So, after much anticipation and perhaps some untoward eagerness on my part, Transatlantic’s Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition box set finally arrived yesterday. Or, maybe one should write more appropriately, it landed! And, yes, I was and am thrilled.
I had received a promo copy of two versions of the album—The Breath of Life (Abridged) and Forevermore (Extended)—and I’ve been playing them pretty much non-stop.
But, with The Ultimate Edition, I now have yet a third version of the album, Mike Portnoy’s blu-ray version. If you have to pick just one of the three, I’d highly recommend the blu-ray version as the best. Not only does it capture the spirit of The Breath of Life (which Morse mixed and curated) and Forevermore (which Stolt mixed and curated), but its sound is just nothing short of glorious. Each instrument is crystal clear as is the space between each.
Most astonishing of all sounds to emerge from the blu-ray version is Pete Trewavas’s bass. I’ve always thought of him as an excellent bassist, but I didn’t realize just how excellent until hearing the blu-ray version. Somewhat funny that he was the only band member NOT to mix and curate a version of this album.
In the latest Spirit of Cecilia dialogue, Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert exchange thoughts on the massive set of new releases from progrock’s supergroup, Transatlantic. There are several different versions of The Absolute Universe (you can check them out here), and each one has its own charms.
Brad: Tad, I just finished watching the Transatlantic Roine Stolt interview (available on Youtube as a part of a series), and I couldn’t help but think of you. I also couldn’t help but think–yet again–what a grand gentleman Stolt is. So interesting and intelligent. Prog musicians are articulate in general, to be sure, but Stolt is exceptional even among exceptional people. Does my soul good. He is, truly, The Flower King.
I know that you like the new album(s), The Absolute Universe, from Transatlantic, and I very much do as well. Indeed, I’m rather in love with the extended edition, and I’m growing very fond of the abridged version as well. The more I listen to each, the more I realize how different (and yet so complementary) each is to the other.
What’s interesting to me is that from the opening minute, you know it’s a Transatlantic album. There’s something about the instruments, the voices, and, especially, the energy that is uniquely Transatlantic.
As I’ve been devouring the new album(s) and anticipating the massive box set on its way in three or so weeks I’ve been waxing nostalgic. I bought the first Transatlantic album, SMPTe, shortly after it came out. A student (now a colleague in the philosophy department) had lent it–along with Flower Power by the Flower Kings–to me, and I was immediately taken with both. Since then, I’ve bought every Transatlantic album–studio and live–as they’ve come out. In many ways, my last twenty years have, in some way, been shaped by Transatlantic.
Then, of course, there’s the distinctive Transatlantic art. The great Transatlantic ship is wonderful, and the band has, probably, the best font for any band since Yes’s classic signature.
Tad: Brad, you and I are on the same wavelength. I have been immersing myself in both versions of The Absolute Universe (How’s that for a provocatively countercultural title?), and I am increasingly drawn to the extended version. It turns out that Roine is the main mastermind behind that set, while Neal Morse is the one who put together the abridged version.
I have not seen the Stolt interview, but Morse has begun his own podcast and his first guest is none other than Mike Portnoy! It is also on YouTube, and it is such a pleasure to watch and listen to two very close friends discuss all kinds of topics. I highly recommend you check it out.
I also grabbed my copy of SMPTe to listen to again, and it holds up incredibly well. I think it has stood the test of time – has it really been 21 years since it first came out? – and it can now be considered a progressive rock classic. Those first chords of All Of The Above are so stirring to me; I almost get emotional listening to them now. And as you mentioned, from the opening notes of Overture from The Absolute Universe, you know you’re listening to a Transatlantic album! When Portnoy’s drums kick in gear and start propelling the entire band – that is a very satisfying listening experience for me. Also, Morse’s organ playing the opening melody of Heart Like A Whirlwind (extended version)/Reaching For The Sky (abridged version) is a special moment.
I think you would agree with me that Morse dominated the first two Transatlantic albums (and probably the third) but on this one I get the sense that all the members had relatively equal input. I am especially pleased to hear Pete Trewavas stepping up and singing more lead vocals. His songwriting contributions are more accessible – in other words, poppier – than Stolt’s and Morse’s, which keeps things grounded. Hopefully this album will greatly expand their audience.
