Friday, 4 February 2011

Transatlantic's 'Whirld Tour 2010' Boxed set: Too much of a good thing?

Just under forty years ago Robert Christgau, self-appointed ‘Dean of American rock critics’, was tasked with reviewing Chicago’s 4LP live set Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Deciding that it wasn’t actually necessary to listen to it in order to reach a rating (C- in this case) his capsule ‘review’ concentrated mainly on the packaging. You can read it here:

Christgau represents everything I hate about rock snob critics, but his consumer guide reviews are worth reading for their entertainment value; just don’t pay any attention to his opinions, as they’ll tend to irritate you if you take them seriously. To give credit where it’s due, I'll reluctantly acknowledge that he is the originator of this type of review, and does have a penchant for the snappy (and, dare I say it, occasionally witty) putdown. It’s just a shame that there have been so many pale imitators taking up this style as though it represents genuine rock journalism. Ah well.

Strangely though, I find myself in a similar predicament of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a release as to not be able to even bring myself to play it, namely prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic’s document of last year’s World tour, redubbed Whirld Tour 2010 after 2009s The Whirlwind studio album. The deluxe edition comprises two DVDs and three CDs, consisting of the band’s near 3.5 hour performance at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The second DVD also contains an extensive documentary (another 2 hours of material there!) plus a bonus performance from the High Voltage Festival, where the band was joined by Steve Hackett on their rendition of Genesis’ Return of the Giant Hogweed. So about six hours total viewing time. That’s fantastic, it’s very in-depth, thorough and the quality is (I’m sure) exemplary…but when am I ever going to have time to actually watch it?! 

Of course it’s easier to find time to listen to the CDs, as you can do other things at the same time, but so far I’ve only managed to listen to one song. Or, to put it another way, all 80 minutes of disc 1!  While The Whirlwind was always conceived as a single song, on the studio release it was broken into twelve chapters with individual titles, which went some way to aiding its digestion, but here it’s presented as one single solid lump of music – mildly intimidating to put it lightly! The track’s so long that there’s barely room for any audience applause at the end - I seem to recall we cheered for a lot longer than eight seconds! Ah yes, another factor that separates me from Christgau - I was actually present for the recording! 

At the time I was brand new to Transatlantic, having only added The Whirlwind to my collection around a fortnight before the gig - although I'd booked the ticket while still in New Zealand. I was already a fan of two of the band members, specifically bass player Pete Trewavas (on leave of absence from my #1 band, Marillion) and drummer Mike Portnoy (who wasn't quite ex-Dream Theater at this point), so on arrival at the venue I picked a prime spot near the front where I'd be as close to the two of them as possible, albeit in the knowledge that it would be difficult to pay attention to anyone but Portnoy - he is an absolute monster after all! Turns out this was just as well, as I'd never realised just how tiny Pete T is - I was mere metres away from the stage but rarely spotted him all night! (Not helped by the fact I ended up behind a ten-foot tall giant...thankfully I did get to see Pete a couple of months later at the High Voltage festival, where he did double duty, appearing with both Transatlantic and Marillion and effectively headlining the prog stage on both nights - nice).

Guitarist Roine Stolte of The Flower Kings was fine (not a weak link, just not as awe-inspriing as his colleagues, if that makes sense), and live-member-only Daniel Gildenlow was a joy to behold, but the real revelation for me on the night was Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard and currently a solo artist with his very own sub-genre - Christian Prog. While the vocals were shared by all band members, it was Morse who dominated (and rightly so) the vocal department, and I'm always a sucker for a decent keyboardist as well. That would have been more than enough but this phenomenally talented individual had to show off by also playing some guitar and then taking over on the drums when Portnoy decided to do a bit of crowd surfing (and was whisked straight past my right ear as a result!)

Anyway, after The Whirlwind, the remaining songs in the set were significantly shorter, although as three of them were around half an hour long each we were never in any danger of entering three-minute pop song territory! Not being familiar with any of that material may have been a disadvantage, but it didn't feel like it at the time, although it is possible that my brain exploded at some point without me realising it - in any case I'd ordered Transatlantic's first album within an hour of the gig ending, and Morse-era Spock's Beard has also magically appeared (at last) in my collection. I also realised I'd no longer have to persevere with Dream Theater, as I can get my Portnoy fix elsewhere, all thanks to the stunning gig captured for posterity on this release.
So, while simply not buying this boxed set might have seemed an option, I really had no choice but to splurge on it (actually it was too ridiculously cheap to even qualify as a splurge...which was nice). And it is beautifully presented, even if getting the second CD out of the case is a bit tricky (Handy hint: remove the third disc first!).  While it’s possible I might never actually get around to watching/listening to everything contained in this package, I’m confident that the quality will be every bit as high as you’d expect from a band of this calibre, so have no hesitation in awarding a rating, perfunctory though it may be, (and, not coincidentally, the same rating as I’d have given the gig itself) of 10/10. Hey, it's better than a C-...I just envy people who have the time on their hands to enjoy it. And get to see Pete...(assuming the cameras had more luck on the night than I did!)


  1. I have SMPTe on CD. I was a bit underwhelmed. Morse has a great voice and all the guys in the band have tremendous chops but I found it to be a bit self-indulgent.

    I read that Portnoy is working on material with the vocalist from Symphony X right now. I've also heard that Dream Theater picked a new drummer back in October but they've been keeping a tight lid on it. They aren't quite ready to announce who it is.

    I also read that Portnoy is going to do another gig with his Beatles tribute band, Yellow Matter Custard (which also features Neal Morse on vocals).

  2. Yep, Portnoy is not exactly easing up on things post-DT! Funnily enough your experience of SMPTe sums up exactly what I've always felt about DT! Horses for courses I guess!

  3. There are some DT albums I'm not a big fan of... Falling Into Infinity, Octavarium, and Systematic Chaos are all largely uneven. There's some good stuff on all 3 but you have to skip a lot of muck to find it. I thought Dark Clouds & Silver Linings was their best since Train of Thought.

    And interestingly, I've lately found myself listening more to OSI (former DT keyboardist, Kevin Moore teaming up with Fates Warning's Jim Matheos and Mike Portnoy-- for the first 2 albums, and Porcupine Tree's Gavin Harrison on their 3rd CD, Blood) than Dream Theater. Have you given them much of a listen.

    I miss Kevin Moore's presence in Dream Theater-- not so much as a keyboardist as Jordan Rudess has much better chops-- but as a songwriter/lyricist. He had/has a much better sense of melody than any of his former bandmates and his lyrics were far deeper and more clever than just about anything else any of the rest of the band has ever been able to come up with.

    Portnoy is a decent songwriter too so unless the new drummer is a good songwriter as well as a decent drummer I do foresee a further decline in the quality of Dream Theater's lyrics.

  4. Yikes, hadn't even heard of OSI...cheers for the heads up will have to check them out! :-)