Tag Archives: Roine Stolt

Transatlantic: Absolute Genius

The three versions of the album. Photo from nealmorse.com

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. 

Continue reading Transatlantic: Absolute Genius

Placing a Transatlantic Call

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.

A Deluge Of Music From Transatlantic

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. 

You can pre-order The Absolute Universe at nealmorse.com.

Update: I neglected to mention that the BluRay also has a 5.1 mix of the album, and you can purchase it separately. For those fans with surround sound systems, that is probably the best deal!

The Flower Kings: Islands

Islands
Cover art by the master of prog art, Roger Dean

Here is the latest in what will hopefully be a regular feature at Spirit of Cecilia: a conversation about a current release from a favorite artist. Once again, Arts Editor Tad Wert joins Editor-in-Chief Brad Birzer, this time to discuss the Flower Kings’ latest, Islands.

Birzer: Somewhat surprisingly–especially given how recently the band released its last album, 2019’s excellent Waiting for Miracles–The Flower Kings is just about to release its fourteenth studio album, Islands.  It comes out on October 30. 

And, it’s not just any album, but a double album.

Tad, we’ve had a few weeks to listen to the promo, and I’m really curious what you think. It’s a collection of (generally) shorter FK songs, but with all the FK trademarks and psychedelic flourishes one would expect from the band. 

Islands reminds me a bit of Stardust We Are in terms of its structure, but that album was more epic in reach and in scope. With Islands, however, it’s great (as always) to have the trademark dual vocal leads, but I think some of the instrumental passages and songs are simply stellar. Track 2 on disk 2, “A New Species,” for example, really stands out for its musical innovation and flow. I definitely would love an entire album built around this track, much like what a much younger FK did with Flower Power.  This is the kind of track that proves that FK is still a major powerhouse of prog.

Yet, there are a few moments that make me scratch my head.  The band has released as the first single from the album, “Broken,” the fifth track on disk one.  While the song has some achingly beautiful moments, especially lyrically, there are guitar and keyboard passages that are lifted almost directly from the theme song of The Simpsons!  Whether this was intentional and playful on the part of the band or not, I have no idea.

Still, while Islands is an excellent album, it’s very much rooted in third-wave prog.

Wert: Brad, I know the Flower Kings are one of your favorite groups, so I am honored you invited me to talk about them with you! I had a little chuckle when you said, “It’s not just any album, but a double album.” Looking at my music library, I have 13 studio albums of theirs, and no less than 9 are two (or more) discs. That’s almost 70%! I have enjoyed their music very much, but there are times when I wish they had an editor; I think some of their albums would be improved if they tightened them up a little.

So what about Islands? I agree that the songs are generally shorter, and that is a good thing in my opinion. The ones that immediately grabbed me were “Black Swan”, “Broken” (except now that you have pointed out the Simpsons reference, I can’t get that out of my head!), “Tangerine”, “Northern Lights”, and “Fool’s Gold”. A common thread of them is that they feature the vocals of both Roine Stolt and Hasse Froberg. I think when they collaborate the energy level really rises.

In their press release, Stolt says that the listener should approach this set as one long piece, which makes sense. When I first heard “Heart of the Valley” on the first disc, I thought it didn’t go anywhere; it sounded like a section of a larger epic. Well, on the second disc is “Telescope”, which is quoted in “Heart of the Valley”, so Islands really is one 90 minute suite. Once I approached it in that light, the songs I first considered throwaways took on more significance.

As Spirit of Cecilia’s resident FK expert, how would you rank Islands in their discography?

Birzer: Tad, great thoughts.  Thank you for them.  As much as I like Islands, I wouldn’t immediately rush it to the top in terms of rankings. My favorites from the band are Space Revolver (far and away, my favorite) and Paradox Hotel, followed closely by Stardust We Are and Unfold the Future. So, as much as I like Islands, it would rank–at least in these early stages of listening–somewhere in the low middle of their albums.  Maybe around the level of Banks of Eden.

Above, when I mentioned that the album is deeply rooted in third-wave prog, I meant this more as a statement of fact than as one of judgment. What I like about my favorite FK albums is their energy and their innovation, the chances the band takes. Overall, Islands seems low energy compared to the band’s best work and innocent of any real innovations.

It’s still a FK album and that means it’s better than 95% of the music out there.  But, within the FK discography, Islands ranks fairly low.

Wert: I’ll go with that assessment, Brad, although the more I listen to Islands, the more I like it. And I want to give a shout-out to Roger Dean for the incredible cover art! My takeaway: Islands is a solid effort by a band that is in no way in decline. They are still making vital music, and for that I am grateful.

I’m looking forward to Roine’s work with the new Transatlantic album that is slated for release soon!

