With several years between studio albums Transatlantic felt it was time to meet again and record some more new tracks. Mike Portnoy (drums, Dream Theater), Neal Morse (keys, vocals, Spocks Beard & Solo), Pete Trewavas (bass, Marillion) and Roine Stolt (guitar, vocals, The Flower Kings) were all back for another round at Neal’s home studio nestled in the country backwoods of Tennessee.
The end result was a prolific two disc set titled Whirlwind (total time 77:56). The version I was so fortunate to enjoy is the special edition box set with the insightful “The Making of Whirlwind” DVD.
I decided to watch the DVD first before listening to all of the tracks in order to understand the band’s driving force and process. It always helps to be familiar with the musicians (I am extensively), and to see how the entire project fell into place. Firstly, each member respects each other immensely and that is why Mike Portnoy created this project to begin with. Each band member is successful in their own right with their respective bands, side, and solo projects. In the past collaborations such as this have failed because of egos and personalities clashing, this was never the case here, the premise here is to create great music on a level playing field for all and everyone provides equal parts to the whole. Mike and his strong personality and leadership skills are accepted gladly by the other members and he is very laid back and all ears with his mates to accomplish their goals. It really is an amazing thing to watch and the DVD really made me feel right at home with them in Neal’s studio. I do not think you could get together four more talented and humble musicians; this is truly a miracle band that creates magic every time they meet, Whirlwind being no exception.
The first disc consist of 12 tracks, all master strokes of prog-rock genius, how could it not be with these four legendary performers? I would be hard pressed to name any drummer right now that is better than Portnoy and Morse is a fantastic writer/singer/keyboard player. If you ever listen to any of the older Spock’s Beard or any of his solo material…well the proof is in the pudding as they say. Those unfamiliar with Morse’s career path should know he went from Spock’s Beard into a prog-rock Christian solo career. Those influences are apparent in this release and relevant to the grand scheme of things with this band, but not overbearing. Stolt is simply amazing, and always has been, The Flower King has been one of the busiest people in music, and he is involved in so many different things I cannot keep track! Pete Trewavas is an awesome bass player that does a little singing too not to mention some fantastic abilities to put together a song, constructing it from the bottom up. Neal mentions this fact in a short interview on the DVD. Ok, enough of my over indulgent kudos but I think they all deserve it.
All 12 tracks are vintage Transatlantic and what is special about this recording is that you can hear the influences of every member’s band yet they create a sound that defines the word progressive while maintaining a certain originality that I find hard to describe, which does not surprise me considering the uniqueness of each contributor. I loved the way the album kicked off with the nearly 10 minute opus “Overture / Whirlwind”. It starts with a regal keyboard opening and orchestration then changes into something you would hear on a Flower Kings album with a beautiful instrumental intro and a positive vibe that carries you through the entire listen. The highlight of this track is when Roine and Neal do a give and take vocal response. It goes without saying the excellence of musicianship that supports all the vocals, that remains consistent from start to finish.
As you make your way through each track you start wishing that this band would do this more often but it is a side project and schedules are tight so you remain grateful for what you are hearing now. By the time Neal’s “Rose Colored Glasses” rolls around you do not want this prog-rock nirvana to end. That track is a heartfelt composition from Neal to his father, who passed away last year. It’s the kind of track that has tremendous meaning but keep intact the elements of prog while offering enough commercial feel that you could imagine it as hit single playing on the radio. It also breaks up the album at mid-point before launching back into a full scale prog-rock onslaught with all the trimmings on the following tracks. Everything is here, the power and majesty of the genre, rocking moments and times of gentle reflection with spacey interludes, and then it all changes as quickly as it started in typical transitory prog fashion. There is nothing left for chance here, make no mistake about it.
If that isn’t enough the bonus disc takes you through a rock ‘n’ roll/prog 101 class with exceptional covers including Mike doing a great job on vocals with his father’s favorite tune, the Procol Harum classic “Salty Dog”. The cover of “Soul Sacrifice” is excellent and not a particularly easy song to cover with its intricate melodies and percussion yet they pull it off with flying colors. Another fun listen is the fine representation from the Genesis catalog of “Return of the Giant Hogweed”. They lay their stake in the ground as one of the best group of musicians in the world with that cover. Always the first to acknowledge and credit their influences, bands from the world of prog believe in giving credit where it is due. So do I and this is a masterful production that everyone that enjoys prog should add to their collection. Even some jazz fusion listeners would find enjoyment in this recording as at times that genre sneaks in and gives you a jolt.
This is 100% prog rock with some of best delivering it.5/5 Stars
Keith “MuzikMan” Hannaleck
March 3, 2010