Was there ever a more powerful image of the epic days of progressive rock heaven (or hell, depending on your point of view) than that of the mighty synthesizer wizard perched atop his towering keyboard castle, king of all he can see? These days, the digital components may have reduced the size of that castle to mere rampart proportions (although they are considerably bolstered here by the intimidating Moog “Wall of Doom” backline), but the sonic inventory remains, if anything, even greater. American musician Erik Norlander is one of the new breed, heirs to throne of Lords Wakeman, Emerson and their ’70’s cohorts. As such, he has released not one but two DVD/2CD projects, one an updated version of his 2010 album The Galactic Collective, and the other a live gig from Gettysburg, recorded at the 2011 Rites of Spring Festival. As well as releasing solo albums, the first of which – Threshold, with linear notes written by old guardsman Keith Emerson – came out in 1997, Norlander supplies keyboards for Rocket Scientists and his wife Lana Lane’s band, and both these releases include new versions of material from those projects.
Norlander’s 2010 Galactive Collective was an album of re-recorded tracks from his earlier albums, played live in the studio and serving as a good overview of his career up until that point. It has now been re-released in DVD/CD format, with an extra audio CD of alternate versions. The brief and rather portentous Arrival opens the album and DVD, leading into the epic progressive metal of Neurosaur, both originally from the Threshold album. Norlander makes use of multiple keyboards, including six Moog synthesizers, and a Steinway piano, while the band provide solid backing, choral vocals courtesy of part-time Asia guitarist John Payne. Fanfare for Absent has the same kind of Nordic thunder as Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, even echoing Robert Plant’s vocal riff at one point, after having opened with a Steinway piano passage. This slips seamlessly into the ten minute Sky Full Of Stars, that opens with a section that sounds like Rick Wright’s aching intro/outro to Shine On You Crazy Diamond before switching to instrumental power balladry for ten minutes. Mark Matthews provides a tasty fretless bass solo, while Freddy De Macarco solos away mightily on guitar, but the star of the show is always going to be Erik Norlander himself. Having said that, most of the tracks give all the musicians a chance to shine, trading riffs and solos throughout. Astrology Prelude, from the Lana Lane album Secrets of Astrology, follows in the epic tradition of its predecessors, while Trantor Station could be the soundtrack to an unreleased sci-fi movie. The absence of vocals on The Galactic Collective means that the worst excesses of symphonic prog rock cliché are mercifully avoided, and the playing has a far greater focus on melody than any kind of flashy egotism. The twelve minute After the Revolution is based around a Steinway piano fugue for much of its length, and a chord sequence that sounds a little like Atom Heart Mother” or Saucerful of Secrets if they were to be played by Rick Wakeman and Ritchie Blackmore. Garden of the Moon ups the tempo significantly, fading away in the mid-section before roaring back with a ripping guitar solo over Hammond B3 organ. Steinway fugue wizardry returns for Norlander’s Dreamcurrents, his signature piano piece, before the lengthy The Dark Water. Like all great prog rock epics, this goes through a number of sections, taking the time to build intensity and running through a number of themes across its 20 minute length. The drumming on this track is pretty thunderous, but the guitars are reined in a little, making this more progressive rock than prog-metal. The DVD portion of this release features interviews preceding each track, and a 22 minute featurette on the different synthesizers used on The Galactic Collective. Opening the bonus disc is a thrilling rendition of Barry Gray’s Space: 1999 theme with added keyboard variations. The other three tracks are alternate versions of three tracks on The Galactic Collective – all three are fine, but add little to the versions found on the DVD and first audio disc, although the heroic conclusion of Garden Of The Moon – Long Version will surely unleash your inner-air-keyboard player.
With so much Erik Norlander on offer in the three disc Galactic Collective Definitive Edition, one might wonder at the need for The Galactic Collective Live In Gettysburg to be released at the same time. Indeed the difference in track listing between the two albums is relatively minimal, although Gettysburg does include the vocal tracks Capture the Sun, Secrets of Astrology and the multi-part Sunset Suite, all of which are performed by Norlander’s wife Lana Lane. Lest anyone fear any Linda McCartney married-to-the-band-leader self-indulgence, it can happily be reported that Lana (who has an impressive 22 albums released under her own name) has an excellent voice, well-suited to the epic material written by her husband. The playing by Norlander and his band is superb on both releases, with the live in the studio version having possibly a slight production edge, while the onstage version captures the excitement of a live performance (including stage banter, and an homage to Bob Moog preceding Absent Friends). Only the most hardcore fans would want to shell out for both, but neither they nor newcomers will be in any way disappointed with the musical content. Any fan of classic prog-rock keyboard playing will love the way that Erik Norlander has updated the genre for the modern age, making at least one or other of these albums an essential purchase.
For more information go to http://www.eriknorlander.com, http://www.lanalane.com, and http://www.thetank.com
A huge Moog affectionado, Erik Norlander also invites fans to visit http://www.moogfoundation.org
Reviewed by Pat Albertson