Jeff Hamel was the former guitarist in the American metal band Osmium in the 80s. The band existed for about ten years and after that Jeff took a long break from music. After that break he was fully charged again and ready to entertain everyone with his newly written material.
That music turned out to be quite progressive. It resulted in the album Descension (2007) and since then he has released a new album almost every year! In 2014 that has lead to the release of Epsilon I. The second part of this musical story called, surprisingly enough, Epsilon II will also be released this year. On the first Epsilon album, multi-instrumentalist Hamel (guitar, bass and keys) is assisted by his loyal companions Mike Kosacek (drums) and the vocalists David Cagle (Liberty & Justice), Celine Derval (Scythia) and Chris Hodges (Every Living Soul), who were also present on the 2012 album V.O.Z.
On this album, a vocalist we all know joins the ranks: Marc Atkinson (Riversea, Nine Stones Close andMandalaband). Hamel gets his inspiration from artists like Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Black Sabbath, Ayreon, The Alan Parsons Project and Joe Satriani. This leads to a mixture of styles such as progressive rock, metal, psychedelic rock, space rock and folk music. The songs all have a playing time from seven to more than eleven minutes, so there is plenty of time to mix all those influences in one track. Most important, what about this album? Is it any good? The answer to that question is a definite ‘Yes’.
Chariots is the first and longest track on the album and the track I like the least, mainly because I like the other vocalists more than Chris Hodges.
Mother Dearest has the typical organ sounds like bands in the 60s and 70s and on this track Celine Derval, the only female lead vocalist on the album, delights us with strong vocals. It develops into a quite heavy rock song, with psychedelic elements and towards the end there’s a nice sing-along chorus.
Starlight is the track where we can hear the pleasant voice of Marc Atkinson together with atmospheric sounds on the keyboards. His voice alone takes this track to an even higher level. In the last minutes of the track, Hamel gets some time to showcase his skills on guitar before the song fades out with the whispering voice of Atkinson.
The last three tracks can be seen as one title track. It’s a combination of the excellent singer David Cagle, some beautiful keyboard sounds and some stunning soloing on guitar by Hamel, especially in Epsilon II and III. Furthermore the recording sounds great, so we can conclude that Hamel has succeeded in making another great album that will be enjoyed by many proggers.
Having my own modest home studio, I’m always amazed at the quality of musicianship and compositional skills of basically amateur “bedroom musicians” who are just as good, or even better, than those who make a professional living out of music.
The main man behind this musical project, Jeff Hamel, is no exception. He is one very gifted musician and songsmith. Jeff is part of a recording project called Proximal Distance where he and fellow musician Gregg Johns (Slychosis) can collaborate over the internet. Check out http://www.progressiverockbr.com/monthaprilproximaldistance2010.html for more information.
It is hard to pigeon-hole this Minneapolis musical effort in terms of the progressive genre. It is an accretion of musical styles and influences, ranging from symphonic through to heavy metal, prog metal. I can hear shades ofTransatlantic, Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater. Neo-prog is probably the closest genre but there are many hues of symphonic and space rock sprinkled throughout as well.
Until having to review this CD, I’d never heard of Majestic. This is the second of a two-part space odyssey that’s loosely based upon the star Epsilon which forms part of the Eridanus (The River) constellation. The two CD concept tells the story of a primitive civilisation that worships its sun and discovers that its roots are from another, very distant world whose sun caused their demise. According to Jeff there are some other meanings built into the lyrics but it’s up to the listener to interpret them and to formulate their own meaning.
I think it was Magenta‘s Rob Reed who said that a great prog track can be reduced to a mediocre rendering, if an average vocal is used for the music. This is a mistake made by many “one man” bands. With Majestic this is thankfully not the case since the vocals on Epsilon 2 are bordering on excellent. There are three vocalists used on this album: Chris Hodges, Jessica Rasche and David Cagle.
Jessica sings lead vocals on track 6, the shortest song on the album, which reminded me of Mostly Autumn. A simple, melodic ballad which also features good harmonies over a busy guitar solo. Jessica has a very fine voice but I think using Chris and David as the main singers, gives the album some extra gravitas.
Chris appears to get the lion’s share of singing duties and has lead vocals on tracks 2, 3, 7 and 8 – and boy does he have a great voice. For example in track 7, Epsilon X – Convergence he sings a beautiful, heart-felt delivery as if the lyrics have some personal meaning. This song is exceptional neo-prog. It slowly builds into a crescendo of sound with some great guitar playing before suddenly entering a sort of jazzy interlude, before the crescendo resumes with more menace: aggressive sounding vocals, power chords over good drumming. This, for me, is the best track on the album.
David sings on two tracks: 4 and 7. Once again his is another great voice. I don’t know how Jeff chooses between them for singing duties. Track 4 opens with cinematic synth strings before David enters. Once again a superb vocal delivery that simply takes this song up a few notches. In parts he is accompanied by electric piano and jangly guitar. The songs end with some very neat percussion. A great track.
There is plenty of scintillating guitar work from Jeff throughout the album. Probably the best, is his solo in track 7, which just fits the music perfectly and enters at the right moment. On keys, Jeff is very competent but personally I would have appreciated more up-front synth and organ solos in the vein of Neal Morse. Jeff conjures up some great atmospheric and aural delights on all of the songs with his guitar and keyboard playing.
Mike Kosacek’s drumming is very good on this album and it certainly adds to the dynamics of the material. He excels in many songs but for me his best work is in track 8. This song is probably the rockiest of the album and features more great guitar work from Jeff. Not my favourite track, but I can see other progsters who like Deep Purple andRush enjoying this song. Although the bass playing is OK over the whole album, and on a negative note, I felt it was a bit subdued and never really given any prominence in the mix. It would have been great to hear some Geddy Lee type bass runs to give the music some more gravitas.
Although Track 1 has the type pf symphonic opening that a band like Transatlantic would be proud of, it then enters a prolonged heavy power chord-driven phase which would have worked for me if the drumming and bass playing had been a bit more inventive to keep me interested.
Initially, while listening to the first track, I thought that this band was going to be a contradiction in musical terms, in the sense that they weren’t sure what they were or wanted to be and thus I was going to be disappointed. However, everything that followed made for enjoyable listening.
This is a very good album indeed and definitely worth checking out. I take my hat off to Jeff, and his efforts to create something very magical. As for the old DPRP neo-prog-come-symphonic Prog-o-meter, I score this a very respectable 8.