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Lots of potential that fails to deliver - 40%

CardOfDoom, May 28th, 2014

It can be quite interesting to listen to the entirety of a band's work within a short amount of time. It enables one to see a band's evolution quite clearly, as well as enabling the listener to have a better understanding of the quality of a band as a whole rather than just one album. As someone who began listening to Epica about five months ago at the time of this writing, I had five full-lengths immediately available for my listening pleasure (or displeasure). I decided to start at the beginning, downloading The Phantom Agony almost blindly. I didn't read in depth into any other opinions, and went in hoping to find something good. The Phantom Agony did nothing to impress me on first listen, and further listens have done nothing to elevate it for me.

To understand The Phantom Agony better, one must look at the events surrounding it. Epica mastermind Mark Jansen left the well-known After Forever in 2002, and this album was released in 2003, so it is of little surprise that Epica sound extremely similar to Jansen's previous band, to a point where some have accused them of being little more than a glorified After Forever clone. While the accuracy of this statement is debatable when applied to their later works, this unfortunately describes The Phantom Agony quite accurately. Epica feature the contrast of operatic vocals with death growls, the carefully arranged string sections and choirs, and lyrical themes of the potential dangers of organized religion, all of which are present in After Forever. However, The Phantom Agony has one notable thing that previous After Forever works don't: non-engaging songwriting.

Epica has made the unfortunate but common mistake of focusing on sound rather than substance. Nothing on The Phantom Agony besides the growls (more on those later) is a particularly unpleasant listening experience, but there is almost nothing that sticks in the listener's mind afterward. Even after listening multiple times, I recall only about 3 or 4 minutes of sound. This lack of ideas is most prevalent on the title and closing track, where it goes on and on for over nine minutes, yet accomplishes almost nothing.

Another notable weakness of The Phantom Agony is Mark Jansen's vocal performance. While his vocal work for After Forever was solid if not impressive, he makes many blunders here, failing to adequately provide the intended "beauty and the beast" effect. In addition to sounding decidedly weak and hollow, he gives the impression of someone getting strangled to death. This can get very frustrating when it sounds for a moment that the band may be on to something, an he comes in with his annoying vocal performance. This is well exemplified on "Sensorium", which starts out the album relatively strong (if one disregards the intro piece "Adyta", which does little more than add to the album's running time) with the piano and guitars forming a delicate balance, and Simone Simons performing quite well, until Jansen comes in at about two minutes, making the song fail to reach its full potential.

Simons is a competent and talented vocalist, utilizing her operatic range to develop the grandiose atmosphere present throughout the entire album. In fact, Simons is probably the best part of Epica on this particular album, being gifted by any definition of the word. However, when compared to other symphonic metal singers, Simons sounds quite generic, lacking anything close to the charisma of Tarja Turunen or the power and versatility of Floor Jansen.

The quality of the lyrical expression will likely be quite different for any listener. The main theme of the album, as mentioned before, is the showcasing of the worse aspects of organized religion. Very vague language is used, but if one brushes it off a bit, the ideas are very blunt and in-your-face, making one slightly wonder why they even bothered with a subtle façade. If one does not like being "preached at", then they will find little of quality in this department. If, however, one enjoys it when a band attempts to sound intellectual, these will be right up your alley.

However, vagueness can be a song's undoing. On the track "Façade of Reality", the lyrics are vague to the point where their intended message falls completely flat. The song is intended to be about the 9/11 disaster, but the only element of the song that directly links to the event is the speech excerpt of former British prime minister Tony Blair. It is quite jarring to hear a vague message that has no clear meaning next to something so blunt it can be compared to getting smashed over the head with an anvil, but yet makes no sense in the immediate context of the song. The other occasion on which a similar tactic is used falls equally flat. In "Seif Al Din", Simons begins a lengthy monologue after the first verse, which takes up the majority of the song. The message contained within is quite profound, but it goes on for far too long and feels shoehorned in. While shorter spoken sections have been used on later Epica albums to much more effect, this one would be done well by taking a cue from William Shakespeare: "brevity is the soul of wit".

The insomnia-curing qualities of The Phantom Agony can perhaps be attributed to the release date. It was released in June of 2003, barely a year after Jansen's departure from After Forever, possibly showing that Jansen was eager to prove that he could make it without his previous band, and thus rushed to get the album done. It is unfortunate if that is the case, for The Phantom Agony could have been much better if the band had been given more time to refine their ideas and remove some of the aspects that did not work so well. If one is seeking to begin following Epica, you would be better served by any of their subsequent albums. However, if you're an Epica fan with a little money to spend, you'll likely be quite satisfied with The Phantom Agony.

The factual ennui - 45%

naverhtrad, June 10th, 2011

So, I’m listening to The Phantom Agony again, and I can’t help thinking that Epica formed when Mark Jansen was strung out on whatever drugs he was doing and happened to listen to an old Tristania or Sirenia album. I’m guessing the original pitch went something like: ‘Hey – hey, bros, these guys sound pretty cool, but they have way too much talent. Let’s, like, dumb down all the guitars and shit and overdub everything with more orchestral effects to the point where we sound like a cheap Nightwish clone. And more Latin chanting, we gotta have that! Oh, also, let’s rip off Tristania’s criticisms of organised religion and distil them into every song we do, only let’s be whinier, more self-righteous and more generally obnoxious about it, to show everybody that we mean Serious Business!’ As though a.) the whole anti-clerical message hasn’t been done before, a thousand times better than it is here (again, see World of Glass and even Illumination by Tristania), and b.) they kind of miss the fucking point by proclaiming their own mythology and their own version of an absolute truth.

