27-year-old multi-instrumentalist Jeff Royer released his debut album “A Portal to the Message” on September 28, 2019. What we hear in this album is the journey of a one-man band: all music was performed, recorded, and produced by Royer in a Palomar mountain cabin 6000 feet above the ground. The result is not far from what a full band would have professionally recorded and produced. Traces of progressive rock giants like Yes, Genesis, Supertramp, Camel can be heard throughout, yet Royer made a deliberate attempt to twist his inspirations’ styles using his own and make catchier, “simpler” progressive rock music. The synths and grand piano are integral parts of the album, and after listening, they may get stuck in your head for a few weeks. Most but not all songs focus on these instruments, with supporting guitar sections and no lyrics. The instrumental songs give off a feeling of outer space, or an “astral” feeling in the musician’s own terms, while the lyrical songs offer a contact with this astral world, almost like a portal as seen in the title of the album.
1. Who Is to Say (4:59)
The opening track of the album, Who is to Say, starts with an incredibly catchy piano riff that creates a great atmosphere for not only the album but for the whole album. This riff has lots of great ways. First, the composition of it is very effective. It creates a never-ending loop that creates never-ending tension for the song. The way it is written creates the feeling of being stuck somewhere or in some time. Also, the timbre of the piano is amazing in such ways. It is the perfect choice for this song and this riff. This riff repeats itself but while repeating it, it doesn’t lose its effect like other riffs, instead, the opposite of it happens, this riff grows and becomes stronger while repeated which is an incredible thing to achieve.
Then Jeff makes an effective entrance that takes the audience from the imaginary world that piano riff created. It makes a strong entry to the song with drums, vocals, and bass. He sings about the complex dynamics of love and relationships. He gives advice to a man who is strayed in a relationship. This man had the belief that all love has to fade away however Jeff gives the alternative answer. He suggests that it is his fault and he has to change something to make things better.
Who, is to say Your love will not fade. Yet you, yet you stray With each passing day.
After this part, a synth layer gets added to the top of the piano while piano riff evolves to something else to create an amazing bridge for the next verse. After the second verse, this bridge which has great bass fills that needs to be checked out, grows and gets bigger louder and certainly better. Then after these repetitions, there is enough build-up for the guitar solo. This guitar solo rocks! It is not that complicated however, it manages to give you all you want. The guitar solo over the synth is a classic in the prog-rock genre and Jeff nails it. To the end of it, guitar solo creates anticipation for more, however, Jeff Royer subverts expectations with another piano part which resembles Supertramp. Jeff shows clear influences from prog-rock giants in his work and these inspirations work really well. After the lyrics, everything goes crazy. Synth adds in, the guitar creates an energetic lick that really excites the listener and song end with a fade-out.
2. Moments Are Wasted (4:50)
The second track opens with a similar fashion to the first one. The first thing the listener is introduced to is an emotional piano riff. Comparing to the first one, this riff definitely has more feelings. With the bass which is cleverly written this song too hooks you from the beginning. Then after lots of repetition, the song cuts it with guitar entering. Guitar has an amazing tone in this album and has the essence of the prog classics. While drums perform itself in a way that not leap to the eye of the listener, it manages to create an effective rhythm section for the song.
After this smooth guitar, a synth comes to carry the melody while the piano is repeating itself in the background. The synth plays the same thing over and over which creates wholeness and a stuck in time feeling in the song. Moments are passed and wasted but we are still at the same place, the only thing that has changed is the timbre, little details. It is the main purpose of this song and Jeff Royer gives the feeling without using any lyrics, just the instrument is enough for a good musician to convey feelings and thoughts. Jeff Royer gives credit to the giants with his use of sound in this synth as it has the characteristic of the prog giants like ELP or Gentle Giant and to the Camel as he uses repetition in such a clever way.
After the synth part, guitar again takes the lead and Jeff spills incredible melodies with the guitar. Every note he plays has a meaning everything conveys a message. After this amazing part, he created amazing moments with the guitar, part with an interesting dynamic comes. With parts that pull and push the song, Jeff creates an uneasy feeling that shows how sometimes moments pass incredibly slow but sometimes it passes with a blink of an eye. Then lots of stuff get added to this part to blow up and it really does. After the blow-up, the listener encounters a Camel inspired outro which actually isn’t a one. This fake outro fakes the listener to believe it is the end of the song however another epic guitar solo comes and the song gets longer which creates an emphasis on the feeling of “being unsure about the pass of time”. The song ends on one long note symbolizing everything can be considered the same, wasted.
3. Flying Above the Clouds (3:55)
The third track of the album starts off pretty simple. But this simplicity is usually what causes a song to get stuck in your head. And it really doesn’t help if you’ve just listened to it on repeat in order to write a review about it.
