As the songwriting nucleus for Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse wrote some amazing music, following firmly in the melodic rock footsteps of such legends as Yes, Kansas and Genesis. About 10 years ago he got himself saved and decided that the band format chaffed his faith and so went solo, a tune we’ve all heard before. Since that time he has continued to be prolific, but his quality has been a bit schizophrenic. I caught his first solo album, found it tepid and then didn’t pursue his music much. In doing so I missed out on reviewing the amazing Sola Scriptura, a prog-metal rock opera about the life of Martin Luther, but I did jump back in for Lifeline, which was musically on par with Spock’s Beard but lyrically a bit limp.
So I was pretty curious to see the result when Morse again joined forces with three other titans of prog to record a new Transatlantic album, the first in eight years. The other members are bionic drummer Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, bassist Pete Trewavas from Merillion and multi-instrumentalist Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings. Regardless, as in past Transatlantic albums, this is a Neal Morse album. He wrote most of the music and lyrics, this time making a 77-minute epic album formed around a metaphor for life, curiously named The Whirlwind.
My first few listens left me cold. So did the next few. In fact, with so much music it took nearly two months of casual listening before I “got it”… and I’m still not sure if I have all of it, or if what I’ve gotten is a touch less than spectacular. Musically it’s quite top shelf. Portnoy is, as always, a phenomenal drummer both in technique and taste. Stolt adds his unique vocals as well as some mighty fine guitar textures, and Trewavas booms forth plenty of mid-range pingy goodness that serves as a melodic anchor. There’s the usual Morse grand orchestral overture and uplifting dramatic final track as well as some amazingly melodic rock that would find a home with many who normally fear the label of “progressive rock.” Of special note is “Out of the Night,” which is not only an exceptional song by itself but allows all four to sing, forming Beatlesque melodies. “On the Prowl” takes time out for some adventurous instrumentals similar to very early Pink Floyd, going almost psychedelic with the guitars. The album is broken up into 12 “songs,” each containing bits of musical themes repeated throughout to give the album the kind of cohesion and symphonic integrity characteristic of Morse’s best work.
With The Whirlwind Morse has been able to reverse his post-conversion lyrical decline, this time artfully incorporating his faith into a larger metaphor that is explored throughout the album. He’s still not back to his Spock’s Beard heyday level, but I’m tired of whining on this subject so will instead shut my stinkin’ trap.
Sometimes I come across rock albums with progressive touches that I can confidently recommend to non-prog-lovin’ friends. The Whirlwind is not such an album. Transatlantic create classic genre music, dense and complicated, making no bones about tipping their hat at melodic forefathers while spinning up something more modern. Giving The Whirlwind a full listen is a big investment in time but one that will pay off with audible enjoyment not only now but, I suspect, for years to come. (Jason Hoffman)
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