Album Review: Transatlantic – The Whirlwind
I was pleasantly shocked when I first heard rumors that Transatlantic had reformed to record a third album. Their first two albums, SMPT:e and Bridge Across Forever were not only amazing pieces of work, but they introduced a lot of the newer prog fans to an style of progressive rock that hadn’t been recorded or appreciated in decades, melodic 70’s prog. Of course all of that came crashing down when Neal Morse, one of the two primary members of the super-group, left the progressive music scene to focus on faith-based music, effectively killing both Transatlantic as well as his main project, Spock’s Beard (note: Spock’s is still around, but the music isn’t nearly as creative. Neal, if you’re reading this, you broke my heart.) So when I started hearing rumors that the band had gotten back together to record another record, I thought it was just the wishful thinking of a obsessed fan base (and trust me, they’re obsessed. A lot of prog fans would have rather had a Transatlantic reunion than lose their virginity, and the band had only been gone seven years). Yet here I am, with a brand new Transatlantic album streaming through my headphones.
And this IS a Transatlantic album. First of all, the first disc is one solitary 77 minute piece. Transatlantic always prided itself on writing the most epic of epic epics, and they certainly accomplished that here in terms of shear volume of material. The second disc is more original material as well as some covers, which is something fans should be used to from their first two albums as well as their live shows, which always featured the integration of classic prog covers from artists like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, and Genesis. The covers on this album are fairly solid, with “Return of the Giant Hogweed” being pretty fucking stupendous. “Soul Sacrifice” is also decent, but I can’t help but feel like it was put on the album as an excuse for Mike Portnoy to record a drum solo.
The 77 minute title track is quite the beast. I’ll commend the band here for creating something so large that still manages to sound like one cohesive piece. I was afraid when I learned that they were only giving themselves four weeks to write and record the entire album that the result would be a rushed, choppy, and unimaginative product, but this certainly isn’t the case. At the same time, there’s a ton of very diverse music to wrap one’s head around, and I’d be very impressed if they try to perform it live (which of course they will, because they’re a ridiculous prog band). I LOVE the fact that the first voice we here is Roine Stolt’s instead of Neal’s, because, while I think Neal may be the superior vocalist technically, I find Roine’s voice to be infinitely more unique and entertaining to listen to. There isn’t as much vocal interplay between the member of the group as there has been in the past, but we still get a healthy cross section of the different vocal textures that make up the band. The song writing is kept fairly simple through out and the only member who seems determined to show off his chops is Portnoy, which is normal for the style of the band. That isn’t to say the record doesn’t reek of prog, it’s just a style of prog that doesn’t focus on technical proficiency. The high-energy sections are thoroughly invigorating without being overly complex or blazing fast, something that has become a crutch for less creative prog bands. This is precisely the classic 70’s-style prog fans of Transatlantic love the band for.
That being said, there are some things that keep The Whirlwind from being on the same level as the bands previous albums. There are a lot of high points where I find myself becoming really engaged in in the title track, but these sections are punctuated by stretches of material that don’t really add anything to the piece. If they had cut the piece down to something more reasonable (you know, like 45 minutes) the result could have been a truly great piece of music on par with their previous efforts. Instead we have something that has large stretches of brilliance accompanied by chunks of stagnation. I’m not saying it’s a bad piece of music, because it’s not, I just find myself skipping around a lot to find the awesome parts (which again, there are plenty of). One other thing that is a bit of a bummer is that it does sound like Neal was given the reigns on the lyrics for a lot of the piece (which may have been a condition for him agreeing to do the project in the first place), because many sections of the song are full of references to ‘eternal glory’ and ‘the giver of life’ and there being ‘a reason you’re here, it’s not by chance’. I understand that that kind of topic matter his focus now, which is fine for him, but it’s also why I don’t listen to his new music. Having these kinds of lyrics dominate the piece is kind of a let down, albeit one I expected.
The original material on the 2nd disk so far doesn’t strike me as the best work they’ve done. While the band has always been known for their epic, 15+ minute plus songs, their other albums have been rounded out by really strong supporting tracks like ‘We All Need Some Light‘, and so far I don’t hear anything nearly of that caliber on the second disk. ‘Spinning’ is probably the best track of the bunch of the new material on this second disk, but that’s mostly because the rest of the songs don’t do anything for me. To be fair the 2nd disk is a ‘bonus’ disk, so I guess it’s possible these tracks are supposed to be B-sides. The one totally redeeming aspect to these secondary tracks is that they give us the very first Pete Trewavas lead vocal song, ‘Lending a Hand’. It’s not even a great song, I just love hearing him try to sing the high notes that for some reason he feels the need to reach (though I guess it IS prog, where everyone feels the need to sing outside their range). In the end I’m glad I got the second disk because the covers are really fun to listen to, but the original material besides ‘Spinning’ could have bee left off and I would have been fine with it.
What I take away from this album is that it was a solid effort by some of the best musicians in progressive rock (or outside of progressive rock, as the case may be). I’m glad they got back together to give us this very enjoyable album and I’m excited about their announcement that they will be touring sometime in the future. However I’m not going to be starry eyed about The Whirlwind either and say that it’s just as good as their previous albums. I think they may have tried too hard this time to create an ‘epic’ album, the second disk’s original material probably could have been left on the cutting room floor, and Neal’s direction with a lot of the lyrics leaves me a little peeved. Still, the good outweighs the bad and I’ll be listening to this for quite awhile longer.