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Round Table Review
Disc 1: Look Up (0:45), Sky Is Falling (5:26), Dream In Red (6:29), Better View (5:59), Outside The Painted Walls (5:03), Revolution Road (7:41), Forever Nights (5:40), Ptolemy (5:49), Gypsy [Of A Strange And Distant Time] (4:02), Savor Every Moment (4:33)
Disc 2: Castles Fall (5:27), UFO S.H.A.D.O Theme (3:34), Enjoy The Weather (8:50), Pay Your Dues (5:12), Eden Burns (4:08), Hold That Thought (3:25), House Of Cards (5:43), After The Revolution (13:02)
Louis Koot's Review
Fans of the Rocket Scientists have had to wait for quite a while, before Erik Norlander and companions, found the time in their busy schedule to come up with a new release. The former album Oblivion Days already dates from seven years ago making it a long wait for the eager devotees of the ‘astronauts’. As Oblivion Days made a vast impression with its profound combination of space and symphonic rock, I’m inclined to conclude Revolution Road will have the same impact.
After a couple of spins I’m already convinced Rocket Scientists have added another great release to their catalogue. The first thing that comes to mind is that the album doesn’t match its predecessor in the heavy department. The focus here is more on symphonic pop (though slightly edging against hard rock from time to time). Personally I prefer a more rock approach but that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t enough to enjoy on this disc. With over 100 minutes of music, variety is the keyword here. There is enough for the prog heads to absorb, ranging from the compact pop tune, to the jazzy instrumental acrobatics.
Rocket Scientists was formed in the late 1980's by keyboardist Erik Norlander and vocalist / guitarist Mark McCrite. The line-up was completed with Don Schiff, who is a master on the NS-Stick. The unusual NS-Stick is used as a hybrid instrument that has all the properties of both a guitar and a bass.
For Revolution Road this basic trio is enhanced with the musical qualities of David McBee (vocals), Greg Phelps (accordion) and both Greg Bissonette and the famous Simon Philips on drums. The fourth member of Rocket Scientists who sadly passed away, Shaun Guerin, is featured (and honoured) on the track Better View, by use of an old drum-track recording. Simon Philips did the remaining drum parts of this song. But most of the drums are in the hands of Greg Bissonette whose capabilities I still remember lividly from his time with the David Lee Roth band. Singer David McBee is a catch for the Rocket Scientists, as his crispy rock vocals put fire in some of the songs and makes a perfect contrast with the more laidback vocals of Mark McCrite.
The big attraction of Rocket Scientists is the range of adventurous sounds and solos keyboard maestro Erik Norlander comes up with. He goes through the entire sound spectrum from the vintage to the modern. Sometimes his playing is right in your face with a full-blown solo but more often in subtlety adding ambience to the tracks. I am quite content with his solo efforts Into The Sunset and especially Music Machine. So it’s a good thing to find more of his wizardry here.
For example in opener Sky Is Falling, which features an addictive fanfare-like keyboard theme and carries great vocals of David McBee, mark the little ending section of the song where the drums suddenly increase pace for a refined conclusion! Dream In Red is another winner full of dynamics with tremendous vocals and a heavy chorus.
In contrary to the heavy stuff there are relaxed ballads like for instance Enjoy The Weather that has Mark McCrite shining. The use of the accordion in the middle section works miracles. It reminds me of the way Knight Area did this in one of their songs and this is a neat way to create a kind of Mediterranean mood in the song. There is so much more going on throughout both discs although not every track works for me.
For some reason I find the instrumental tracks a lot less interesting. That must be because the fine vocals are lacking, but Gypsy (Of A Strange And Distant Time) is strikingly recognisable as a Moody Blues cover. This great rendition does full justice to the original with Mark McCrite laying down Justin Hayward’s vocal harmonies. Superb!
The title track is rather cool as well! There is a recurring theme throughout the song that might sound odd at first listen but ends up perfectly fitting this song. And the constant drive with great drumming is mesmerizing. Mark McCrite has some delicious solo guitar work in store here.
