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Epica returns from the highly successful and overall excellent Divine Conspiracy. Epica has always been one of those bands that has flaws in every album, but manages to distract me from those flaws so that they really don't detract from the album. This is no exception although it actually has the least amount of flaws yet in an Epica album, so bravo to them. Obviously what makes an Epica album is a very dark, aggressive and yet subtle approach all centered around Simone Simons incredible voice. Now I don't usually like female vocals, I really don't like Nightwish or Xandria, but I do like the vocals in Seven Kingdoms and Ancient Bards. Simone's voice is an interesting combination of the incredibly operatic approach of Tarja Turunen and combine it with the more accessible approach by Sabrina Valentine and Sara Squadrani to make for a very interesting and varied vocal performance.
The flaws in this album are almost all found in the last 5 songs of the album and mostly, it's the ballads. I don't love ballads, most of the time ballads are an excuse for the singer to get a solo and let the others be really boring for however long the ballad is, this is metal, we do not like slow anything. A good ballad happens when the instrumentation is interesting and not too slow. The ballads are both slow and kind of boring, though this is old news for Epica, in general their ballads are pretty slow and boring. What saves their ballads from completely destroying the balance and pacing of an album is Simone and the orchestra behind her. Instead of doing the guitar solos and stuff behind the vocalist Epica just has Simone, the keyboards and the orchestra in the background for most of it which really makes it interesting, plus Simone's voice is just amazing and it really shines on the ballads and Tides of Time is Epica's best so far (I would like to note though that White Waters is pretty bad and the only reason I don't skip it is because Tony Kakko sings on it). The other flaws reside in the lyrics, as usual Epica is doing some socio-political commentary which is fine and all, but this time around it's a bit... well lame. Using George Bush l's "Read my lips" speech was really, really corny and Malcolm X's speech was just rather unnecessary, plus with a lot of the lyrics it seems to me as if Epica is playing it safe with very predictable, nothing special lyrics. All in all these flaws are pretty small though.
This album has some of their catchiest songs yet with some awesome choruses in songs like "Resign to Surrender", "Unleashed", "Martyr of the Free Word" and "Burn to a Cinder" these also being my favorite songs on the album. The thirteen minute epic is interestingly placed right in the middle of the album, which is an interesting decision and ultimately might work against it. While it is a good song, it's not nearly as good as "The Divine Conspiracy" and being in the middle gives it a rather anti-climactic feel. I do give it credit however because it brings in some interesting progressive touches that are a bit unusual for Epica and the solos in it are really freaking good.
In the end, what stands out most for me are the excellent songs as well as the aggressiveness balanced with subtle dark emotion; not anything unusual for Epica, but definitely their most consistent effort so far thematically and musically. The consistency is what makes this Epica's best album so far.
Pretty much all of the problems I have had with Epica’s other work I have with this album as well. It listens like symphonic metal written and played by a band familiar only with the genre’s clichés, and it is made infinitely worse by the insufferably pretentious, self-righteous asshattery of the songwriters. New rule for anyone else wanting to do symphonic metal: if your band’s name isn’t Rage and you aren’t performing ‘Dies Irae’ on Unity (good brain bleach for this, by the way), singing in Latin doesn’t make you sound cool. It makes you sound like a twat. But before we get too deep into the lyrics (actually much shallower than they first appear), let’s have a little chat about the music.
Orchestral elements in symphonic metal have to be used with, if not discretion, then at least some level of self-awareness. Overblown orchestras and full choral sections suit well the styles of music that Turisas or Powerwolf perform, for example, precisely because they fully understand that their music is not serious; they play it over the top for fun, and their audience is well aware that they are doing so. But if you aren’t integrating orchestras into a style of music that they enhance, then the result is aurally confusing and frustrating. Epica wants it all and it wants it now – death-metal growls and black-metal rasps (of which I am sorry to hear that Mark Jansen’s delivery hasn’t improved at all), churning groove-metal bass riffs, and saccharine, poppy female lead vocals courtesy of Simone Simons. A lot of what went into the blender would have sounded okay on its own strengths – for example, the guitar solos on a lot of these songs (‘Resign to Surrender’, ‘Martyr of the Free Word’, ‘Burn to a Cinder’) are not half-bad at all, but you have to wade through a lot of shit to get to them. But what comes out the other side is less than the sum of its parts, and ends up sounding jumbled.
Speaking of wading through shit, it took me several tries before I could make it all the way to the end of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ without looking for the ‘next track’ button. The track is such a mess one hardly knows where to begin – it’s as though Nuclear Blast told Mark Jansen et al to write a progressive metal song without briefing him on what progressive metal was, and without him having any clue about how to transition time signature shifts. Add into that the dilettantish New-Agey hipster schlock about merging scientific progress and spirituality along with a fashionable ersatz interest in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism and Mayan astrology (speaking of abuses of religion, I note that though Jansen and Simons are voluble enough when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths, they have next to nothing to say about the shameful history of serfdom or the lethal suppression of Dorje Shugden worship by the Tibetan would-be theocrats, or the ritual murders to which the Mayans were regularly prone) and tamen magis fornicabitur Latine and you have the one of the biggest piles of putrid, piping-hot poseurdom you are ever likely to find in the world of metal.