Brad: Excellent responses, Tad. I didn’t know about the divided duties regarding two different versions of The Absolute Universe. I must admit, while I love both versions, I’m still much more taken with the extended version. For two reasons, really. First, I love all of Stolt’s guitar and vocal parts. And, second, because my favorite track–”The World We Used to Know”–is only on the extended version. “The World We Used to Know” is the quintessential Transatlantic song, blending the old so perfectly with the new. It’s clear that the band is honoring Yes and Rush in the song, but the song remains completely a Transatlantic track, despite its influences.
If I were forced to rank Transatlantic’s first four albums, I would rank them: SMPTe; The Whirlwind; Bridge Across Forever; and Kaleidoscope, recognizing that each is great. That is, there’s not a huge difference between No. 1 and No. 4 in terms of quality. I have to give the first place to SMPTe, mostly because of the memories associated with my first listen to it, twenty-one years ago. Those opening chords still ring in my soul and play in my mind. It’s such a classic.
Now, after having given The Absolute Universe several spins, I would place it in the No. 2 spot. It might, in some ways, be better than No. 1, but I’m still too taken with SMPTe–even after 21 years–to rank it anything other than No. 1. Regardless, The Absolute Universe is truly special, and life is better because it exists.
Tad, what version did you end up buying? At first, I ordered individual copies of the abridged and the extended, along with the blu-ray. I quickly changed my mind, however, cancelled that order, and then ordered the deluxe package from Radiant Records. I was a bit hesitant at first to do this, given the money involved, but now that I’ve heard and devoured The Absolute Universe, I regret nothing!
One thing that strikes me as interesting. There’s definitely an overlap of style when one considers the Neal Morse Band, The Flower Kings, and Transatlantic, and these three bands have so critically defined Third-wave prog. Yet, they have hardly any imitators. It’s impossible to imagine the current prog movement without, for example, Steven Wilson and all of his imitators. Why isn’t the same true of Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, and Trewavas?
Tad: Good question, Brad, and one that had not occurred to me until you asked it. My first answer is because they are all such incredibly talented artists that any attempts at imitation would pale in comparison! But I also think Portnoy doesn’t get enough credit for his role as arranger and producer in Transtlantic, and he is simply inimitable in the music world. WIthout his energy and guidance, TA would not be near the artistic force they are.
Like you, the more I listen to both versions, the more I prefer the extended one, Forevermore. I go into greater detail why in my earlier post on this album.
My ranking is the same as yours, except I would place Bridge Across Forever ahead of The Whirlwind. I think the melodies are stronger on BAF. Also, I always get a kick out of Suite Charlotte Pike, because Charlotte Pike is a road near my home that I often drive on!
As far as what edition(s) I ordered, I went with both the extended and abridged versions, but I am very tempted to go for the big box like you did. I imagine some people might consider the release of so many different versions a crass commercial move, but it’s really not. Every version is a separate work that stands on its own, and I am grateful to Morse, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas for bestowing so much music on us.
Prog supergroup Transatlantic (Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Pete Trewavas, and Roine Stolt) are releasing their fifth album next month, and it is an unprecedented project. Fans have a choice of not one, but TWO versions of the new album, entitled The Absolute Universe – a two-disc edition and a single-disc one, or a huge 5-LP, 3-CD, Blu-Ray boxset that includes both. In case you’re assuming the single-disc album is merely an edited, shorter version of the two-disc one, let me set you straight: these are two different albums that share some of the same musical themes and a few songs.
Let’s start with the single-disc version, The Breath of Life. The most obvious comparison is to Transatlantic’s third album, The Whirlwind, because TBOL is also one long song divided into sections. I think it is superior to The Whirlwind due to a greater variety of melodies and musical styles. The band has never sounded tighter, either. Portnoy’s drum work is phenomenal, particularly on the King Crimsonesque Owl Howl. All the members take lead vocals for various sections, and they all contribute music compositions. Trewavas’ Solitude is an especially nice passage, while Morse adds his unerring musical magic throughout the album.
Something I find fascinating is Morse’s statement in the liner notes that “everyone writes their own lyrics to their sections and we don’t usually discuss what it’s all about. Sometimes we’re writing about different things in different sections, but somehow it all works together in the end.” That four different personalities can combine to create as cohesive a work as The Absolute Universe is nothing short of miraculous.
Portnoy has stated that The Absolute Universe is a concept album, and that it touches on the events of 2020. For example, Morse’s lyrics
Where were you when everyone/Crashed and burned and fell/Into the silence of the sun/With nothing to be done
refers to his sense of God abandoning the world at the height of the pandemic.
Likewise, the lines
Where were all the seats preferred/And all the wise men winding up/The wisest of all words/And God’s love like dinner served/But now we wonder at the warning
is about lockdowns prohibiting gatherings and other social interaction.