Well I could go on pinpointing more exceptional songs but the conclusion must be obvious: Rocket Scientists have managed to come up with a sparkling album packed to the core with diverse and exploratory progressive music!
Geoff Feakes' Review
As this is their fourth only album release since the 1993 debut, to say that the Rocket Scientists are not the most prolific of bands would be something of an understatement. They’ve obviously been very busy in recent times however as this double disc has a combined playing time of over 100 minutes. You would be forgiven for believing that the band has put out more albums, such is the prestigious output of their own Think Tank Media production company. The label has released scores of albums since it’s inception including several solo recordings from the band's keyboardist Erik Norlander and notably his partner symphonic rock queen Lana Lane. The couple are also responsible for establishing the label which is based in their home state of California.
In addition to keys, Norlander takes on production duties for Revolution Road just as he has done on so many of the labels recordings. He is joined once again by fellow founding member Mark McCrite on guitar and vocals and core contributor Don Schiff on NS/Stick. No, I’ve never heard of one either but apparently it’s an 8 string multi purpose instrument. To fulfil the role vacated by departing drummer Shaun Guerin, the band has enrolled the services of Gregg Bissonette. To add a little contrast in the vocal department they have brought in guest David McBee. The band's music typically revolves around Norlander’s penchant for classic 70’s style prog which they combine with modern sounding metallic guitar giving it a more robust edge. This time round however there seems to be less bite in the sound.
The melodramatic Look Up opens disc one with a nod in the direction of King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. It blends seamlessly with the synth rich Sky Is Falling which combines a Keith Emerson inspired bombastic riff with Rick Wakeman flavoured solo noodlings. It’s not all one way traffic in Norlander’s favour however thanks to a sharp if brief guitar solo from McCrite and the combined talents of his and McBee’s vocals alternating on verse and chorus. A suitably grand statement to get things underway. Dream In Red starts promisingly with a classical piano and fretless style bass melody before settling into a pedestrian acoustic guitar driven song with off the shelf heavy guitar riffs and an all too obvious chorus from McBee. A full blooded synth solo goes some way to compensate. Sounding better is the laid back and reflective Better View with a warm understated vocal from McCrite supported by acoustic guitar and synth strings. Bubbling Vangelis style synths interrupt the mood with fluid upfront bass work from Schiff. This is the songs highpoint for me despite the combined talents of guest drummers Simon Phillips and Shaun Guerin.
Some tricky fretless style bass opens the instrumental Outside The Painted Walls, followed by rapid fire Trevor Rabin sounding guitar evoking 80’s era Yes and their instrumental Cinema. Not to show any favouritism, it morphs into a haunting Steve Howe like guitar melody with mellotron style strings backing and a prominent snare sound. Following a classy synth solo it moves back into the fast lane with dynamic guitar and synth interplay and meticulous drumming from Bissonette. Easily the album's highlight for my money. In contrast the title track Revolution Road is a bit of disappointment. The rhythm heavy Hammond intro bears close comparison to ELP’s Fanfare For The Common Man (minus the brass fanfare) and continues with a driving Deep Purple inspired riff. McCrite and McBee harmonise well and there’s plenty of room for some gutsy guitar and Jon Lord style Hammond soling. Unfortunately there is no break in mood or tempo and it begins to drag long before the end.
With Forever Nights the band try their hand at lightweight pop, which just doesn’t work thanks to the cocktail lounge rhythm and bland MOR chorus. A melodic guitar solo and smooth jazzy synth inserts are a distraction but fail to lift this out of the doldrums. Things improve a little with the piano driven instrumental Ptolemy. A modern synth sound, spacey piano, Chris Squire bass rumblings and mellow guitar add up to a pleasant ride but unfortunately it fails to linger in the memory. The mid tempo Gypsy is the bands homage to late 60’s Moody Blues complete with authentic harmonies, mellotron style strings and melodic guitars. McCrite does a passable Justin Hayward impression but ultimately they sound too close to the real thing for comfort. The song also lacks the Moodies flair for a strong melody. They fair better with the stately Savor Every Moment, a song that bears close comparison to Time by The Alan Parsons Project. It has a smooth sound with acoustic guitar and strings, articulate drumming and a memorable vocal performance from McCrite. A positive ending to disc one which also starts out well but flounders somewhere in the middle.