And then, of course, you have the end of ‘Burn to a Cinder’ and ‘Tides of Time’, which with their commercial, emotionally-manipulative piano melodies and diabetes-inducing vocal lines sound for the world like they would be right at home on a James Cameron movie soundtrack. Is this some kind of bad joke? What the fuck is this shit and who put it right in the middle of my metal?! God, please at least send me some Edenbridge or Trans-Siberian Orchestra – even they would be heavier than this pap, and they at least have some semblance of sincerity behind them.
And then there are the lyrics. We’ve already covered my problems with the Latin, and of course still more comfortably bourgeois, studiously uninformed, holier-than-thou horseshit about freedom of speech and how religious people are stupid not to have it is par for the course. Instead of Tony Blair speechifying on this record, we now have Barack Obama and George Bush Senior – again, if I want to listen to political speeches I’ll turn on the History Channel or C-SPAN, thanks much.
Poor, foolish, gullible me – I would have thought that somewhere between The Phantom Agony and Design Your Universe Epica might have improved somewhat. But no. If anything, they’ve regressed. If you are a slavish devotee of anything with a strings section and don’t really give a shit about the emotional sincerity of the music you’re listening to, then go ahead and give Design Your Universe a shot. Otherwise, steer well clear; you have been given fair warning.
5 / 20
After Epica's previous album, The Divine Conspiracy, Epica had a hell of a job to improve upon what they had already done. Their previous albums were all improvements over what came before and at some point that run of improvement has to end... right?
Well not on this occasion. If anything, Epica have produced an album better than anything they have done before. There is just as much bombast as with previous efforts in regards to choirs and orchestra, but here is sounds more powerful. DYU is heavy and probably more so than previous efforts and is something that is probably a direct result from the introduction of former God Dethroned guitarist Isaac Delahaye. Not forgetting that from the same band Ariën van Weesenbeek was recruited, giving the band a very heavy edge to it. The biggest negative for me of all things on previous albums was there were no guitar solos, however this time Isaac brings some good melodic death-styled riffs to the band in songs like Kingdom of Heaven and Deconstruct. Having said that, he also brings a more laid back style of playing in tracks like Tides of Time which is a ballad and very soft for the majority of the song.
Since I mentioned Tide of Time, I will also mention this is Simone's best performance. Simone Simons is, in my humble opinion, one of the very best female vocalists not just in metal, but in the world and is matched only by Vibeke Stene, Tarja ,and Magali Luyten. At times she has a very classical edge to her voice and at others sounds more like a rock vocalist, but whatever voice she adopts is just perfect for the song in which it accompanies.
Mark Jansen has never been the best at doing harsh vocals and at times he sounds to me like he is struggling. He certainly isn't as accomplished as Johan Hegg, for example. There are times when he sounds great, but they are few and far between. The rest of the time he sounds average.
The album also has a guest appearance from Tony Kakko from Sonata Arctica on the track White Waters which is a hauntingly beautiful ballad. Simone sounds almost hypnotic and flirtatious as she beckons the subject of the song towards the water:
"Lie down in my arms
Try not to breathe
Quiet love, you are now with me
You need no words to speak"
The production is very crisp and clear. Sascha Paeth has done a great job and nothing is drowned out at the expense of something else. It is all balanced very well. The album cover in my opinion is ok, but not as good as The Divine Conspiracy.
On past Epica records, the lyrics have been the weakest point (if you don't include a lack of solos), not because the ideas behind them were bad, but because they sounded awkward in the way they were written. This time around they are a bit better, though still not spectacular. The lyrics deal with a variety of things like love, quantum physics, and greed, for example, and the New Age Dawns saga is also continued here, something that was last done on Consign to Oblivion.
Choice cuts: Kingdom of Heaven is the longest song on the album at nearly 14 minutes, but remains interesting throughout. The song has a varying pace and uses a variety of different atmospheres to keep you engaged. Mark is good here with his grunts and Simone is amazing as always, especially in the softer sections. The song contains a spoken passage that some have commented sounds bad, but I like it and I usually hate spoken sections in music. This is one of the strongest songs here and the solo is great as well.
Tides of Time is a beautiful ballad as described above while Resign to Surrender is one of Mark's better performances, although the lyrics themselves could use some work. Simone is great and the ending of the song is superb. Isaac is again great and the performance from Ariën van Weesenbeek is good not only here but throughout the album.
