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Transatlantic - The Whirlwind CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.04 | 943 ratings

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5 stars I find something to like about many genres but I'll readily admit that I prefer symphonic progressive rock over any other style of music. But, with almost half a century's worth to digest, it's easy to be jaded and aver that no entity working in that medium in this age holds a candle to the giants of yesteryear who cultivated the movement. I'm talking Yes, Genesis, ELP and sundry other headstrong heroes who made unquestioned masterpieces that still hover in the upper echelons of every prog hall of fame list worth a hoot to this very day. Yet if I'm honest and maintain intellectual perspective regarding such matters I have to add Transatlantic to my roster of greats without reservation. This prog supergroup has not only met expectations but exceeded them. Their debut was decent, their second was outstanding and "Whirlwind" is better than both put together. (Maybe they should go pro.) This towering epic is a modern marvel of composing, arranging and performance. Rarely has an hour and eighteen minutes of uninterrupted music elapsed so quickly and without my experiencing at some point an overwhelming desire for the artists to "get on with it." While expertly utilizing recurring themes and the essential ingredient of melody throughout, there's no redundancy or slothful repetition to be found. Somehow these talented friends have found a way to leave their egos in the studio parking lot and collectively create a cohesive, entertaining piece of symphonic prog that will stand the test of time. I tried my damnedest but failed to find a single note to knock. This is greatness no matter which angle you approach it from.

They start with an overture, the beginning of which sounds like the band's trademark mothership descending into our choking planet's atmosphere, picking up random snippets of earthnoise. An ingenious pump organ rendition of the central theme plays, followed by a full ensemble version. Overtures can be tiresome but this one benefits from thoughtful editing. Bassist Pete Trewavas' contributions to the first two albums were no more than par for the course but the incredible tone and forceful aggressiveness he displays all the way through is extraordinary. He's as good as Squire and Rutherford and I don't bestow that accolade lightly. "Whirlwind" is a straight-ahead rocker that firmly sets the tone both musically and lyrically for the whole shebang to come. "We got caught in the whirlwind/torn by the storms of our lives/we counted on something/that never could hold up our lives," Neal Morse sings. It's no secret that Transatlantic often dabbles in the spiritual realm and, in the case of Mr. Morse and Roine Stolt in particular, they tend to promote a subtle Christian content within their collective wordsmithing. That aroma wafts about this effort, too, but direct references to Jesus and scripture are nowhere to be found. Their ode to mankind living in the planet's end times is downright Unitarian. Those who suffer from bibliophobia will be able to enjoy it without fear of debilitating seizures.

On "The Wind Blew Them All Away" Neal employs a Petty-styled vocal slant that's very effective as this excellent song explores the ephemeral nature of human leadership. ("Picture in your mind a silent statue in the sand/a dust cloud comes and leaves no hiding place for beast or man.") Roines' solo is passionate (he respectfully nods to Clapton's famous wail on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), Pete's bass is exquisitely fat on the instrumental bridge and the huge chorus at the end is wholly gratifying. Trewavas lays down a strong pulse under a jazzy Rhodes piano for the opening of "On the Prowl," a structured jam that evolves to include Hammond organ, hot guitar licks and synthesizer jabs. Drummer Mike Portnoy is unbelievably tight, as always, and he boldly steers the quartet as they flow seamlessly into the ominous verses and chorus where they caution us to be on our guard. ("Listen to the wind/a bark and a howl/changing voices/from a moan to a growl.") The mood turns on a dime to a quiet, mysterious groove for "A Man Can Feel," yet another exemplary tune and one that features Stolt's strange yet not distracting voice singing "the dogs of labor leaning on their spades/that pokerface won't stand a fall from grace/now did you find the satisfaction needed?/or did it leave you with an empty feeling?" Once again I'll draw your attention to Pete's fantastic bass work. Can you say "underrated"? The organ and guitar solos are tasty and the ending is fierce and compelling.

