The US outfit MAJESTIC is the creative vehicle of composer and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Hamel, who made his debut, “Discension”, under this moniker in 2007. Since he was signed by Russian label MALS Records, which reissued his first effort, he's recorded and released a second album on vinyl, and now in 2009 his third production "Arrival" has, well, arrived.
While I found the initial effort from Hamel's Majestic project to be rather underwhelming, I was pleasantly surprised by this latest effort courtesy of this talented composer and musician. In two years he's managed to substantially improve what I felt where the main flaws of his first production, and this time around we're dealing with an album that comes across as well made and well performed in all departments. Of the four creations at hand on this disc, the first and the last, Gray and Arrival are the ones of real importance. Clocking in at 58 minutes in total, these two efforts dominate this release, and, as they are the best tracks by far as well, these are the ones who will make or break this excursion. Both compositions seem to have a foundation of sorts in a stylistic expression rather similar to mid-‘70s Pink Floyd. Wandering acoustic and clean electric guitars form the melodic foundation, bass and drums support in the rhythm department, while rich, warm layers of keyboards, organ and synth add a symphonic backdrop or overlay, more often than not with space-tinged embellishments. On select occasions heavier passages add a metal tinge to the proceedings, while mellow acoustic and ambient, spacey keyboard passages add variation of a more gentle nature. Instrumental sequences and vocal parts are well balanced, and, while vocalist Jessica Rasche is a real find for Hamel, his own vocal contributions aren't too shabby either – a great improvement from Majestic's 2007 debut. Both compositions shift back and forth between gentler and more energetic movements, rich in melodies and harmonies. Not the most challenging music around, but the tracks are well made and well performed, and more often than not it's hard to tell that this is, in fact, a one-man effort rather than a full-fledged band. And, while moments of true brilliance aren’t quite yet within the grasp of Hamel, the improvements he's made in just two years indicate that it won't be long until he creates an album that will make a stunning impact.
"Arrival" is a strong effort by a rapidly evolving musician and composer who might find himself becoming a household name in record time if he keeps evolving as much as he has done over the last two years. Those fond of symphonic, space-tinged progressive rock made in a manner similar to Pink Floyd's mid 70's efforts should find it an interesting production – particularly if long, epic length compositions are of interest.
As my readers will probably remember, Jeff Hamel’s debut album, “Descension”, had not impressed me overmuch, especially on account of vocals that were not really up to scratch. I am therefore glad to report that “Arrival” marks a rather sizable (even if not quite giant) leap forward for the Minneapolis-based multi-instrumentalist. In my opinion, when there are weaknesses in the vocal department, opting for an instrumental album may be the best choice. Hamel, however, found an equally valid solution – keeping the basic structure of a solo-pilot project, but enlisting the help of an hitherto unknown, yet quite impressive female vocalist by the name of Jessica Rasche. She is undoubtedly the secret weapon of this somewhat overlong, but much better devised release. Her strong, confident voice may occasionally bring Renaissance’s Annie Haslam to mind, and is in most cases well-suited to the material – though some of the harder-edged moments might have been better served by a gutsier set of pipes. Thankfully, she eschews the operatic excesses so typical of symphonic/Gothic metal, and keeps true to her effective yet restrained approach. Hamel’s own vocals, which were probably the biggest weakness of “Descension”, and used rather sparingly here, show rather dramatic signs of improvement, and the two singers complement each other nicely. Hamel has also clearly matured as a composer. Instead of the 10-odd shorter songs featured on “Descension”, he went for only four tracks spread out over almost 80 minutes. Two of them fall under the used and abused definition of ‘epics’, especially the 36-minute title-track, which is divided in three sections. As my habitual readers will probably expect me to say, “Arrival”’s biggest flaw lies indeed in its running time, which means the inevitable presence of quite a bit of filler. In fact, the album’s rating would have been higher if not for this not inconsiderable detail. In fact, Arrival (the song) throws far too many ideas together in true ‘kitchen-sink’ fashion, until it becomes a real challenge to follow its meanderings. It does not help either that most of the introductory section is lifted from Pink Floyd’s iconic Shine On You Crazy Diamond – an impression that is only dispelled by the entrance of Rasche’s vocals. The other three numbers, however, tell a different story. Album opener Gray is occasionally reminiscent of early Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree, with its heady mixture of hard-edged riffs and spacey textures, though towards the end the shadow of Keith Emerson rears its head in some of the keyboard passages. In spite of its 22-minute running time, the song is quite cohesive, and never overstays its welcome. The two shorter tracks (each slightly under 10 minutes), though quite different in style and mood, offer an equally satisfactory level of quality. The more melodic of the two, Wish strays in Neo Prog territory, with some beautiful, Gilmourian-sounding guitar work; while Glide is darker and heavier, bringing to mind bands like The Gathering, where cleam, pure female vocals are contrasted with harsh, guttural riffing. One of the more positive aspects of this album lies in its organic sound, which makes the dreaded programmed drums sound almost natural. Though not a perfect achievement, “Arrival” contains enough interesting material to make it a worthwhile listening experience. Moreover, it seems that Hamel has finally put together a live band, so that on his next release he will hopefully avail himself of some new input.
Although undeniably overlong, “Arrival” is a definite step forward for Jeff Hamel, and a much more cohesive offering that may appeal to both prog-metal and psychedelic/space rock fans. Jessica Rasche is indeed a remarkable find, and the news that Hamel and Rasche will be touring with a live band will definitely be greeted with enthusiasm by those who have found this album to their taste.