Our Destiny has great riffs and again great vocals from Simone and the ending where the choir and Simone are trading lines always give me a tingle down the spine
The negatives: "The Price of Freedom (Interlude)" seems a little out of place and unnecessary. It also goes straight into Burn to a Cinder which it has nothing to do with that I can make out.
Aside from a good solo and the very last verse sung by Simone (which is one of my favorite parts of the album) - "Why can't I bleed with you? Forever I will be thrown to the wolves.
They'll feed on all our dreams." - Burn to a Cinder reminds me of Twilight and I hated that movie (my girlfriend wanted to see it and I was dragged along) and aside from the aforementioned positives is quite a weak track.
Conclusion: Overall, the album is great, the lyrics are mostly an improvement, and the instrumental skills of the band have improved thanks mostly to Isaac whose repertoire is larger than Ad Sluijter. Simone puts in yet another jaw-dropping performance and Mark's harsh vocals are mostly decent. The drumming is powerful and consistent and Yves Huts and Coen Janssen are solid on bass and piano respectively.
Any fan of their older work will no doubt love this album and anyone who is not convinced whether symphonic metal is any good may just be convinced otherwise. A great album and well worth the time to give it a listen
Side note: If you can get a hold of the Japanese version, it includes a cover of a song called Nothing's Wrong. It is a cover from a band called Heideroosjes and is very good.
Without fail, 2 years after each consecutive album, Epica returns to deliver another consistent exercise in longwinded song creation befitting their title. Their success is measured in their unique little niche between the worlds of popular gothic tinged metal and symphonic grandeur, almost like a less folksy Turisas with a sad princess and a poetic beast in place of the Vikings and dragon boats. The analogy might seem tenuous to some, but it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that a lot of followers of “The Varangian Way” also go for Simone Simons’ angelic melodies and Mark Jansen’s compositional endeavors, with or without the insistence of their girlfriends.
In some respects, Epica’s latest studio offering in “Design Your Universe” could be seen as the most accessible of their offerings. There is a massive amount of attention paid to catchiness, and the album moves a bit more quickly from one point to the next. The same winning mixture of Nightwish meets Theater Of Tragedy vocal displays alongside a Rhapsody Of Fire meets Cradle Of Filth instrumental collage remains, though the guitar sound is a bit less bass heavy and has a bit more edge to it. The inclusion of new guitarist Issac Delahaye provides an occasion for some solid lead guitar displays, something that the band has not been known for up until the is point, and is a definite draw for anyone who normally enjoys most of this band’s rivals such as Dark Moor, Fairyland and Hamka.
However, this is an album that seems to backslide a bit, particular in terms of what is going on alongside of the solid musical and vocal performance. When listening to the otherwise solid parts of the continuation of the “A New Age Begins” series off of “Consign To Oblivion”, one can’t help but be taken aback by all of the abrupt spoken narrations and somewhat campy lyrical content. Granted, Epica has always been somewhat hit or miss on lyrical subjects, taking the real life angle to conceptual albums rather than the fantasy based ones of their competitors. But things get a bit out of hand with the “Price Of Freedom” and “Burn To A Cinder” area at the halfway point of the album, where their tendencies towards politically correct themes gets slightly obnoxious, particularly the famed “Read my lips” speech by former American president George H. W. Bush, which was old news before Theatre Of Tragedy and Rhapsody (Of Fire) first began dabbling in what became Epica’s signature style, not to mention out of place.
Thankfully this is a band that is able to play off weaknesses in messaging with prowess in just about every other area. When listening to longer parts of the “A New Age Begins” series, namely “Kingdom Of Heaven” and the title song “Design Your Universe”, a healthy helping of genre eclecticism that straddles the many fences between Within Temptation and latter day Emperor. “Unleashed” also takes a few swipes at the world of power/thrash riffing ala Iced Earth alongside the dense orchestral and operatic realm of middle era Nightwish with impressive results. Even the dreamy balladry of “Tides Of Time” with strings and keyboards aplenty, and the equally serene duet with Tony Kakko in “White Waters” are a treat to the ears. It just could have been so much better had this album taken a slightly different conceptual route.
One of the safest bets in the metal world is that if any of Epica’s albums appeal to you, they all will, barring perhaps those seeking only the most refined of the style which would predispose them to only owning “The Divine Conspiracy”, as well as only “Oceanborn” and “Gates Of Oblivion” out of Nightwish and Dark Moor respectively. But pretty much any metal fan that hasn’t got enough out of the admittedly cliché beauty and the beast format of metal vocal work and the densely populated symphonic genre will find a winner here. It’s the weakest of their regular studio albums thus far, but still a respectable effort by all standards.
Whereas the other reviewers (except one) have given 90+ scores to this album I will be the first one to kind of dive the middle waters and I am going to explain why. First and foremost I am a fan of the band, I love all the albums and I certainly enjoy this one but there are some flaws and BIG ones that need to be taken into consideration.
