The title hints at the ambition of this huge prog project. Why release just one album, when you can release two (or three) versions at once? But which one to buy?
Label: InsideOut Records
Time: The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) 9+9 tracks / 47+43 mins
Time: The Absolute Universe: Breath of Life (Abridged Version) 14 tracks / 64 minutes
There’s a real cottage industry building around multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Morse regularly releases material of his own featuring the drummer, whether solo or with his band. The prog supergroup Flying Colors (where the duo is joined by members of Deep Purple, Dixie Chicks and Alpha Rev) compress prog sensibilities into flab-free songs and still release material every year.
Now into this packed calendar comes a re-union for their previous supergroup Transatlantic, where the duo is joined by Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas from the UK and Swedish Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt. Until now, the band has left me cold, its work too drawn out and noodly. Early trailers for this one, however, left me in little doubt that the band has a surprising amount of energy for an outfit whose members already have plenty of musical outlets. This is not just some contractual release, but one bubbling over with feeling and ambition.
I wonder how much the Flying Colors experience has affected this project and whether it left some of the band wanting to keep things much tighter, rather than going with the prog tendency to expand.
If so, it is Morse who has taken on the lessons most keenly. He agreed with Trewavas’ idea to compress the material, but Portnoy wanted to keep the expanded version, so they each curated their own preferences (and let’s just ignore for now that there is also The Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition, a limited deluxe 5 LP, 3 CD + Blu-ray box-set with a sixteen page booklet and poster). It feels almost impossible to review this properly without including some sort of table of details about the differences between the two, but that would be a dull read, and I found myself getting deeply bogged down in my notes for a long time.
The two albums differ in such slight ways, and themes come and go throughout, so comparison on a track by track basis is very difficult. As Portnoy himself admitted, it is “A serious undertaking to digest... this is going to keep listeners busy for a long time.” The short version isn’t even the long one edited down; in places it has different lyrics, instrumental tracks and singers – and counter-intuitively has an extra track that is not on the extended version, the Morse acoustic piece “Take Now my Soul.”
Tracks like “The Darkness in the Light” show the band’s talents well. It’s one highlight of the first expanded disc. While the chorus is in typical light rock style, the rest is a hybrid of prog with drum’n’bass as Trewavas’ energetic and almost-funky bass sits centre-stage with half-spoken vocals on top. For the instrumental break, his strutting lines – somewhat Eastern in tone – still sit clearly below Stolt’s plaintive guitar solo. It’s not a track that you’d confuse with any other.
Soon after, "Swing High, Swing Low" is a Morse metal ballad, which has different lyrics on each version (it took such as long time to produce that one set covers his feelings about Nashville during Covid, while the original set takes a testimony approach, typical of his songs).
The highlights continue: "Rainbow Sky" starts like Beatles/ ELO psychedelia (including the sort of ‘oh-oh-oh’s that the Listening also incorporated in to their glam pastiches) and ends with nods to Genesis (there’s a lyrical mention of “your own special way” and the riff from "Down by the Sea" gets a brief cameo). There is a lot packed into just over three minutes!
Then there is a whole other Forevermore disc to enjoy – and it would be a fine release on its own. Lead track “The Sun Comes up Today” starts with a guitar break full of feeling and launches into a well-paced instrumental section that feels like an anthem is developing.
The second track, “Love Made a Way,” is a mere ninety-odd seconds, but it introduces a major melodic theme and a guitar riff that interweaves beautifully with it. The song reprises through the disc in true Morse fashion.
Another of the most distinctive tracks – and one where the two versions differ most noticeably – is "Owl Howl," an edgier, spikier track with a portentous menace to Stolt’s vocals and a prominent bass line. It begins with a Deep Purple-like riff, but as it develops into an instrumental for the second half, Morse’s synth solo is similarly prickly, but it starts flowing and building, reaching a symphonic feel with ELP tones in places. The abridged version majors on the rockiness, while the expanded account adds more light to the shade, with flute counterpointing the bass riff, and appends the “Love Made a Way” theme.
Unfortunately, the democratic nature of the band means that vocals get shared around too much – writers generally sing their own songs – and when Trewavas starts singing lead, the level drops so that it almost sounds like a demo. He is fine when multi-tracked on backing vocals, but his voice is just not strong enough out front. The same applies to his singing on “Solitude,” a wonderful earworm song about life’s questions. Stolt’s lead vocals are also somewhat lacking, more in terms of his pitching and feeling. But Stolt does sing well on "Lonesome Rebel," a Flower-Kings like ballad, which is lifted by some lovely mandolin throughout.
Even on the expanded version, apart from three of the bookending tracks, only one passes six minutes long, so there is restraint throughout – maybe that Flying Colors effect again. So the whole release is packed with compressed melody, which makes it such a great set of tunes to listen to; even “Bully”, the worst track (to my ears) on the expanded version only lasts a couple of minutes, which is easy to live with. Many tracks I’ve not mentioned enjoy a rich fluidity, full of striking tunes and licks that lift the songs in just the right places. It’s magnificent.
The bottom line? The concise version is great, as it is packed with all the big themes, strong melodies and instrumentals, great musicianship and the sense that this is another mouthpiece for the omnipresent Morse. When listening to it, you don’t feel like you’re missing anything – it’s satisfying. But the expanded version seems fully worthwhile too, with no sense of filler. As either set is top quality, you might as well get the extra half-hour.