Jeff Royer - Cosmic Commotion(2021)
Jeff Royer released his 3rd album, "Cosmic Commotion," on February 1, 2021. The concept behind the album was only determined after the music was recorded. Royer must have been inspired by his futuristic lead synth sounds because the album is about a couple that leaves Earth to explore the galaxies. Thus, it starts with "Departure" and includes a song named "Heading Home" near the end. The couple goes through some adventures such as finding a planet full of crazy people, dealing with a storm, and going through the asteroid belt. They return to the Earth, only to find the human race wiped out. Straight out of a Douglas Adams novel. It's always exciting to watch an artist's musical maturity develop throughout their discography. If you listen to a track from "A Portal to the Message," and then from "Cosmic Commotion," you'll notice a certain "signature sound" - both are funky synth-based and guitar-supported prog-rock pieces - but also a stark contrast in execution. The latter includes a lot more vocals than the former. I had already liked Royer's vocals in his debut album and was a bit disappointed to see a fully instrumental album come out next. The vocal parts in "Cosmic Commotion" add a nice variety to the song structures and composition. There are some ad-libs layered too! The soundscape is also wider and the songs are more atmospheric in the latter. Each track has an interesting, unique intro and outro. The starting sounds blend surprisingly well with the usual synth sounds of Royer. He seems to have experimented with different song structures and melodies to expand out from his previous albums, and he definitely succeeded.
1. Departure (5:33):
The opening track signifies the point of "departure" from the earth in the story, hence the name. It starts out with a grand piano progression, which is then layered down with synth and guitar melodies. The 2:16 mark is where you can start to feel the incoming "adventure." The song speeds up into a short melody, and on comes my favorite part of the song. At 2:40, the instruments come together to form a very rich and full sound, something I've never heard before in Royer's work. The melody is still very simple, but the backing is incredibly well crafted. I get a similar feeling from the part at 3:40, but both parts only last for short bursts, keeping me on the edge for more. Right off the bat, the album presents itself strongly. Perhaps one improvement would be to choose between scarcity and abundance for the climactic sections - 2:40 and 3:40. The song builds up to these sections slowly, but then these sections are used amply in the second half. I would have loved to hear richer sections more in this song, but the short bursts and ample usage are a bit contradictory in terms of compositional direction.
2. The Galax Sea (5:55):
With an intro that resembles the early days of progressive-rock and a rhythmically interesting guitar solo that sounds very much like the 70s, "The Galax Sea" sets up a cheery tone by using a loud drum and keyboard combination. The song invites the listener to dive “deep in the galaxy”: this futuristic space journey is the main concept behind the album, embedded both in the musical aspects and the lyrics. The addition of the synthesizer in the later parts of the song thus helps develop this concept by contributing to the avant-garde sound of the song. So, it's safe to say that Jeff Royer’s style could best be described as imaginative: it invites the listener into the fantasy world with his interesting use of the synthesizer throughout the album. The vocals, which weren’t used in the previous album, are highlighted especially in this song as Royer tries different ranges with his voice. The repetitive piano in the background is also a nice touch, written in the 31/4 signature, and as the vocals try higher pitches, the song transforms into a more psychedelic atmosphere. This buildup dissolves to leave only the piano and faint sounds from the synthesizer. The song does its job proficiently when it comes to taking the listener onto a space journey with all its elements.
3. Fading Stars (5:32):
As you'd expect from a faded star to come and go within a glimpse of a swell, 3rd song "Fading Stars" starts with a swelling solo guitar action on some 80s Alan Parsons's prog-pop keyboard soundscapes. The way he added high pitched arpeggios comes together with the idea of a starscape, where the chord progression causes the keyboard to become a beautiful pedal-tone for the intro.
As the verse kicks in, you hear a Genesis style melody leading technique—to pass in-between chord more easily. As you'd expect from Jeff Royer's compositions, he doesn't necessarily arrange his work to verses, choruses, and bridges. He rather thinks of his music as a journey and plans the parts accordingly. With this specific album, he highly emphasized the space-rock aspect of his music, along with 70s prog spices scattered all around(think of bass sounds of Chris Squier and Rick Wakeman's org and keyboard sounds). The simple vocals are only meant to increase the atmospheric experience, without getting any unnecessary attention. Although the final could be even more hitting, thinking that the intro has the most complex and robust dynamic arrangement of the song, Jeff re-used the swelling guitars to bring back the idea of stars fading across the skyscape he thoroughly described with many different techniques and instruments.
4. Mothership (3:25):
Being the shortest track of the album, it seems as though Royer renounced any form of distinguishable melody in favor of a complete soundscape while still preserving the essence of good music. Don't get me wrong, he could've still added a melody line over some parts of the song; but the exclusion is what makes the song sound sort of like an interlude as if you are falling into a trance through a backing track. In that sense, "Mothership" feels like a Pink Floyd intro... a long one to say the least. This is understandable since Royer's aim while writing the material was longer intros and outros.
The fierce piano chords at the beginning reminded me of that abrupt piano chord intro from Renaissance's "Mother Russia". What comes next is different sections tangled together with rather incomplete transitions. Without the excitement of a distinct melody, Royer could've perhaps focused more on creating tension through a buildup of some sort to carry the song along. There is a drum kit present but he mostly chooses to use the cymbals, which is generalized in the album, perhaps to signify his gravitation towards calmer soundscapes.