Being with this record label could be both a blessing and a curse. It could be a blessing since they now have the money to get a really good studio for recording. They now have a powerful promotion, tour dates, etc. In other words all the paraphernalia of marketing necessary to survive on this ‘download-free-albums from the internet’. They have a powerful record label to back them up. They enjoy the ‘stars’ status becoming a worldwide recognition and stardom with video clips and airplay everywhere. It might be a curse because you basically get ‘sold-out’. Your soul has been sold to the market-devil. I say this because I am NOT attacking the record label. They have the right to sing up bands and make money out of them but that means less time to be creative, since there is a contract to fulfill. There must be catchy-radio friendly tunes so any moron who listens to it can say: hey, I listen to Epica and I like it, the lady sings like hell! The music needs to be accessible, which does not mean that it can become less complex but that it needs ‘hits’ and that can distort your perception of a record and a file example of this is ‘Never Enough’ which sounds completely out of place from the ‘Divine Conspiracy’.
Thus, what does this offer? I am not going to detail the songs since it has been appointed already. Mostly I will point out the things I consider points less than the ‘Divine Conspiracy’ album. Since the band has been evolving constantly and with D.C. they ventured into further heavier depths we now get basically a metal onslaught of death metal-esque qualities but with symphonic elements. How is that? Well, they are not YET death metal but let’s just say that without the orchestral elements and the female vocals this might very well fit into the melodic death metal category, yes, par to Arch Enemy and some others. In other words, Simone, the majority of the time takes part in the walls of choruses in the back but the grunts are taking more and more predominance and even black metalished vocals as well. We already know that Mark is not a natural grunter or growler, thus I still think comparing it to
Next to this is the fact that Simone is going more and more into the background. One of the reviews for Nightwish ‘DPP’ states that since the vast majority of the masses do not like opera it is easier to put a pop-ished singer that will appeal to more fans. That is 100% correct and Epica is applying it as well. From the Phantom Agony up to this point Simone barely sings in the operatic stye. Not that this is bad, but to me she is not reaching higher potential and the fact that she only sings in the higher notes from a pop perspective is quite a disappointment from this band who offered the classical influenced awesome album in ‘the Phantom Agony’. Maybe I am one of those picky fans who do not think that heaviness equals good metal but anyhow, seeing the rather contradictory path the band is taking I wonder what will offer next: a black metal album with 2 or 3 pop tunes? I am not saying by any means that this is a bad album. On the contrary it is a solid effort full of really heavy songs with walls of choruses and the addition of guitar solos brings an air of fresh to them.
In regards to this department and the style of the guitar solos they are very death metal influenced. Take for example the solo from ‘Martyr of the free world’ which will perfectly in a Cannibal Corpse album. This is a nice touch and certainly presents another evolution step in their career. Fortunately enough, the drumming has improved and the changes are no longer repetitive as they were on D.C. so the guy is adding nice touches of heaviness, nice double bass and really aggressive patterns plus the solid rhythm sections.
Another element worthy of mentioning is the progressive elements they are mixing more and more each time. Certainly Phantom Agony was really classical straight by all means. Consign to Oblivion ventured more into modern gothic and power elements. D.C was a heavier effort and the glimpses of progressive elements appear for the first time with Menace of Vanity, Chasing the Dragon with its awesome build up into a more explosive tune as it moves forward and the outstanding title track. The pinnacle of this evolution path on this album is certainly ‘Kingdom of heaven’. Here we get basically all the faces of Epica into one song: tempo changes, orchestral arrangements, fast and even blast beat parts, solid background vocals, very solid riffs ala Arch Enemy. In here we do listen to Simone on some operatic style that will not appeal to pop or commercial fans and some really subtle vocals plus the rhythm guitar melodies very Arch Enemy again. This is easily the best track from the entire album, not because of its length but because the many ideas creatively performed.
‘Burn to a cinder’ is a good demonstration of how pop and catchy tunes are infusing into metal. The riff which is by the way identical to ‘Threshold of the Annihilation’ by Metanoia is although solid is pure commercial metal at its best. Simone’s vocals are flat and simplistic and there is no emotion on them. If you notice it, there are no death vocals on this, and it is the reason young metal will approach the band but when they listen to the black-death metal influences and tunes either they will run away or become black metal fans in the end. On the contrary to reinforce my point is ‘Martyr of the free world’ where furious drumming opens and then some middle eastern flavored melodies. The vocals are again flat and simple and then the song becomes pop again. Despite the rather aggressive grunted vocals the song is a simple poppy tune with ‘Enigma’-alike background vocals.
