Epica are a Dutch symphonic Metal success story, ten years of hard work and constant touring have built them an international following and made them one of Nuclear Blast's biggest acts.
After the high of celebrating their 10th anniversary with the release of the spectacular 'Retrospect' live dvd set it's back to business as usual and the release of this, their sixth full studio album.
Their last album, 'Requiem For The Indifferent', showed a gradual move in a heavier direction, possibly influenced by the death Metal background of comparatively recent additions drummer Arien van Weesenbeek and Isaac Delahaye. This time round they have used ex After Forever man Joost van den Broek as a producer instead of Sascha Paeth and sonically you can hear the difference.
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The guitars sound less dense and more organic and while the band have always used choirs in their sound they are really to the fore this time. I'm not saying it sounds better mind, just different.
After the traditional atmospheric instrumental intro opening track 'The Second Stone' starts off in frantic fashion before settling into a ferocious beat with Simone Simons' usual soaring mezzo soprano over the top. Gradually over time you get the usual Epica choirs and time changes and some nice memorable chorus sections. It sounds typically epic(the clue's in the name) and typical Epica but a very good start to the album.
'The Essence Of Silence' mixes Mark Jansen's grunts with the female vocals and is for me less successful with all the choirs overwhelming the song despite a nice, meaty guitar riff led mid section. This leads into the heavy 'Victims Of Contingency' which again is a mix between both vocalists and loads of choir. I find the balance of that isn't always right for me again despite some excellent guitar work and of course Arien van Weesenbeek's insanely busy drum parts. He is fast becoming one of my favourite drummers.
'Sense Of Sanity-The Impervious Code' shows off Epica's love of a wordy song title as well as their ability to mix quiet intros and a meaty, steady riff or two as backdrop to beautiful vocals from Ms Simons and then it's time for more grunts and choirs. Personally I'd like to hear the female vocals carry this song all the way through but it works well despite it's complexities. Epica don't get enough credit for their prog metal tendencies, it's there if you listen for it.
'Unchain Utopia' is a simpler, more keyboard influenced tune. Coen Janssen's keyboards are of course all over every song as he supplies the symphonic elements but occasionally he gets to shine a little. This song comes over to me as more like older Epica with it's swaying beats and singalong chorus.
After another instrumental interlude(probably a good idea as the album is 70 minutes long and an intense listen in one go) 'Chemical Insomnia' goes straight into heavy riffing mode and is another mixture of beautiful soprano and heavy riffing through various sections and time changes before adding in some more grunting and growling. Well constructed and executed it still isn't memorable enough to stand out here.
'Reverence-Living In The Heart' is more of the same but works better for me as the chorus is just more memorable and epic helping the song to another level.
'Omen-The Ghoulish Melody'(I told you about the titles) starts with some gentle piano before bringing in the guitars and the choirs but soon it's obvious that this is a more gentle restrained song although there is no way you could call it a ballad! It does stand out here with its' musicality outshining the bombast unlike most of the rest of the album. 'Canvas Of Life' starts in a similar fashion and CAN actually be described as a ballad. It does build up and up but there are nice piano hooks, acoustic guitars and again beautiful soprano to make it a joyful respite from all the intensity that's gone before. Strange that they put these two songs back to back in the running order.
'Natural Corruption raises the intensity level again but again struggles to separate itself from the pack song wise. The problem with making really long albums like this is that it's hard to completely maintain the listener's attention and the song quality.
If things hadn't been epic enough up to now album closer 'The Quantum Enigma-Kingdom Of Heaven Part 2' is twelve minutes of follow up to a thirteen minute song on 2009's 'Design Your Universe' album. If you know Epica you'll already be able how to guess how it sounds but it's still an enjoyable romp through their repertoire. Sounding more musical and less intense and heavy than much of this album it's a bit of a throwback to their earlier style and ends the album on an epic high, big guitar solo, dramatic flourish and all.
Verdict: 'Requiem For The Indifferent' was a slow burner for me and took a while to get into so I gave this one quite a few listens before sitting in front of a keyboard. I'm not much of a fan of the new production sound and some of the songwriting is a little inconsistent, maybe some self editing to take the album down to 60 minutes or less would be better. You can have too much of a good thing.
Also I thought Mark Jansen's side project Mayan took a more melodic step with their recent album and with Epica sounding so heavy and intense now I think the gap between the two is shrinking. However I shouldn't be too negative. Overall this album has a huge amount of things going for it and the large, hardcore Epica fanbase will love it I'm sure. I only love parts of it but it's still worth a listen if you have the slightest interest in heavy symphonic Metal.
Incidentally the quantum enigma is a controversy within quantum mechanics about how physics interacts with our consciousness. You try writing about that in a second language! You can never say Epica don't like a challenge!
1. Originem 2:11
2. The Second Stone 5:00
3. The Essence of Silence 4:47
4. Victims of Contingency 3:31
5. Sense Without Sanity - The Impervious Code 7:42
6. Unchain Utopia 4:45
7. The Fifth Guardian - Interlude 3:04
8. Chemical Insomnia 5:12
9. Reverence - Living in the Heart 5:02
10. Omen - The Ghoulish Malady 5:28
11. Canvas of Life 5:28
12. Natural Corruption 5:24
13. The Quantum Enigma - Kingdom of Heaven part II 11:53
Mark Jansen-guitar, grunts, screams
Coen Janssen-synthesizer, piano
Arien van Weesenbeek-drums
Isaac Delahaye-guitars, vocals
Rob van der Loo-bass