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Transatlantic - The Whirlwind CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.05 | 937 ratings

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2 stars If all the written reviews here were only by fans and apologists, these archives wouldn't be worth very much. With that in mind, I freely admit to being a fan of Transatlantic's first two albums, enough to insist on a contrary opinion of their latest studio effort to date: yet another ersatz sermon by Neal Morse dressed, like the fabled emperor, in all-too transparent Prog Rock finery.

The idea behind the album was suspect from the start. Presenting a single, 78-minute opus was really just a stunt, aimed at hungry progheads who might have forgotten that Ian Anderson's LP-long "Thick as a Brick" was intended as a concept album parody. Here the supergroup simply borrowed the epic SPOCK'S BEARD / FLOWER KINGS formula and inflated it to ridiculous length. But the model itself remained unchanged: after hearing the opening theme you can bet your mother's mortgage that the album will end with the same melody, played at a slower, more majestic tempo, and augmented with strings and bass pedals all piled skyward atop Morse's melodramatic singing (The "Supper's Ready Effect", a trusted strategy in modern Prog composition).

A (hopefully) quick digression: I single out Neal Morse over his bandmates because he was obviously the driving force behind this project. Musically and thematically, his songwriting has always teetered (in a manner of speaking) close to the edge separating true inspiration from Neo Prog tackiness. But his headlong embrace of Christian fundamentalism upset that delicate balance, and pulled even this veteran partnership right over the brink.

It still might have worked, if he didn't peddle his message like a used-car salesman. The libretto for "The Whirlwind" is a whopping 2,270 words, and yet they boil down to a simple lesson: life stinks, but eternal glory awaits us if we surrender to God. On first exposure it almost sounds like a Born Again jihad against sinners and unbelievers ("...the wind blew them all away", etc), but that's only the knee-jerk reaction of an oversensitive freethinker. A closer reading shows the metaphorical tempest to represent the misfortunes we all face from cradle to grave ("we got caught in the whirlwind / torn by the storms of our lives..."), which according to Morse can best be withstood through blind devotion to primitive monotheism ("come bring this ship / out of the whirlwind / set us free, free, free!")

Worse yet: all that suffering is apparently a part of His Divine Plan ("before we're raised up / he's got to break us down"), which to me sounds uneasily like cult bullying, on a cosmic scale.

And that's only a taste of the opening twenty-five minutes, with almost an hour's worth of artless proselytizing still to come. What it all amounts to is Neal Morse again putting all his superstitious insecurities on paper, and then trying to make them rhyme: "You've got to lay down your life / like rain in Spokane", so forth. (A mild ecological nitpick: there isn't much precipitation in the rain shadow of eastern Washington State, so what exactly is he demanding here? Reluctant submission? Would "cattle in Seattle" have made a better metaphor?)

I would like nothing more than to overlook the wall-to-wall text and simply enjoy the high caliber of musicianship, never less than stellar from all four players, including Mr. Morse: a truly gifted keyboard artist and arranger. But that would be like telling a nervous agoraphobe visiting the Grand Canyon to just ignore the view. Transatlantic borrows so many elements from other Golden Age Prog giants, it's a shame they didn't also sneak a peek at PETER HAMMILL's playbook. The 1971 "Pawn Hearts" album in particular could have been an invaluable model ("Still waiting for my savior / storms tear me limb from limb...")

Failing that, any self-respecting deity would have (gently) broken Neal Morse's fingers, so he couldn't write another lyric until he learned that music alone can be its own spiritual epiphany: just ask Mr. Fripp, or the shade of the late Florian Fricke. Indeed, on those occasional moments when he shuts up the astonishing skills of each performer really shine through. The tense jam at the start of "On the Prowl" is Transatlantic at its instrumental best, and the escalating pinpoint madness leading to the climax of "Is It Really Happening?" is a technophile's wet dream (this at around the 60-minute mark, better later than never).

Dynamic Prog Rock overkill and na´ve religious dogma: not the most rewarding combination, especially when stretched over 78-continuous minutes and played with sometimes sledgehammer finesse. Give the band credit for stamina, at least. The whole roadshow production actually peaks after 40-minutes (in "Rose Colored Glasses"), and the quartet then has to rebuild its momentum from scratch, without even the courtesy of a potty break. Theology aside, the album stands as an argument in favor of long-playing vinyl, where the need to flip the record over presented a natural intermission.

Golden Age proggers like YES and GENESIS, besides being a little more Gnostic in their spiritualism, were all about quality over quantity, even when assembling side-long epics like "Close to the Edge" and "Supper's Ready". It's a pity Transatlantic didn't learn that lesson better, instead of merely aping the more superficial cosmetics of the classic prog style...

...Which leads to a brief addendum on the bonus disc: a quartet of shorter songs (shorter by comparison, that is: two of them approach the ten-minute mark) plus four oldies paying affectionate tribute to our shared Prog Rock heritage. The original stuff is hardly superstar material, and doing the covers might have been a miscalculation, serving only to underline how much better the originals were. "The Return of the Giant Hogweed", for example, is only a note-perfect clone of the 1973 "Genesis Live" version, even quoting Peter Gabriel's stage introduction in a faux-English accent. Like the other selections here, there's no attempt at interpretation.

Neu!mann | 2/5 |


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