I like the album and the band as stated before and I do not criticize the path taken but more of the inconsistency between the heavier approach on one hand but the poppish elements that are coming forth on the ‘hit tunes’ more and more. Still, this is a metal feast because of the many aggressive elements that are taking predominance. Nevertheless, that is, without any doubt, the price of freedom.
Two years later "The Divine Conspiracy" and after a lineup change Epica returns, with an album very well structured and with lyrical themes much more positives: while "The Divine Conspiracy" dealt with religion wars and prejudices, "Design Your Universe" tells you straight forward that you are free and free to project the world you live in, if you want this strongly enough. This is the prominent message on the album, explained with many sub-themes such as Tibetan and Maya cultures, quantic physics and near-death experiences - all of these expressed with poetry: "Don't forget you are able to design your own universe".
Everything begins with "Samadhi", an introduction both lyrically and musically; but is "Resign to Surrender" that explains the overall style of the album: as for the voices we could listen to choirs, growling vocals and female vocals (both clean and opera), as an Epica trademark, but the instrumentation is changed, we listen to a more extreme sounds with many death metal influences, a more guitar-oriented sound that anyway doesn't forget the symphonic part. The album goes through some very good songs (like "Unleashed", the first and gorgeous single), but the real highlight of the album is reached with "Kingdom of Heaven", a five-part track with both extreme parts, opera choirs and symphonic parts and even an acoustic part that the listener could relate to Opeth's style.
The album continues with songs that are just as good as the precedent ones: the best song on this second part of the album is ballad, "Tides of Time", that will melt even the more iced hearts with the beautiful performance of Simone Simons (that improves her vocals on every album). After some more heavy tracks, such as "Semblance of Liberty", being the hardest track on the album, and a last ballad, "White Waters" with the guest vocals of Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica, we find the title-track, "Design Your Universe": another long track with many different sounding parts and perfect vocal performances.
This is "Design Your Universe": the best Epica album yet, and with no doubt one of the best album 2009 gave us - so get ready to design your own universe through the excellence of this musical experience...
After an A grade live album release earlier in the year titled "The Classical Conspiracy" people were wondering if they would be able to top this great live release featuring a 60 piece orchestra and 30 piece choir as well as their soundtrack and 3 other great studio albums. With this release it seems that they have released a very worthy follow-up.
Now you may ask how does this album sound any different than Epica's previous since a lot of bands in the symphonic metal genre seemingly keep the one sound for their entire discography? Well ever since the departure of former Epica drummer Jeroen Simons there has drastic increase in the heaviness of each album. "The Divine Conspiracy" marked the beginning of this increase and the acquirement of ex God Dethroned guitarist Isaac Delahaye for "Design Your Universe" only contributed more to the factor.
You still have your awe-inspiring choirs and orchestras that gel together flawlessly with the band but something feels different. "Design Your Universe" feels completely different than any other Epica album, to me it is an album I would listen to when I feel in the mood for one of the heavier metal sub genres e.g thrash/death metal as some of the songs come very close to the heaviness. I think the main song writer Mark Jansen and Isaac have taken a strongly God Dethroned inspired guitar tone and used it well. You will notice the difference straight away after the excellent orchestral prelude "Samadhi" on the incredibly strong opening track "Resign To Surrender". Epica previously only had utilized one solo before on the track "Beyond Belief" but in this album there are several ranging from good to great contributed by Isaac with a shredding melodic death metal sound.
As for the other members they have evolved as well. Lead vocalist Simone Simons angelic vocals sounding better ever before, truly showing what she can do in "Tides of Time", an emotional ballad dedicated to the passing of Mark's grandmother. It was a bit of a shame that Simone's normal singing voice is used much more than her incredible soprano voice, this voice is used rarely in the album, really only being evident in the last chorus of "Unleashed" and sections of "Tides of Time". The harsh/growl vocals by both Mark and Arien sound better than previous efforts, there is never a spot where it seems inappropriate or illegible. Yves Huts bass is easier to hear, check out "White Waters" which also features a guest appearance by Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica fame and you will see what I mean. Coen Janssen keyboard ability is top notch for the whole of the album but the outro to the title track is one of the many moments to get shivers over.
The most single biggest improvement over Epica's other studio albums is the drumming. Ariën Weesenbeek was the session drummer for "The Divine Conspiracy" but as a session drummer he wasn't able to use all of his skill just in case if he decided not to continue with the band then a replacement could replicate his drum patterns without too much of a problem. Now since Arien is a full time member of Epica he is being used properly. Arien is quite capable at drumming at lower tempos but really shines at fast speed drum fills, blast beats and lightning fast double kick, an example would be the first half of "Kingdom of Heaven" that has the inclusion of a weird samba drum beat, something that is really out of Arien's comfort zone.
