Tag Archives: Transatlantic

Transatlantic – KaLIVEoscope

KaLIVEoscope Transatlantic, the Prog-with-a-capital-P supergroup made up from past and present members of Spocks Beard, Dream Theater, Marillion and The Flower Kings, don’t do things by halves. Not that it’s the fashion nowadays, but you won’t catch them releasing a live album as a single disk of edited highlights. Nothing less than a triple CD containing the full three and a half hour show will do.

Despite the unashamed self-indulgence of the music, it’s difficult to attend a Transatlantic gig and not get caught up in the enthusiasm and exuberance of the band’s performance. The band clearly enjoy every minute of their always lengthy sets. Recorded at a sold-out show in Tilburg in The Netherlands, this recording manages to capture some of that energy and excitement.

This is not a record for the faint of heart. Even frontman Neal Morse even makes references to testing the audience’s stamina and bladder capacity after the opening 27-minute song. Despite the lengthy tracks, with several songs of well over 20 minutes and two passing the 30 minute mark, there isn’t much in the way of jams with extended soloing. It’s uncompromising symphonic prog, all swirling cinematic soundscapes, soaring melodies and stately instrumental passages. “Into The Blue” and “Kaleidoscope”, the two epics from their most recent album are both present, though their even longer opus “The Whirlwind” has to be cut back to a 30 minute medley of highlights. Even in three hours it’s not quite possible to include everything.

But it’s not all bladder-busting epics, and some of the standouts are actually the shorter songs. The raw stripped-back ballad “Beyond the Sun” is a gem, and “Black As The Sky” sees them rock out with a great propulsive bass riff from Pete Trewavas. There’s also an acoustic instrumental improvisation from Roine Stolt and Neal Morse featuring a brief burst of Hendrix.

The encores include several covers; an excellent take on The Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin”, and playful runs through Focus’ classic hits “Sylvia” and “Hocus Pocus” complete with yodelling and a guest appearance from Thijs Van Leer, performed with more enthusiasm and energy that you often get from Focus nowadays.

As every live album ought to do, this album captures what it must have been like to have been there that night in Tilburg, and they’ve left in all the stage banter between the songs, which adds to the experience. The sound quality is excellent, and if the performance is occasionally a little rough around the edges, it more than makes up for it in intensity.

For all the fabled self-indulgence of their sprawling studio albums, this recording gives a taste of just why Transatlantic are held in such high regard as a live act.

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Neal Morse – Songs for November

Songs for NovemberSince leaving Spock’s Beard to “pursue a more spiritual path”, Neal Morse has released a string of albums combining over-the-top progressive rock with Evangelical Christian lyrics so heavy-handed than even many Christians find them hard to stomach.

This record is neither of those things.

This is quite explicitly a singer-songwriter record, with straightforward songs rather than multi-part prog epics, every song clocking in at around four minutes of so. A few of the big soaring melodies wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-period Spock’s Beard record, and “Spock’s Beard Lite”, wouldn’t be a bad description for much of the album. Lyrically the “God stuff” isn’t entirely absent, but it’s not in-your-face either; the songs are more about life in all its richness.

Neal plays the guitars, keys and bass, with a variety of guest musicians contributing percussion, brass, strings and backing vocals. Even though the songs themselves are simple, quite a few are still embellished with some rich arrangements. There’s a big brassy riff on opener “Whatever Days”, gospel-style harmonies on “Heaven Smiles” and some very evocative solo violin from Chris Carmichael on “My Time of Dying”. More than one track has a summary west coast feel, ironic given the album title.

The one fall from grace is the overly saccharine “Daddy’s Daughter” which falls deep into pass-the-sick-bag territory. That one track aside, this is an enjoyable album that does what it says on the tin. As a singer-songwriter album by a progressive rock frontman it bears comparison with Alan Reed’s excellent “First in a Field of One”. Certainly there are plenty of tunes that get stuck in your head after a few listens.

Spock’s Beard fans ought to find a lot of like about this record, especially those who find the overt religiosity of his other solo work a bit too much.

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Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope

Transatlantic- KaliedescopeThere are many bands within the progressive rock scene who take a modernised streamlined approach to the genre, stripping out the fabled self-indulgent excesses to make their music relevant for a new generation of listeners.

Transatlantic are not one of these bands.

The supergroup consisting of former Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard alumni Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse, along with Marillion’s Pete Trewavas and The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt have always been a byword for prog-rock excess. They’re the sort of band who can play a three-and-a-half hour live show that consisted of just seven songs, the mere mention of which can make some mainstream music writers quiver in fear.

The quartet’s fourth album, “Kaleidoscope” finds them doing what they do best. Clocking in at 75 minutes in length, not far short of Yes’ legendary “Tales From Topographic Oceans”, it contains just five songs, three shorter numbers bookended by two lengthy epics, the twenty-five minute “Into The Blue” and the even longer title track.

True to their inspirations from the golden age of prog, the record has an organic sound, all swirling Hammond organ, Mellotron and soaring overdriven guitar. Despite the unashamed self-indulgent excess, there is still room for plenty of memorable tunes.

The two longer numbers include symphonic rock riffs, quiet reflective passages, jazz-inflected instrumental sections and huge anthemic climaxes with recurring motifs. It all sounds impressive, though you can’t help feeling that both epics might have benefited from a little judicious editing. They do go on a bit, and title track especially occasionally descends into rather formless jamming in places. At one point it leads into a climactic solo that sounds as though it fits the end of the piece, but no, there’s still another ten minutes to go.

While the two epics attract the initial attention, it’s actually a couple of the shorter numbers that stand out on repeated listens. The rocker “Black as the Sky”, driven by an archetypal neo-prog synth riff, is great fun. And the ballad “Beyond the Sun” is a thing of beauty, both the simplest and the shortest track on the record.

Transatlantic are a band you either love or hate. Their lack of any kind of restraint is both their greatest weakness and their greatest strength, and the resulting 30-minute songs are not for the faint of heart. But at its best it captures the essence of 70s progressive rock, evoking bands from Yes to Uriah Heep, and the whole thing is at least as good as anything they’ve done since their 2000 début.

This review also appears in Trebuchet Magazine.

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A Year in Live Music

My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was a very emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.

Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig and this was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.

Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival

When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.

Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1

The prog-rock supergroup proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio is enough to give Guardian music journalists the vapours.

Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.

Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester

After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.

High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London

While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.

Cambridge Rock Festival

This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guests The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.

Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year

Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.

Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular.

Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2

Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this one pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.

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