TBOL ends on a high note with the exhilarating The Greatest Story Never Ends which segues into the spectacular finale of Love Made A Way, which is an acknowledgment that God actually has been present throughout all the tribulations of 2020. Musically, this song is one of the finest Transatlantic has ever recorded.
After listening several times to The Breath Of Life, I turned my attention to the double-disc Forevermore expecting to hear longer versions of the songs. Nope! This is a separate album from TBOL that happens to share a few musical sections. As good as TBOL is, Forevermore is even better. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I prefer it, except that it strikes me as more energetic and the songs that are unique to it are simply wonderful.
For example, if I only had TBOL, I would miss hearing Heart Like A Whirlwind, The Darkness In The Light, the delightfully poppy Rainbow Sky, and Stolt’s magnificent The World We Used To Know. Those are all essential Transatlantic songs now, and I would be much poorer for not having heard them.
So what’s my recommendation? Fans of Transatlantic will want to get both albums. True fanatics will splurge for the box set, which includes both versions on CD and vinyl, as well as a BluRay documentary of the making of The Absolute Universe. If I had to choose just one, I would pick Forevermore without hesitation. The good news is, you can’t really go wrong – it’s ALL great music, no matter what you go for.
I think Neal Morse is one of the most exciting and important artists working in music today. Since his embrace of Christianity almost twenty years ago, he has stayed true to his faith while writing and performing some of the most thoughtful and original music in all of rock. However, his upcoming release, with long-time collaborators Randy George (bass) and Mike Portnoy (drums), is a collection of covers. It is the third album in their wonderfully fun Cover to Cover series, and Inside Out music is rereleasing the first two volumes with it in remastered form.
The new volume, Cov3r to Cov3r, features songs originally performed by Yes, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Gerry Rafferty, Badfinger, King Crimson, Squeeze, Tom Petty, and Lenny Kravitz. While some are obvious hits (their version of Rafferty’s Baker Street is killer) others are deeper cuts, like Crimson’s One More Red Nightmare.
I had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone while he was out walking with his daughter, enjoying a beautiful summer day in Tennessee.
Thanks for sharing a little of your time with me to discuss yours, Mike’s, and Randy’s new covers album! I think we’re pretty close to the same age, and if I made a massive mixtape of my favorite songs from high school and college, it would include every song on all three volumes of Cover to Cover. How do you all decide which songs to record?
Thanks! Mike loves to do covers, and he is the driving force behind most of these songs. The first two volumes are mostly bonus tracks from earlier albums. We’d finish an album, and the record company would ask us to do some songs for bonus tracks. We all love covers, because they are a wonderful way to blow off some steam after playing long and complicated prog tunes. If we’re on the road, and I’m doing a soundcheck, I can start playing some Zeppelin, and Mike will come running out of the dressing room to join in!
My favorite moment on the new album is pairing up Squeeze’s Black Coffee in Bed with Tempted. Whose idea was that?
That was mine – I used to play Black Coffee in Bed back in the ‘80s, along with Petty’s Running Down a Dream.
When I first heard the opening track, Yes’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Required”, I was wondering, “Who the heck is that singing?” Then I saw in the promo notes that it’s Jon Davison!
Yeah, we got together with him through playing Cruise to the Edge. When we looked at recording that song, I asked myself, “Can I sing this?”, and I realized there’s no way! So we were really glad Jon agreed to sing it.
I think I actually like your version of Baker Street better than the original. I’ve watched the video for it several times and I get chills when you play your guitar solo. Who is the mystery sax player?
Thanks, man! That’s Jim Hoke, a local Nashville musician. He also does a great job on One More Red Nightmare, which is one of my favorite King Crimson songs.
Listening to all three volumes, it sounds like the three of you just had a blast recording these songs. What was it like recording during a pandemic?
We actually finished our recording before the pandemic hit. Mike recorded the drums in November, I did my stuff in December, and we mixed it in December and January. My “pandemic album” is my upcoming album, Solo Gratia, which I’m really excited about.
Are there any plans for you, Mike, and Randy to do some shows in support of Cover to Cover?
Well, we are going to play a bunch of covers the first night at Morsefest this September. Because of the virus, we have to limit the number of people who can be there in person, but we are also streaming it live, and we have some cool online VIP events planned, like charades and other interactive games.
I have the original versions of the first 2 Cover to Covers, and I notice you’ve changed the track order on the reissues. Why?