There are some minor hiccups about this album but they really shouldn't detract very much from the listening experience. The interlude "The Price of Freedom" is pointless, it really doesn't contribute to the album's strengths at all, this is exactly what the skip button is invented for. Some bits of the album were used and repeated a bit too often for my liking e.g. the chorus of the title track, they still sounded great but upon hearing them several times within a short period of time can slightly lower your interest and listening pleasure.
If you are remotely a fan of the symphonic, thrash or death metal genres I would highly suggest this album. "Design Your Universe" provides a great variety and contrast of metal sub genres that are executed with such skill and class that it is nearly beyond comprehension what this group of musicians that have done considering they have only been active a relatively short period of 6 years. I can only imagine what great things Epica can and most likely will do in the future.
It would have a 100% if not for Obama and Bush talking through the interlude.
After their phenomenal debut, Epica released "Consign to Oblivion" which kept up the highest quality in symphonic metal while offering a darker, more gothic sound. With Divine Conspiracy they grew lighter again, catchier to the point of Andrew Lloyd Weber style rhymes and melodies. Now, with Design Your Universe, they return to the darkness and sharpen their sound for a more technical, powerful album. It's exactly what I love about Epica.
From the Prelude we can hear that Consign to Oblivion sound. Rather than the gloomy, sad openers of Phantom and Divine, this album opens, like Consign, with a light symphony version of the leitmotif that will resurface at the end of the disc. Then right of the bat we're treated to some of Epica's fastest, most complex music to date. Kingdom of Heaven clocks in at over 13 minutes and far surpasses the recent Nightwish or Opeth tracks of similar length in power, emotion, melody and complexity. It's followed by an average interlude of no particular value with political connotations the album doesn't need.
But then we're back to form with five wild tracks, including one of Epica's hardest and two soft melodic songs which retain the quality and musical wit of classical symphony. Then on its final track, the album hits it's highest note: The title track is just about the coolest thing this band has ever released. It's the culmination of every lyrical and melodic theme on the album, and the ultimate expression of the band's unique sound.
Every player and every singer is on top form here, the production is flawless but not soulless, the music is catchy but never hokey, melodic but hard as hell, wild but articulate and even restrained. It is Epica's most complex work to date, but every second of it is accessible, instantly appreciable. Highly recommended for any Epica fan, recommended too for new fans who can enjoy an all out master work on first listen.
Epica is a Dutch band which represents almost everything I dislike about modern metal music. Formed around 2003 when fairy metal bands like Nightwish, After Forever and Within Temptation were really starting to take off, they were born into a trendy sound, and have only grown worse with subsequent albums. Of course, this translates into a huge success within the confused, fairweather crop of Euro gothic metal fans who need the perfect soundtrack for their Harry Potter coloring books. Design Your Universe, the the band's 5th album, was a struggle to listen through.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block here is that the band tries far too much. In addition to all the pompous symphonic elements on the album, they also incorporate 'extreme' metal in the form of guttural gothic male vocals (ala early Theater of Tragedy) and even some more blackish metal parts, as well as a mix of power and groove metal aspects which fail to 'round out' the album. Simone Simons is a practised singer (I thought her duet with Primal Fear's Ralf Scheepers was fairly catchy), but I find her very safe, operatic vocals to be a better match for the Little Mermaid III direct-to-video soundtrack, or perhaps an audition with American Idol, which she could probably win. Don't believe me? Listen to "Tides of Time". As if this weren't enough reasons to vomit, Design Your Universe is a concept album which spews forth all manner of politically correct nonsense, including an awful cliche'd sample of George Bush's 'no taxes'. Preachy much? The lyrics are fucking heinous, like the musings of some 8th grade hippie after reading some revisionist social studies textbook:
"Don't force me to believe
We're caught up in the greed
'Cause I just care for me
To break it, we'll need everyone
Think it through: unite is the only way"
Let's all hold hands together! Kum bay ah, my lord. Kum bay ah.
The real tragedy of this album is that certain individual parts of the band hold up well on their own. Guitarists Isaac Delahaye and Mark Jensen are both talented, at times explosive. Listen to tracks like "Martyr of the Free World" or "Semblance of Liberty" and you'll hear the potential these guys might have in a more straight-forward thrash/power metal band. Simons' voice isn't quite as operatic as Tarja Turunen (ex-Nightwish), but it could serve her well in a great many contexts (some of which I listed above). The production on the album is radio ready like most of the band's peers, and though they are aimless and generally go nowhere (like the endless bore "Kingdom of Heaven"), the symphonic parts will probably appeal to fans of other bands like Nightwish or later Rhapsody. The band also looks pretty in pictures!
