The ideas and creativity seem to flow so freely that a single album concept wasn’t big enough.
The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version)
The Absolute Universe: Breath of Life (Abridged Version)
Extended version: 2 CDs – Times: CD 1: 9 tracks / 47:12 minutes CD 2: 9 tracks / 43:04 minutes
Abridged Version: 1 CD: Time: 14 tracks / 64:12 minutes
It’s always special when the best of any particular genre of music get together, pool their talents, and create. In the world of progressive rock (‘prog’ for short), that usually means great musical performances, creative concepts, and epic compositions all converging at the same time in one project. In the case of Transatlantic, nothing is ever done in a small way, even in terms of a genre that is often accused of excess - so here we have The Absolute Universe, a project spanning two countries (the United States and Sweden) in origin and no less than three versions. This review of Transatlantic’s fifth studio album (or their fifth and sixth studio albums, depending on how you look at it) will concentrate on the ‘extended’ version, dubbed The Absolute Universe: Forevermore, and the ‘abridged’ version, The Absolute Universe: Breath of Life. The third incarnation, The Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition, is a limited deluxe clear 5 LP, 3 CD + Blu-ray box-set with a sixteen page booklet and poster, which I’ll have to be content with just imagining.
When you have the likes of Neal Morse (Keyboards, guitars, vocals), Roine Stolt (guitar, vocals), Pete Trewavas (bass, vocals), and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals), the ideas and creativity seem to flow so freely that – at least in this case – a single album concept wasn’t big enough. The two albums are …how can I put it? Not so different, but not the same, either. Maybe they’re differently the same, if that’s a thing. Either way, each incarnation of The Absolute Universe is a must-have for any prog fan. According to Portnoy, “We’ve got two versions… The single CD version is not an edited version of the double CD,” he continues, “What we have done is different approaches …we wrote fresh lyrics and also have different people singing on the single CD version.” According to Trewavas, “We did write some new music for the single CD. What’s more, there are differences in the instruments used on some of the tracks…”
It would be almost impossible to say which version is better than the other - that would largely be dependent on your own taste - and your musical appetite. Forevermore is a filling, all-you-care-to-eat 90 minute meal and Breath of Life is an hour of fine audio-dining. If you agree with Shakespeare, that brevity is the soul of wit, then you’ll enjoy the more digestible abridged version. Of course, if you’re a typical prog fan you might then stay awake nights thinking about what you might be missing from that extended version - the very word ‘extended’ sending chills of anticipation up and down your spine. The truth is, you’ll probably want both.
So let’s talk about what the two versions have in common - Morse, Stolt, Trewavas, and Portnoy. These four musicians are at the top of their respective games. Portnoy’s love for the genre - and for rock in general - shows in his earthy, aggressive vocals, and his finely-tuned percussion is as textured and rapid-fire as ever. Trewavas’ bass playing is articulate on the solo passages yet powerfully earth-bound and solid throughout every song. His vocals are clear and pleasant to listen to - the few songs where they’re featured are a treat. Stolt’s performance throughout is stunning. His guitar tone is a wonder, and his technique is full of finesse, fury, and an emotional wail that few can match. When Stolt takes off, there are few that can touch him for emotion and power - occasionally, I’m thinking he sounds like a more emotional version of Zappa. Vocally, Stolt’s voice is delightfully different, with a textured sound that can sound alternately playful and sinister, adding nice variety to the vocal landscape of the band. Neal Morse, of course, performs vocal, keyboard, and guitar chores to perfection, as expected. His chameleon-like voice can be emotional and even prayer-like but also is up to the task of rocking out when called for. Neal’s synth solos are prog-magic and soar through the songs in the instrumental sections.
As I look over the notes I made on the two versions of The Absolute Universe I see that what applied to a particular song on one didn’t always apply to the alternate version on the other - so citing highlights within the tracks would be confusing. The lead singer of one version might not be the lead singer of its counterpart, and the same goes for some of the soloing, instrumentation, etc. Both versions start with a fine overture, and even though the Breath of Life version is some two minutes and eighteen seconds shorter than its counterpart, it still sounds complete and powerful. In fact, some people will conclude that the single-CD version is tighter, with cleaner segues, and has a more concise, efficient flow. Others will say it lacks broader musical landscape that allows for the more fleshed-out versions on the double-disc. One thing is for sure - both versions are musically intense and ultimately satisfying. To highlight one particular song that’s unforgettably striking on both versions, the unusually-named “Owl Howl” is destined to become a favorite, and doubtless a concert-stopper.
By now, fans of The Neal Morse Band, Flower Kings, Marillion, and any number of the bands that Mike Portnoy is involved in, expect something special from this group of incredible musicians - and their combined talents as Transatlantic fulfill that promise. Their talent is huge, and hugely influenced by the greats of classic rock as well as prog. In fact the final musical moments of each version of The Absolute Universe beautifully remind us that, “after the rain, all that will remain - is love,” in a way not too dissimilar from another group that ended another album with the words, “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Looking for an epic album to get into? The Absolute Universe is an epic and a-half.
4 ½ tocks
- Bert Saraco
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