Could Transatlantic be Morse’s musical salvation?

An Evening with Transatlantic
Friday 21 May 2010
Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Neal Morse used to be the lead singer with a band called Spock’s Beard. Their finest hour (for my money) was an album called “Snow” released in 2002. Morse had recently undergone a conversion and “discovered a personal faith” (as people are wont to describe those moments). The album was about a man who was born albino and who had struggled all his life with cruelty people inflicted on him because they didn’t understand his appearance and who was now seeking to serve a God he didn’t fully understand whilst still working through massive feelings of inadequacy.

It was an album that was redolent with majestic musical moments, alternating lyrical angst and exuberance and themes that everyone could understand whether they shared Morse’s faith or not (or even really understood the story).

Shortly after its release, Neal quit the band because he felt that God was calling him in a different musical direction. He was, if you like, on a mission from God.

The next seven years has seen Mr Morse release a staggering number of albums all of which are steeped to the hilt with his faith in Jesus Christ and all of which lack the lyrical enticements that drew me into “Snow” as a concept album.

Add to this the fact that Morse is closer to the Beatles in songwriting terms than “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” and the loss of his cohorts in Spock’s Beard really showed as his music began to sound a little like “progressive rock by numbers”. The progressive market was where Spock’s Beard market lay and so he seemed to be extending his songs to fit into that genre rather than allowing them to develop naturally.

Lyrically, it was obvious from the outset (given Neal’s announcements in the music press) that these were going to be songs about his Christian faith and this robbed almost every lyric of a riddle, every word of any ambiguity or mystery. Like listening to a bad Sunday school teacher you knew in advance that every storyline was going to lead to Jesus – no matter where it seemed to be going.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love gospel music and I have no doubt I share a great deal of Neal’s convictions. I just don’t happen to think that every musical note, even for the most devout musician, needs to be about faith and God. There is a particular reason why Christian music exists in a ghetto – it is preaching to the choir because nobody else is listening.

And then in 2009 something surprising happened. Back in the day, as well as Spock’s Beard, Neal had a part time project called Transatlantic. An announcement was made that Transatlantic was going to be reuniting to make an album and perhaps tour. This had two advantages over the furrow that Morse had been ploughing for the last seven years. First the band would see him being equal partners with other top grade musicians and there are people in Transatlantic who are more naturally aligned to progressive stylings than Mr Morse. And secondly, there are writers in this band who don’t share all of Neal’s faith convictions which meant that if he was going to continue to talk about his faith in his lyrics (which was a given or else one suspects he wouldn’t be getting involved) then he was going to have to reach more readily for metaphor, work harder at his art and maybe even write in parable. Now there’s pretty good evidence that people can write quite an evocative story in parable when they want to speak of matters beyond this world and issues of faith.

Neal Morse

And so Transatlantic produced an album called “The Whirlwind” which featured a 78 minute (give a take a second or five) progressive symphony called (fittingly) The Whirlwind and we gathered at Shepherd’s Bush Empire to watch them perform.

 The four piece band consists of the aforementioned Neal Morse, Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater and Pete Trewavas of Marillion. On stage they are capably augmented by Daniel Gildenlow of, Swedish band, Pain of Salvation.

Now I’ve seen a few rock bands reunite who blatantly didn’t want to be on stage as each other (Fleetwood Mac spring readily to mind) but this is not the case for Transatlantic. They seem jubilant and happy to be on stage together which is no mean feat for a band starting out, never mind one like tonight who is working towards the end of a tour.

The stage set up is idiosyncratic but works well. Morse’s keys are at the front of one side of the stage with Portnoy’s drums at the other whilst guitarist and bassist are in the middle, leaving Gildenlow to weave his way betwixt, between and behind the principals.

Mike Portnoy

Morse and Portnoy seem to share the duties of musical director whilst Morse, Stolt and Trewavas provide lead vocals with everyone chipping in on harmonies.

The band play two sets of about a hour and half each with a fifteen minute interval. Courageously, the first set is comprised of the whole of “The Whirlwind” from the new album. Slightly longer here than on the album, it is a tour-de-force with the movements “Rose Colored Glasses” and “Dancing with Eternal Glory” polishing up particularly well.

Mike Portnoy is key to this band, not just for his accomplished drum-work but for his immediate rapport with the large and extremely enthusiastic crowd which culminates in him crowd-surfing from the stage. Morse grins throughout and is clearly enjoying himself.

The second set takes the highlights from their earlier albums and few bands could honestly say two hours into a show that they had only played two songs but this was Portnoy’s claim but they squeezed in a few more before the show over-ran the local authority curfew and no-one complained. “Bridge Across Forever” was perhaps the pick of the second set.

So a strong and convincing performance. Morse’s faith and this music seem a comfortable fit and it intrigues some of his audience more than his solo material. Only time will tell whether he will continue down this route or whether he will continue to head for some peculiar self-imposed religious backwater.

Morse and Roine Stolt

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