2009 saw Transatlantic take the long-form prog epic to its limit with “The Whirlwind,“ a single song that just about fits on CD. In what could be seen as a retrograde step, 2014’s “Kaleidoscope” is structurally similar to the supergroup’s debut: three mid-length tracks book-ended by long suites.
The first of these, ‘Into the Blue’, reprises the formula that is synonymous with much of Neal Morse’s output – the faux-orchestral overture. Complete with prominent cello over a back-drop of synths it’s simultaneously reminiscent of the opening to Yes’s “Close To The Edge” and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It begs the question why has Morse not yet composed a classical symphony? The thunderous rhythm section of Portnoy and Trewavas blow away the reverie. We’re in full-on prog territory here with swirling Hammond organ and mellotron choir. Transatlantic embrace all the excesses of the genre with a knowing wink and a compositional ear for melodic hooks that can make 25 minutes pass in the blink of an eye. Roine Stolt’s solo is worthy of note, displaying the fire of his live performance which was often subdued on the previous three studio albums. He channels the spontaneous composition of his hero, Frank Zappa, with seat-of-the-pants flair.
Next up is ‘Shine’ , an acoustic ballad in the vein of the wonderful ‘We All Need Some Light Now’. It’s all very Beatles, verging too close to Gary Barlow territory, even its title is a little too close to Take That for comfort. Not sold on this one. Thankfully the following ‘Black as the Sky’ shows that every silver lining has a cloud, its dark umbra obscuring the previous seven minutes while delivering a swift double-kick to its nuts. Trewavas’s bass and Portnoy’s feet drive this along behind a distorted organ sound that will have Van der Graaf Generator fans pricking up their ears. A great track.
‘Beyond the Sun’ is another ballad. Eschewing the acoustic guitar for plaintive echo-plexed pedal steel guitar and the return of that cello, this is much more successful than ‘Shine’. Stolt is clearly more than passingly familiar with Yes’s “Relayer” album and in particular Steve Howe’s mournful slide playing on ‘Soon’ and ‘To Be Over’. This is beautiful without the twee factor and segues straight into the half-hour-long title track.
Another Morse special here, the symphonic prog overture rears its head again. Not only does the album structure mirror the band’s past, the verses in ‘Kaleidoscope’ are deliberate homages to ‘Wind At My Back’ from Spock’s Beard’s “Snow” – the last Beard album to feature Neal Morse. The lyric ‘walking on a wire’ is also a reprise of a line from ‘At the End of the Day’ from his previous band’s fifth album. This is a courageous step and will have more than one cynical critic pointing the finger and looking up synonyms for ‘regurgitated’. To this critic it sounds like a man using some of the colours in his palette for the effect he wants to create in the picture of his artistic life at this point in time. In the same way the referential nod to Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” is not plagiarism but just another pigment in the kaleidoscope of shades.
Ultimately if you’re going to accuse Transatlantic of regurgitation or plagiarism you’re on a hiding to nothing. Far from progressive they are a Prog band with a capital ‘P’ – the ‘r’, ‘o’ and ‘g’ should probably be upper case too. They take their influences from that genre to their most outlandish conclusions and do so with a sense of humour and an immense outpouring of love, rather than the nimble-fingered snatching of a thief.
“Kaleidoscope” is no better or worse than any of their other albums. It’s more of the same and it’s no less brilliant for that fact. Captain Morse has lit the ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ sign so please make yourself comfortable and take a Transatlantic flight, travelling first-class. You’re in safe hands.