Refuel is a story that is as much autobiographical as it is universal: a tale of journeying, persevering, and wondering just when the time disappeared. It is rich and ambitious, focused but complex, and another quality release from this trio of dedicated musicians.
Artist: Rocket Scientists
Label: Think Tank Media, Avalon
Time: 16 tracks / 80:00 minutes
“Rocket Scientists” is anything but a misnomer for the inventive work of Erik Norlander (keyboards, vocals), Mark McCrite (vocals, guitars) and Don Schiff (sticks, bass, mandolin, strings). As a musical trio that has been writing and performing for nearly thirty years, their signature style of synth & keys layered within creative, hook-based rock structures has only deepened in scope over the course of their expansive career.
Refuel, the Scientists’ 7th studio album, was released late last year (digitally in November and as a digipak in December). The album began to take shape back in 2012, initially intended by the band to mark the 20th anniversary of their debut release, 1993’s Earthbound. However, in the process of writing, they ended up with more material than they’d expected – “Too much for a single album," as Norlander put it. The band opted to break the release in two parts: first, in a 30-minute, all-instrumental EP, Supernatural Highways (reviewed here), and then in a full-length followup. The latter, Refuel, is a more traditional album, combining vocal and instrumental tracks in the style that typifies the group’s material. It consists of 12 songs, with “single” versions of the four meatiest tracks stapled onto the end, giving the album a grand total of 16 tracks.
Joining the Scientists for Refuel are several returning guest artists – amongst them Gregg Bissonette (drums); vocalists Lana Lane, Kelly Keeling, and Emily McCrite; and a brass section comprised of Jon Papenbrook (trumpet), Rich Hofmann (piccolo trumpet), and Eric Jorgensen (trombone).
Refuel opens with its title track, a 2:00-minute instrumental introduction, structured on a rousing synth lead and distant choral-style vocals. “She’s Getting Hysterical” begins with more anthemic synth, guitar chugging, and overdubbed cellos. Norlander's lyrics lament the breakdown of communication, the transition from constructive language to needless argumentation. He and Schiff trade solos at the 3:00-minute mark. After the last chorus, Norlander opens the track with an organ interlude, before Jon Papenbrook’s work on the trumpet takes the spotlight. The track ends abruptly in a guitar/keys unison run as it crosses the 6:00-minute threshold. “Martial,” the album’s third track, begins with McCrite’s terse guitar chops – a textural staple that punctuates the entire 3:40-minute track. This is a tune with dark ambience, tight unison, and minor tonality.
Refuel’s first ballad, “It’s Over,” features strong yet aching vocal harmony, steady acoustic guitar and drums, and organ lead. After a sparse first verse, the song gradually builds momentum and instrumentation via Bissonette’s percussion and Norlander’s leads. An ambient, down-tempo breakdown precludes a dynamic shift in the song’s progression. “Regenerate” fades in on the heels of the previous track. This composition is a swirling instrumental mix of pre-programmed synth patches, cycling over plodding drum work with a half-time feel, accented by soaring synth and guitar solos. Schiff, the track’s composer, adds his rich work on the Sticks, an undercurrent that rises and falls with the track’s dynamic movement and often harmonizes with McCrite’s guitar licks. These moving soundscapes are (in my opinion) the highlights of the Scientists’ work: rich demonstrations of each musician’s superb abilities on his respective instrument.
“The Fading Light” introduces itself as a lush piano-and-strings ballad but immediately shifts to solitary organ for the first verse – very much in the vein of Procol Harum. Bright guitars undergird the buoyant refrain and robust vocals. This uplifting track has a number of extended instrumental passages that expand upon the central theme and deviate into playful leads. The next track, “The World Waits for You” is structured on plucked acoustic guitar and rhythmic toms. Dense vocal harmony, tasteful strings, and an extended piano solo all add depth and character to this tune. The layers of voices and the song’s overall progression remind me strongly of Neal Morse material – especially from the Testimony albums. “The World Waits” contends with “Regenerate” for my favorite overall composition on the album.
“Reconstruct” is a brief, 1:30-minute interlude and another Don Schiff composition, mostly comprised of strings and mandolin with underpinnings of organ and synth. “Reconstruct” serves as an introductory exclamation point for “Cheshire Cat Smile,” a bright, upbeat, and horn-infused track featuring vocals performed by Kelly Keeling.
“Rome’s About to Fall” is another highlight on Refuel. The track begins with a flurry of cello, giving ground to a plodding electric guitar lick. When McCrite begins singing, it is almost a cappella, save for sparse percussion and flute, over which this ironic lyric stands out: “We’ve sold our souls today to buy tomorrow.” The extended outro begins with synth leads, acoustic guitar, and mounting tension; it concludes with overlapping guitar solos, bass chugging, organ pads, and throaty “na-na-na’s.” “Galileo,” the next track, is a funky instrumental tune structured primarily on keys – think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” stretched out, insulated with layers of synth, and interrupted by ambient breaks. Norlander’s parts are complimented by Schiff’s strong bass presence and McCrite’s rhythmic guitar additions. “Galileo” keeps alive the Rocket Scientists’ tradition of naming an instrumental track after a famous scientist – as per their moniker.
Refuel’s final song is “The Lost Years,” another poignant ballad – this one featuring Lana Lane’s warm vocals as well as gorgeous saxophone parts. At the track’s halfway point, Schiff’s galloping Sticks work restructures the song’s rhythm. Lana and the Scientists carry on the bittersweet refrain as the track fades away. In light of Refuel’s status as a commemorative release, this lament that “time just slips away” feels especially autobiographical.
Thematically, Refuel strikes me as a piece about recovery – pausing to catch a breath and consciously “leave your dark days behind.” Collectively, the album’s tracks seem to recount a story of survival, of living through one storm and preparing for the next. The Scientists embody that story in the image of their rocket ship refueling, preparing for the next leg of the journey through interstellar space. Although Refuel’s bonus tracks are skippable, the album’s core content is worth perusing extensively. This is a great musical escapade, and it contains a story that is as much autobiographical as it is universal: a tale of journeying, persevering, and wondering just when all that time you had disappeared.