Steer the Airship Right Across the Stars — Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe

One of two Portnoy projects from the late ’90s making a triumphant return this year (the other, of course, being Liquid Tension Experiment), Transatlantic comes back from a 7-year hiatus with The Absolute Universe, their fifth album. … Albums. One album and a half? The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life and The Absolute Universe: Forevermore are the two versions of the latest effort from the prog supergroup composed of dynamic duo Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, Roine Stolt of Flower Kings fame, and Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The Breath of Life labels itself an “abridged” version, while Forevermore is evidently an “extended” version. This alone is a bit odd to me as both of these labels would seem to imply a secret third version of The Absolute Universe that sits somewhere between The Breath of Life’s 64 minutes and Forevermore’s 90, but not quite. You can think of The Breath of Life as the theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Forevermore is the director’s cut. While the casual fan is more likely to enjoy the shorter, pithier abridged cut, the superfan may enjoy some of the longer, more abstract prog meanderings of the extended edition. Let’s cut to the chase. Is The Absolute Universe good? Definitely. Which version is better? Well … that’s a bit more complicated.

There’s a Nathan Pyle comic where one of his trademark aliens says to a companion headed off to bed, “imagine pleasant nonsense” as a play on the phrase “sweet dreams.” I have to imagine someone wished the same to Morse and Co. before they wrote and recorded The Absolute Universe, because “pleasant nonsense” is perhaps the best way to describe the album. By the way, “Morse and Co.” is a completely accurate way to describe Transatlantic on this effort, as — much like The Whirlwind before it, to which this very much feels like a sequel — The Absolute Universe is certainly a Morse-helmed ship. While all four band members get to share vocal duty much more evenly than ever before, The Absolute Universe is otherwise very dominated by all the usual Morse trappings, from his vaguely sanctimonious lyrics to his siren-like keyboard swells to the angelic choruses behind some of the album’s emotional highs. If you’re a Neal Morse fan like me, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re expecting something more along the lines of the band’s first two efforts or even their 2014 release Kaleidoscope, you’ll be in for a bit of a rude awakening. Many of both versions of the album’s rhythms and riffs wouldn’t sound out of place on The Great Adventure, Sola Gratia, or some Spock’s Beard albums like V or Day for Night.

I’m going to step through both versions of the album separately and point out some of the higher highs (of which there are plenty — these albums are tremendous if somewhat formulaic for anyone who’s been following the Morse/Portnoy musical story of the 21st century), starting with The Breath of Life. Like basically everything Neal Morse does, it opens with a mostly instrumental Overture, masterfully tying the musical themes of the album together. Reaching for the Sky and Higher than the Morning are both highlights of the album for me, the first an up-tempo rocker with all four band members represented on vocals and an anthemic chorus. We get some hints that the album is definitely the product of the lockdowns of 2020, with lyrics like “now we’re all locked away inside”. On that note, Transatlantic’s style of writing lyrics separate of each other lends this album a bit of a confusing quality, making it somewhat difficult to discern what exactly some of these songs are even talking about — if anything. The bridge is classic Morse, sounding like a cut off of The Similitude of a Dream, and Stolt’s solo at the end of the track is a treat. The “belong” theme starts Higher than the Morning, a mostly Morse-sung track that borrows from Vanity Fair and features some great Geddy Lee-esque bass work from Trewavas. The chorus is more catchy choral swells, and leads into a calm instrumental segment before the funky bass-driven The Darkness in the Light. This has some of Stolt’s best vocals on the album; his voice has always been an acquired taste but Transatlantic always does a great job of knowing when to utilize his talents. There are some great synth hooks between the choruses here.