In The DropBox: Ayreon, Flower Kings, And Short-Haired Domestic

This week, I feel like the DropBox is in a holding pattern (with one exception). We have two well-established prog artists with new albums, but neither one indicates much artistic growth. Both are solid efforts that will certainly please die-hard fans, but I don’t see them attracting many new ones.

ayreon-e28093-transitus-600x600-1

Arjen Lucassen, the king of prog operas, has released a new magnum opus, Transitus. This is the first of his operas that isn’t tied to his Ayreon world in some way (although there is a sly reference the “The Human Equation”). Transitus is a Victorian ghost story/morality play that tells the story of two doomed lovers – one a wealthy young man and the other a servant of his – and how they overcome the barrier of death to be together.

If you’re an Ayreon fan, musically this fits in with everything Lucassen has done previously. There’s not a lot of new ground broken, but it’s hard to fault an artist for being so consistently good. Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) sings the lead role of Daniel, and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber) takes the role of Abby. 

islands

The Flower Kings are never ones to stint their fans when it comes to providing music, and Islands is no exception. It is a big 2 CD album that features Roine Stolt’s trademark guitar work and laconic vocals. On this outing, I actually prefer the songs bandmate Hasse Froberg sings – he is a little grittier. According to Stolt, all of the songs revolve around the theme of isolation, hence the title. There are some beautiful moments in this sprawling set, particularly All I Need Is Love. Fans of the Flower Kings and Transatlantic will not be disappointed with this one.

short-haired-domestic-album-cover

This album is the most interesting one of this week’s batch. Short-Haired Domestic is Tim and Lee Friese-Greene, and their offering is not exactly prog, but it is some of the most delightfully quirky artpop I’ve heard in a long time. Every song is sung in a different language – Japanese, Bulgarian, Italian, German, Hindi, even Latin. It is funky, catchy as hell, and just plain fun. Tim is best known for his extraordinary production of Talk Talk’s last few groundbreaking albums, and Short-Haired Domestic makes clear he still has a few tricks to share with us.

Here’s the first single, A Song In Latin About The Importance Of Comfortable Shoes (yes, that’s the actual title):

Another Miracle: The Flower Kings at 25

Interior art, Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES (Sony/Inside Out, 2019).

Looking death straight in the eye

You will never feel that much alive

—Roine Stolt

For anyone in the prog world, Roine Stolt is a grand and solid name, a trusted master of the craft and a man as honest about his opinions as anyone ever has been in the rock world. From The Flower Kings to Transatlantic to Anderson-Stolt to Steve Hackett’s band, Stolt is anywhere and everywhere excellence is. 

Simply put, when I think of Stolt, I imagine that other master of amazing things, Tom Bombadil. And, yes, that means Goldberry is nearby. “He is.”

The new Flower Kings, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a thing of beauty, delicate yet everlasting.  Sounding a bit like FLOWER POWER and SPACE REVOLVER, the new album has everything a fan loves: mystery, lingering, soaring, contemplating, undulation.

This is glorious and mighty prog.

The album opens with the fragile and compelling “House of Cards,” moving immediately into the Tennyson-esque rage against fate, “Black Flag.” Followed by ten-minute “Miracles for America,” a plea for the future of the free world, and then another ten-minute track, “Vertigo,” disk one is nothing if not dizzying.  If there’s a rock anthem on the album, it’s track no. five, “The Bridge,” which might very well have topped the rock charts in 1983, with its reminder of the theme of the album, “waiting for miracles.” “Ascending to the Stars,” track six of disk one, gives us a mysterious and dark Flower King, an instrumental and orchestra joy somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in its heyday. Despite its name, “Wicked Old Symphony” is the poppiest of the tracks on disk one, a track that hints at the Beatles as well as early 1970’s America. “The Rebel Circus,” track eight, is another wildly wacky and infectious instrumental, followed by the intense and aptly-named, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” The final track of disk one, “The Crowning of Greed,” is a poem, at once reflective in theme, and progressive in tone.

Disk two is much shorter than disk one, and I have no idea if it’s meant to be a “bonus disk” or a continuation of the album. That track one of disk two is a reprise of track one of disk one does nothing to answer my confusion about all of this. Track two, “Spirals,” is a feast of electronica and reminds us once again of the theme of the album: “Call on miracles—For America.” “Steampunk,” the third track of disk two, seems to take us back into the world of adventures. If “Black Flag” followed the voyages of Ulysses, “Steampunk” has us follow Aeneas. The final full track of the album, “We Were Always Here,” is a rather beautiful rock song, reminding us of life and its unending beauties. “It’s so simple in its purities/All that genius—life energies/like forgotten springs of melody.” Disk two ends with the 52-second long bluesy circus piece, “Busking at Brobank.”

Overall, WAITING FOR MIRACLES, is a joy.  It’s not just a joy as a Flower Kings album, it’s a joy as a rock album. Anyone serious about his or her rock music should add this to the collection. One final note—while I’m not wild about the cover art (too political for my tastes), I absolutely love the interior art, making a physical purchase of WAITING a must.

P.S. I proudly bought my copy from my favorite store, Burning Shed.