Castles Fall gets disc two off to a flying start with a fuzzy bass riff, eerie organ chords and an expressive guitar line that brings Andy Latimer’s lyrical style instantly to mind. A tricky metre accompanies the verses and a memorable chorus is enhanced by good harmonies from McCrite. The song is enlivened by a jazzy Hammond solo in the bridge and very stylish drum work throughout. UFO S.H.A.D.O. Theme continues the trend for Gerry Anderson TV show covers following a version of Space: 1999 on the last album Oblivion Days. Not exactly the best instrumental in the world but Norlander replicates the cheesy 60’s organ sound well and even the heavy guitar riffs don’t sound out of place. If the band continues this backward step through the repertoire of composer Barry Gray then next time it should be Joe 90 which at least has a better tune or how about the granddaddy of them all Thunderbirds?
Enjoy The Weather finds the band in mellow Pink Floyd territory with its spacey open sound. It drifts along inconspicuously with a crisp bass line until the memorable floating chorus. The bridge features accordion from guest Greg Phelps adding a French flavour before a soaring guitar solo. Keys keep a low profile until the end where a lyrical synth solo has a hint of ELP’s Lucky Man about it. Further proof that the band can produce quality songs when they put their mind to it. If the riff that drives Pay Your Dues along sounds familiar then that’s because it owes a debt to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. The songs verses are also reminiscent of Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger. Unfortunately it all sounds too AOR for my tastes with a bland chorus and a pedestrian guitar solo that doesn’t help. Only the lively Hammond playing gives it an edge and a momentary lift.
Eden Burn sounds promising with its distorted guitar sound and a hint of vocal menace from McCrite in the verses. McBee takes over for the chorus and the difference in their styles couldn’t be more apparent. McCrite’s warm voice easily adapts to the mood of each song in contrast to McBee’s performance which is straight from the Jon Bon Jovi school of vocal posturing. The proggy instrumental break is the songs best part thanks to a celestial organ sound and meaty guitar soloing. Otherwise it’s a fairly inconsequential song and forgettable. Hold That Thought is a step in the right direction with its animated keys sound and striking guitar and synth punctuations. The drumming is spot on and the jazzy guitar lines make for a busy instrumental that has excellent playing all round. House Of Cards keeps up the momentum with synths providing a rich opening riff joined by a lively solo. When the vocals enter however it reveals itself as an average AOR song with clichéd lyrics and a repetitive chorus. It’s given a lift by a very good Stevie Vai flavoured guitar solo trading speaker space with a fluid synth solo.
The instrumental After The Revolution is the albums closing track and by far the longest so expectations run understandably high. It opens with synthetic wind sounds and ambient synth drones followed by a classical piano motif, an articulate bass pattern and melodic guitar lines. A lengthy cascading piano section follows embellished by spacey synth and a symphonic backdrop. Some well timed drum work is joined by meticulous guitar playing that has Dave Gilmour stamped all over it. As instrumentals go it has a lot of promise but it begins to sound repetitive after a while and I found my attention span wandering long before the end. The playing is certainly top notch and smoothly delivered but at 13 minutes this instrumental is about 5 minutes too long. The final expressive guitar solo and atmospheric synth washes sound fine but are a long time coming.
When I first played this album a fair proportion of it simply washed over me leaving no lasting impression. Always conscious that music of value requires more than a courtesy listen I subsequently gave both discs an inordinate number of spins before final judgement. However I found that my initial assessment didn’t change. The main failing I feel is the weak melodies and a lack of really strong hooks. The arrangements also lack adventure. This is most obvious in the two main set pieces Revolution Road and After The Revolution. Like many of the songs here they fail to live up to their initial promise and soon settle into a predictable pattern with no surprises. The music glides by effortlessly for the most part when just occasionally it should be going for the throat.
