O2 Forum, London

27 July 2022

Sometimes the universe conspires against you and tries to make it impossible to get to London, but if something's worth doing you will find a way, and so here I am, in a ridiculously long queue outside the Kentish Town Forum and oh my God this is a long queue, how big is this venue anyway?

Well, the Forum is pretty cavernous. It's not Wembley Arena, thank God, it actually sounds good inside it, but it's big enough, well laid out, visually impressive, and comfortably full. Despite being well back in the queue, I'm still able to stand with only about six short people between me and the stage, listening to The Return of the Giant Hogweed on the PA, and wondering how many hours I will have to wait for the band to come on ... well, not many, I'm in at 7.15 and they come on at 7.30 (and play until 11).

With some bands you speculate about what songs from the new album they will manage to squeeze into the gig among the obligatory "hits". I don't think Transatlantic are a "hits" band, so I'm just wondering whether they will actually play all of The Absolute Universe album.

When they open the show with the majestic Overture from The Absolute Universe, and as the Overture stretches on past five minutes and towards ten, I realise that they are actually playing the long version of the album, the entire Absolute Universe: Forevermore as a complete, seamless suite of music.

I remember when I first got The Absolute Universe (both long and short versions), and I thought, yes it's pretty good but it's not The Whirlwind. But that's only because I hadn't heard it live. The truth is, it's not pretty good.

It's magnificent.

You need to hear all of it, it's designed that way, there are so many recurring musical and lyrical themes, the pacing, the dynamics, it's not just a collection of songs, it's a single, symphonic piece of music, and hearing it live makes that even more apparent. They power through the two hours with no pause for a chat or to acknowledge applause, they just play, and it's just so beautiful.

And as the brutally fast, complex, dark intensity of the final instrumental section breaks into the soaring, cathartic, anthemic light of Love Made a Way, I'm just weeping at the beauty of it all.

Things this beautiful shouldn't be possible.

They leave the stage for a 20-minute intermission, during which the PA plays us an orchestral version of The Absolute Universe. When they come back on, I'm half expecting them to also play the alternative, third-disc, "abridged" version of the album just for completeness, as Mike Portnoy has threatened. I wouldn't be surprised, and I wouldn't mind at all if they did.

Instead, unbelievably, they come back on and start the second set with ...

The Overture to The Whirlwind.

I can't believe they are also going to play all of The Whirlwind ...

Well, they don't quite. They play a shortened (35-minute) medley from it, but it's enough. It satisfies me, and still leaves them room to fill the last half hour of the show with a selection of other, shorter (I know, Transatlantic don't do short, but shortness is relative) pieces.

The other question I had about tonight was, how can four guys reproduce this dense, complex, layered music live. The answer is that they cheat a bit, adding in a fifth band member—Ted Leonard, I believe—who doubles up guitar, keys, percussion, and adds a fifth voice to the mix (including a lead vocal on We All Need Some Light). He probably has a harder job than anyone else on stage, and deserves massive plaudits for his performance.

It goes without saying that the other four perform flawlessly. As well as being masters of their instruments, all four are capable of carrying the lead vocal (though Neal Morse probably takes the bulk of them tonight), and also blending their very-different voices in exquisite harmonies. How they can maintain this level of musical perfection over a three-hour show is beyond me.

There's very little chat with the crowd, but there's still interaction. There are sing-along parts, and clap-along parts (but you have to be a bit mad to try to clap to Portnoy's ever-shifting time signatures, and we generally fail miserably). And during We All Need Some Light, Portnoy is at the front of the stage, waving an illuminated phone along with us, and then taking selfies. I think the band is happy. Morse, hands aloft to invoke the Holy Spirit, is bouncing like he's on a trampoline, and threatening to topple his keyboards over. Portnoy and Leonard are throwing drumsticks at each other—Portnoy getting a cheer when he catches one without missing a beat of his ridiculously fast polyrhythms. Pete Trewavas just quietly gets on with being awesome, anchoring the music with his bass, and singing a lot more than I was expecting. Roine Stolt does look like he's slightly pissed off at something in the first half—he does seem to have guitar tuning problems, so maybe it's that. Or maybe he's fine, and that's just his look of concentration. But he's a lot different in the second half, smiling and a lot more engaged with the rest of the band.

Other than that ...

What can I say?

The world needs more beauty like this in it.

This was just a perfect evening.

And my heart is like a whirlwind.

And this was the best concert I have ever seen.