Mike Portnoy, drummer of Dream Theater, was asked recently about how he would label the music played by the band, and his immediate answer was “progressive rock". It is true that despite the metal tendencies of Theater, Portnoy is a fan of the classic progressive, besides being knowledgeable about the evolution of the genre and liking very much the music of Spock's Beard, as well as its singer's voice, Neal Morse. Recently he had the idea of carrying out a project outside of his band: a super-group with Morse as a singer and multi-instrumentalist and Jim Matheos, guitarist of Fates Warning.
When Portnoy contacted with the leader of Beard, he was really happy with the idea and accepted immediately, but the presence of Matheos was not possible. Morse had met the Swedish Flower Kings in the ProgFest at Los Angeles in 1997 and began a friendly relationship with the leader Roine Stolt. He thought quickly on him as a substitute and he passed the idea to Portnoy, who contacted with the Swedish, who also accepted the offer. They finally thought about incorporating a bass player, and Portnoy decided that the appropriate one would be Pete Trewavas of Marillion, who he had always admired and whom he considered to be not fully regarded in his band.
When the four musicians met in New York to record the album, mainly Morse and also Stolt contributed some compositions and ideas, and they began to work as a team to conclude the songs and the arrangements. The recording took place in the Millbrook studio of the city, where Portnoy had recorded the two albums of Liquid Tension Experiment with Petrucci, Ruddess and Tony Levin. The chosen name for the project was Transatlantic, as a reference to the fact that half of the group was American and the other European.
Roine Stolt described the music of the album as “very powerful progressive rock. It is a fusion of energetic progressive and pop, a combination of Marillion, The Flower Kings, Spock's Beard and Dream Theater. There are many Hammond organs as well as quick progressive drums rhythms. The bass is a very important factor: it sometimes sounds as McCartney, others as Squire…". It is true that "SMPTe" is a powerful progressive rock album with energetic touches and pop references, but it is not so much a merger of equals between the music of the four mentioned bands. We find very little from Marillion and Dream Theater, and a lot more from The Flower Kings and, mainly, of the less commercial side of Spock's Beard (until "The kindness of strangers"), to which it is necessary to add that Morse is the main composer of the album. As for the classic bands, the main references would be the Yes of "Close to the edge" or "Relayer", Kansas in "Left overture"-"Point of known return" and the Beatles starting from the "Sgt. Peppers". There are also small references to other big groups and that, as a function of their importance in the Transatlantic project, would be Gabriel's Genesis, Jethro Tull in "Thick as a brick", the classic Gentle Giant and King Crimson until "Islands".
The sound of "SMTPe" is fully immersed in the classic symphonic rock and, in this sense, it is more a "reconnection" with the orthodox sound of the genre that an advance towards the future. Bill Martin, in his book "Listening to the future" (The times of progressive rock 1968-78) mentioned that the future of progressive rock could be of reconnecting with the seventy rather than evolving. Let us hope this never happens, but if that is true, a key album for this would be the one we are commenting. The music is fully progressive and symphonic (full blown symphonic rock, as English-speakers would say), in the luminous spectrum of the genre, and it is excellently interpreted and produced, with brilliant arrangements and good choirs.
The first song of the album is titled "All of the above" (30:59) and is a suite divided in six parts. It begins with "Full Moon rising" that starts with a demolishing instrumental section that reminds us from The Flower Kings of "Stardust we are", with a lot of organ and all instruments unleashed. After a rhythm change, we have a fragment in Beard’s style, with piano and direct influences of Yes and Kansas. The final instrumental development of the piece is also very well arranged. Next, “October winds” opens up with a great dynamic instrumental fragment with direct references to jazz and fusion, full of energy, that opens the way to a very soft and symphonic mid-tempo melody. The third part of the suite, "Camouflaged in blue", has a great work of the bass and reminiscences of Howe in the guitar. The chorus is melodic and clearly American, with big choirs a la Spock's Beard, Kansas and CSNY.
"Half alive" is a song a la Yes-Kansas, with a good instrumental passage with mellotron that introduces the fifth part, "Undying love", a mid-tempo with a lot of piano whose last section is completely symphonic, and ends in the song that closes the suite. "Full Moon rising (reprise)", a reprise of the initial song that recovers the full symphonic style and the references to Beard and The Flower Kings, as well as some choirs a la Gentle Giant. The instrumental fragment is very elegant and well orchestrated. Many will say that the biggest reference in the music of Transatlantic is the group of Morse, and this is true, although less than what it seems. The fact that he is the main vocalist can distort the appreciation of the music that has many references to the sound of Yes, Kansas, Genesis and even Camel, as well as The Flower Kings. At the end of this first song we can appreciate immediately that the work of Portnoy has nothing to do with his work in Dream Theater, as here he proves to be a 100% progressive drummer, that adapts to the music of his partners and plays when he must. It is clear that the sound of Transatlantic doesn't move around Portnoy, and this is very good because he allows to gather that it is a project of musical collaboration more than of leadership.
