-ordained in the title of both album and band. It’s an album that manages to balance – like the aforementioned TFF – virtuosity and accessibility very well indeed. Lead single Mask Machine perfectly exemplifies this, whoaoahwhoahwohoah: singer McPherson achieving the kind of leg-up Ray Wilson ought to have been granted when he briefly fronted Genesis in the late ’90s.

Not without problematic aspects, FC have managed to deliver one of the most interesting. listenbable rock albums of 2014.


Out of ‘The Whirlwind’…


Prog supergroup Transatlantic‘s 2009 album The Whirlwind is that rarest of musical beasts, the double-album with nary a dull moment. To say that this is no mean feat is an understatement: it might be cliché to mention Tales From Topographic Oceans, The Beatles, …And Justice For All…, Use Your Illusion and Be Here Now but aficianados of classic rock will surely get the point: 80 mins is a long time in music – to paraphrase another cliché – and the potential for misstep and indulgence is high. Actually, unless you’re one of those listeners harbouring a pathological aversion to all things prog, you might perhaps concede that Transatlantic have a pretty solid track record for recording and releasing music of remarkable quality in behemoth-sized chunks. The band’s debut attracted many accolades including “some of the best progressive rock music ever written” (Robert Taylor in Allmusic)). I’ve been a huge fan since I discovered the band via Marillion‘s website in 2004 and especially since seeing them perform The Whirlwind live three years ago: to say my expectations were high would be an understatement…

..and initial signs weren’t encouraging. The band released Shine as an album trailer back in December 2013 and after a five-year wait for new material  I wasn’t impressed:

‘…Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t like the song, it’s by far the least immediately-impressive tune released by the band thusfar: not since Asia‘s 1982 debut has the ‘super’ been so conspicuous for its absence in output from a group so deserving, talent-wise, of the appellation. The collective talent in Transatlantic is indeed an embarrassment, yet had this been my introduction to the collaboration I can’t say I’d have been won over…’

I still don’t particularly like the song: it’s a big power ballad with Floyd-ey knobs on and kinda uninspired by TA standards.The second album trailer was Black As The Sky (which follows Shine on the album) and I like this rather better: it bounces along at a good clip, propelled by Pete Trewavas‘ groovy, thunking bass, and Neal Morse‘s synth figures are catchy, building excitement from the off.  Around three minutes, there’s an instrumental breakdown which adds interest with some tricky time sigs, more nifty runs up and down the ivories, topped off with guitar flourishes from Roine Stolt – very ‘Cinema Show‘ – before the song concludes with a triumphant return to the chorus. All in all it showcases what the boys do best – catchy, melodic prog which demonstrates musical skill without succumbing to indulgence. And following on from that, Beyond The Sun is a lilting Neal Morse piano ballad in the vein of Bridge Across Forever. the title track from their second album. Accompanied by some lovely pedal steel guitar – courtesy of mix engineer, Rich Mouser – and a tasteful string arrangement – by longtime Morse collaborator, Chris Carmichael – it’s four minutes of understated, faintly-psychedelic bliss.

Which leaves two ‘songs’, or rather, song-cycles. TA have returned to a tried-and-trusted format with this album, namely opening and closing the record with extended symphonic workouts with two or three more compact numbers in between. The first two TA albums – SMPTe (2000) and Bridge Across Forever (2001) set the bar high with tracks such as All Of The Above and Stranger In Your Soul. If you’re a lover of classic symphonic prog epics such as Supper’s Ready and Lizard, and/or more recent variations on the form such as Milliontown or Gaza then you owe it to yourself to hear these brilliant pieces. Kaleidoscope, and particularly Into The Blue are, I’m pleased to report as good as if not better than the aforementioned. The latter opens the album with a string theme which is instantly recognizable as Neal Morse/TA – variations of which recur thruout the song and album – which gives way two minutes later to some dirty guitar and organ riffs reminiscent of vintage Purple or Crimson at their earthy, weighty best. Interesting aside, Elbow detoured into very similar KC-inspired territory on their recent album-trailer Fly Boy Blue which is well worth a listen. Over the course of 25 minutes and 13 seconds Into The Blue takes us on the kind of twisty, predictably-unpredictable musical journey that is the hallmark of symphonic prog rock. Detractors of bands such as TA will point out that their music is derivative to the point where progressive is scarcely an apt moniker, and it’s an allegation I shan’t even attempt to refute – it’s impossible to listen to a song like Into The Blue without making mental comparisons to the likes of Crimson, Yes or Genesis – all I can say is that the band tear into their job with such evident relish and aplomb that I can’t help but be carried along. The title – and closing – track is even longer at nearly 32 minutes and yet the time seems to fly by, immersed in the rich soundworld the four musicians create.

And the album is a handsome thing to behold, coming dressed in suitably progged-out attire:

The four discs (r-l) CD1 Kaleidoscope (stereo), DVD1 Kaleidoscope (5.1), CD2 8 cover versions recorded during the album sessions, DVD2 ‘Making of’ documentary.

