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Progressive rock, with its emphasis on individual instrumental prowess, is a genre that begs for super groups. Through out the genre’s history, many egomaniacal musicians have joined together, with mostly bad results. One does not need to be reminded of bands such as Asia, or the self-indulgent absurdity of ELP. Transatlantic, an amalgamation of Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard, Marillion, and The Flower Kings, are certainly self-indulgent (just look at the track lengths) but seem determined to shake the perception of prog rock super groups being nothing more than four self centered over privileged nerds masturbating furiously on vinyl.
If the members of Transatlantic are virtuosos at anything, it is at writing songs. Long, expansive and dramatic songs, but songs nonetheless. The songwriting here is of even higher quality than on their debut. This could be attributed to the more collaborative nature of the songwriting on this record. Where as “SMPTe” was essentially three Spock’s Beard songs and one Flower Kings song, the compositions here weave their focus between the two primary singers in equal amounts. The songs on this record are also much more closely related to each other than those on “SMPTe”, as they all share at least one motif in common with each other, and seem to point towards a single emotional arch from beginning. This isn’t a full-fledged concept record, but the repeating phrases help hold the absurd amount of material presented together. Even within the two half an hour long epics, the primary themes are revived and reinterpreted often enough that they always feel like singular compositions rather than the mish-mash of smaller pieces that most prog bands pass off as epics these days.
As for what these expertly crafted songs actually sound like, there’s a great deal of classic progressive rock influence but direct comparisons can’t be drawn to any particular acts outside of the members day jobs. There are certainly plenty of majestic moog melodies, expansive instrumental sections, and emotive guitar solos reminiscent of David Gilmour, but all of this is filtered through a more contemporary lens. The instrumental sections remain knotty and complex, although nearly all of them are built on cellular development rather than tight full band shred sessions. The more conventional “songwriter” sections on the other hand are fairly straightforward and poppy, bringing to mind The Beatles far more than Gentle Giant. “Suite Charlotte Pike” in particular seems to be cut directly from the “Abbey Road” cloth.
The overall Transatlantic sound is not particularly extreme, other than the length of the songs, and even then the individual sections of the epics are so tasty and memorable that you rarely choke on the large cuts. Baring a single section in “Stranger In Your Soul” the band never gets particularly aggressive, but they aren’t permanently disposed to happy go-lucky good vibes either. There are a wide array of vivid colors and moods on display on this record, ranging from melancholy (Bridge Across Forever), to euphoria (the end of ‘Strange in Your Soul’). The music is never dragged down by self-seriousness in its more somber moments, and is likewise never fluffy or cheesy when light hearted.
Given that this is a prog album, and a super group, sometime should be spent giving the individual members their own accolades. Most readers on this site will be most well acquainted with drummer Mike Portnoy for his work with Dream Theater. Here his playing is significantly more reserved and tasteful than one would expect given his reputation, proving that the man’s playing is far more diverse than some of his detractors would like to admit. Neal Morse, the other American member, and one of the primary songwriters, gets the majority of the vocal spotlight. His voice is a fairly standard rock tenor, not as quirky or difficult to swallow as the older generation of prog singers. If anything, his safe vocal approach is one of the band’s few weak points. His keyboard playing on the other hand is consistently delightful, covering a full range from organ sounds to swirling synth lines. Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings, serves as Morse’s vocal foil, singing his lines with a weathered, yet distinguished European accent, giving an air of timelessness and class to his sections (particularly the waltz section of “Suite Charlotte Pike”). His lead work on guitar is equally classy; constantly showing taste and restraint brings to mind classic prog soloists such as Hackett or the aforementioned Gilmour. Pete Trewavas of Marillion serves as the bands secret weapon, both on bass and vocally. His performance in the first 10 minutes of “Stranger In Your Soul” pushes the album to new heights emotionally. His voice has a strained rawness to it that emotes far more than the more technically proficient Morse, or traditional Stolt.
“Bridge Across Forever” is quite possibly one of the most accessible prog rock albums of all time, and I mean that in a positive sense. It contains enough of the genres trademarks to be welcoming to longtime fans, but the songwriting is strong enough and straightforward enough to be attractive to newcomers. This is not to say that the songs are simplistic, just that it won’t take someone 10+ listens to understand the general gist of the compositions. For those willing to put in the time, plenty of small details will open up, but that isn’t necessary in order to enjoy the music. Highly recommend to any one interested in progressive music or classic rock.