The second song is "We all need some light" (5:45), with a beginning of acoustic guitar and piano that gives place to a melody from "June" or "Distance to the Sun", where the voice of Morse moves at ease. "Mistery train" (6:52) is a paranoiac song with influences of the Beatles that has a very good work of the rhythm section and a lightly filtered voice. The chorus, a dynamic melody, is elaborated with mellotron and excellent choirs, without losing that neurotic and almost psychedelic air that presides over the whole topic. It is necessary to highlight the great work of a completely progressive Portnoy in the instrumental development of the end of the song.
The other piece of a large scale is titled "My new world" (16:16), and it presents a beginning a la Yes after which Stolt appears singing with filtered voice. The difference among the two vocalists is patent at this time. The voice of Morse is exceptional, while that of the leader of the The Flower Kings is good, but he lacks an outstanding personality. The song is guided more towards the classic progressive and the music of the Swedes, being well worked, with good vocal games and a soft melody. There are also guitar fragments that remind of Howe, and powerful atmospheres clearly Genesian with references also to Camel.
For the end of the album, Portnoy chose to carry out a version of Procol Harum's dark and enigmatic suite "In held (twas) in I", included in the album "Shine on " of 1968. The piece included in "SMPTe" has a length of 17:21 minutes, and it is a modern view of the classic, which it is taken into more symphonic optimistic lands. This is the problem of the version: it loses the attractiveness of the mysterious and somber air of the original piece and the shades it presents. The current version sounds more uniform and it registers less sonorities and textures, which is a pity. However, the fact that Procol Harum, one of the most undervalued progressive bands, have decided to record a new album after knowing that their classic was being versioned, is already enough to value the song positively.
The official album of Transatlantic concludes after this piece and is published in the format of a single CD. However, when the album was released, a limited edition contained a detailed explanatory booklet of the history of the project for sale, with details on the composition and recording of the songs, as well as a second CD picking up diverse material. This could be analyzed in two sections: one with alternative versions of "My new world" and "We all need some light", in which we can observe the evolution of the first, as well as what would have been the last with the voice of the singer of The Flower Kings. The second section seeks to show the general atmosphere of the recording sessions, presenting us two moments of craziness of the components of Transatlantic versions a couple of topics, as well as different sequences of the sessions taken with a domestic videotape.
In this way, we meet "My cruel world" (10 :45), a composition with which Roine Stolt went to the appointment in New York and whose sound is 50% of Stolt in solitary, 50% of Stolt of The Flower Kings. Its beginning is quite similar to “Cosmic lodge”, the initial song of "Hydrophonia" with a style that I would locate in the line of "Back In The World Of Adventures", and that connects with instrumental moments that could well have formed part of "Retropolis". "My new world" (7:40+8:41, although in the back cover it is considered as just a track, the Stereo system and the computer interpret it as two different tracks) is the previous version to the definitive recording of the aforementioned song. In this one the contribution of the rest of the components of the group is much more appreciated, with a formidable rhythm section of Portnoy and Trewavas on which instrumental moments of great beauty are sustained with some delicious dialogues between keyboards and guitar. In the same way, Neal Morse's presence is patent with the inclusion of those vocal games that he so much likes; although they don't have the strength of "Thoughts" or "Gibberish". This version also differs from the original one in that different texts are used, as well as the main voice is that of Spock´s Beard leader that gives it an interesting Beatles touch.
"We all need some light" (5:40), apart from the inferior recording and production quality, differs from the official song in that the vocals are carried out by Roine who, despite its lesser capabilities compared to Neal, shows his style and gives us a version of great nostalgia and sensibility.
With regard to "Honky tonk woman" (1:54), "Oh darlin´" (2:30) and the videotape of more than six minutes of duration, little more to add, just that maybe they could have spared them. Personally I believe that it is a good idea (who would not like to have a memory of the recording sessions of "Close to the Edge", "Nude", "Wish you were here", "Tarkus",...).
Summarizing, a good album of symphonic-progressive rock with the objective in arriving to the mass public and making the genre more known, which without a doubt will imply higher sales. If we compare it with the trajectory of the bands of the musicians that form it, it is clear that it is much better than the last albums of Dream Theater, Spock's Beard and mainly, Marillion (this is not difficult). As for The Flower Kings, "SMPTe" is at the level of the suite "Garden of dreams" of the "FlowerPower" and it is much better than the rest. In any case, it seems to be an obligatory purchase for the progressive followers.