Like the whole album, which is dominated by pianos and synths, the song starts off with a catchy piano riff which will eventually be used as a basis for the vocal line. But if you listen carefully, you will notice that there is a short silence at the very beginning of the song, this can have two possible reasons. One is that since the album is written, played, and produced by Jeff Royer himself, there are small details like this that would be expected in the entirety of the record. And the second reason, which I would like to believe is the true one, is to catch the listener off guard. When I pressed the play button and saw that no sound was coming out, I honestly thought that there was something wrong with my headphones. But just as I reached to increase the volume, the upbeat tempo all of a sudden fired up my senses. Even this small detail alone made this simple intro a lot more effective.
At this point, I should appreciate the effort Royer put in to make this album sound like “a big band playing together”, in his own words. Because the small details, like the subtle guitar sound at the beginning, are what makes this album as sincere as it is. One can almost imagine him in a small studio with all the instruments packed in, ready to contribute to this one-man goal.
Near the middle of the song, there is a mild change in the atmosphere. And after this two-minute mark is where the listener truly understands the progressive influences Jeff Royer added to his music, from bands like Yes and especially Supertramp. Though it is still in 4/4, the division of the notes gives the song a more unique approach.
The rest of the track proves just how packed a song can be without overworking and still preserving the essence of it all. The synth in this section and during its solo are probably what make the whole track sound so professional in the first place and if you close your eyes and imagine, you can hear bits of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman in Royer’s dexterity with the instrument. His synth gives what started as a simple catchy piano riff the right amount of progressiveness.
4. Metro-Gnomes (2:47)
Being the shortest song on the album, the fourth track “Metro-Gnomes” starts off with the Moog-synth and a 2-note loop similar to a metronome sound. Lately, this synth sound became known as the “Stranger Things” synth, since the series popularized it again after all these years.
The other instruments are slowly introduced while avoiding the chaotic atmosphere that most prog bands can’t avoid. They mix all of the effects and different instruments to make the songs sound “proggy”, however, they totally miss the point since the instruments actually should “complement” each other. That is the absolute thing that creates the “proggy” feel to the sounds of the bands, such as Pink Floyd, according to the prog legends such as John Petrucci, Mikael Akerfeldt, and more. As Jeff Royer himself mentioned, he wanted to make a modern prog album, which has simplicity and space-rock vibes (like Pink Floyd’s DSOTM). This song is a pleasant example to demonstrate how the instruments should complement each other, rather than creating a cacophony.
It is impossible not to see the Yes and ELP influences of Mr. Royer, after hearing the highly melodic keyboard soloing over the spacey atmosphere, created by various synths and reverb guitar parts. After hearing this song, we are able to truly understand why it took Jeff to record this album over 6 months. Even though this song is the simplest and shortest track, it is impossible not to overlook the textures of various sound effects and the attention that Royer paid to the small details. Certainly, a song that should not be considered as a single, rather it should be seen as a significant part of the album that contributes to the general sound, but this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the song by itself!
5. A Portal to the Message (4:33)
The title track of the album mainly stands out with its extensive guitar solos and cryptic lyrics. The synth near the ending of the song also adds to what feels like the signature sound of Jeff Royer.
From a greater perspective, the song builds upon a certain motif which is first played by the piano at the beginning of the track with a subtle flavor from the drum cymbals. Then, as if in an order to introduce the instruments playing on the track, this motif is repeated by the guitar and the synth, mostly leaving the main melody untouched. This goes on for a lot longer than anticipated, which might actually bore the listener at first; but then it resolves into the first verse, which is initially played by the piano. At this point, this should not come as a surprise because it is a simple technique that Royer relies a lot on throughout the album when transitioning from different sections. But this time, the sound is doubled by the guitar to create the feeling of a full-band playing.
Lyrically, the song can be interpreted in many different ways. But one thing that is obvious is that the song talks to the listener and refers to us as “you”. Royer almost gives us orders for what sounds like saving the Earth. One of the most striking images from the lyrics is at the first verse, where he presents us with the cold truth about where the world is currently heading towards:
Read the numbers They don’t lie Just count the stars In the night sky
The numbers here might mean the scientific data that proves the existence of threats like global warming etc. But Royer continues by saying that even if you don’t look at the scientific data, just look at the stars (which might symbolize the hope for humanity) and see how they are disappearing one by one. But apart from this pessimistic view, Royer also suggests that there is still optimism out there. In the second verse, he talks more about how we can prevent these threats from getting much worse and fix our environment before it is too late. And when we finally succeed fixing it, we “will see beauty everywhere / For [we] will know, how much this Earth cares”.
Another aspect of the song that makes it truly stand out is the short but magnificent synth work that closes the track. It actually starts off by playing the same notes with the guitar, but it, as if to show Royer’s own leanings in music, eventually evolves into a spacey synth solo that sounds like it came straight out of the ’70s.