Take Now My Soul is textbook acoustic Morse, injecting some of the strongest religious overtones (which are, interestingly, largely lacking from the extended version). Portnoy gives a wonderful turn on lead vocals on the second verse here. Over the last few years, it seems the drummer has come out of his shell a bit in terms of trying his hand at lead vocals, and it’s always a treat to hear his rough-edged tones on tunes like this. Take Now My Soul has one of the better choruses on the album and another nice, sweeping guitar solo near the end that eventually takes us into Looking for the Light. This has a more sinister-sounding edge, with Portnoy almost entering the realm of harsh vocals (thankfully not all the way, though, lest we repeat the cringe-inducing backing vocals he did on his last few Dream Theater albums). Apart from another vocal showcase from Portnoy and some fun riff work at the start, this is an otherwise straightforward track that leads into the album’s midpoint, Love Made a Way (Prelude), a short acoustic interlude with Morse hinting at the album’s finale.

Owl Howl starts with an exciting, angular instrumental segment that never gets quite as complex as I’d like it to, but it does lead into some really wacky vocals from Stolt before going full prog and finishing with a quieter, bass-heavy segment with sparse synths and flutes before finally swelling into some fun, chaotic noodling with some of Portnoy’s usual bombastic percussive work behind. Solitude is, ostensibly, the emotional heart of the album, though once again it’s rather difficult to discern any sort of through-line or overarching meaning. Trewavas takes vocal duties on this one, and I must admit his nasally voice does very little for me here. It’s a nice, piano-driven song with some good guitar and drum flourishes throughout, but it doesn’t really please the ear until Morse takes over at the end in a section backed by choral swells that may have literally been ripped from The Great Adventure. Belong begins with some sort of strange yodeling/crying sound effects that never cease to bewilder me, before leading into a Yes-style instrumental/vocal jam that, like most other tracks on the abridged version, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Can You Feel It features some more excellent tom work from Portnoy and another hopelessly catchy Morse vocal line. This track, in particular, feels like it was created with concert performance in mind.

Looking for the Light (Reprise) is a Kaleidoscope-esque instrumental jam for the first two minutes or so, with each instrument trading turns in the spotlight before Morse takes over Portnoy’s rough vocal line from the previous appearance of this track in a slightly darker reprisal. The Greatest Story Never Ends is a short-and-sweet almost ’80s-sounding anthem that reminds one at times of Mr. Mister’s Kyrie Eleison before becoming another instrumental jam very reminiscent of the back half of 2014’s Black as the Sky. Love Made a Way, the finale, sounds almost like a piano-driven Flying Colors epic, and is notably the only track on the abridged version that’s longer than 6 minutes. Like any good concept album finale, all of the musical themes get a reprisal here, in a way that’s predictable at times while still hitting the right emotional beats. It would easily fit in on The Whirlwind (featuring quite a few lyrical references) and ends with a two-minute long echoing final chord that seems to echo the classic Dream Theater epic Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

Phew. And that’s the “abridged” version. There’s an awful lot to like here, and of the two versions this one definitely feels like a Neal Morse vehicle featuring some other musicians and vocalists. There’s lots of spirituality in the lyrics, lots of his trademark emotional beats and acoustic sections, and choral backings behind some of the stronger musical climaxes. While some of the shorter song lengths are appreciated, as they tend to keep some of the more tired themes from overstaying their welcome as the runtime wears on, it does lend the album a bit of a samey feel and definitely tends to give the impression of missing out on some more, well, progressiveness. While Morse does most of the vocal heavy lifting, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas all get spotlight time on a few tracks, and are mostly a welcome addition to the palette. So, what makes up that extra half hour of music that’s not in The Breath of Life?

While Forevermore is considered an “extended edition”, and in some places that’s precisely what it is, the band has gone to great pains in all of the album’s promotional material to explain that The Breath of Life isn’t simply a shorter version of the album. Forevermore, thus, has quite a lot of similarities to its shorter counterpart, but also a lot of changes and tweaks that amount to more than just longer songs. The Overture adds quite a few new segments and musical themes, but as you’d expect serves the same purpose as it does on the abridged cut. At first blush, Heart Like a Whirlwind almost feels like a retitling of Reaching for the Sky, but the vocal parts actually have entirely different melodies and rhythms. I tend to prefer the abridged version, but I really enjoy the differences between the two. Higher than the Morning, similarly, adds more complex rhythms and switches some of the lead vocals around to different singers, but otherwise maintains essentially the same energy and structure. The Darkness in the Light, I’m fairly certain, is the same on both versions.

