Rocket Scientists - Supernatural Highways Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothSupernatural Highways is an invigorating, compelling, and thoroughly enjoyable EP, well-written and well-orchestrated, commemorating Rocket Scientists' 20th anniversary.

Supernatural Highways
Artist: Rocket Scientists
Label: Think Tank Media, Avalon
Time: 2 tracks / 30:23 minutes

The latest release from Rocket Scientists is Supernatural Highways, a 30-minute, all-instrumental EP, released in part to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Earthbound.  Appropriately enough, strains of Erik Norlander’s solo material as well as vintage Rocket Scientists releases will jump out from this EP to anyone familiar with these musicians’ work.  The band is the combined musical endeavor of Erik Norlander (keyboards), Mark McCrite (guitars), and Don Schiff (NS/Sticks, cello), joined by guest drummer Gregg Bissonette (Ringo Starr All-Starr Band) and percussionist Greg Ellis.  The band jokes that having “stereo Gregs” has greatly enhanced their compositional techniques as well as impacted their approach to production.  Additional musicians on this release include Jon Papenbrook (trumpet), Eric Jorgensen (trombone), and Norlander’s wife, Lana Lane who provided vocal pads for the spectacular rendition of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” that finds its place on this EP.

According to the official press release, the 26-minute track, “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways,” was a composition that took on a life of itself, expanding with the bands’ collective input.  Norlander initially intended it to be the overture or introduction to a concept album, as per his moniker, but the ambitious piece of music kept evolving as the band added, modified, and attempted to bring the composition to a logical conclusion.  In its final incarnation, “Traveler” is divided into 7 parts, with significant weight at each end of the composition.  Each movement flows seamlessly into the next (with the exception of III into IV) and is virtually indistinguishable as a separate piece of writing.  Not unlike a puzzle, the elements of this monster link together perfectly to create one larger picture.

Part I begins with an esoteric, Floydian introduction.  Moog and synth create an ambient bed for Schiff’s sticks, gradually building as the rumbling keyboard patch measures the steady pace in eighth notes.  Bissonette and Ellis together add stirring percussion on kit and hand drums, rendering the opening stages of the first movement barely restrained, hinting at the intensity about to burst forth.  At the 3:45-minute mark, the rousing synth theme that will resound across the epic appears in its first incarnation.  McCrite adds harmonics, riffs, and rhythmic octaves to the mix.  Heavy sticks, guitar, and percussion stabs announce the conclusion of the first movement, and then the music fades away.  Schiff’s gorgeous cello borrows from the main theme to entrance Part II, sustaining long, aching notes over an arpeggiated keyboard patch.  McCrite adds his own volume swells and whammy-bar manipulated lead to the mix, mostly taking a background role on the second movement, but filling all the appropriate pockets.  Norlander once again takes the theme on the synth, and Part II concludes with heavy unison chops across drums, guitars, and sticks.  Part III enters immediately with an all-too-short but breathtaking string arrangement, quickly undergirded by strong rhythms on various forms of hand percussion, acoustic guitar, and warm sticks.  The shortest movement of the epic, at only one-and-a-half minutes, Part III fades out on the stereo pan of a fuzzy keyboard patch.

Part IV is a soft piano ballad, accompanied by shimmering acoustic guitar and the warm swell of Schiff’s sticks.  Gradually gaining depth and weight, McCrite’s lead guitar soars above the rest until the fade-out.  Part V is principally a sticks ride, modulating every few measures.  It's funky and strongly reminiscent of some of Tony Levin’s work on Crimson’s Discipline.  McCrite’s lead on the guitar is gentle and almost exclusively in the high register, just before he and Norlander begin trading leads back-and-forth.  This is my favorite section on the epic, not only because it provides an opportunity for each musician to riff, but also because it serves as an anchor in the middle of the epic, concluding the more ethereal movements and announcing the rise to “Traveler’s” bombastic conclusion.  Part VI begins with tribal hand percussion before McCrite’s lingering guitar and Norlander’s synth from the previous movement have completely faded – only to rejoin the jam in organ patches and chorus-drenched guitar chords, stabbing in syncopated opposition to Schiff’s movement in the bass.  The final section begins with a return to the arpeggiated keyboard patch, over which Norlander lays the main theme one more time.  McCrite strums octaves as the momentum increases and Schiff drives the movement to its conclusion.  This final section mirrors Part I in many ways, with the addition of more rhythmic elements as well as a long fade-out to the final conclusion.  The spacey, free-time outro features echoing harmonics and warm chords on the acoustic guitar, as well as some jazzy lead licks on the sticks, all suspended in a bed of string patches and swirling keyboard effects.

Thematically, “Traveler’s” full-circle nature can be interpreted a number of ways.  One possibility is that the traveller has proverbially gone “there and back again,” thus completing his predetermined circuit.  Alternately, he could still be in transition at the epic’s close – hence the ongoing theme and the elongated, uncertain outro.  Finally, there is also the alternative that he initially embarked on an open-ended journey – not knowing how or where it would end – only to find himself back at the place he’d started.  Any or none of these meanings could easily apply to Supernatural Highways, considering the path the song itself traveled during the composing process.  The band certainly set out to write a different piece of music than the one in which their endeavor resulted.  Furthermore, their journey as musicians certainly has not yet come to a close, so this piece of music arguably holds a lot of autobiographical depth.

As I mentioned before, the only other track on this EP is a 4:00-minute prog version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” by John Barry.  The decision to tack this rendition onto the EP is partly due to the fact that McCrite cites James Bond soundtracks as being responsible for “awakening [his] lifelong obsession with music.”  The quick vocal stab at the introduction, recreating the string parts in the original theme, recalls Jon Anderson’s vocals during the opening to “Close to the Edge,” though Yes similarities certainly don’t extend into the rest of this track.  This is certainly a more guitar-driven take on the Barry theme, as McCrite chugs along with Schiff on the iconic descending riff, and then takes the melody himself, but ultimately the Rocket Scientists’ version remains supremely faithful to the original composition.  Papenbrook and Jorgensen provide strong brass sections, and Norlander fills in the rest with spacey synth patches.  The only thing missing is the xylophone part from the original theme, but its absence is only duly noted – if at all.

In many ways, Supernatural Highways feels more like a placeholder than anything else.  It’s commemorative, well-written, and well-orchestrated, but it certainly lacks the comprehensive structure of a full RS album, which is why the band opted to release “Traveler” as its own EP.  The final result is a strong musical idea with plenty of meat on its bones, thanks to the band’s penchant for rich compositions as well as stellar production quality.  To me, however, “Traveler” feels more like a swollen overture than a standalone piece of music.  I would have liked more weight in the middle sections of the epic, where some great ideas began to appear but didn’t take the time to fully develop.  “Traveler” could easily have proven the foundation for – dare I suggest it? – an even longer piece of music, expanded so that each of the seven movements was more fully realized into a comprehensive song.  Parts III and IV could easily be a 12-minute ballad in and of themselves, with lyrics to accompany, and the groove of Part V would have provided a strong instrumental break in the overarching narration.  So although I think Supernatural Highways boasts a solid composition in “Traveler,” and the memorable addition of the Barry piece, I also think that there could have been a much bigger story here to tell.

Regardless, Rocket Scientists have come back with another strong release.  They’ve certainly lost none of their ambition or imagination in the twenty years they’ve been writing music together.  Supernatural Highways is an invigorating, compelling, and thoroughly enjoyable EP, providing strong evidence that whatever comes next from this trio of mad experimenters will not disappoint.


Justin Carlton


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