It’s telling that the lyrics to two of the seven tracks on Old Man Wizard‘s Unfavorable debut LP talk about telling stories. In both “If Only” and “The Bearded Fool,” there’s a drive toward narrative, and as the majority of the songs included on the California progressive trio’s self-released first outing are ultimately character studies — from “Highwayman,” to “Nightmare Rider,” “The Bearded Fool” and “Traveller’s Lament” — with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Francis Charles Roberts assuming the various characters in first-person (“Nightmare Rider” is in third), Old Man Wizard seem like a band destined to write at some point in their tenure a full story arc concept album. They haven’t done that with Unfavorable, but they’re not far off, and Roberts, who doubles as Ruba Jouba in pirate metal outfit The Dread Crew of Oddwood, comes by his theatricality honestly. Fortunately for anyone who’d taken on listening to Unfavorable — and this isn’t always the case – Old Man Wizard have the accomplished songwriting and progressive theory behind what they’re doing to back up that theatrical sensibility. Both bassist Andre Beller and drummer Kris Calabio contribute vocals alongside Roberts, and Minni Jo Mazzola, who also adds flute to “Traveller’s Lament,” makes periodic singing appearances, so it is a vocal-heavy album, but it’s with the distinctive harmonies and creative arrangements that Unfavorable sets its mood and forms its cohesive layers of aesthetic. Front to back, the album winds up gorgeous, accomplished, varied and well beyond the common expectation of a fumbling debut from a band feeling their way into a songwriting methodology. Old Man Wizard — and Roberts as the principle architect of their output on this LP — seem to have a firm grasp on what they want the band to be and how they want to realize that vision. Drawing influences from traditional and progressive metal — clean vocal Opeth are a big influence in both the vocal style and overarching melancholy of a song like “If Only” — and playfully marrying them with garage and other heavy rocks, Old Man Wizard showcase marked potential and stylistic nuance that seems beyond their still-nascent tenure, having only come together in 2012.
Both the music and lyrics of “Highwayman” feed into a sense of motion, and Roberts immediately assumes charge of the album as its narrator. It’s an initial rush, a quick gallop to get lost in that finds a mirror later with the push of side B’s bass-heavy opener, “The Bearded Fool.” Also working in “Highwayman”‘s favor, however, is its hook, which comes paired with jumpy transitions and a smooth running verse, the backing vocals in the chorus foreshadowing a nod to Ennio Morricone that comes to the fore with cello from Beller and harmonica from Roberts at the culmination. Already, Old Man Wizard have proven their ability to cull cohesive results from unlikely combinations of influence, and Unfavorable only gets more complex as the acoustic folk of “If Only” pulls off an easy sway and more Opethian harmonies. Electric guitar is gradually layered into the background, giving a sense of build to the song, but the peaceful, wistful air is maintained throughout, even as “If Only” comes as close to threatening as it gets with a volume swell at the 4:30 mark. Rather than take off into a heavier thrust, Old Man Wizard serve the song better by staying patient, knowing that everything has a place in the course of the album, and drop back to the sweet vocal melody and psychedelic folk acoustic guitar. If there’s a single arrangement on Unfavorable that demonstrates the band’s prog mindset, it might be this one, but “If Only” still works best in the context of the release overall, leading into the shortest track, “Nightmare Rider” (3:23), on which lyrics arrive in jabs and the guitars and bass go headfirst into a grungier riffing that’s hammered out somewhat by the production but still the dirtiest-sounding thing they’ve played yet on the record. Of course, the atmosphere is maintained, and one gets a Danny Elfman-esque vibe filtered through proto-metallic crunch and classic thrash as the shouts at the start of each verse line calling to mind Metallica‘s “The Four Horsemen,” seemingly with intent.