"Out of the Night" is upbeat. Everyone contributes vocally to the pleasant harmonies while the poignant words continue to penetrate. ("I was once at the forefront/once I was happy in life/but mostly I don't think about it now/I smile like I'm doing alright.") After a revival of the Whirlwind theme they segue to the 12-string beginning of "Rose Colored Glasses." There's a Pink Floyd aura to this number that suddenly grows Genesis-sized on the expansive bridge where Roine delivers a tempestuous ride that leads to the sort of big-ass climax that can only be found in Progland. "This world is not our home/you can live like a rolling stone/but you cannot escape with your life," Morse sings. "Evermore" is a pile- driving rock fest with Trewavas tearing up the road and the whole band kicking tail like there's no tomorrow. The "Is it really happening?/is it really going to be?" chant is chilling and effective. Following a frantic onset "Set Us Free" drops down into a soulful feel that glides like an Olympic speed skater. It's either Mike or Pete that steps up to the microphone here but their alternative timbre freshens the air.

"Lay Down Your Life" is a riff-heavy, hard rock tune in which Neal shocks the daylights out of me by channeling Axel Rose vocally and taking no prisoners. "Roll up, it's a storm chaser's life/with a burnin' yearnin' for excitement every night/with the world in breakdown you run/shout through the streets/like an atomic gattling gun," he screams. This track is my favorite. Portnoy kills his kit. He is to drumming what Einstein is to basic algebra. And the way they cleverly twist the riff in the latter going is awesome. (I've hit repeat a time or two for this bad boy.) The instrumental "Pieces of Heaven" is next and their use of a 6/4 time signature is a wise move at this juncture. Its involved, intricate structure is almost Yes-ish. After a large splashdown "Is It Really Happening?" ensues with another sample of earthnoise eaves-dropping and a slowed down, dramatic rendering of the haunting questions the song poses. Morse's acoustic piano is grand as they eventually build up mass and tempo to a ferocious peak. Their keen awareness of dynamic tension is evident on the intro to "Dancing With Eternal Glory" where the piano calms the seas once again. It's another superb tune to treasure as they conclude with a strong message of hope. "There's a reason you're here/this is not by chance/when the giver of life/is asking you to dance," Neal offers, along with "all who seek will find the truth/after all the storms will pass you by." They rev it up a notch with a timely key change and dense synth strings, then they reprise the Whirlwind theme and leave you breathless with a suitably magnificent, pompous symphonic prog finale that slays. Now THAT'S how you do an epic!

Most groups (even those that've been together for eons) would take at least a year to compose, polish and record something as impressive. Transatlantic did it in a few months and still had time to fill up a bonus disc, to boot! Stolt's Yes-inspired "Spinning" satisfies musically (especially the instrumental bit in 5/4) but lyrically it's trite. His nowhere man curiosity, "Lenny Johnson," is the pits and should've been jettisoned from the ship. Morse's "For Such a Time" is a nice little song that would've been right at home on his "Lifeline" CD. Pete's "Lending a Hand" is Beatleism in a George Harrison, Magical Mystery Yellow Sub kind of way. Its lazy loll grew on me over time but, at 8:42, it needed pruning. Their faithful cover of Genesis' "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" is tighter than the flat original and would've surpassed it if it weren't for Neal singing more like McCartney than Gabriel. On Procol Harum's "A Salty Dog" Portnoy proves he's no Brooker sing-alike but this song is so fine it'd be near impossible to screw it up and they don't. "I Need You" is a novel juxtaposition of two different tunes with the same title (Courtesy of America and Mr. Harrison). The three-part harmonies are spot-on and Roine's playful injection of classic Beatles' guitar lines elicits a smile. I looked forward to hearing their take on Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" and while it lacks the raw energy of the source they're still having more fun than a barrel full of proggers. Stolt doesn't have the Latin instincts owned by Carlos and Morse's Hammond organ ride is just respectable but Mike gets to dazzle on the timbales and his finely-tuned tubs. It's not a long solo but it's immaculate. He's a force of nature. The coda, the band's unaccredited anthem sung over a lone Ukulele, is silly but excusable.

When I reviewed Porcupine Tree's "The Incident" I crowned it the best album of 2009. I've changed my mind. While that project is still worthy of my highest accolades, it didn't surprise me that it was brilliant. This did. Since this supergroup hadn't met to coalesce in 8 years I didn't anticipate being blown away but that's what they've done. "The Whirlwind" is exactly the kind of progressive rock that used to amaze and encourage me back in the 60s and 70s. But don't get the wrong idea, this is no retread. It's the real deal and the album's 21st century fidelity will knock your jockeys off. This is a bonafide masterpiece that resuscitates my hope that symphonic prog has a future. 5 stars.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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