Based on the members of this supergroup, I should be a big fan of Transatlantic. Two of the best gigs I’ve ever been to were Flying Colors at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which was immortalised on record as Third Stage: Live in London, and Marillion’s show in Cardiff which formed the basis for the With Friends at St David’s album. So there’s a parallel universe somewhere where I made it to the iconic L’Olympia in Paris for this show.
Despite Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Pete Trewevas being three of my favourite musicians , their combined output alongside Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings hasn’t done it for me in the past, well certainly whole LPs haven’t.
Why has Transatlantic never quite clicked with me before? I think there’s been a tendency for overindulgence which means some of their songs meander without purpose. This is signified in a way by their last studio release coming out as three different versions – abridged, longer and deluxe, which blended bits of both. I mean, in some ways that screams Prog, but not necessarily in the best way. It just confused me and made me engage less with the record. The first two CDs and the bulk of the set here is taken from The Absolute Universe album project, both the abridged and extended versions, creating a fourth version of The Absolute Universe which, in principle, makes me even more befuddled.
If a band is ever going to win me over though, it’s usually based on their live output. Most music can be elevated to a higher plane when played live, but prog in particular really lends itself to pushing the envelope further than in the studio, going on inventive flights of fancy and taking the audience with you. That’s one of the reasons I love seeing prog bands live so much, that little extra bit of secret sauce laid on top of already fantastic songs. So I went into this three CD set, running at over two-and-a-half hours long, with a very open mind.
It only took one song to draw me in, the exquisite playing and the gorgeous vocal harmonies put a big smile on my face, like the best live shows do. The production hits that sweet spot where both the band’s playing and the crowd interaction are at just the right levels to make it feel like you’re there, without losing clarity from the music.
How one song blends into another is something else I enjoy about live shows, and the drum flourish that takes us from Take My Soul into Bully is really special. The whole of CD1 is a live music tour de force. The guitar and keyboard solos, as you’d expect, are superb but I think the stellar rhythm section, with Portnoy and Trewavas locked in together tightly, is a key part of what makes this work so well. By the end of the first CD I was wishing I’d made it to the show, which is just how a live album should make you feel. And I knew by this point I needed to give the studio versions of The Absolute Universe another chance.
CD2 starts with Mike Portnoy’s introduction, he rallies the crowd as he always does while also introducing extra touring band member Ted Leonard. Then, if anything, the music goes up another notch from CD1.
A track like Owl Howl, which was released as an early single, really showcases the musicianship that this supergroup has at their disposal. As the track moves along, it builds into a classic piece of pure prog, with everyone involved playing at the height of their powers. The sublime performance of this number feels more like an encore than the mid-point of a long set, with two huge epics yet to come. The bass and keyboards duel in Looking for the Light (Reprise) is just as captivating too, and the guitar riff that carries that track along is excellent. The Absolute Universe, with The Breath of life and Forevermore versions, felt to me like a band who didn’t have cohesion or clarity over what they wanted to do with their music. Now hearing the whole thing live, it all kind of makes sense. I love the melodic songwriting side just as much as the virtuosity of the more progtastic pieces, and the combination of both keeps this live set interesting and varied, playing to all the band’s many strengths.
CD 3 moves us away from the band’s latest release, opening with the almost 35-minute long Whirlwind suite. The cinematic opening was met with rapturous cheering from the French crowd, the big bombastic instrumental section perfectly suited to a live show. Condensing the 77-minute album into 35-minutes works brilliantly, and it brings the most interesting parts to the forefront, making it into a classic prog epic in the process. The layered vocal harmonies as the song builds come across really well in this setting and the spoken word breakdown works like a Pink Floyd number. The song ends with the fans in as euphoric a state as when it started.
The moment when the crowd sings back “We all need some Light now” on We All Need Some Light from SMPT:e is a real hairs on the back of your neck standing up moment. Then the whole show is closed out with the aptly titled The FINAL Medley, tying up some key loose ends from the band’s first two albums.
The atmosphere that closes the gig is as you might expect from a supergroup who haven’t performed for eight years – and who might never again – as the sold-out crowd give them the send-off they deserve.
On record perhaps I needed a vocal focal point like Casey McPherson or Steve Hogarth to make Transatlantic land better with me. Listening to them here in a live setting, all of the band taking on vocals, works much better and feels more alive and vibrant.
The next release for Transatlantic is another live album, showcasing their whole Morsefest performance. After that they have said they are calling it a day. I’m sad to hear that as after playing this album I think I would really like to see them play live. At least I now have the chance to go back and enjoy their previous work, having been won over by this excellent live album. Maybe I need to do the same thing with bands like The Flower Kings and Lifesigns too.
01. The Absolute Universe Intro (1:52)
02. Overture (7:21)
03. Reaching For the Sky (5:39)
04. Higher Than the Morning (5:10)
05. The Darkness in the Light (5:25)
06. Take Now My Soul (3:53)
07. Bully (2:11)
08. Rainbow Sky (3:06)
09. Looking for the Light (4:15)
10. The World We Used to Know (9:21)
11. MP Intro (3:21)
12. The Sun Comes Up Today (5:22)
13. Love Made A Way (Prelude) (2:23)
14. Owl Howl (6:41)
15. Solitude (5:37)
16. Belong (3:18)
17. Lonesome Rebel (2:47)
18. Can You Feel It (3:09)
19. Looking for the Light (Reprise) (4:59)
20. The Greatest Story Never Ends (3:55)
21. Love Made A Way (7:55)
22. The Whirlwind Suite (34:56)
23. NM & RS Intro (2:39)
24. We All Need Some Light (6:18)
25. The Final Medley (28:19)
Total Time – 169:52
Neal Morse – Keyboards, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
Mike Portnoy – Drums, Vocals
Roine Stolt – Guitar, Vocals
Pete Trewavas – Bass, Vocals
Ted Leonard – Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: International
Date of Release: 17th February 2023