6. Star Battles (4:55)
Before counting the beats, you would think it is in odd time as expected from a progressive rock song. Yet, “Star Battles” is all in 4/4, just group differently sometimes. This is by itself the illustration of how Royer keeps his songs simple, and still progressive. The song is instrumental with several riffs going on throughout. All of this, combined with the atmospheric synths create a sense of motion that reflects the title of the song. The only “non-moving” part is the grand piano intro, which is a simplified version of the main melody reduced to a single instrument. The drums and synths make a sudden entry, and they never stop. The subdivisions of the rhythm create a sense of urgency as it is grouped at shorter intervals. The song almost sounds “happy” or “excited.” The chord progression and the transitioning licks always move to brighter tones. While the main melody contains more of adrenaline or excitement for action kind of feeling, the melody at about 1:30 mark is as bright as one can get. Maybe it symbolizes the victory won at the “Star Battles” or a peaceful break. Either way, we can understand from that section that even the victory or the peaceful break is full of action and movement.
7. Foggy Nights (4:54)
Again, “Foggy Nights” follows a 4/4 rhythm grouped as 3-3-3-3-2-2 throughout. It seems Royer is obsessed with this type of rhythmic pattern, as it can be seen in most of his songs, and he has a good reason to be. The variety in subdivisions neither overworks the listener’s ears nor restricts the song to an ordinary pop beat. It is the perfect balance between simple and complex. Such a beat makes it easier to transition to a regular 4/4 beat by just changing to the usual grouping, it also makes it easier to transition to an odd time because the grouping already consists of odd intervals. Both changes can be seen in this song. The 4/4 transition comes at around 1:10 accompanied by a short synth solo-ish part. After that, it transitions to an odd-time beat. Every two measures of the oddly grouped 4/4 beat are played, the drums play an additional 2 beats before the other 2 2 beats (3-3-3-3-2-2-2), which makes that part 17/8. The only other song on 17/8 I’ve seen before is Open Car by Porcupine Tree, which was mostly a prog metal song. It’s unusual to see such a rhythm on a prog-rock song, let alone a song from an artist with the goal of making simpler prog rock. The synths and guitar constantly play chords in the background. The synth sound is similar to the signature synth sound of Camel. So much so that I thought to myself, “Whoa, Camel dropped a new track!” The constant synth contributes to the “foggy” feeling that is aimed to be given through this song. The sound comes from very deep, almost as if you hear it with your ears covered, which contributes to the nighttime feeling. With Royer’s songs, the importance is always on the atmosphere, mostly on the synth. Yet, the bass parts in these songs are especially worth a mention. While it rides along with the rhythm, when you listen to the bass parts, you can always hear something new that is not played in the main melody with synths and guitars. It is actually reminiscent of some of Porcupine Tree basslines, which is funny because the 17/8 part already is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree. I can’t help but wonder if there is a relation. On one hand, the styles are polar opposites, yet you can indirectly hear their influence.
8. After All That Is (8:35)
The last and the longest track of the album starts off with a jazzy Rhodes piano, accompanied by atmospheric synth sounds. Slowly the drums enter the song, while the atmospheric synth starts to play one of the most beautiful melodies that can be ever heard of. At this point, it is impossible not the hear the big keyboard influences of Jeff Royer, such as the highly melodic playing of Keith Emerson by ELP. However, there are lots of other instruments in the background of the music, such as a grand piano and xylophone. When the vocals enter to the song, were already been through a minute into the song, letting the peaceful atmosphere to capture us. In this part of the song, you can certainly hear the musical feast underneath the song, the gelly bass sound of Jeff (all of the instruments are played by him anyway). The chorus of the songs maintains a balance in the songs, opposing to the peaceful melodies of the verses with the dark chorus-created by the string synth and simple distorted power chords. Since Jeff adds reverb and delay to his voice throughout the verses and chorus, he is able to fit the mellow vocals to the dreamy atmosphere of the song. After the second time, we hear the song with the same structure, the song instantly turns to a 3/4 blues shuffle, with the high flavor of prog-rock. Especially the guitar-synth run on this part of the song should certainly be praised. Then the song again changes direction, to darker riffs. The harmonized bass, guitars, piano, and the way that drum played in this part of the song is probably the best moment of the album, with the simple guitar lick in the background. The song slowly fades out playing the same riffs over and over, makes you capture every second you hear the song.
The song touches on several themes, all resolving on belief-related themes; such as life after death, soul, etc. However, from the existential point of view, Jeff doesn’t want those things to bother one. In opposite he wants the people to realize the beauties that they are left with; he wants to show the “heart of the country”, probably the meaning of life, in a way.
The album as a whole, and especially this song, is the perfect example to show that being progressive doesn’t come from the complexity of the song structure or the high technique playing. The progressiveness comes from a certain feel, a certain atmosphere (which the successful prog bands such as Pink Floyd were after), according to one of the most important prog artist of all time, John Petrucci. This album is a simple, highly melodic, yet progressive album that you can enjoy from beginning to end.