Jeff Royer - Wizard at Work (2020)
Jeff Royer's newest album, Wizard at Work, was released on the 4th of December. Though we are no stranger to his unique style - we reviewed "A Portal to the Message" earlier - we were pleasantly surprised by some adjustments.
At first listen, it is easy to realize that Wizard at Work is more guitar-oriented than the debut album. A classic 70s clean guitar theme runs through the entire album and is integrated deeply into the more keyboard-oriented parts. There are some grand piano riffs, but most of the keyboard sounds are classic prog rock lead synth sounds. It turns out, a lot of funk can come out of such a combination, as can be seen in tracks like "Lunar Caravan." Secondly, after listening to the album, we were informed that the vocal tracks got lost in a terrible accident involving a computer. Thankfully, the computer is fine, and Royer was able to re-record the lost tracks, but he decided to make the album fully instrumental. Honestly, personally, I feel like some of the tracks could benefit from vocals. However, it is also clear that this decision introduced more of a compositional direction to the album. I will be waiting for the outtake album to come out, which will include vocal tracks of some songs.
I can hear some of you asking, what's with the weird name? The name reflects Jeff Royer's personal struggles between his first and second albums. He recovered from a drug addiction and got his life back together in a very painful process. So, in a sense, the wizard is Royer himself. Track names like "Out of the Deep" and "Passing of Tides" reflect this process. Ultimately, we are happy that he came out of the tunnel as a better person and a better musician, and that he could give us such fun material to listen to under all these circumstances
1- Wizard At Work Part One (6:40)
From the opening of the first track, it becomes clear that Royer's new album will feature a lot more dynamic range and instrumentation. The section, reminiscent of Camel in its Moonmadness era, is a perfect example of tension and release utilized as the two sections of a riff, while being connected by a drum fill. Thanks to the production, you can hear each and every instrument from the steady bass to the electric piano. But the trick with keeping these kinds of sections interesting is changing something in each repetition ever so slightly, whether it be the drum fill or the landing chord.
As the song progresses, Royer lines seemingly very different sections one after another, almost in an abrupt fashion. Although this is a very hard technique to accomplish composition-wise while preventing complete chaos, a careful listener will definitely spot that the transitions still carry a characteristic of the previous section to the next. The execution is so solid that it takes a couple of minutes before you ask yourself in surprise where the vocals are.
It's like a signature of Royer at this point, the attention to atmosphere is still immense on this track. His acquaintance with synths help to create longer and calmer transitions compared to the more sudden ones earlier. Another thing to note is his more recent inclination towards the guitar. He doesn't hold back for a couple of bluesy licks to tie the song together but also doesn't forget to return to his wide variety of keyboards for the full effect.
2- The Wand (2:14)
The shortest song of the album, "The Wand" could best be described as a psychedelic song. The first half of the song is made up of a simple oscillating sound that's coming from the synthesizer, and this hallucinating sound reminds the listener of a transcendental state. At the 1.10 minute mark, the guitar steps in as if waking the listener with a well-performed solo. When the inspiration of the song –and actually the whole album– is brought to mind, then this atmosphere starts gaining an ever deeper meaning. As the inspiration to the artist was his experience of recovery, the sudden guitar entrance may be symbolizing his realization and the start of this journey he went through. In the end, this two-minute song, with a simple layering of sounds, carries deep emotions and meanings with it.
3- Out of the Deep (5:06)
The powerful entrance of the keyboard-drum duo reminds the listener of the artist's inspirations, mainly bands from the 70s (Genesis and Yes to name two). This repeating pattern introduced in the beginning makes up the backbone of the song, and as the song continues, a simple guitar riff also joins the progression, although we don't get to listen to the more intricate parts played by the guitar just yet.
The song then proceeds to suddenly change its tone at the exact middle: it moves onto a much faster pace, and the guitar moves into the spotlight. This part of the song really showcases Royer's mastery as he uses shredding and does so with ease. His usage of the synthesizer is also worth mentioning during this second part as the synthesizer is very prone to throwing the song off balance; however, Royer integrates the instrument quite well and the sound does not distract the listener at all. As the jam session comes to an end, the song starts slowing down and fading out.
