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Extraordinary albums are often made out of strange circumstances.  Transatlantic’s fifth album, The Absolute Universe, absolutely fits that mold.  

Extraordinary is a fitting description for Transatlantic. Nothing the band does is ever “by the book.” Six of the songs on their first two albums were epics of at least fifteen minutes (three of which clocked in at close to, or in excess of, half an hour). Their third release, 2009’s The Whirlwind, was only a single song that stretched to almost 78 minutes!  This band, consisting of Neal Morse (Neal Morse Band, ex-Spock’s Beard), Mike Portnoy (Sons of Apollo, ex-Avenged Sevenfold, ex-Dream Theater), Roine Stolt (Flower Kings), and Pete Trewavas (Marillion) simply refuses to “go small” or to do things the “traditional” way.  

Perhaps what most fans will immediately notice as extraordinary about The Absolute Universe is that this heaping slab of progressive rock mastery is available in three separate versions.  The “Forevermore,” or extended version of the album consists of about 90 minutes of music on two disks.  The “Breath of Life,” or abridged version of the album clocks in at 60 minutes on a single disk.  And for those prog fans for whom more is never enough, the band also released “The Ultimate Edition,” which is a limited deluxe edition box set of 5 LPs, 3CDs, and a Blu Ray.  This ultimate edition includes both versions of the album on both vinyl and compact disk.  The included Blu Ray gives the fans an added “making of” documentary, as well as a 5.1 mix of yet a third version of the album that appears to consist of a blend of tracks from the Forevermore and Breath of Life versions of the album.

In a recent interview, Neal Morse and Roine Stolt explained how the two main versions of the album came to be.  After the band’s original writing sessions in Sweden in September 2019, they compiled what came to be the two-disk Forevermore edition.  As is their custom, the band then parted ways and planned to spend the next several months with each of the members recording their individual parts.  And that is when a strange thing happened.  Morse spent a few months playing other gigs, writing some Neal Morse solo material, and vacationing (all prior to the pandemic, of course).  When he returned to the material for The Absolute Universe around March of 2020, he felt it could benefit from some editing.  So, edit he did.  Morse trimmed some songs down and rearranged them, cut some material altogether, rewrote many lyrics (and who sang them), and wrote a new song.  When he presented his single-disk version to the rest of the band, they liked it, but some still felt that the extended version should be released as originally planned.  Mike Portnoy then came up with the suggestion that they simply release both versions.  After some negotiating with the label, Portnoy’s suggestion became a reality.

But the album’s multiple formats is not simply a gimmick to disguise an inferior product.  No, The Absolute Universe showcases songwriting and performing at the highest level.  The four members of Transatlantic know how to write strong songs, and they deliver on this album.  

The songs are catchy and stick with you.  In the weeks since I received my copy, I cannot count the number of times I have awoken in the early morning with a vocal melody from the album ringing through my mind.  Or have caught myself humming a bass line or tapping on my desk along with a drum pattern from the album.  Or suddenly felt compelled to air-guitar along with a riff or lead that popped into my head.  Put simply, The Absolute Universe is just a collection of really, really good songs.  

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Pete, Roine, Neal, and Mike

The songwriting is a bit more concise than some of Transatlantic’s earlier work, with only three songs approaching the ten-minute mark, and most being in the four-to-five minute range.  But the band members still find time to show off their virtuosity and progressive rock chops from time to time.  And the songs on The Absolute Universe showcase the fine art of balance between showing off musical wizardry without losing track of what fits and serves the song itself.  When listening to these songs, I have never found myself feeling that a passage was out of place or felt like showing off for the sake of showing off, which can be a trap that a lot of bands in the world of progressive rock and metal prey to.  I theorize that that is because the members of Transatlantic have spent enough time in their own various bands and projects perfecting the art of writing good songs, rather than simply writing mind-bending musical passages.  And perhaps more significantly, for every moment that aptly showcases the members’ musical prowess, there are plenty of examples where the band members show restraint and serve the song rather than themselves.  The result is a collection of songs that take the listener on a journey where, at one moment, the listener’s head may be spinning from the technicality and insanity of a particular passage, and the next moment be brought close to tears from the emotion, power, and sincerity of the music or the vocal delivery.  The Absolute Universe is not a “concept album” in the traditional sense of telling a story or having a lyrical theme that binds all of the songs together into a singular narrative.  But in many respects, it feels like a concept album because many of the songs relate to a generalized theme, and there are lyrical and musical reprises throughout the album that give it plenty of connective tissue.  Many of the songs also blend into one another, which further contributes to its unified feeling.  And although the album should not be construed as a sequel or follow-up to The Whirlwind, The Absolute Universe gives several subtle lyrical and musical nods to its 2009 predecessor.  In that sense, both Portnoy and Morse have described The Absolute Universe as a “spiritual companion” to The Whirlwind.

