Short album reviews by The Prog Yak. No puffery here, just a simple review and score from 1 to 5 yaks! Have a new album you'd like The Prog Yak to review? Let us know.
The Absolute Universe
After 7 years since the last Transatlantic studio album, the anticipation has been strong for their new and 5th album, The Absolute Universe. Let me say right up front that The Absolute Universe is better than 99% of any music produced today. These guys are amazingly talented. That being said however, I personally find The Absolute Universe to be my least favorite offering from the band. That doesn’t by any means suggest it’s “bad,” far from it, it just means for me, I find it falling short of their earlier work. I think of it more as a compliment to their previous four albums, all of which I find stellar, than some attack on TAU. Music is subjective, and many may find find TAU to be their favorite release.
Let me address the buzz surrounding the dual “versions” of the album: The double-CD "Forevermore" at 90 minute and the single-CD "Breath of Life" at 64 minutes. Much has been made of this unique and groundbreaking approach. I personally didn’t care for it. When I listen to an album, I want to at least know what “the album” is. Traditionally bands release an album and then offer up bonus tracks or disks with demos, alternative versions, etc. With TAU, you the listener are left to decide for you what “the album” is—is it Forevermore, or Breath of Life, or as the band would suggest, simply both?
So, here is what I would recommend to anyone not yet started in on the album so as to avoid them twisting their brain in knots: Just start with The Breath of Life version, and mentally consider that “THEE album” and don’t even bother with Forevermore until you grow tired of BOL, perhaps weeks later. Then, just consider the Forevermore CDs as the “bonus” material. (Or feel free to flip those around and start with Forevermore.) I recommend this approach, otherwise you will feel more like you’re trying to figure out a puzzle vs just kicking back, relaxing, and enjoying the music.
The band has mentioned their reasons for doing things this way, but many will still speculate on a few other possibilities...
Was it to create more content to help with the new streaming service model? TAU is 32 songs averaging under 5 minutes each vs a few long “epic” songs as typical for the band on previous albums. TAU seems to be the first album the band has made available on Spotify and other streaming services, so this very well may have been a consideration. It’s hard enough for a prog band to survive on per-song streaming royalties as it is, but it's particularly hard when a full album is only 4 or 5 songs/streams. I personally don’t think this was the reason, but even if it was, one can’t fault the band for wanting to get 32 streams vs 4.
Was it to get press and buzz by being different, unique, groundbreaking, and “progressive?” The band would never admit this was the reason, but if so, it seems to have worked, as everyone seems to want to talk about the format more than the music, just as I am in this review. (Hmm..or maybe that means it didn’t “work?” 🤷♂️)
Or, and I personally have a feeling it could be this one, perhaps this group of talented individual musicians was just not able to agree on “thee” version and instead of arm wrestling it out, they just said, “Screw it! Let’s just release it all and let the listener decide, besides, that could be cool!” (And they would get the benefit of the above mentioned reasons as a bonus, even if not their intent.)
Regardless of the reason, for me, it doesn’t work. In my mind, it removes a bit of soul from the album and turns it more into a game to be solved. Could you imagine if Tommy, Dark Side of the Moon, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had initially been released like this? We’d all be wondering. “But what is the actual Tommy album, the one where Uncle Ernie fiddles about or teaches Tommy how to play the piano?”
It has created buzz and curiosity, and there will certainly be those who will actually love “playing the game” by dissecting and analyzing every difference in the two versions, but is that really what one wants from music? Some will, but it’s just not for me. (Kudo's for them trying something new, and if it proves to be genius, we should see lots of other bands taking this approach in the future, but I personally predict you won’t see this again. Time will tell.)
So, all that out of the way, what about THE MUSIC? Naturally, the musicianship is impeccable. Neal, Mike, Roine, and Pete ALL shine brightly at different moments throughout. There is plenty of good music here, however, I personally just didn’t find the grand moments in TAU that I have found in all their previous albums. I even found myself wondering if everyone was holding back, keeping their best songs for their mainstay bands. I found (and reviewed as such) The last Flower Kings album “Islands" and the last Neal Morse solo album "Sola Gratia" to both be brilliant, so these guys clearly have not lost their touch, I just had to wonder if they are keeping their best work for later.
Maybe it was the challenges of recording during a pandemic, but this album just felt less “band like” to me, perhaps their “white album” swan-song album. I have a sense this could be the last studio album we get from this band. I could be dead wrong, but it’s just a feeling I get listening to these songs. My spidey senses could be way off there, but that’s what I feel.
SIDE BAR: I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Neal put all his focus on The Neal Morse Band. I just think the chemistry of that band on all levels (writing, playing, vocals, etc.) is SO superb. I think the best work Neal has ever done, and will likely continue to ever do in the future, will be with that group of musicians. It would be great if financially TNMB could be allowed to focus without needing to be involved in so many other projects to keep afloat, but that’s an entirely different discussion. :-/
ALL that being said, I go back to how I started this review...these talented musicians can’t make “bad” music if they tried, and this album is better than most anything out there today, but for me, I just wonder if this lineup's best collaborating days may have come and gone. 4.5 Yaks.