5. Riders of Greenspan (5:12):
Maybe the most authentic song of all the album, the 5th track "Riders of Greenspan" is the most atmospheric and happy one yet. With this album, Jeff Royer considered creating longer intros and outros, unlike abrupt intros in the previous album, and this song is the most eloquent example of it. The intro is a combination of a pedaling piano action, with very high-pitched eery synths that give the chord progression of the song. After the long ethereal intro, the overlapping synth melodies lead to the verse, which tells a story of a western spaghetti with again a space flavor. Jeff resembles this combination with an upbeat drum rhythm, keyboard sounds that create soundscapes, and funky guitar playing with melodic singing. Along with telling the stories of Rides of Greenspan, he also uses his creative force to musically re-create the "riding" effect—sometimes with sounds similar to wind, sometimes with a rhythm that sounds exactly like a horse. This rhythm is widely used in middle eastern music too, while the tambourines play 3-3-2 rhythms. This popular technique always moves the listener, and Royer knew it. Unlike the way it started, the instant fade-out makes you think of the story of Riders. Maybe they achieved their long plans of discovery, maybe they hit an unexpected meteor and their ride of stress and happiness had ended in a glimpse of an eye. In any way, their path cost them a great experience and made us listen to the musical type space song.
6. Storms of Azuura (7:44):
The faint sound of a gong (reminding the listener of Pink Floyd's "High Hopes") opens the longest track of the album with a variety of calm sounds and bluesy guitar licks. This calmness lasts for about a minute before we hear the main chords of the song played on a piano. Royer once again makes use of panning here with an electric piano panned all the way to the right. He could've perhaps used this panning in order to differentiate the instruments with short ornaments.
The whole song is instrumental and although this adds the advantage of being more courageous with the organization, some sections feel too repetitive at times. However, I presume this comes from the maturation of compositional skills, Royer achieves to not lose focus by introducing and familiarizing new musical concepts throughout the song. He also utilizes interesting chord progressions to create natural transitions, a talent that was apparent from early on in his career. Likewise, Royer puts the piano at the forefront of some sections to create the necessary backing track, something that we've referred to in our earlier reviews.
One of the reasons why "Storms of Azuura" is the longest track of the album is the long and interesting outro as well as the intro. This technique (used in some long prog epics) is fairly new for Royer himself but by creating a variation on one of the song's main sections, he offers a summary of what we've heard as well as convey the message that he has more to tell even if the song itself ended.
7. Through the Belt (5:49)
You'd certainly not expect a space rock song to start with a honky-chunky piano riff, but as Jeff builds upon this initial idea and adds synths and reverbed guitars on it he pulls you back to his story and tells about his boredom of being around "astroids and voids". His boredom leads him discovering different planets and new parts of the universe. As if he already thought about this, the song explores new ideas by different sections coming and going constantly. Royer fades out the first part of the song and rather enters a melodic guitar-riff on an easy background with his same usual synth voices. This very specific sound is surely reminiscent of Rick Wright's keyboard sounds—the one he used in Pink Floyd's Animals album. All in all, Jeff's third effort shows his undeniable Pink Floyd influence, considering the Nick Mason-ish simple but crucial drum playing that focuses on on-beat crashes rather than creating killer grooves, and many other Floydian techniques of composing beautiful transitions between seemingly irrelevant parts.
8. Heading Home (5:40)
"Heading Home" can be analyzed in two parts: the first half of the song is more melancholic with the keyboard and vocals in the spotlight, and the second part is more dynamic with the bass, electric guitar, and drums. Again, Royer makes use of his electric guitar skills by integrating several solos into this second part and uses sentimental lyrics in the first part. These lyrics are about the artist's description of the earth, mainly about a journey back home, and they further develop the concept behind the album. The vocals also sound much softer in this part when contrasted with the loud and energetic vocals in the second part. The electric guitar is suddenly introduced amid the soft lyrics, and it rapidly descends the notes. The addition of the spacecraft dialogue, counting backward from 10, signs to a change in the sound of the song, and as predicted, the bass takes control of the rhythm. Here, Royer splits up the 4/4 signature in different ways and switches between them to have variety in the song–this also makes the song quite catchy. It's also nice to see how the artist found his own style with his use of the synthesizer, and how he incorporated his wide imagination into both the lyrics and the music.
9. The Queen of Light (4:30):
The album might have just ended with "Heading Home", but concept-wise, that would've been too pessimistic. To shed a light (pun intended) on the actual ending for the narrating couple, Royer might have decided to add this as the closing track. Indeed, the intro feels like a separation from the preceding songs, a time to reflect on the greater message of the album. There is melancholy, induced by the loneliness of the couple after realizing that their whole race was eradicated. Thanks to the addition of brass instruments along with the long guitar notes, you can't help but feel sad for them yourself.
In the song, the narrator calls out to the "queen of light". He expects emotional support from her, which is understandable from the context. This adds hope to the song: even though there is no one left, he still has someone to talk to. A signature of Royer at this point, the varied synth sounds that are sprinkled throughout the song feel like distant memories, leading to a sense of nostalgia. Royer's own vocals feature some prolonged syllables also signaling the longing that the song wants to convey:
"My queen of light Let's rest for tonight Our love is bright"