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?