“The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding (in all of the directions it can whizz…)”, sang Eric Idle in his Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which apparently was how Roine Stolt described the recording of Transatlantic’s fifth Studio album, not the whizz bit though…
Therefore, appropriately calling it The Absolute Universe sums up the ambitious and ultimately audacious approach to marketing effectively two versions of the same album (ish) at the same time. In fact, an ‘abridged’ 60-minute one and an extended 90-minute version, but there is a difference in the dematerialised product as, although ostensibly they have the same DNA, they are two separate recordings. “She’ll nor take it Cap’n”, Scotty might have said, but such is the complexity of the warp engines propelling this Prog Super Group, of course it works, and sort of makes sense. Extending the metaphor further, two planets could be evolving at the same time but slight differences in the compositional molecules would result in slight variations, although basically a parallel conclusion. The music is perfectly suited to these lofty analogies with the intergalactic sci-fi narrative because it is Big, as in…
Launching with Overture, the scene is set with the usual bombastic drumming of the never understated Mike Portnoy, the always surprisingly massive keyboards of Neil Morse, Deity-like sweeps of Roine Stolt’s ice cap destroying guitar, and the plectrum driven funk of Pete Trewavas’ bass playing, fuelled by freshly mined dilithium crystals. This band sum up Progressive Rock Music, not music that has necessarily progressed, but of a genre it is a defining force. If this is not an agreeable statement, then you’re looking at the wrong Captain’s log entry.
The differences between the two renditions are almost unimportant although, for example, the abridged depiction (The Breath of Life) of Now Take My Soul becomes Swing High, Swing Low on the feature length edition, taking the latter out of the Christian lilt and giving it a more secular theme. The extended rendering (Forevermore) also appears to be more Stolt oriented, which comes to the surface with, another example, The Darkness in the Light, which has more guitar parts, but as it is also sung by him, so The Flower King connection is difficult to ignore. It could have been found on that band’s latest Islands composition, not a criticism, more an appraisal of the standard of musicianship here. The ‘extra’ tracks include Rainbow Sky and the cheery Sun Comes Up Today, which is probably a reason to buy the longer version in itself, but (at the end of the day) you’re going to buy both anyway so sit back and pin back those ears. Just take it on the chin and comfort yourself with not having such a heavy wallet to carry about. Despite thoughts on this marketing approach, if you’ve followed and bought into “Transatlantic – The Brand”, this will just have to be done. However, there is a strong argument for just having the one double CD but that Horsehead Nebula has already bolted, so this is what we find and that’s that, space cadets.
Concept-wise (like fan favourite The Whirlwind) the idea is that there is a continuous piece of music but broken up into sections. Besides recurring themes and reprises, the album can be dipped in and out of at one’s leisure, and although we all have a lot more time than in normal circumstances, this approach probably works for the average human listener, not that this new album will be solely aimed at inhabitants of Earth.
Musical highlights are abundant with Owl Howl destined to become a live favourite, but again, it’s very Flower King-like – that’s so not a problem – and Marillion’s bassist sings a very gentle Solitude in direct contrast to Portnoy’s vocal take on Looking For The Light, a romp through what could be a Dickensian London ‘Pea Souper’. Yet again, though, Neil Morse’s sweet voice takes most of the heavy lifting in the singing stakes, but never is the apparition of Spock’s Beard noticed through his distinctive approach to this line-up, the coda of Heart Like A Whirlwind being a prime example. The ghost of Bridge Across Forever is, however, felt on the harmony rich Higher Than The Morning.
The best advice is to absorb this record in all its finery for the wonderful mountainous task that they have completed, in whatever form you decide on the day, as it certainly gives a great deal of talent and enjoyment for your Altairian dollar. By the time you’ve reached The Greatest Story Never Ends (with its homage to Gentle Giant’s vocal workouts) you can have a little lie down as Love Made A Way soothes the brow after you’ve been awarded your long service medal.
Nobody was prepared for the majesty of the first albums’ All of The Above and then the perfectly crafted follow-up Bridge Across Forever, so this band had already furrowed a meteor-sized trench for itself to continue the standard, but The Absolute Universe simply sits alongside the pantheon of (abridged and extended) God-sized musical excellence that sums up this beat combo. 2021 could be the best year yet, following the doom-laden prequel, and hopefully the stars have come to be realigned for the better, with this album being one of the results of that gravitational lensing.
The Breath Of Life (Abridged Version)
01. Overture (5:53)
02. Reaching For The Sky (5:40)
03. Higher Than The Morning (4:32)
04. The Darkness In The Light (5:43)
05. Take Now My Soul (3:31)
06. Looking For The Light (4:04)
07. Love Made A Way (prelude) (2:13)
08. Owl Howl (5:26)
09. Solitude (4:24)
10. Belong (2:22)
11. Can You Feel It (3:17)
12. Looking For The Light (reprise) (4:57)
13. The Greatest Story Never Ends (2:57)
14. Love Made A Way (9:02)
Total Time – 64:01
Forevermore (Extended Version)
01. Overture (8:11)
02. Heart Like A Whirlwind (5:11)
03. Higher Than The Morning (5:29)
04. The Darkness In The Light (5:43)
05. Swing High, Swing Low (3:48)
06. Bully (2:11)
07. Rainbow Sky (3:19)
08. Looking For The Light (3:59)
09. The World We Used To Know (9:21)
10. The Sun Comes Up Today (5:38)
11. Love Made A Way (prelude) (1:25)
12. Owl Howl (7:05)
13. Solitude (5:41)
14. Belong (2:49)
15. Lonesome Rebel (2:53)
16. Looking For The Light (reprise) (5:12)
17. The Greatest Story Never Ends (4:17)
18. Love Made A Way (8:02)
Total Time – 90:14
Neal Morse – Vocals, Keyboards, Acoustic Guitars
Roine Stolt – Electric Guitars, Percussion, Vocals
Pete Trewavas – Bass Guitar, Vocals
Mike Portnoy – Drums, Vocals
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Countries of Origin: U.S.A./Sweden/U.K.
Date of Release: 5th February 2021