So far, I’ve been sticking to my new year’s resolution.
I’ve bought 17 new albums this year so far, and I’ve heard all but three of them. I was underwhelmed by The Crystal Method and Damien Jurado, I enjoyed The Gaslight Anthem’s B-Sides more than I expected to, I thought the new Silver Mt. Zion album was pretty great, and I am still absorbing Warpaint’s self-titled sophomore release. Next week I’m going to review new ones from Broken Bells and Marissa Nadler, as soon as I’m done salivating over the remaster of Uncle Tupelo’s sterling debut, No Depression.
It’s only going to get more difficult from here. I have at least 20 records to buy in February, including just-announced new things by Jonatha Brooke and We Were Promised Jetpacks, as well as a triple album by the Shocking Pinks. (Want to get me interested in your band? Do something ridiculously ambitious.) But so far, I’m managing. I’m even slowly working my way through the 100 or so albums I bought and didn’t hear in 2013.
As for this week, we have a couple of winners on our hands, making for the first real recommendations of the year. (Barring the new Sharon Jones, which you all bought already anyway, right?) They couldn’t be more different, but they’re both pretty great.
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There aren’t a lot of bona fide supergroups I could name, but Transatlantic is definitely one.
Of course, there aren’t a lot of bands with so specific a remit. Transatlantic brings together four of the finest musicians in modern progressive rock, and allows them to indulge their love of the ‘70s prog sound they all grew up on. In some ways, you know what you’re going to get when you combine Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Marillion’s Pete Trewavas and Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings, and in some ways, you’re absolutely right.
But Transatlantic has always surprised me by remaining so traditional. Portnoy’s Dream Theater successfully built on the progressive metal of Iron Maiden and Metallica, the Flower Kings have long been jazz enthusiasts, and Marillion is one of the most diverse bands on the planet. But Transatlantic’s work stays firmly within the pocket of Yes, Genesis and other 1970s proggers. Of the four, Morse is the most obviously inspired by this stuff, and Transatlantic feels like his dream band.
Transatlantic songs are long and twisty – their last album, The Whirlwind, was a single 77-minute epic. But like their main influences, the four masterminds here never forget the melody. These are hummable epics, and it’s rare that this band slips into mindless soloing, like Dream Theater and the Flower Kings have been known to do. There are long instrumental passages, but they’re like little symphonies, Stolt’s guitar dancing with Morse’s keyboards. And when they lock into a big moment, it’s almost impossibly big. Drama is the name of the game, and when it comes to the climaxes, there’s no such thing as overindulgent.
It’s all a bit formulaic, as any tribute to a bygone era would be. But Transatlantic remains stunningly enjoyable anyway on their fourth album together, Kaleidoscope. The 76-minute behemoth is broken up into two long songs and three shorter ones, and it sports much more variety in its ebbs and flows than The Whirlwind. The suites bookend the record – the 25-minute “Into the Blue” kicks things off, while the 32-minute title track brings things to a close. Both of these songs are as complex and dazzling as you’d expect, which is both a feature and a drawback.
I say that because neither of the longer songs provides any surprises. Both begin with instrumental overtures, both find key melodies restated throughout, both have slower sections that build up to huge waves of sound, and both have short but splendid solo sections. (Morse’s keyboard solo in “Kaleidoscope” is a highlight.) These guys can write extended pieces like this in their sleep at this point, and while both of these suites are tremendous fun, they’re nothing new.
The three short pieces in the middle are where you’ll find the head-spinners. “Shine” is a pop song, albeit one that lasts for seven minutes and includes a long guitar solo from Stolt. (And a nifty reprise from “Into the Blue.”) “Black as the Sky” is a punchy rocker that reminds me of nothing as much as Marillion’s “Market Square Heroes,” jaunty ‘70s synths and all. And “Beyond the Sun” is the prettiest piece of music in the Transatlantic catalog, a four-minute ambient ballad with a heartbreaking melody. It’s clear that the bulk of the work on this album was focused on the longer suites, but the shorter tunes are by no means throwaways. In fact, I get more out of “Beyond the Sun” than I do the entire opening monstrosity.
