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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Erik Norlander

Stars Rain Down

Review by Gary Hill

On his new live album, Erik Norlander presents his excellent blending of progressive rock stylings with those of harder edged material like Deep Purple. The merging of styles, even touching on modes as diverse as Native American folk and thrash, is impressive. Indeed, never does this feel patched together or without direction. The music is combined in such a way that everything feels like it belongs together. This is a true tribute to Norlander's skills in composition and arrangement. The seeming ease at which he and his band reproduce this material live is a statement to all of their skills as performers. The recording and performances are all top-notch here. With the resultant cross-section of works that a live album represents, and the high quality level of this presentation, it certainly makes an excellent first introduction to those not having heard Norlander (or Rocket Scientists or Lana Lane) before and also seems a "must have" for fans of the artist.

Along with Norlander ably handling the keyboard chores he is joined by Kelly Keeling and Norlander's wife Lana Lane on vocals, Peer Verschuren (guitar) and Don Schiff (NS/Stick). Ernst Van Ee and Ed Warby handle the drums, depending on the track. The influences here are all over the place, from those mentioned above to ELO, Marillion, Pink Floyd, Rick Wakeman, Emerson Lake and Palmer and others. They even close the set with a reworking of the classic rocking theme song to Space 1999. This is a great live set from a very talented group of musicians.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Rome Is Burning
A percussive count in leads to a burst of sound and power. The group work on this for a time before scorching forth into a metallic jam that eventually leads to a hard-edged progressive rock section. The vocal performance here, along with the arrangement, works really well. Since the original version on Norlander's Into the Sunset album featured Glenn Hughes, this is no small feat. Appropriately, this feels a lot like the most potent of the work of Deep Purple and Rainbow. It drops later to a slower bluesy, Pink Floydish jam. Lana Lane joins vocalist Kelly Keeling on the vocals in this section. Eventually a fast paced and powerful hard-edged prog jam emerges to take the piece forward.
Beware the Vampires
This is a very straightforward hard rocking number that really scorches.
One of the Machines
A keyboard intro gives way to a bouncy balladic segment. Norlander paints waves of synth over top of this. This is a killer prog cut that feels a bit like a harder edged take on the Alan Parsons Project. It features some awesome instrumental interplay and a great vocal arrangement.
Mariner
Coming in gradually, this is a mid-tempo rocker that again feels a bit like Alan Parsons with some Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure. It is balladic and most of its charm derives from its atmosphere.
Sky Full of Stars
Keys, atmospheric and, oh so cool, begin this in dramatic ways. These keys hold the piece for a time, eventually giving way to a wonderfully dramatic song structure. This one feels a lot like the best of Hogarth era Marillion. This instrumental stays true to its roots while still moving along. The keys really drive it, and at times the Pink Floyd elements emerge on this one, too.
Lost Highway
Another balladic piece, Lane's vocals are back here, and this is a rocking and powerful number that is quite satisfying. The guitar solo is a bit generic, but scorching.
Arrival
Essentially an intro to the next number, this instrumental starts with keys. They carry it alone for a time, then when other instruments join, the texture is that of a Native American take on Pink Floyd. Eventually a whirring keyboard squeal heralds the transition into the next piece.
Neurosaur
A powerful ballad segment, again calling to mind those Pink Floyd sounds, but also the more proggy side of Electric Light Orchestra, starts this. This segment gives way to a fast moving Emerson Lake and Palmer oriented jam that is based on a meaty riff. This eventually drops to another more balladic musical excursion. A piano solo, then a Wakemanesque synth one provide the colors over this canvas. It returns to the ELP oriented movement again later. This is an awesome instrumental.
Heavy Metal Symphony
This screamer starts with another ELPish flourish, but quickly changes gear to more of the DP/Rainbowish territory.
Project Blue Prince
Beginning with a weird segment of spacey keys with spoken words overtop. This segment is strange, but intriguing. As the intro ends a strong ELP-like excursion takes it before dropping to a more stripped down, hard-edged movement that feels a bit like Dream Theater. Then Wakeman-oriented keyboard structures emerge overtop. In not so subtle transitions, the band seem to be in a constant flux moving from more classic to more modern progressive rock elements and then back again. This instrumental is probably the most dynamic piece on the album.
Fly
Coming in hard edged, the rhythm section on this is almost fast and heavy enough to qualify as thrash, yet the band throw in enough prog structures over top to keep them firmly in that vein. The result is that these earlier sections call to mind the crunchy modern prog of bands like Dream Theater. It drops to a slower, mellower Pink Floyd section to play the background for Lane's potent vocals. The metallic styles return after the verse to take the piece back to fast paced prog fury. Lana then sings over this backdrop. This killer cut is a great example of how this band can deftly combine diverse elements to produce a vital and consistent progressive rock landscape. A lot of artists could learn by taking note of this outfit.
Oblivion Days
This hard-edged rocker is fairly straightforward and metallic. It was originally recorded by Norlander's band Rocket Scientists. The frightening this is, since this was recorded well before 2001, how poignantly some of the lyrics seem to tie into the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Listening to this cut again after that event some of the lyrical moments are uncanny.
Space 1999
Also originally recorded by Rocket Scientists, this cover of the theme song from the cult British space opera is awesome. That show always stood out from the rest with its hard driving rock theme, and in this presentation every segment is preserved, just given new life and expanded. It's a scorching jam in its own right, and made all that much better by the fact that the group is paying tribute to such a wonderfully interesting piece of music. It is a great way to end the disc.
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