Although it's familiar and safe, the fourth Transatlantic outing is another intricate, joyous, and incredible experience.
Considering the pedigree of players involved, it makes sense that progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic was born with a strong fan base already established. Fortunately, the quartet -- which consists of Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard), Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) -- more than proved itself with its previous three albums, SMPTe, Bridge Across Forever, and The Whirlwind. Ripe with rich, technical arrangements, quirky timbres, invigorating melodies, and slices of trademark techniques, the band’s music truly feels like the culmination of its artists’ unique approaches. On its fourth studio effort, Kaleidoscope, well, it sticks to the same formula, which means that while it’s another incredible effort, it doesn’t really offer any surprises. Whether or not this is an issue depends on your expectations, but either way the record is destined to appear on many "Best of 2014" lists come December.
Interestingly, when we spoke in October 2013, drummer Mike Portnoy acknowledged that Kaleidoscope is basically more of the same. He said, “Really, it’s the same formula. Long, epic songs and just everything fans expect. It kind of follows the format of the first two albums: a couple of huge songs and a couple of medium-length songs. Stylistically, it’s everything you’d expect.” In addition, he says he came up with the title, as it seemed to be “the perfect progressive, psychedelic album title. It seems so natural to the music we do, like exploring all these colors and musical directions.” Indeed, the work, like just about everything else these guys touch, is packed with virtuosity and eccentricity, making it an energizing and joyous experience from beginning to end.
“Into the Blue” starts things off with prophetic ambience as strings bellow and sound effects soar; eventually, the band bursts in with aggression as Portnoy and Trewavas choose the trajectory while Stolt and Morse decorate with flair and focus. It immediately feels familiar yet exciting. Honestly, it sounds a lot like previous Morse and Stolt openings, which isn’t necessarily bad. Each musician gets his moment to stand out before the music dissipates into its central motif. Morse takes over the first vocal duties, and as you’d assume he sings solemnly yet strongly, taking listeners on another spiritual journey. The music swells and calms accordingly before erupting into more madness roughly ten minutes in. Afterward, Stolt takes command, and the piece feels like a lost Flower Kings gem.
The remaining minutes find the band incorporating more dynamic fluctuation as softer moments clash with heavier sections. Each transition is seamless and expertly crafted, with exceptional flourishes of instrumentation throughout. Oddly enough, though, the best portion of “Into the Blue” involves special guest Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), who gives a more ethereal treatment to one of Morse’s previous phrases. A longtime friend and touring member of the band, his appearance isn’t too surprising, but the fact that fans haven’t heard anything new from him since 2011 makes his inclusion very welcome. Also, his part adds some vital range to the piece.
The middle three tracks, ”Shine”, “Black as the Sky” and “Beyond the Sun”, are shorter and simpler than their bookended siblings. The former is an acoustic ballad sung by Morse and Stolt. each sings a few verses while also harmonizing in a few spots. Lyrically, it’s very uplifting, with a clear message about perseverance and closure. There’s a lovely guitar solo near the end that helps bring out the emotion.
“Black as the Sky” is quicker, darker, and more hectic, and it feels like more of a group effort overall. Morse’s keyboard riffs and Trewavas’ bass lines lead the charge as each vocalist dominates his part. As always, Portnoy holds it all together with incredible syncopation. The juxtaposition between these two tracks reveals just how talented and multifaceted this group is.
As for “Beyond the Sun”, it features Morse lamenting softly over piano and subtle orchestration. It’s very similar in style to “Bridge Across Forever”, with poetic words and arrangements creating a very touching musical blanket. It also effectively feels like a soothing prelude to its epic successor.
The title track closes the record; it clocks in at over thirty minutes, and not a second is wasted. After another bold and complex introduction -- which feels like a subtle nod to early Kansas -- Morse bursts in with an enticing verse and thrilling chorus that beg for audience accompaniment. A third of the way through, tranquility mixes with panic as Stolt commands the helm with vibrant confidence.
After a few more bits of frenzy, a new section begins: it’s peaceful and warm, like a lost section from Wish You Were Here. Interestingly, a new voice (Trewavas, I believe) appears, singing about uncertainties and identity while horns cascade around the band. Like Gildenlöw’s part, this segment acts as a nice change of musical scenery. It ends with an echo and dissolves into sorrow for a moment before reintroducing vigor. Morse takes over from here, recalling portions of early Spock’s Beard epics. Eventually Stolt and Portnoy team up for a quirky assault before reprising the opening theme with added panache and weight (as Morse often does with his solo records). It’s a predictable yet powerful way to conclude an extremely impressive suite.
Kaleidoscope is another gem from the kings of symphonic prog. Every element you expect is there fully, so fans will definitely love what they hear. At the same time, though, some may feel let down that the album offers very little in the way of experimentation or newness. It’s the same formula you’ve heard before, done just as well as ever. In the end, music this adventurous, intricate, and fun deserves acclaim regardless of how identifiable it sounds. The fact that people can compose and perform it is reason enough to celebrate it. The quartet still stands as the dominant force in its field, and it’s unlikely that Transatlantic will ever be topped. Prepare to have your mind blown once again.