One of Royer's special talents is how he makes use of the drum, keyboard, and synthesizer in simple but distinctive ways. He knows how to layer these simple sounds in such a way that instead of sounding dull, they give the song a sense of togetherness, and they also prove that the artist really knows how simplicity is sometimes the key.
4- Escape From Vindelore Palace (7:48)
Being the longest track of the album, "Escape From Vindelore Palace" is structured like a suite. I could count at least 5 distinct parts, tied together with hard transitions. The parts follow a fluctuating pattern of intensity. This fluctuation is observed in any successful composition in music history; no song can continue at the same intensity and not get boring. However, with a suite-like structure, it is more apparent and much more effective in hooking the listener.
The first part sounds like a Tigran Hamasyan buildup because it is a grand piano riff made up of quarter note triplets. Of course, guitars and synths are layered on top, in line with the underlying riff. The second part is a calmer and more atmospheric lowland. The grand piano plays the first 4 notes of a 3-3-2 sequence, thus lowering its intensity after the quarter note triplet sequence. The third part acts as a buildup-bridge. I love how the tom groove and high hat splash works to create a sense of urgency here, essentially slowly driving the tension and intensity up. I would have expected a faster-paced and loud part after this, but all that tension does not resolve. This is my only problem with "Escape From Vindelore Palace's" composition. Instead, the buildup continues on the fourth part, only to resolve in the final part to a very mellow bass riff. The drums underneath the bass riff is surprisingly satisfying for such a slow and calm part. The five parts that form this single 8-minute track are oddly well connected, although they have no apparent similarity.
5- Nobody Left (4:47)
"Nobody Left" starts off on a positive note with a simple keyboard-drum combination and its easy to follow beat. This cheery atmosphere may seem to contradict with the title of the song, which resonates with loneliness and isolation, though the idea behind the melody tells us otherwise: as the artist was left alone with himself during a journey of recovery and self-care, he was also the only person who could help him. So the fact that nobody is left is not a sad one but rather an inspiring one.
The pattern of the keyboard and the drums seem to continue for more than a minute until the guitar steps in at the 1:15 minute mark. Though the guitar goes on for less than ten seconds, it's interference acts as a good transition between the simple and slower keyboard pattern and the more fast-paced one. This change in pace adds to the song's inspiring tone, as it builds up by climbing the notes for a steady forty seconds. This part of the song may also symbolize the artist's persisting efforts by repeating the same rhythm.
As the build-up comes towards an end, we hear new sounds being added to the song, namely the guitar that was introduced early on, and a synthesizer that is also used in other songs on the album. Though the synthesizer does not get the spotlight in this song, we later hear the guitar perform a solo at the 3:30 mark which lasts for a short time (we could've definitely listened to it for a bit longer) before going back to the main pattern of the keyboard and drums. In the end, "Nobody Left", without actually using words but repetition, tells the listener to persist and continue on their journey just like the sound of the music.
6- Star Council Part One (3:08)
A fantastical name for a smaller two-part concept inside the album, "Star Council Part One" is one of the grooviest tracks on it, almost as a foreshadow to the funky "Lunar Caravan" succeeding it. It once again starts by showcasing a rich inventory of different synth sounds that flow together until the arrival of the guitar. Knowing that these songs featured vocals at the beginning, it very much feels like the melody of the guitar was originally something written for Royer to sing. One of the hardest things in instrumental music is to make the melodies relatable to the audience, which comes naturally with songs involving vocals. So instead, an aspiring musician determined to create a fully instrumental album has to experiment with a lot of different melodies for the same section just to achieve the same emotional sincerity of sung melodies. The very misfortune that compelled Royer to follow this direction might be a lucky thing, considering the vision it gave him to play with the melodies.
