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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.