They are? I didn’t know that. Ha ha! Mike must have done that. He is the man for figuring out what the best order of tracks should be for albums. It’s his gift, you know, and we figure, let him use it!
I think Randy George is an unsung hero of the bass. I’ve always wondered, how did you two first connect?
Oh, that’s an interesting story. He actually called me up – we had a mutual friend, and he asked me if I was interested in playing on a solo album of his. I think I was too busy at the time, and I put it off. Then I had just left Spock’s Beard, I think it was around 2002, and he said he was willing to work with me if I had any projects. He drove all the way from Seattle to Tennessee to audition for my Testimony album, and we’ve been together ever since.
After Cover to Cover Vol 1 -3 is released in July, what other projects are you getting ready to unleash on the world?
Well, MorseFest is coming up in September, there’s a new Transatlantic album coming out next year, and I’m working on the mixes for my Solo Gratia album.
What are you listening to these days?
Ah, let’s see… mostly the Solo Gratia mixes. I am also listening to the audiobook of Andy Stanley’s Irresistible. As far as music goes, I was listening to Pandora’s Neal Morse station, and a really cool Frost* song came up. I’m a big fan of them.
One last question – what role should Christian artists play in today’s culture?
Well, I think we should be pointing people toward the Lord. I want people to experience God through my music; I’m trying to express the glory of God’s heart.
Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t get stuck in the CCM ghetto; you’re taking your music to whomever will listen to it.
You know, the old saying is true – God will provide. He has given me some incredible music for Solo Gratia. I’m the performer, but God is the director. I’m like a piece of glass reflecting his love and glory.
Can I make a request for Volume 4 of Cover to Cover? Something by Jellyfish, and something from Joe Walsh!
Ha Ha! Yeah, I know there are a lot of people who are fans of them, so that might happen one day.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Neal.
Sure! Take care!
Cover to Cover Volumes 1 – 3 will be released July 24, 2020 on Inside Out Music, on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.
The Neal Morse Band has just released its document of last year’s Great Adventour, the tour in support of their The Great Adventure album. As usual, it is a generous package consisting of 2 CDs and 2 Blu-ray discs.
The Great Adventure is, in my opinion, the NMB’s best album so far, so I was eager to see the show they put on to showcase it. Live In Brno does not disappoint. They play the entire 2-CD album, and close with a spectacular Great Medley.
The show in Brno took place April 7, 2019, midway through their European tour, which followed a North American tour. There are signs of wear and tear on Neal’s voice, but he more than makes up for it with passion and emotion. It is interesting that as the NMB evolves, Neal has become somewhat less of a focal point in their live show, giving up many lead vocal spots to the incredibly talented Eric Gillette, as well as Bill Hubauer. That is fine with me, since Gillette has one of the finest voices in rock today. That said, this is definitely Neal’s production, as evidenced by his energetic moving about the stage, and his creative costume changes throughout the set. At various times he appears as a hooded mystery man, a ragged wanderer, a mad hatter, and other personae.
I’ve rarely seen a group of individuals lock together and perform as one coordinated unit the way Neal (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Randy George (bass), Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals), Eric Gillette (guitar, vocals), and the mighty Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals) do during this show. It really is amazing how tight and powerful they are on every single song.
And that is what makes The Great Adventure such an excellent album – the variety and high quality of every song. There is prog, metal, power pop, and balladry contained in this set, and the band successfully tackles these various styles with ease. The highlights are To The River, Hey Ho Let’s Go, Vanity Fair, The Great Despair, and A Love That Never Dies.
A Love That Never Dies is the final song, and as the audience joins with the band to sing the chorus it is a truly ecstatic moment. It’s no wonder Morse is visibly overcome with emotion.
The encore is a 25-minute medley of selections from every one of Neal’s albums beginning with Testimony and continuing through Similitude Of A Dream. What is clear is how consistently excellent Neal’s output has been since he began his solo career. He really hasn’t had a single clunker in his entire discography.
The Blu-ray video of the show is well-shot with lots of different perspectives of the stage. My only quibble is that the mix is a 2.0 stereo one. If an artist goes to the trouble of releasing something on Blu-ray, he should mix it to 5.1 channels.
The second Blu-ray has two almost hour-length videos documenting the North American and European tours with lots of behind-the-scenes footage. Interesting and fun, but not essential. It also includes the official music videos for I Got To Run, The Great Adventure, Welcome To The World, and The Great Despair.
Neal has released visual documents of practically every tour he has done, and The Great Adventour – Live In Brno 2019 is one of the best. Highly recommended for both the devoted fan and the curious.