"I will say what i think
I will do what i say
When liberty seems out of reach
We'll fight for our freedom of speech"
Epica is basically metal music for people who don't like real metal music; people who want a sampling of all its cheeses, like the girl standing outside the deli at your local supermarket with a tray of free goodies. It operates within a premise of safe ideology and good cheer, so you never have to feel guilty that it's challenging you when you listen to it in between watching your favorite programmes on the Lifetime network. If you exist in a world where Dragonforce, Nightwish and Dethklok remain supreme as the best bands you've ever discovered on Youtube (or from that cute girl in English class with the Jack Skellington t-shirt and pink and black-dyed extensions), then Epica will probably tickle you in all the right places. If you exist outside that world, we should grab a beer together and let the kids have fun on their rides.
Mark Jansen has, mostly, been reliable in creating albums that surpass the scene they are released into and the expectations of his followers. When Consign To Oblivion came out however, I was really disappointed. Not that, in itself, it wasn't a great album, it was just way too mainstream compared to the exotic, mystical grandeur of Epica's debut, with simple song structures and, of course, drastically reduced use of harsh vocals. Then, the band seemingly realized they did not want to join Theatre Of Tragedy, Sirenia and, more recently, Delain in being bands that created great female-fronted metal welcomed by both fans and critics before falling almost immediately into a huge, career-destroying slump: instead they recorded The Divine Conspiracy. That record suggested Epica were not just the offshoot of After Forever. To prove that it wasn't just an experiment or a fluke, the following LP needed to cement Epica's place as a respectable band.
Epica now has among their ranks two previous members of the Blackened Death Metal outfit God Dethroned, the first being drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek who has been in Epica since 2007, and the most recent addition to the band, Isaac Delahaye, who shared axe duties with Henri Sattler for God Dethroned albums The Lair Of The White Worm and The Toxic Touch. Although these were not among the best albums of that band, Delahaye has clearly learned a lot from his tenure in God Dethroned. Elements of the guitars used on Design Your Universe are strongly reminiscent of tracks on the The Lair Of The White Worm and even Into The Lungs Of Hell in the more aggressive moments. Ariën Van Weesenbeek puts in an excellent performance again, and carries much of the responsibility for giving this and the previous album a far more 'metal' feel than the two before.
Martyr Of The Free World displays some of the fresh ideas at work, combining the aesthetics and pace of Gothenburg Death Metal (the shadow of which also hangs over the first half of Semblance Of Liberty, a track which, frankly, makes Dimmu Borgir look like idiots) with Gregorian choirs; Simone handles verses and pre-choruses while Mark takes the choruses, reversing an established tradition of harsh/ clean vocal interplay.
About five and a half minutes into Kingdom Of Heaven, something sounding very much like Behemoth's recent tracks He Who Breeds Pestilence or Alas, The Lord Is Upon Me starts, with groaning Black Metal chords giving the song a suddenly dark atmosphere. Obviously this particular sound far predates 2009, but Behemoth is the example at the front of my mind at the moment. What they might have been thinking when they decided to extend their Black Metal quota to more than just rasping and blastbeats, and use some truly Old School sounding chords, I really don't know but it is completely awesome. There are also occasional similarities to Invisible Circles by After Forever (somber choirs providing the impetus of the few tracks they feature in rather than being an extra layer; innovative vocal lines by Simone that test the different ranges of her voice) are felt more strongly than before, ironic considering that was After Forever's first full-length without Jansen.
Much like the Hard Rock giants of the '70s such as Rainbow, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, Symphonic Metal bands have often been judged by their epics. The best example is Therion, who have Via Nocturna, The Wondrous World Of Punt and Adulruna Rediviva to their name. Epica's epics (the title tracks of all previous albums, essentially) have had more in common with Therion than, say, Ghost Love Score by Nightwish or White Pearl, Black Oceans by Sonata Arctica. This is also where the Progressive influences begin to emerge most strongly, with Kingdom Of Heaven including everything from a bluesy guitar solo to acoustic breaks and a dramatic piece of theatre between Mark Jansen and another male voice towards the end. The Prog elements suggested by the abstract cover art chosen (starkly contrasting to the elaborate mystical designs previously used) and the avant-garde title come through in the challenging nature of much of the music here. The band have developed their epic, symphonic pedigree with each subsequent album, and although the title track of the Phantom Agony was an impressive dichotomy of Power Metal melodies and Operatic vocal performance, Kingdom Of Heaven and Design Your Universe's title track far surpasses it in terms of composition and sophistication. The band is careful not to simply reiterate The Divine Conspiracy's fourteen minute closer and its artful summing up of that album, but include in both of these tracks moments that leave you with a memory of each track's musical qualities instead of simply their length - for example, Simone's fragile last notes at the end of the title track, which are simply sung across a tender piano into the ending silence. Kingdom Of Heaven is arguably the more interesting of the two, featuring the most Progressive arrangements and with not a boring moment in its almost 14-minute runtime, but the slightly shorter, less eclectic closer is by far the best song for me. It features a truly cinematic chanted chorus, very pretty acoustic guitar sections, and best of all, it ends with the orchestral outro of The Phantom Agony's title track, replayed by this album's orchestra with the rest of the band. If you have followed the band since 2003, this will make your day, and it shows a great deal of respect for their fans that Epica bring their latest album full circle so elegantly.
