Album Review of Erik Norlander: Surreal (Think Tank Media)
Progressive keyboardist extraordinaire Erik Norlander has released a steady string of independently produced albums for well over twenty years. From collaborations with vocalist wife Lana Lane to works with his inventive group Rocket Scientists, Norlander has consistently bridged the gap where rock, classical, electronic and lyrical pop seamlessly meet.
On his latest solo release, Surreal, the California-based musician displays one of his most cohesive and well-crafted albums to date. This is his first solo disc of all new material since his Seas of Orion album in 2004. And, as they say, it was well worth the wait. By a lot of prog rock standards it’s a fairly lean record, time-wise, clocking total around 60 minutes. But, within that time frame, the six Norlander-penned compositions here are cogent, heartfelt and meticulously executed.
The disc begins with the cleverly titled “The Party’s Overture.” It’s a somewhat somber and pensive introduction that blends dynamic symphonic textures and subtle guitar wails from axeman Alastair Greene with strong and steady rhythm work from drummer Nick LePar and bassist Mark Matthews. The body of this piece features Norlander’s ascending and descending melody lines coupled with expressive and soulful organ and synthesizer passages.
That segues into the spirited and uptempo “The Galaxy Collectors.” A driving beat and an impressive bank of electronic sounds set the pace for this sci-fi-tinged track. Again, guitarist Greene plays some scorching rock and fusion-based lines over a very open and inviting chord sequence. This tune also spotlights a nice dichotomy of subtle colors and softer sections that give it a unique character.
“Suitcase and Umbrella” shifts gears entirely by quieting the mood and slowing the tempo. This is a piano showcase for Norlander and seems to call attention to his classical roots. One of the keyboardist’s strong suits is his ability to take simple-sounding melodies and motifs and tastefully build them into something extraordinary. That is certainly the case here, with a timeless flair that recalls something classic Dutch masters Focus might have recorded.
“Unearthly,” yet again, takes the listener to another place that explores world music and spacey sounds. Percussionist Greg Ellis truly shines on dumbek as Norlander establishes melodic themes based on Mediterranean and Mid Eastern modes.
The title track “Surreal” is a really nice ballad sung by Lana Lane and is the only vocal piece on the album. The overall feel and delivery of the track recalls deep album cuts from the Alan Parsons Project; well-crafted orchestration, impeccable production and multi-octave singing.
The album concludes appropriately with “El Gran Final.” This piece kind of brings it all together by making brief references to what has come before. There are nice solo trade-offs between band members, and Norlander does a great job of giving a real human voice and passion to his leads and the textural elements.
There are, of course, a number of brilliant keyboard players active on the progressive rock and jazz scenes today. But few play with the heart and sheer love of the music Norlander does. He brings humanity and a visceral quality to his performances that, in many ways, are unparalleled. Here’s to more great music in the future!