A Different View on Transatlantic’s “Kaleidoscope”

Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

For quite some time, I was at a loss to understand why there was such a vitriol against progressive rock. Over the years, I’ve had to defend my love of prog from my parents, girlfriends, friends and fellow musicians. As it’s eventually turned out, it’s become clear to me why people might feel so dismissive towards the genre, thanks in no small part to a band like Transatlantic. I’ve heard proggers sing the praises of this supergroup for ages; after all, a collaboration between members of some of the biggest progressive bands of the past couple of decades couldn’t go wrong, right? It’s not enough to say I dislike Transatlantic; I think their music exemplifies all of the bad clichés that have made ‘prog’ such a dirty word to some people. Kaleidoscope is no different. This fourth album is another hour-plus of the Morse/Portnoy/Stolt/Trewavas collaboration resting on their laurels, spouting the same dinosaur prog that they’ve played their entire career, a style which, in turn, was explored and perfected decades before the band even formed.

I might argue that Transatlantic is only a part of a larger trend in progressive rock to look to the past for inspiration. Even if few hack the 70′s symphonic prog aesthetic as shamelessly as these guys do, there are plenty of bands in this genre that choose to operate on more nostalgic terms. I’ll admit that there’s only been a handful of modern symphonic prog albums to have really impressed me (the latest having been Monarch Trail‘s debut Skye), but I don’t think I’d ever dismiss a band solely on the basis of being retrogressive. I think the style could be made relevant nowadays, but Transatlantic clearly aren’t the band to realize that potential. Between two sterile “epics” and a trio of innocuous shorter pieces, I cannot find enough personality to have satisfied a half-hour of music, let alone the 70+ minute slog of prog rock excess and cheese Kaleidoscope leads us on with.

To the supergroup’s credit, it’s interesting to hear the members’ personal touches merged together so evenly. Although the influence of Marillion (manifest in Pete Trewavas’ bass work) is seemingly absent from theTransatlantic style, Roine Stolt, Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy have uploaded their signatures to the music in such a way that you can usually tell which ideas came from whom, but where there also never appears to be competition or conflict between the respective influences. Neal Morse’s ‘nice guy’ approach to melodies and overzealous suite structures are arguably most prominent, but Roine Stolt’s Flower Kings heritage is more apparent during the instrumentals. Mike Portnoy’s drumwork is instantly identifiable, and while his percussion sounds too lowly mixed, his performance on Kaleidoscope is a close mirror of his past work with Dream Theater. Some of his questionable behaviour and antics post-Dream Theater aside, he’s a fantastic drummer and gives the most impressive performance of the group here.


Whereas most bands’ careers might culminate in one epic suite, Kaleidoscope offers two on the same disc. Even being as cynical over prog conventions as I am, the idea of an epic still really appeals to me; it’s a band’s chance to push themselves to the very limit and show the extent of their skills. That novelty and significance really wears off inTransatlantic‘s case where they treat epics with a two or three-for-one deal. The title epic is certainly a better rounded work that “Into the Blue”, which seems to slip haphazardly between bluesy hard rock riffs and tenuous instrumental solos. “Kaleidoscope” is a better epic in most respects; the first five minutes offer a pretty solid momentum. As a whole, the suite’s parts feel really compartmentalized; there isn’t the sort of fluid flow here that would be needed to make the epic feel complete. “Into the Blue” suffers from most of the same issues: twenty five minutes of generally sterile ideas drawn out to fill half a disc. The lyrics are just as heavy-handed as you would expect, too: some nonsense about ‘the dreamer and the healer’ sounds like cheesy prog rock mad libs, and there’s plenty of Neal Morse’s trademark Christian sanctimony to go around too.

While it’s clear Transatlantic mean to have all sights set primarily on the pair of epics here, “Black as the Sky” and “Beyond the Sun” are the two best-written songs on the album. “Black as the Sky” is as dinosaur prog as the two longer pieces, but it’s more cleverly composed and structured; I’ve got the slight impression that Transatlantic‘s songwriting would be generally stronger if they put their ideas on tighter reins more often. “Beyond the Sun” is clearly intended to be some sort of extended introduction to the “Kaleidoscope” epic, but it’s actually turned out to be the most heartfelt, powerful track on the album. The instrumentation is focused on atmosphere foremost, letting Neal Morse’s vocals shine through. I’ve never been much into his plain vocal style, but it really works here. It’s a real shame that the sort of warmth that’s hinted at in “Beyond the Sun” never peaks its head out for the rest of the album. By the way, I realize I failed to mention “Shine” until now; it’s a saccharine acoustic track and it’s like something I’d expect to hear in the ending credits of some ‘family values’ sitcom. Not my thing. Not my thing at all.

I know Transatlantic are a group of very talented individuals, and I know that I’m part of the relative minority in speaking against them. They’ve taken the most pompous elements of the old school progressive style and married it to modern-day sterility and conservatism. Most of the ingredients Transatlantic formed their style upon were pretentious and dull, and they’ve done nothing to press forward, nothing to improve their art or broaden their horizons. It’s like a jilted bride who wears her wedding gown until the day she dies; just because you’re clinging onto an ideal past doesn’t mean the rest of the world hasn’t marched on forward. Oh well, for whatever it’s worth, as bad albums go, Kaleidoscope is one the best performed I have ever heard.

1 Comment

  1. Abhi

    July 3, 2014 at 11:10 am

    It is a breath of fresh air to hear a prog journalist voice views I’ve held for a long time. One thing I’ve noticed the prog media shares with the mainstream media is an overhyping of so called “supergroups”. Since the prog community is fairly small and many musicians have played or toured with each other, it seems to be even more magnified. Every time a group of known musicians get together, that is all I seem to hear about. There was a similar frenzy last year over Flying Colors although it eventually turned out to be a fairly standard AOR band. I really don’t get why TA are mentioned so often as the ultimate prog group when there are bands like Moon Safari who are far more innovative and sincere in their approach to symphonic rock/dinosaur prog, call it what you will. They have not contributed anything significant to the development of prog and yet I find people hailing them as one of the most innovative prog bands. Really? What do they have that you cannot get out of their parent bands? No, it seems to me this is a classic case of the names on the box mattering more than the contents therein. And rather than being a supergroup, they sound like a watered down combination of all the generic elements of primarily Spock’s Beard and Flower Kings. A logical conclusion when you have four (well three at least, not sure about Pete) big egos in the room. It’s interesting to me that TA seem to be trying a bit too hard to be the Yes or Genesis or King Crimson of the modern era. But they are nowhere as crazy or out there or insane as Yes, especially lyrically. They are not as weird and innovative as Genesis. They are certainly not as experimental or genre spanning or powerful as King Crimson. Most importantly, all these bands existed in the 70′s. What’s the point in rehashing things they did? There are times when TA sounds like a glorified tribute band, especially in the Beatles influenced Suite Charlotte Pike. As you mentioned, their albums are excellently performed but musically, they are lacking more than a bit.

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