Review Summary: A progressive-rock behemoth of an album, the likes of which only Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy could deliver.
At one point it seemed that Transatlantic would never get its feet off the ground. The band formed in 1999 around centerpieces Neal Morse (of Spock’s Beard, vocals and keyboard) and Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater, drums), along with Roine Stolt (lead guitars) and Pete Trawavas (bass, backing vocals). They subsequently released their 2000 debut entitled SMPT:e
, which was met with critical acclaim as some even hailed it as one of the greatest progressive rock albums ever written. Including the 30 minute opening track, the album came in just shy of 80 minutes. Despite its gargantuan length, there was a certain flow to the album that made it more listenable than one would anticipate. However, tensions had already begun to arise over the music’s heavy focus on Neal Morse’s vocals. Heading into the studio nearly immediately following their first release, Transatlantic sought to remedy this problem by seeking out equal contributions from all members of the band. After only one year elapsed, Transatlantic released their second, equally ambitious record Bridge Across Forever
. Bridge Across Forever
retained the qualities that fans of the debut loved, while expanding on the music’s sonic quality with more of a “band” sound and, when given his moments, some of the strongest vocal performances of Neal Morse’s career. The end result was the creation of Transatlantic’s most dynamic album to date.
Bridge Across Forever
starts things off slow, with a violin section that serves as an overture to the 26 minute “Duel With The Devil.” This epic track slowly builds, introducing Morse’s piano skills and eventually an echoing drum fill accompanied by what is easily Stolt’s catchiest guitar riff on the album. Neal Morse also injects some Spock’s Beard influence early on in the track, with plenty of synth-laden, progressive sounding keyboard. Eventually, all of the music comes to a halt, as Morse powerfully sings,
Have you woke up screaming in the silence of the night?
You wish you could start dreaming in clouds of white
But everything could change tonight
When you duel with the devil living in your mind
The band quickly picks up where they left off, blending in with Morse’s vocal qualities in a way that SMPT:e
was never quite able to do. While his vocal performance is still the undeniable strong point, the constant infusion of Stolt’s and Trawavas’ talents elevates Transatlantic to new heights. “Duel With The Devil” continues to sway back and forth; from delightful piano elegies and soulful electric guitar solos to crescendos featuring the perfect tradeoff between keyboards and drums. At one point the song even features a brass section. One thing listeners will notice about both “Duel With The Devil” and the album as a whole is that it almost never relies on the soft-to-loud formula characterized by so many modern rock bands. There is not one grand climax in the song, but rather a plethora of smaller, more intricate build-ups with subtle resolutions. All in all, the song does just what a progressive rock epic should do: it provides the listener with a series of movements that flow from one to the other seamlessly as it gradually introduces a wide variety of instruments over the “journey” that is a 26 minute song.
Unfortunately, Bridge Across Forever
hits a mid-album snag. The second track, “Suite Charlotte Pike” manages to kill the outstanding momentum created by the opener while simultaneously phasing out the dynamic band chemistry. Morse, Portnoy, Stolt, and Travawas all perform extremely well in their own right, but they never align their sound in what ends up being a disjointed mess. The song meanders through different solos and instrumental cuts, but it is far from seamless and lacks the beautiful flow that kicked off Bridge Across Forever
. The title track does little to regain the magic. “Bridge Across Forever” is the album’s piano ballad, which while vocally and lyrically impressive, doesn’t venture beyond SMPT:e
territory. For that matter, it doesn’t show much of anything different outside of Morse’s strong vocals, which were already made apparent on several occasions with Transatlantic and then prior to that with Spock’s Beard. With that said, the two middle tracks are not weak, they just simply fail to keep pace with the extraordinarily inspiring “Duel With The Devil.” Also, the two songs combined are still shorter than the aforementioned opening track, so whatever drop-off occurs is kept rather short.
Bridge Across Forever
comes back into its own when Transatlantic returns to its forte: grandiose/over-the-top progressive rock movements. With the closing track coming in at a monstrous 30 minutes, this (in combination with “Duel With The Devil”) luckily makes up the majority of the album. “Stranger In Your Soul” shares many similarities to the opening track, and in a way this reflection gives the album a cyclical feel. While it starts off with a violin section again, this time the music ventures almost into a tribal sound, with pounding, thunderous drum beats followed by high pitched, screaming guitar riffs. The introduction gives way to Morse and an acoustic guitar, creating one of the most intimate settings to be found on Bridge Across Forever
. Of course, the song eventually returns to more of a blend between the sound of all four musicians. As all of this occurs, one can almost feel the album transforming and beginning to truly deliver on all of the promise showed in “Duel With The Devil.” “Stranger In Your Soul” evolves by the minute, constantly reinventing itself in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the atmosphere or flow that is kept going throughout. As the song (and the album) closes out, Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy put their talent on full display with what can best be described as an instrumental duet of keyboarding and drumming. The outro is composed of the sound of church bells before finally giving way to the distant rumble of thunder and intermittent static.
By the album’s conclusion, Bridge Across Forever
leaves a definite impact on the listener. The album’s flow, albiet interrupted in the middle, is consistent enough to allow you to get lost in the ever-changing flow. The instrumental balance, and how the band manages to play together with Neal Morse’s normally overpowering vocals, provide a level of chemistry that was not previously heard on any Transatlantic record. Combined with the high level of proficiency that each band member brings to the table, Bridge Across Forever
stands out as one of the better progressive rock albums of the decade.