One of the highlights of the song is the fiery bass lines that shine in between the other instruments, which gives the song its funk feel. Although it leaves you wanting for more funk (no pun intended), maybe the fast transitions that take the listener through other genres (leaning towards blues and rock) are perhaps the more interesting way to carry out the composition. The song ends with a long guitar solo fading out (70's anyone?) but achieves to grab the listener's curiosity for the second part of the "Star Council" suite.
7- Lunar Caravan (2:38)
An old-school rock riff opening gave a non-cliche start to the song, comparing to all of the other compositions of Royer's career. He later develops the song in a more funky direction, emphasizing the low-cut bass tone with an intense groove. The juxtaposition between the tubby bass and soothing synth certainly adds his signature flavor to the song—backed up with rhythm guitars supporting the funky elements of the piece. It would be great to hear more of the synth emphasized on the track, as its consistency with other instruments and with the general atmosphere of the track.
This 70s-80s rock-influenced track shows a totally different side of Royer as a composer and especially a guitar player, showing his affection to just jam and create a fun track with a clear emphasis on melody and the interaction between the layers.
8- Star Council Part Two (3:35)
After the slow-burn funky psych-rock influenced the first part of the song, the second part directly kicks in with similar rhythmical elements but completely different melodies and instruments partitions. It is remarkable to hear the way he used rock organ that wouldn't sound inappropriate. As a man of wisdom once said: "%90 of the prog songs that use the organ suck, but %90 of the songs that don't use also suck." The coherency of all the instruments that are giving the tonality and the dynamics to the song is fundamental to the whole album, the most important thing Royer was able to execute well.
The harmonized guitar hook is one of them, where all the instruments stop and you just hear the guitar phrase from 2 different channels. One of the most remarkable moments of the album is followed by a highly melodic bluesy short guitar solo. Then after the repetition of the first section a couple of times, a rhythmical modulation slows down the song, creating an opportunity for a Gilmourian guitar solo, layered with his signature synthesizer sound. This outro creates a perfect finale for both pt.1 & pt.2 of the songs, pulling you out of your comfort zone and totally changes the atmosphere of the pair of songs. It seems as if Royer has two different compositional sides, where one side focuses on the more atmospherical and experimental side of prog and the other just jams the hell out — creating a beautiful piece.
9- Passing Of The Tides (2:58)
The backbone of this short track is the 3-3-2 rhythm played on the guitar which pretty much continues throughout the whole song. Following a layering approach, with each iteration being more complex and instrumentally varied, the song accumulates like a tide crashing to the shore. The only exceptions are the short guitar and percussion solos in between to break up the repetitiveness.
It really feels like this song was more of a fun project rather than a disciplined and structured song, like some others on the album. If this instinct is true, then we, as the listener, permit Royer to have even more fun and experiment with different sounds and instruments to enrich the short solos. Especially the drum solo made us smile because it felt refreshing: there are a ton of guitar solos filling our ears already! As a multi-instrumentalist, Royer has the courage to try new things; and with his staggering growth as a musician, we hope that he can see these shorter songs with the layering approach as a way to have fun with novel experiences.
10- Wizard At Work Part Two (6:18)
Title tracks are mostly meant to be the ones that best represent the album and most commercially successful as well—by generally being the best song or just being the song that was most loved by the bandmates.
So does Royer put the specialty of being the title track to the song that consists of all of his elements as a musician. The moment that the eclectic and piano/synth-driven opening of the song is stopped by a small interlude of guitar phrasing. This is a technique that Royer uses throughout his works just to play around with the direction and dynamics of the songs to engage the listener more. After this point, the song goes through a lot of changes, where you can hear the great synth melodies over 3/4 piano chords played in the same rhythmical pattern with the drums.
The guitar solo is one of the best solos that Royer has ever played throughout his career of solo works, while the tone and note choices remain especially of the early days of Blue Öyster Cult(you can check Don't Fear The Reaper to hear it yourself).
The outro is a simple piano chord-melody, layered with lots of different instruments and fades out very softly, creating a sense as if the whole album was a vicious cycle that should be played all together and should instantly start from the beginning again after it ends. All in all, this closing track is a substantial finale for both the album and the pt.1 of the song — representing all the angles of Jeff Royer's music.