There’s no doubt that Morse is the driving force of this band. He’s been turning out melodic prog-rock for nearly 20 years, first as the guiding light of Spock’s Beard, and then on his own. As always, if you want Morse’s compositional, vocal and instrumental skills, you need to accept his faith-filled lyrics. Morse’s solo career is essentially Prog for Jesus, and while he’s much less upfront about it in Transatlantic, this is an album about finding spiritual fulfillment. “Kaleidoscope,” the song, is the diary of a lost soul, until its final verse: “High as the winds of yesterday, as our fear is washed away, we’ll be walking through the fire, there on the mountain we’ll sing, as His life fills everything, we will live our true desire…”
“Beyond the Sun,” my favorite thing here, is a Neal Morse song through and through – it’s about living forever in Heaven. “And we will live forever, when all is joined together, and we will live each day beyond the sun…” If you can roll with this, it’s stunningly beautiful. If you’re an old-school prog fan used to the more vague spirituality of Yes, this may be a stumbling block. (And I definitely would steer clear of Morse’s solo catalog, awesome thought it is.)
Those potential concerns aside, Kaleidoscope is another terrific album from this most super of supergroups. Progressive music is all about the players, and whether they can pull off the mind-bendingly complicated material they’ve written. With these four, there’s never any question of what they’re able to play. As a fan of all four of them, I’m glad they have this outlet to truly stretch themselves, to create love letters to this much-maligned form of music. Yes, it hews to a formula, but that formula works for me, every time. If you’re also a fan of classic progressive rock, I can’t recommend this enough.
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On the exact other end of the musical spectrum is this week’s other quartet, Nashville’s Farewell Drifters.
I’ve seen the band a few times, and they were initially described to me as a bluegrass group that plays pop songs. That suited them just fine on their first few albums, though 2011’s Echo Boom saw them straining against the limitations of their acoustic format. But all that was prelude. The Farewell Drifters’ sparkling new one, Tomorrow Forever, sees them transition into full-on folksy pop band, with drums and electric guitars and everything. And it’s pretty damn great.
It’s the right time for a new beginning. This is the first Farewell Drifters album without founding fiddle player Christian Sedelmeyer, and their first for Compass Records. They’ve taken the opportunity to reinvent themselves, but only somewhat – the album is huge in comparison to their earlier works, with drummer Evan Hutchings joining in on every track, and strings and keyboards and percussion winding in and out, but it’s still as intimate and charming as anything they’ve done.
The Drifters have always had a knack for traditional-sounding songs that still sound fresh and new. Their penchant for harmonies certainly helps – guitarist Zach Bevill trades off lead vocals with brothers Joshua and Clayton Britt, who play mandolin and guitar respectively, but all four Drifters harmonize beautifully. That works for the high, lonesome bluegrass sound they’ve done in the past, but also for the more lush pop that fills this new record.
Tomorrow Forever is a tale of two halves for me. The first half eases you in – the songs are more traditional, and even with the orchestral bells, drum kit and strings on the sprightly opener, “Modern Age,” you can still draw a straight line back to the Farewell Drifters of Yellow Tag Mondays. “Bring ‘Em Back Around” builds up convincingly, with electric guitars and organs, but before you get too excited, they’re back to that bluegrass harmony sound on “Brother.” I’ll admit that this half of the album is less interesting to me. It’s well done, lovely stuff, particularly “Coming Home,” but it sticks to the tried and true a little much.
But with “Tennessee Girl,” this album positively takes off. The song skips ahead on a jaunty acoustic rhythm with some well-placed xylophone, and spins off into a delightful chorus, setting the tone for this more adventurous, more successful second half. “Relief” may be the finest Farewell Drifters song, sad and powerful, the haunting fiddle line caressing the gorgeous melody. “To Feel Alive” may be a close second, particularly when it dives into a Byrds-esque chiming-guitar jam near the two-minute mark. The album ends with two lovely songs, the forlorn “The Day You Left” and the defiant “Starting Over,” which journeys from despair to new hope in a quick four minutes.
The Farewell Drifters have always been good, but Tomorrow Forever, and especially its second half, is something special. It’s a strong step forward for a band that keeps growing, and hopefully it will be the one that pushes them into new realms of popularity. If you’ve never heard them, start here. You can find out more at their site.
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Next week, Broken Bells and Marissa Nadler, among other things. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.