Although progressive rock has had a low profile in the music world since the rise of punk and disco in the late ’70s, it’s still very much alive today, even to the point that there are real stars of this musical style. Foremost among these are the members of Transatlantic, and their latest album, Kaleidoscope, is a production worthy of their major talents. Just as a kaleidoscope creates fascinating images by juxtaposing numerous bits of colors and shapes that contrast with one another, Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope does so with sounds. Ranging from hard rock to classic rock to folk to classical, the sounds on Kaleidoscope shift and recur in patterns of real beauty.
Transatlantic is a true progressive rock supergroup, with the four members coming from Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, Marillion, and Dream Theater. Vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard) is the strongest presence in the band, writing many of the tracks and singing lead passages on all or nearly all the songs the band has done. Guitarist and vocalist Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) also has a strong musical presence which is instantly recognizable. Pete Trewavas of Marillion plays a highly melodic bass guitar, and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold) is one of the most energetic and creative drummers of the past couple of decades.
The band’s music is probably best characterized as symphonic progressive rock, and some might refer to it as retro progressive rock, an apparent contradiction in terms but a phrase that successfully conveys the band’s ability to create current-day progressive rock that builds on the best of 1970s progressive rock and updates the sound for contemporary audiences.
The opening track, “Into the Blue,” starts with about a minute and a half of quiet, rather mysterious sounds reminiscent of the occasional subdued passages in Yes epics such as “Close to the Edge.” It soon transitions into a harder-edged sound with the full band attacking a central theme in unison, and then moves into some heavy guitar riffs under a fizzy synthesizer solo and a frenetic blues-oriented electric guitar solo by Stolt. The next passage is quieter and features another synthesizer solo, leading to a vocal section featuring Morse on lead. That all happens in the first six and a half minutes of the song, This is another Transatlantic epic, at 25 minutes long. The rest of the song features an excellent electric organ solo, some nice electric piano backing an odd, low-pitched vocal passage, appealing vocals by Roine Stolt, a jaunty bass solo by Pete Trewavas, more bluesy soloing by Stolt, and much more, with a grand finale led by Morse’s vocals. The latter passage sounds much like Morse’s most ambitious songs for Spock’s Beard and his solo albums. Stolt’s brief guitar solo in the finale is an additional highlight.
Track 2, “Shine” contrasts Morse’s forceful voice with Stolt’s and Trewavas’s thinner, more emotionally measured vocals, delicate acoustic rhythm guitars with Stolt’s blues-styled electric guitar solos, and Portnoy’s powerful drumming with the acoustic guitars and Morse’s electric organ chords. It also benefits from a distinctive vocal melody. In all, it’s a beautiful ballad that combines all these elements to create a deceptively simple and unified effect.
Track 3, “Black As the Sky,” is an uptempo number with excellent vocals by Stolt and stirring drum fills by Portnoy (like a massively talented combination of Ringo Starr and Keith Moon), plus some nice mellotron and ’70s-style synthesizer by Morse. Trewavas’s bass guitar rumbles and rolls with evident enthusiasm and effect and is a highlight throughout the song. He even includes some funk effects which work very well in this context.
Track 4, “Beyond the Sun,” another ballad, has an austere instrumental background of strings and processed electric guitar (and steel guitar, I think) behind measured vocals by Morse.
This simplicity contrasts strongly with the driving rhythm and dramatic opening guitar riffs of track 5, “Kaleidoscope,” a behemoth of nearly 32 minutes which goes through numerous changes in rhythm and musical texture. Stolt once again provides strong, largely blues-oriented electric guitar solos, and Morse returns to the synthesizer with some very striking and downright flashy passages. The song functions as a suite, the second part of which includes stirring rhythm guitar chords and a very appealing organ solo. Morse takes the lead vocals in this section, and at this point the song takes on the character of Morse’s work with Spock’s Beard and his best solo songs. It’s really that good.
The third section of “Kaleidoscope” returns us to the quiet, austere sound of “Beyond the Sun,” this time employing mellotron (or synthesizer?) strings, and then the pace picks up as Portnoy’s drums kick in and Stolt provides an expressive and personable lead vocal. The vocal harmonies on the chorus are just gorgeous. There’s also an effect in which tape of mellotron strings is sped up rapidly, briefly reminiscent of some of the sonic experiments in King Crimson’s classic 1970 album “Lizard.” This passage leads to a very jazzy synthesizer solo by Morse and a strong guitar solo by Stolt, followed by some hard chording backed by orchestral strings. This leads to a quiet passage with McCartney-like bass guitar (think “sun King,” from Abbey Road) and folksy vocals by Trewavas, plus slow guitar arpeggios reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” from The Dark Side of the Moon.
At this point we’re less than halfway through the song, and the brilliant musicianship and songwriting creativity simply continue from there. There’s an acoustic guitar ballad by Morse, a grander passage with vocal melody and keyboard solo reminiscent of Morse’s solo albums, an instrumental section with a fractured rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the Wetton-Bruford King Crimson albums (Portnoy’s drumming is a standout here), and a grand finale to bring it all to a highly satisfying conclusion with a forceful vocal chorus by the band members over a midtempo beat followed by guitar solos employing instrumental themes from earlier in the song as the music fades out.
Transatlantic has often sounded more like Morse’s brilliant and groundbreaking work with Spock’s Beard than Morse’s solo albums do. Similarly, the band sounds more like the early years of Stolt’s great band, the Flower Kings, than that group’s recent albums have. The same is true for Trewavas, whose Fish-era Marillion is much closer to Translantic’s sound than that band has sounded in the decades since. And Portnoy is clearly comfortable here as well. In sum, Transatlantic is probably the greatest current standard bearer of the 1990s progressive rock revival sound. This is truly a supergroup, and Kaleidoscope may well be their most accomplished work yet.