If my rating below seems generous in terms of my comments above then that’s because this album does have several key points in its favour. Both the production and musicianship throughout are exemplary creating a very polished and highly listenable sound. For that reason I shall be returning to this set in the not to distant future. Possibly then time may have proven me wrong as regards my more critical observations. Although the attempts at a gentler sound haven’t entirely worked in my opinion the liberal use of acoustic guitars also gets a thumbs up from me. I’ve nothing against two disc sets but this is one occasion when I feel that a single disc would have proven to be a wiser move.
Remco Schoenmakers' Review
It has been quite a while since the Rocket Scientists released their last album Oblivion Days. That doesn't mean they haven't done much in the meantime: solo works from Norlander, McCrite and Lana Lane have taken up much of their time and effort. I like Norlander's solo work a lot, but I have grown more sceptical on the Lana Lane albums. In the time I wasn't reviewing for DPRP (read: the last 4 years), I have seldom played a Lana Lane album, but for instance Oblivion Days still made it to my CD player a couple of times. So I was hoping to get more of those fine bombastic progressive tunes.
The album started out well, with a nice instrumental opening followed by the up tempo Sky Is Falling. This is one of the tracks which features David McBee on vocals (the other vocal sections are covered by Mark McCrite, who has a far less powerful voice). McBee's voice is a love-it or hate-it thing I guess, a bit over-the-top-metal, but I like it (just listen to the mp3-sections on their web page to understand what I mean). The next track, Dream In Red, is by far my favourite track of the album. It's powerful, it has enough little twists to keep it interesting, and you can whistle the chorus all day long at work. Yeah, this is the Rocket Scientists I was hoping for!
Unfortunately, the album then starts featuring some more quiet songs, which are not too complex in nature, and which could have been on a Lana Lane album as well. Nice tunes, don't get me wrong, but they seem to be played with less intensity. OK, there is the odd track in between like Outside The Painted Walls, which has some ELP like stuff on it and which keeps the album interesting, but the title track for instance just cannot interest me. Forever Nights reminded me of the Flower Kings, with a bit jazzier mood, but the violin strings that are abundantly used on this track as well give me the spooks. Norlander resorts to a lot of string tapestry on this album, which in general doesn't do good on these already mellow tunes.
Now, then comes a more interesting track: the instrumental Ptolemy. This could have been a very good track, a bit like Children by Robert Miles, and the intro even promises to go into a Floydian track, but the nervous synth loop in the background really kills off the atmospheric piano and guitar interplay. Too bad! The first album finishes with Savor Every Moment, which has a Rick Wright feel over it. Again, not a brilliant ballad.
Then let's turn to disk two. The same story holds true here. Firing off with a blast with the nicely complex Castles Fall, a bit Spock's Beard meets ELP or something. Nice track! UFO S.H.A.D.O. Theme has a bit of a '70s movie feel over it, but is quite cool. The verse of Enjoy The Weather is definitely enjoyable, a bit like Gilmour's last album, but the chorus is back to the Lana Lane school. Fortunately the album kicks back in with Pay Your Dues, which could just as well have been made by Arjan Lucassen. This power-rock vibe is further worked out in Eden Burns, but it is less interesting than Pay Your Dues, a tat Bon Jovi feel to this one. The album ends with a 13 minute track called After The Revolution, a nice instrumental track that seems a bit out of place on the album. Due to the fact that you have had about one-and-a-half hour of music already, this nice instrumental Floydian track disappears a bit into the crowd, but it is a worthy track to just play by itself. There is some fine solo guitar work to be found on this track!
In conclusion: there is enough for everybody's musical style to be found on this album. My track-by-track description may seem very critical, but that's just because of my personal likes and dislikes and has nothing to do with the outstanding musical craftsmanship of the Rocket Scientists. A double album is too much in my opinion, but at least it gives you the opportunity to explore the diverse themes and moods the Rocket Scientists can come up with, make your pick, and burn a single CD with just the tracks you like on it. A bit odd to buy a CD and then rip&burn, but isn't that what most of us do anyway with our mp3 players and iPods? Perhaps this is a taste of how the future of the music industry will look like: make many songs and let the fans take their personal pick!