The image doesn’t quite do justice to the full psychedelic effect of the lenticular sleeve design (also reproduced inside in postcard form) or include the Kaleidoscope t-shirt included with pre-orders, all of which makes the package a snip at around £40 for the discerning prog-nerd. TA, who have courted this element in their prospective fan-base with limited editions from album one, have really outdone themselves this time; producing a package that stands comparison with previous KScope high-end releases from the likes of Steven Wilson, not to mention Marillion‘s plush campaign editions. Musically it arguably lacks the freshness and back-to- front consistency of previous releases: their stall is set now and the element of surprise regarding ‘what will the collective efforts of these four veterans sound like’ is long gone. Kaleidoscope sounds just as one might imagine: well-crafted and impeccably-played, unashamedly-retro prog rock. The more complex compositions are still agreeably leavened by keen melodic sensibilities, albeit those are a little less to the fore this time around, and this still sets them apart: by way of comparison/contrast listen to their cover of King Crimson‘s willfully-gnarly Indiscipline on the bonus disc. Like all the covers – including Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Nights In White Satin – it treads a line between being faithful and distinct and as with previous efforts it gives a peek behind the curtain of the band’s influences. Only And You And I slightly misses the mark, sounding somehow bereft without Jon Anderson at the helm (attendees at the recent Progressive Nation At Sea festival were treated to hearing the latter join TA for a ‘proper’ run at the song, amongst other classics from the Yes canon) but I digress…

The Indiscipline and And You And I covers highlight, in different ways, what Transatlantic don’t offer: music that’s genuinely challenging or possessed of a single, focal, unifying voice. They recreate the bombast of the prog of yore for an appreciative audience and they do it very well: to quote Mike Portnoy/Adrian Belew ‘I like it!’ But for all its occasional highlights, Kaleidoscope hasn’t surpassed The Whirlwind to these ears. It’s good – very good at times: those dirty Purple/Crimson chords, and guest performer Daniel Gildenlöw‘s ‘Demis Roussos‘ vocal on Into The Blue – but the melodies are generally less memorable; the performances somewhat less impassioned; and where there was a clear progression of ideas and approach across the first three albums, the return to the familiar track-listing formula of earlier releases seems like a – literal – step back.

If you notice something of a decline in enthusiasm on my part between the beginning and end of this review, then there’s a reason for that: I started it a month or so back when it hadn’t long arrived. Real life has left me with increasingly less time to myself over the last year or so – no bad thing: my relationship and social life is going from strength to strength – and blogging has taken a back seat and as a result I’ve been working on a number of posts piecemeal without actually publishing much. In the interim the ‘Shine’ has worn off: I’m listening to The Whirlwind now – as I’ve also unearthed Bridge Across Forever – and the contrast is not flattering to Kaleidoscope! There’s nothing here as spine-tinglingly sinister as Roine Stolt‘s vocals on A Man Can Feel; as emotively epic as Neal Morse‘s elegiac Rose Colored Glasses; as climactic as Is It Really Happening? (and perhaps more worryingly, as joyous as their Beatles knock-off, Suite Charlotte Pike). And the band commit the cardinal sin of ending the album on a fade-out. Symbolic maybe? Can we expect a TA hiatus such as that which followed Bridge…? Those 8 years set the stage for The Whirlwind so maybe a break to refresh the creative juices might be in order?

Shine on you lazy diamonds (part one…)


If the very words ‘Progressive rock supergroup’ are enough to make your blood run cold – or indeed, boil – then, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, this is not the post you are looking for…

…If you’re still reading, then; there’s every chance you’re also as excited as I am at the prospect of an 80-minutes-long record, featuring just five ‘songs’; enrobed in psychedelic, sci-fi splendor and dreamed up by the cream of neo-prog talent. Transatlantic, for the uninitiated, is the collaborate efforts since 2001 of Mr Mike Portnoy (then Archduke/drummer of Dream Theater); Roine Stolt (guitarist-singer-songwriter for The Flower Kings/Kaipa); Mr Peter Trewavas (Marillion/Kino/Edison’s Children); and God-bothering prog polymath from Mars (ex-Spock’s Beard) Mr Neal Morse. In the decade-or-so since, they’ve recorded and toured three fantastic albums and the pre-order for their forth, entitled Kaleidoscope is about to open. Shine is the first ‘single’/album trailer, debuted yesterday on the Prog mag website:

