Alex Skolnick heads the jazz guitar group Alex Skolnick Trio and the acoustic world music ensemble Planetary Coalition, and is the lead guitarist of the Bay Area thrash metal band Testament, which he joined at 16. He has a BFA from the New School, where he studied jazz, philosophy and creative writing. He’s been a guest soloist for Rodrigo y Gabriela (appearing on their album 11:11), as well as participating in numerous other collaborations. He runs the popular blog Skolnotes and his first book, Geek to Guitar Hero, was published in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
The fact that a prog band like Transatlantic can exist in 2014, releasing an album with worldwide distribution and embarking on a string of international tour dates to large audiences in respectable venues is a revelation.
For one thing, today’s music biz places about as much value on an artist’s musicianship as it does on what he or she had for breakfast. Even successful pop stars who happen to be advanced players (John Mayer, for example) water down their music to the point that it has as much zeal as Wonder Bread.
And prog has long been a punching bag. The New York Times once compared the vocals of Rush’s Geddy Lee to “a munchkin giving a sermon”; Lester Bangs famously described Emerson Lake & Palmer as “three egos exploding tight as a rapacious cyclotron and slick as Gorgo’s dildo.” It wasn’t until last year that the preeminent “three kings” of prog, Rush, were finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Though more conventionally intellectual than their hard-partying rock & roll peers, the prog crowd has always been denied respect as creators of “intellectual rock,” a term more often attributed to music that is jarringly simplistic — the Velvet Underground, for example. (Disclaimer: technical proficiency is not a prerequisite for my own listening — my iPod contains both Pat Metheny and Patti Smith.) It’s ironic that prog, with its advanced complexity, doesn’t receive the same praise for its intelligence as so much music that, at least in terms of playing skills, is elementary by comparison.
At the same time, however, I’ve occasionally found myself begrudgingly on board with the rock cognoscenti when it comes to some — not all, but some — prog vocals. Which brings me to Transatlantic’s latest album Kaleidoscope.
The first track, “Into the Blue: Overture (Instrumental)/The Dreamer and the Healer/A New Beginning/Written in Your Heart/The Dreamer and the Healer (Reprise),” is a solid roller coaster ride, veering from high-energy peaks to soft breakdowns; it’s a suite, with mini-sections functioning as individual tunes. By the time the lead vocals arrive, we have heard nearly seven minutes of music, underscoring one of prog’s signature characteristics: pop conventions get tossed out, such as no musical prelude lasting beyond the arbitrary demarcation line of what constitutes “too long.” This is the type of rule-breaking found in prog that I can definitely get behind. Two entire conventional rock or pop tunes could be squeezed within those first seven minutes. But here, the vocals haven’t even come in yet!
But what about the vocals? More on that in a moment.
After 10 minutes, “Into the Blue,” having conjured parts reminiscent of seminal prog albums such as Yes’ Fragile (1972) and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) — and that’s a big compliment by the way — morphs into a more modern type of tune: a pounding, angry, almost funky metal groove worthy of a cameo by Tom Morello and Zach De La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. This piece is a solid showcase for drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), whose dazzling fills are balanced with solid grooves. Strong keyboard skills by Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard) are featured next, with a Hammond B3 organ solo conjuring the spirit of Deep Purple’s late maestro, Jon Lord.
Eventually, the music takes on a carnival-like atmosphere reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (1967). Roine Stolt (of Swedish prog veterans the Flower Kings) plays guitar solos that are tasteful, melodic and well executed without overplaying, which can be difficult to do with music this complex and energetic. (Although I would prefer to hear less wah-wah.) At about 18 minutes in — and remember, we’re still on track one — a whole new texture sneaks in: strumming acoustic guitar backed by ambient keys and a vocal pattern that instantly brings to mind Wish You Were Here-era (1975) Pink Floyd.