It wouldn't be an Epica album without some essential inclusions on the tracklist. The first is the orchestral opener. Samadhi is quite exciting, if a lot like previous intros we have heard on Epica albums. Wouldn't be the same without it, though.
The next is the compulsory single. I mean, they are on Nuclear Blast. However, while getting signed to Nuclear Blast generally precipitates a rapid decline in quality for most bands, Epica seem to join Behemoth in being a group who have seen only improvement since that point. Although Never Enough was probably the only track of The Divine Conspiracy I did not enjoy, this time around Unleashed actually offers a pleasant, very listenable combination of the simple structures found on Consign to Oblivion and the harder, darker atmosphere on this album.
The next essential component is a ballad or two; I daresay these days Epica easily edge out Nightwish for the title of the band who can write the best ballads that will make even a hardened Metalhead look chastened, or wistful, or just become quiet. Epica's ballads are less theatrical, much less Disney, and more to do with taking a calm moment amongst the melee represented by the rest of the music to reflect. Tides Of Time and White Waters are both very, very good, especially the latter which sees Tony Kakko put in his most heartfelt performance since The Power Of One from Silence. Ironically, the power ballad Tides Of Time features some of the best drumming on the album, with Weesenbeek really pulling out some great fills.
Simone's voice is, as always, a complete highlight of the album. However, here she has more presence than she has had of late. While on Consign To Oblivion she was somewhat limited by the simplistic song structures, and The Divine Conspiracy saw both her and Mark almost take a back seat to the complex compositions, here the band strike a balance between intricate arrangements and less bewildering ones that allow Simone to shine. Burn To A Cinder features a relatively predictable recipe for the band, but Simone's impassioned vocal performance turns it into one of the best songs on the album, largely due to the heartfelt, quiet outro to the song, each word enunciated by Simone with loving attention to nuance and accent.
At times, Jansen dominates the vocals, the most impressive example being the aforementioned Semblance Of Liberty, displaying a vocal style fine tuned from the rasps of his early career into deeper, more authentic growls in the vein of Sander Gommans. Mark Jansen is now a decent enough vocalist in his own right, instead of just providing a flipside to Simone and, previously, Floor Jansen.
The lyrics abandon talk of organized religion and ancient cultures to draw from science, and the effects what is known as the morphic field might have on our concept of our beings, and the effect we can have upon the world. It is appropriate that, as the band show their most capable, best-executed foray into progressiveness to date they have chosen to use lyrics about self-control and freedom of thought. It almost gets quite Buddhist at times, which is something I am sure these guys are comfortable with.
The 'A New Age Dawns' series is carried over from Consign To Oblivion, with 'The Embrace That Smothers' having drawn to its close on the previous album. The idea of new beginnings that was used to describe the end of the Mayan calendar on Consign runs smoothly into the theme of psychic human agency on Design, suggesting a respectful laying to rest of the customs of the past, while the human race endeavours to make its own future.
Despite the fact that the band have not deviated as far from the previous album as they had done with Consign To Oblivion and then The Divine Conspiracy, it may actually be a good thing, a sign that they are finding a style they can truly develop and will hopefully continue to do so in years to come. Perhaps Epica have realized that, as sad as it is, with bands like Lacuna Coil and Evanescence out there, it can be hard for a female-fronted band to be taken as seriously as it might deserve. Which may mean that the integration of elements of Black Metal, Gothenburg Metal, and increasingly Progressive soundscapes on this and the previous album is a conscious effort to show what female-fronted Metal can really be. Hopefully some stereotypes can be dismantled, and Lacuna Coil and their ilk recognized as not at all representative of such bands and merely to be avoided as bad music.
With After Forever now gone, it is all the more important that Epica, half as their legacy and half as their symbiote, produce quality music. Design Your Universe proves that the core duo of Jansen and Simons have lost none of their passion or creativity, and with the band supplemented by Weesenbeek and Delahaye, truly great things are being accomplished. With female-fronted bands I always have this worry, however, that the next album will be 'the one where they got crap', a little like someone who has had a lot of bad breakups might be hesitant about getting into a new relationship. But Epica may now be mentioned in the same breath as Amaseffer, Therion and so forth, as opposed to Delain and all that. They are a Symphonic or Progressive Metal band that happen to have a (very good) female singer, and therefore not subject to the stereotypes that are seemingly readily adopted by other popular bands with female vocalists. I have no fears that Epica will continue to improve; in fact, I'm just waiting for them to switch up their lyrics some more and do a war-themed album. 'Cause that would be, um, epic. So yeah, get this instead of whatever Goth-Rock crap is being touted as 'the next Within Temptation' at the moment.