Tag Archives: The Absolute Universe

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!