Swing High, Swing Low takes the place of Take Now My Soul, removing Portnoy’s lead vocal and some of Morse’s religious overtones and giving us an otherwise very similar track with different lyrics. Bully and Rainbow Sky are completely new additions, not present at all on The Breath of Life. The first is a short, organ-driven song with instrumentals that borrow from Emerson Lake and Palmer and a fast-paced vocal line that Morse has a lot of fun with. Rainbow Sky is an absolute delight, a patently Beatlesque track that Portnoy obviously fought to add here, with some really fun piano lines, and excellent vocals from Morse and Stolt. Looking for the Light is a little bit heavier on the extended version, but is otherwise essentially the same. The World We Used to Know closes the first disc, and opens up with some Keith Moon-style work from Portnoy, some really catchy thrumming bass from Trewavas, and some wonderful guitar and key flourishes over top. The instrumental work for the first couple minutes are a highlight of the entire album, but the song eventually sort of undercuts itself and turns into some saccharine melodies and vocals that are straight out of The Whirlwind and mostly seem to work toward the purpose of closing out the first half of the album in an almost obvious way. That said, it does serve that purpose, and hearkens back a bit to some of the older Transatlantic epics.

The Sun Comes Up Today works as a sort of entr’acte, and works great as a second overture. Trewavas has some good vocals here, though like much of the rest of the album, the lyrics make very little sense. We get a sort of unnecessary Love Made a Way (Prelude) featuring some of Morse’s weakest singing, and clocking in at just a minute and a half it feels like an afterthought to try and introduce the theme of the album’s eventual finale. It’s basically Morse and an acoustic guitar and unfortunately breaks up the flow between the previous track and Owl Howl. This track is basically the same as the abridged version, albeit with a longer, more complex instrumental section at its end, which makes it one of the extended version’s standout tracks. Solitude is essentially identical to its abridged counterpart and as a result is still a low point for the album. Belong, likewise, still opens with that weird sound effect before becoming a slightly-longer-but-otherwise-identical Close to the Edge-style jam. Lonesome Rebel takes the place of the far superior Can You Feel It, a much gentler acoustic track with Stolt singing. The final three tracks, Looking for the Light (Reprise), The Greatest Story Never Ends, and Love Made a Way are again very similar to their counterparts, with the second being a few minutes longer thanks to some great chaotic instrumental jamming. The final track is different insofar as it quotes Heart Like a Whirlwind‘s verses and melodies rather than those of Reaching for the Sky.

Oddly enough, Mike Portnoy’s vocals play a much, much smaller part on Forevermore than on The Breath of Life. By the same token, though Forevermore adds great tracks like The Sun Comes Up Today and Rainbow Sky, it’s missing Can You Feel It and the catchier versions of some of the modified verses and choruses from The Breath of Life. Trying to determine which of these two versions is superior is a bit of a fool’s errand, and ultimately I don’t think it matters particularly much anyway since most who listen to the album will already be Transatlantic fans and will thus be listening to both (or the actual third, “Ultimate” version which promises to combine the two). While I recommend the album as a sequel to The Whirlwind, some of Morse’s best work, and would posit that any fan of the Morse/Portnoy dynamic duo will be exceptionally pleased with this music, fans of Transatlantic’s first two albums or their last may feel this is a bit underwhelming. There are no true “epics” here of the proportion we’ve become accustomed to from this band, and where other albums had more complex musical and lyrical themes this feels like a bit of a step backward into Morse’s comfort zone.

Is more Neal Morse a bad thing? Almost never. Speculation about the process that went into the creation of this album aside, it’s clear to me that The Breath of Life was Neal’s preferred version of The Absolute Universe, where Forevermore was decidedly the result of other members wanting to go back to the original Transatlantic style. The results are mixed, but there’s not really anything bad here, and if you’ve got a spare afternoon (or three), I highly recommend giving both versions a few listens and drawing your own conclusions. With the amount of talent between these four musicians, you’re in for some serious prog goodness regardless of which version you choose. We can only hope it’s not another seven years before we get another album (or two?) from them.

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