Despite the ‘prog supergroup’ tag, Shine couldn’t be much further from the convoluted instrumental showboating of ELP or Mahavishnu. It’s actually a straightforward rock ballad which, if you’re a fan of other Neal Morse projects from Spock’s Beard to Flying Colors will doubtless have a familiar feel. If you’re detecting a whiff of criticism in that last, then you’re at least half right: Morse‘s skill as a writer and singer of ballads – and his melodic sensibility in general – forms a crucial part of Transatlantic‘s appeal for me. Whilst the band is a veritable heavyweight in the musical muscle-stakes, and not afraid of treating itself and fans to extended, demanding workouts – in common with their first two releases, Kaleidoscope is book-ended by two half-hour-long symphonic pieces – each album has included songs that show facility for more economical, pop-rock-oriented writing. We All Need Some Light (from SMPTe, 2001) and Rose Colored Glasses (The Whirlwind, 2009) are fine examples of this kind of vibe and both were highlights of their last tour (on which the band was complemented by ‘all-round utility guy’ Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain Of Salvation fame, upping the ‘super’ stakes). Shine is a song in a similar vein, but, frankly, not in the same league. Where those songs soared and took flight, it merely plods along, struggling for breath. Even Roine Stolt‘s second solo at 4.20 – my favourite thing about the song – sounds a little uninspired by his standards; derivative somewhat of David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb in the wrong key?) and also Trewavas‘ band-mate Steve Rothery, albeit as thrilling as neither.

The country twang that makes itself felt around the two minute mark is a slight departure for the band, though curiously-apposite given that the recordings were begun in Morse‘s adopted home of Nashville; whilst the brief interlude into Floyd-ey psychedelia at 3.47 – predictably, voiced by Portnoy – is sweetly-trippy, yet slightly out of place there. The effects processor conveniently disguises his shortcomings as a vocalist – he and Trewavas provide solid backups and harmonies, but truthfully neither cuts it on lead, Portnoy least of all – but it’s something of a mystery why the band chose to split up the vocal duties at all. The song sounds very Morse and he’s much the strongest singer, even if Stolt‘s more idiosyncratic tone remains more distinctive. And can I mention the video clip? It looks cheap – as much as I love the musty, tumbledown grandeur of the chapel – and is unlikely to either impress their select, if devoted legion of fans or win them any new ones. Maybe a fanclub competition along the lines of Marillion‘s Whatever Is Wrong With You marketing wheeze would have been the way to go. The spark of creativity therein went a long way towards mitigating the nonexistent budget.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t like the song, it’s by far the least immediately-impressive tune released by the band thusfar: not since Asia‘s 1982 debut has the ‘super’ been so conspicuous for its absence in a group so deserving, talent-wise, of the appellation. The collective talent in Transatlantic is indeed an embarrassment, yet had this been my introduction to the collaboration I can’t say I’d have been won over, especially given the £40 (+ P&P) price tag on the collectors’ edition hardback set. As it happens, my Trans-virginity (fnarr, fnarr) was taken by Mystery Train (see below) which is better indicative of the band’s general sound and compositional skill, whilst remaining melodic and accessible. I will be buying said product, mind: on the strength of their previous three excellent albums I’m convinced I won’t be disappointed. On The Whirlwind in particular, they did themselves proud, making a record that harked back to the heyday of symphonic prog whilst remaining fresh and accessible. I hope this single doesn’t – ironically – prove to be an indicator that the shine is beginning to wear off.

The Prog article can be read in full here and includes the full tracklisting for the album including a bonus CD of cover versions which showcases some of the band’s diverse roster of influences:

01. Into The Blue (25:13)
02. Shine (7:28)
03. Black As the Sky (6:45)
04. Beyond The Sun (4:31)
05. Kaleidoscope (31:53)

01. And You And I (Yes cover) (10:45)
02. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (ELO cover) (4:46)
03. Conquistador (Procol Harum cover) (4:13)
04. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) (3:20)
05. Tin Soldier (Small Faces cover) (3:22)
06. Sylvia (Focus cover) (3:49)
07. Indiscipline (King Crimson cover) (4:45)
08. Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues cover) (6:13)

A Song of Faith and Devotion


I’m not really one for Xmas music; I’ve heard enough of Noddy Holder and Roy Wood to last a lifetime, frankly and thank my lucky stars that my flat door doesn’t open onto the street: all the better to avoid the sound – and rattling coin boxes – of those pesky carol singers. There are exceptions to the rule, mind: I could listen to Fairytale of New York, Stop The Cavalry and It’s Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) anytime of year, and whilst I’m not religious in the least, if there’s ever a good day for a bit of God-bothering then it’s today. So here’s one you won’t have heard on the radio: Neal Morse first made his name with American Neo-proggers Spock’s Beard, and left following the release of acclaimed sixth album, Snow in order to pursue music inspired by his new-found Christianity. Help Me/The Spirit and the Flesh featured on his solo debut, One, is the first song of his I heard (aside from Transatlantic) and it’s still among my favourites. Sure, it’s a little (ok, very) ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, but it’s full of passion, melody and great playing. Featuring Morse on lead vocal, guitar and keyboards, there’s also tip-top backing from Randy George on Bass and one Michael Portnoy nailing the backbeat with uncharacteristic (by his and Dream Theater‘s standards) understatement. Damn, I’m feeling so festive right now I can even forgive Mr Morse his cheesy whoop at 7.27 😉

Merry Xmas and enjoy!