Now for the vocals: here’s where the music loses me somewhat. It’s not about the performance — everything is very well sung, although I’m not sure who’s singing where, since all members are credited — but the words are melodramatic to a fault, with such proclamations as “The dreamer, the healer, will wait for you” and “Light growing from desperate tears, a deeper meaning written in your heart.” At times, the emoting become so serious that paradoxically, it’s tough to take it seriously. It’s to the point that during the slow, power-ballad sections, it’s hard not to think of comedy: For better or for worse, the faux melodramatic song has become a part of the modern comedic landscape. We’ve heard it from South Park (and its offshoots The Book of Mormon, Team America, etc.), Will Ferrell (who famously sang a funny version of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas in the film Old School), Tenacious D, Sasha Baron Cohen, Flight of the Conchords, and more recently, the Norwegian comedic duo Ylvis (best known for the hit dance music spoof, “The Fox”), to name just a few.
So if one has an appreciation for comedic satire, it becomes difficult to hear this type of vocal in 2014, sung in sincerity over big power chords or acoustic strumming and displaying a reflective pondering in earnest, through words that convey something about inner healing. I keep picturing the video for Ylvis’s “Stonehenge” (no relation to the Spinal Tap tune): a hard rock power ballad done in mock sincerity with a similar “searching for answers” theme sung completely in jest that, ironically, is so well performed, played and produced that it could easily have fit on Kaleidoscope.
A later track, “Black as the Sky,” is a highlight, propelled by a keyboard sound that conjures Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery era (1973) with some wild, odd-meter moments a la ELP’s classic “Karn Evil 9” suite. Following this, the vocals become much better, with less melodrama and a tone reminiscent of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins when they were bandmates in the mid-’70s version of Genesis.
“Beyond the Sun” is an interesting change of pace — a darkly cinematic four-minute track, it eschews drums and obvious references. Propelled by cello, piano and slide guitar, the song could work well in a soundtrack, especially for a romantic fantasy film.
Closing out the album is the 31-minute title opus: “Kaleidoscope: Overture/Ride the Lightning/Black Gold/Walking the Road/Desolation Days/Lemon Looking Glass/Ride the Lightning (Reprise).” It begins with a tone and groove reminiscent of Styx’s “Blue Collar Man” (1978), segueing into a surprisingly catchy chorus. Once again, the vocals distract from the otherwise exciting music, climaxing with a repeated phrase, the title of the section “Ride the Lightning.” This is something I’d have strongly lobbied against if I were in the band — let’s face it, Metallica owns the phrase “Ride the Lightning.” The lyrics seem to be alluding to finding God, and a bit of online research shows that at least one of the members, Neal Morse, is devoutly religious and active in Christian music, which seems to carry over here. There’s nothing wrong with that, although when it comes to prog lyrics, I prefer the Rush/Neil Peart school of challenging collective thought (e.g., 1980’s “Freewill”).
The suite has more clear variations on familiar classics, but it’s also where things really get interesting. The piece starts by alternating between an angry riff embellished by synth-patch strings and a colorful chord sequence slightly reminiscent of the bridge to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969). The keyboard solo that follows clearly conjures Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976) era as defined by his erstwhile keytarist Jan Hammer. A few Beatles references appear with the horn fills. Then the strings and piano are back, building into a very well crafted melodic theme that ends at 19 minutes. At around 23:00 is a great-sounding jam that brings to mind Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” (1972) attending a psychedelic carnival, followed by a climactic musical moment at 27:00 that I’d rather not give away – it’s the highlight of the album, almost erasing any discomfort caused by the vocal section that took place a few minutes earlier.
It’s nice to hear the tones and ideas of ’70s prog performed by a later generation of musicians — few have the chops to pull off this stuff, and these guys do. And Kaleidoscope successfully avoids a problem so common in rock and pop albums today: the sterility of digital manipulation. Studio technology gives the recording a crisp clarity, yet it never loses its live feel, even if a few sections here and there may have been cut and pasted. (News flash: we all do it and anyone who says they don’t is lying. Asking musicians if they cut and paste in the studio is the musical equivalent of asking a classroom: “Does anyone here masturbate?”) Yes, the vocals and lyrics are painfully serious. And yes, the band visibly wears its influences on its sleeve. But they’re very good influences and if taken in tribute or as viewed through a… kaleidoscope, then that’s not such a bad thing.