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Transatlantic: Whirld Tour 2010

img  Tobias Fischer

One of the telling moments of this release occurs during a passionate performance of put-your-heart-where-your-mouth-is-anthem „Stranger in Your Soul“: As the song effortlessly switches between classic Prog, full-out Metal and heartfelt passages of balladesque tenderness, the camera moves to the back of the stage to face the crowd, capturing the silhouettes of the musicians casting gigantic shadows on the baroque balconies and gold-rimmed walls of London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. What image could possibly constitute a more suitable metaphor for this band? After all, everything has always been slightly bigger for Transatlantic. Their compositions habitually stretch out over entire albums. Their live performances resemble spiritual masses. Their live-documents are monumental box sets involving - as in the case of Whirld Tour 2010 - three CDs choke-full of music and two DVDs containing every note played during the gig, a two-hour behind the scenes, bonus material as well as an interview. Even breaks between records are longer than the entire careers of some of their peers – so long in fact, that to anyone but a few faithful fans and Drummer Mike Portnoy, the group seemed dead and gone after disbanding in 2001, when keyboarder and vocalist Neal Morse left for religious reasons after penultimate studio full-length Bridge Across Forever. Even that departure, meanwhile, as painful as it must have been for those caring about this group, had an air of grandness about it.

The reason the band came together again to record was not just, as Portnoy now reveals in a comparably short yet insightful conversation in the bonus material portion, a gradual rapprochement between him and Morse, which saw them gradually re-intensify their contacts until the time seemed right to ask the all-important „Shall we record together again“ question. More importantly, it was down to a seemingly simple song Morse had written and pitched to the members of the band: Driven by a pristine Folk sensibility and blissfull vocal harmonies, the initially concise original version of „The Whirlwind“ suggested itself as the perfect departure point for yet another epic excursion. In the end, the arrangement would proliferate into an eighty minute composition, which, against the odds, turned into their most successfull release. It should seem perfectly apt, therefore, if the band should play this incisive piece in its entirety as the opening to their show, pointing to its seminal importance in refueling their enthusiasm for playing together again. The interpretation at Shepherd's Bush Empire serves as a congenial explanation as to what kindled their imagination: From a triumphant orchestral introduction – which will remain the only section being played from a backing tape for the entire rest of the evening – the quartet launch themselves into a vortex of themes and variations, algamating Jazz, Rock, Pop and even sounscape-like sections of ambient serenity into a cohesive entity. Creating a subtle balance between carefully-dosed reprises and development of motives on the one hand and a cornucopia of new inventions on the other, they manage to keep the tension simmering for the entire duration of the work. At a time, when a lot of bands have returned to shorter formats and the golden timeframe of the vinyl-LP as a reaction to the often overblown experiments of the CD-era, it is also an affirmation of the will to transcend traditional borders and formats, of taking listeners on a journey that will test their stamina and challenge their conceptions - but may offer them a unique experience in return.

On stage, of course, this experience is not just the audience's – the band, too, are visibly transformed by the experience of being pulled through the wormhole of their own creation. In the accompanying documentary, the first thing Trawawas, Stolt, Portnoy and Morse discuss when meeting up to rehearse for the upcoming tour is how long they've spent preparing for it: While it took Trawawas a week to learn all the notes, Morse spent a full three weeks just programming his keyboards – which, incidentally, did not prevent them from crashing during one of the gigs on the German leg. It goes without saying that a trip like this could never be sensibly sustained on the shaky grounds of the conservative band line-up of a frontman and a backing band. Manifesting itself instead on Whirld Tour 2010 is a constellation of three fluctuating centres, around which the entire performances revolves: On the far left, Morse standing behind his L-shaped twin-Keyboard fortress and equipped with a microphone headset. On the far right, Portnoy sardined into his drum set. And, in the middle, the axis of Trawawas, Stolt and additional live-performer Daniel Gildenlöw, whose somewhat more quiet and introvert personality awards them an eye-of-the-storm-like quality. Importantly, too, although Morse and Stolte are dividing the lion's share of the lyrics, all  musicians are taking on vocal duties. As a result, the typical fragmentisation of formations is reversed: In the process of performing their pieces, Transatlantic are turning into a single mind and a multi-headed hydra, whose every head spews fountains of beguiling harmonies and whose every claw wields a powerful instrument.

And yet, despite this powerful sense of unity, their performance only seldomly comes across as overpowering. It is not as though „musicianshipe“ were not important here – the mere fact that the only visual accompaniment to the musical action consists of a simple banner at the back of the stage points to the fact that the emphasis is clearly on avoiding distracting the audience from the music. But compared to, say, a DVD like Dream Theater's Live at Budokan, on which many tracks were foremost mere excuses for endless solos, virtuosity is never a means of its own here. On a track like „We all need some light“, for example, Morse and Stolt, whose intricate duo exchange takes up the hypnotic first half of the track, the entire band exercises enough restraint to retain the otherwordly mood and subcutaneous tension of the music throughout its entire duration. And even on aforementioned „Stranger in Your Soul“, which offers plenty of potential springboards into technical wizardry, the band instead opt for creating an irresistible groove, which they stoically immerse themselves in for the better part of the half-an-hour-long work. Quite clearly, Transatlantic care for an aspect of their trade that many other groups, hypnotised by the dizzying display of raw instrumental prowess of some of their colleagues, have long seemed to have forgotten: Songwriting. Perhaps the most exciting statement for those who have followed the band over the years comes when Morse recounts hearing the Flower Kings – Stolt's main band – for the first time and what made the memory special: „We were driving around in the car and listened to a cassette of the Flower Kings. And we both said: Hey! A chorus! I get a lot of tapes by prog bands and a lot of times it's nothing you can really latch on to.“ No wonder they should regard The Beatles as their common denominator: Even on monumental works like „The Whirldwind“, there is so much to latch on to that one is literally sucked into the action and spewn out only after the very last note has been played.

Perhaps the only point of irritation comes when Stolt suggests that the fans don't actually hear all of the intricate details they worry about during a gig. Quite on the contrary: After spending roughly ten hours with the band as part of this release, you'll find yourself paying attention even to the most minute sounding of Portnoy's cymbals or the sudden melodic outbursts of Trawawa's Bass. Whirld Tour 2010 presents Transatlantic as a formation that has made use of its ambitions for big things without succumbing to the all but inevitable hybris lying just around the corner. In a way, they have waited a decade to come this far. And this time, it is really happening.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Transatlantic
Homepage: Inside Out Records

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