"Return to Whatever" represents a significant transition in Taylor's rapidly growing discography, as it is the Universe's first recording without ex-Secret Oyster saxophonist, and Danish jazz legend, Carsten Vogel. While I miss Vogel's amazing solos and the tension and contrast his overtly jazzy style brought to Taylor's music, new saxophonist Carsten Sindvald is first-rate. More of a team player, Sindvald crafts melodic solos that retain Vogel's improvisational bite while blending in seamlessly with the musical matters-at-hand. Violinist Pierre Tassone, absent from the last few Universe recordings, also makes a welcome re-appearance, chipping in a particularly winsome solo on 'The Atlas Clock' - a tune that blends the pulsing rhythms of Weather Report's 'Birdland' with surging Hammond organ and a sunny, almost countrified, melody. Like most of Taylor's music this piece also has a contrasting, almost malevolent-sounding, section that will take even the most attentive the listener by surprise.
Taylor opens and closes the CD with 'Mooncake,' a piece that revisits the classic 70s arena-scale progressive rock sound with a few twists. A moderate tempo piece with a familiar chord progression and a magisterial sounding melody, the first take has Tassone and ex-Mercyful Fate guitarist Michael Denner front and center. Denner uses a fluid, legato approach while Tassone's highly distorted electric violin sounds quite like a second electric guitar. As on most of Taylor's Universe recordings, the solos are relatively short, but thoroughly amazing. The second version revs the tempo up a few notches, thanks to Klaus Thrane's heavily syncopated re-imagining of the rhythm, before the somber, Pink-Floyd-like melody kicks in and sets up Denner's particularly terrific guitar solo and ensuing exchanges with Sindvald's wailing alto sax. 'The Haunted Yellow House' starts off in a similar fashion, big keys, big guitars, wailing sax, hard-rock rhythm, until it all comes to a screeching halt and Taylor's creepily atmospheric tape effects take over. A faster rhythm is then established, over which Tassone solos only to be interrupted by a guitar break. The head of the tune then reappears which Sindvald takes out with a mellow tenor solo. My personal favorite is 'Pink Island,' a thoroughly rockin' tune with so many changes and little asides that it would bore you to have to read about them all. Suffice it to say that Tassone and Denner get in some amazing solos, Taylor's effects are completely over-the-top, and Thrane's loose, funky drumming provides several additional highlights.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, 'July 6th' is almost skeletal, based on an insistent, mysterious-sounding riff played by Taylor on acoustic piano and guest Tine Lilholt on Celtic harp. Taylor's overdubbed, almost random-sounding percussion and heavily-distorted 'laser-guitar' mutter and clatter in the background, slowly coalescing and virtually overtaking the tune by its end. 'Earth' is similarly constructed from very simple, almost minimal fragments - this time dominated by Sindvald's flute. Taylor overlaps and folds these into a densely layered array that forms the basis for tune's next section, a surging Crimson-ish progression that supports a fine solo for Sindvald's processed tenor saxophone.
Though "Return to Whatever" makes some references to jazz-fusion both in its fine music, and playfully punning title, the music here is progressive rock through and through. If you pine for the days when Gentle Giant and King Crimson roamed the earth, but are tired of all the present-day imitators, pretenders, and uninspired reunions, Taylor's Universe has a CD with your name on it.