As anyone who is familiar with Transatlantic would expect, the individual performances are stellar.  Each of the four musicians takes a turn (or several) at singing lead vocals, which provides several nice changes of pace throughout the album and highlights that Transatlantic is truly a collaboration between four very accomplished musicians.  The mix is also superb, and allows each instrument and each vocal to occupy its own space so that the listener can enjoy them all.  

But in the end, after all the discussion of the songwriting, and the stellar performances, there is a lingering question—the elephant in the room—that has to be dealt with.  Which version of the album is “better?”  That is a hard question to answer.  As the band has explained, neither one is “the” definitive version.  The “extended” version does not feel artificially stretched out from a complete, shorter album.  And the “abridged” version does not feel chopped down from something that is meant to be longer.  Each version stands on its own merits.  If I had to choose one and only one to listen to for the rest of my life, I would probably choose Forevermore, simply because I tend to subscribe to the “more is more” philosophy, as long as the quality is there.  But that being said, I have found myself bouncing back and forth between versions these past weeks, and enjoying them equally.  They each truly have something unique and satisfying to offer.  I plan to purchase both when they officially hit the stores, and I feel that most fans would be well-served to do the same.

The Absolute Universe is nothing short of an extraordinary album by an extraordinary band.  They continue to find ways to innovate, and The Absolute Universe is no exception.  Once again, the band has delivered an incredibly strong collection of songs that are worthy of the high standard that has become associated with the Transatlantic name.

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As far as a rating, I hate doing that. But if I must, I will give it straight 5’s:
Songwriting: 5 stars
Musicianship: 5 stars
Originality: 5 stars
Production: 5 stars

Released by: InsideOut Music
Released on: February 5th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock

The full list of formats is below, and you can pre-order now here: https://transatlantic.lnk.to/TheAbsoluteUniverse

“The Absolute Universe” Track-listing:

The Breath of Life

  1. Overture
  2. Reaching For The Sky
  3. Higher Than The Morning
  4. The Darkness In The Light
  5. Take Now My Soul
  6. Looking For The Light
  7. Love Made A Way (Prelude)
  8. Owl Howl
  9. Solitude
  10. Belong
  11. Can You Feel It
  12. Looking For The Light (Reprise)
  13. The Greatest Story Never Ends
  14. Love Made A Way

Forevermore

Disc 1:

  1. Overture
  2. Heart Like A Whirlwind
  3. Higher Than The Morning
  4. The Darkness In The Light
  5. Swing High, Swing Low
  6. Bully
  7. Rainbow Sky
  8. Looking For The Light
  9. The World We Used To Know

Disc 2:

  1. The Sun Comes Up Today
  2. Love Made A Way (Prelude)
  3. Owl Howl
  4. Solitude
  5. Belong
  6. Lonesome Rebel
  7. Looking For The Light (Reprise)
  8. The Greatest Story Never Ends
  9. Love Made A Way

TRANSATLANTIC online:
https://www.transatlanticweb.com/
https://www.facebook.com/TransatlanticMusic/
www.instagram.com/transatlanticofficial
www.twitter.com/transatlantic99

INSIDEOUT MUSIC online:
www.insideoutmusic.com
www.youtube.com/InsideOutMusicTV
www.facebook.com/InsideOutMusic
www.twitter.com/InsideOutUSA
www.insideoutmusic.store
http://spotify.com/progrockessentials

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