by George Graham
(Radiant Metal Blade 3484-14290 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/17/2000)
A long time ago, the term "Art Rock" would have been an oxymoron. After all, rock was invented to be just the opposite of classical music -- "Roll over Beethoven" and all of that. But along came the Beatles, with their classically-trained producer George Martin, and songs like Strawberry Fields Forever and A Day in the Life took rock to elaborate heights. Not long after, the Art Rock movement started in earnest with groups like the Moody Blues, the Nice, and the two biggest, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer becoming huge commercial successes. Of course, Art Rock faded from the scene after the latter 1970s, when punk rock came along with exactly the same iconoclasitic goals as the original rock musicians: to break away from the sophisticated music of the day.
While Yes continues on and off as a band, Art Rock has disappeared from the pop charts entirely. Symphonic-scale rock has no place in a fad-a-minute video-driven commercial music scene with an attention span of about 30 seconds, and in which a band's fashion statements are far more important than their music. But that has not prevented a cadre of progressive rock bands from flourishing in their own small universe. Some long-time groups going back to the early days -- or at least their members -- have been continuing to make new music and tour. And, especially encouraging to long-time fans, a new generation of younger bands and artists has been emerging, some hewing to the classic style, while others are taking new directions.
This week, we have a new band with an impressive debut CD that carries the torch for the grand art rock traditions. The group is called Transatlantic, and their CD is titled SMPTe.
Transatlantic is actually an accurate descriptive name for this quartet with two American members and two Europeans. Further, it's a kind of super-group consisting of members of established Art Rock bands, some more recent, and some going back to the 1980s. One of the Americans is keyboard man Neal Morse, the most prolific composer in the group. He is a member of the excellent California Art Rock group called Spock's Beard, who also specialize in elaborate compositions, but with instrumentation typical of 1970. Also from the US is drummer Mike Portnoy of the group Dream Theater. From England is bassist Pete Trewavas, of the long-running progressive rock outfit Marillion, a group influenced by early Genesis. And from Sweden comes Roine Stolt, who is a member of the Flower Kings. Arranging the first letter of their last names with an extra "e" from the middle of "Trewavas" stuck at the end arrived at the title of the CD, with SMPTe an abbreviation well-known in the audio and video business for a time-code used for synchronizing various kinds of machines to run together. The title is appropriate with each of the members coming from diverse background, and at least two being the leaders of their respective regular groups.
And on this CD, Transatlantic really goes out for traditional symphonic art rock, with elaborate arrangements -- in fact the first track is nearly 31 minutes long. Their instrumentation is very similar to early Yes, with an almost complete lack of synthesizers and instead a reliance on an old-fashioned Hammond organ and a little Mellotron, and the distinctive chunky bass sound reminiscent of Yes' Chris Squire. The material is rich on musical ideas, with opportunities for some good solos, while the lyrics are in the old art rock tradition of being a little fatuous -- mainly to provide something to sing. Of course, back in Art Rock's formative days, the non-sequitur-laden lyrics of groups like Yes might seem deeply significant depending on the chemical substance ingested by the listener. But these days, such lyrics are amusing for being such bad poetry. Though Transatlantic does not decend to the level of "crystal virgins" and the like, their lyrics provide a good reason to concentrate on the great instrumental work by all involved.
I suppose there is a fine line between having a "classic" sound and being derivative. Transatlantic certainly wears their influences on their sleeves, with Yes, especially from the Close to the Edge and Fragile period being unmistakable. But they also freely admit to influence by Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Procol Harum. In fact, they include a Procol Harum cover that they turn into a 17-minute suite. To that I would add that they have also been listening to Gentle Giant. Vocally, though, the group has their own sound, which is surprisingly pop-influenced. Transatlantic is definitely retro in outlook, and with their influences so obvious, one could argue that they are more derivative than original, but they do what they do so well, that the Art Rock fan can't help but be enchanted by their great playing and excellent arrangements. In effect, they have taken the best parts of the classic bands and distilled them in such a way that remains interesting, even during the course of a half-hour long single piece of music.
The 31-minute long magnum opus that begins the CD is called All of the Above, and it is divided into six parts. The opening section of the mainly Neal Morse composition is typically Yes-like with its symphonic scope <<>> while the vocal sections show Transatlantic's pop-influenced side. <<>> The work shows the group's penchant for building to great musical climaxes. <<>>
The shortest piece on SMPTe at under six minutes, is We All Need Some Light, also written by Neal Morse. It sounds like 80s pop, and for me, crosses the line with just too many clichés. The lyrical premise is not exactly visionary, if you'll excuse the pun. <<>>
Mystery Train is perhaps the most adventurous track, in terms of mixing influences. The piece features some of the angular sound reminiscent of Gentle Giant, with a honts of more contemporary ingredients, including a drum loop effect. <<>> But there's a great section with an old-fashioned Mellotron, reminiscent of early King Crimson mixing with a psychedelic-era guitar solo by Stolt. <<>>
The one original track with someone other than Morse as principal composer is My New World, written by Stolt, who also does the lead vocal. The 16 minute-long piece is another highlight, with influences ranging from Beatles pop <<>> to classic Yes. <<>>
The album ends with another track in excess of a quarter hour in length, Procol Harum's song In Held (Twas) In I, which commences with a quirky, psychedelic reading <<>> before taking up the Procol Harum sound faithfully. <<>>
I guess what one thinks of SMPTe, the new album by the art rock super-group Transatlantic, probably depends on one's musical sensibility and age. Art Rock is an acquired taste, especially in recent years where not many people outside of Public Radio listeners get to hear it. This band might be a good place to start to develop the taste, since they create great material and show outstanding musicianship. Among art rock fans, there may also be a difference of opinion depending on one's generation. Younger listeners might well find this CD to be highly creative and original. Some long-time progressive rock fans, though, might fault the group for sounding so much like Yes at times that what innovation is there is subsumed in the retro sound. Still, the musicianship and the arrangements are so good that the Art Rock fan can't help but be impressed. With only five tracks, but timing out at a very generous 77 minutes in length, SMPTe is the epitome of symphonic-scale rock.
From a sonic standpoint, the CD has a kind of classic British Art rock studio sound, though it was recorded in New York State, with post-production contributions by the various musicians from their home countries. The mix is quite good, but despite the high-energy performances, there was too much audio compression used in the mastering, which robs the recording of the some of the dynamic ebb and flow of the music, especially on the long arrangements in which loud and soft are used as contrasts.
Despite fact that art rock has been off the pop charts for almost a quarter century, the music continues, as practiced by both veteran performers and younger artists. Transatlantic's members are second or thinrd generation progressive rockers, and they carry on the music with style.
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