Yup. That’s pretty much it. Unlike the more established names in the symphonic-gothic genre (and even some recent upstarts like Liquid Sky), these guys don’t change up their routine at all, and stick mostly to the clichés of the genre – melodramatic symphonic arrangements and mediocre, unconvincing (on Jansen’s part, not Simons’) ‘beauty-and-the-beast’ vocals. (At certain points, particularly on ‘Façade of Reality’, ‘Run for a Fall’, Mark’s harsh vox sounds like he’s being strangled, more than the one likely to be doing the strangling.) Simons herself is obviously a talented singer, but very generic for her genre. And I have no gripes with the other instrumentation, except for the fact that not much is really done with it.

The first half of the album seriously drags – ‘Adyta’ is a pretty generic orchestral intro track that fails to engage. ‘Sensorium’ and ‘Cry for the Moon’ manage to pick up the pace a little with some fairly decent bass and violins work before Epica slides back down into drag territory for the next two songs. ‘Feint’ in particular belongs to Epica’s boring-and-preachy yawn-fest set list. Okay, here we go, an track that actually manages to approach epicness in ‘Façade of Reality’. Yup, here we actually have some power, some well-paced progression and build-ups, some meat and bones to add to all the airy-fairy symphonic arrangements that came before. We have a sound that begins to sound vast and terrifying rather than merely ‘nice’ in the manner of the previous orchestral portions… at least until Tony Blair starts speechifying and I start snoring again. Thankfully, it’s just two brief segments on that song. They manage to actually bring back this power on ‘Run for a Fall’ and, to an extent, ‘Seif al-Din’, but once again, the pretentious and preachy spoken-word section in ‘Seif al-Din’ kills its momentum. Some decent, legitimately epic moments reminiscent of a John Williams soundtrack appear in ‘The Phantom Agony’ (particularly from the beginning and near the end), but all-in-all it’s mostly more of the same – they start coasting on a rather predictable mid-tempo power-metal riff about three minutes in and cling to it like a safety blanket.

So, end verdict? I’m lukewarm on Epica’s debut. On the one hand, the instrumentation is all as crisp and listenable as one would like – no listening agony there, phantom or otherwise – and the execution is all very proficient (the sole possible exception being the harsh vox), but what they do with it kind of annoys me. They’re almost a parody band of all the clichés of symphonic metal… or they would be if they didn’t at the same time manage to be so far up their own arses with their lyrics.

9 / 20

Weighty subjects in a familiar template. - 82%

hells_unicorn, May 23rd, 2011

When analyzing the lineup shifts and births of new projects, there seems to be an unending succession of cliché situations revolving around creative differences. The unique quirk surrounding some of the more well-known Gothic tinged metal bands of the late 90s and early 2000s (aka the melodic expansions of the beauty and the beast concept pioneered by Theater Of Tragedy) seems to be the exodus of the principle songwriter from the former band in order to found a new one, and taking the signature sound of the former with him. Such was the case with Morten Veland’s transition from Tristania to Sirenia, and it is doubly as blatant with Mark Jansen’s flight from After Forever into the somewhat more commercially successful Epica. In fact, the well put together debut that is “The Phantom Agony” doesn’t hide its nature as a continuation of “Prison Of Desire”, which superimposes a socio-politically/theologically controversial lyrical content over a largely tried and true musical format.

The charm in this fairly predictable endeavor is that while originality tends to take a backseat to familiarity, the quality of the execution is on point. In many respects, this is a more systematic reinterpretation of Nightwish with a stronger helping of riff work and a downplayed keyboard and lead guitar display. The influences range from some more familiar bands to the style such as Rhapsody (Of Fire) and Within Temptation, with occasional references to a slightly more gallop-happy, old guard, thrashing character more readily associated with Iced Earth. Mark’s throaty growls are largely orthodox in nature, reminding a bit of Chris Barnes’ latter day work with Cannibal Corpse circa “The Bleeding” where higher pitched shrieks were layered in alongside the guttural barks. But the main draw, and intentionally so given her now very renowned stage presence, is classically trained mezzo-soprano Simone Simmons. Her voice fills the room with the same level of emotional intensity as Tarja’s, but with a somewhat more restrained and dreamy demeanor, which makes for quite an interesting contrast to the otherwise percussive and bombastic music surrounding it.

Song for song, this is a very consistent album, though there isn’t really one particular song that really jumps out and demands universal praise like a number of heavily ambitious works out of a number of older and more established bands. Most of the more enticing mixtures of hectic Neo-classical and metallic wonder are found in the various parts of the continuation of the “The Embrace That Smothers” series from the first After Forever album, of which “Façade Of Reality” hits the hardest with an astounding set of vocal interchanges and a few samples from speeches in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, then a much more sensitive subject than now. The segue from the beginning prelude to “Sensorium” is also brilliantly accomplished, though the first full length song here largely resembles a slightly better produced yet slower version of what was accomplished by Fairyland’s debut “Of Wars In Osyrhia”, an album that didn’t quite reach its full commercial potential due to a very unstable lineup in said French symphonic band.

Some have commented that this is the sort of direction that Gothic metal should take, and it’s pretty understandable why this would be a common sentiment. This is a style that usually tends to be steeped in industrial and post-rock clichés and hasn’t progressed a whole lot in spite of some interesting flirtations with death/doom during the 1990s. This presents the style in a much more energetic and perhaps even triumphant manner when downplaying the fatalistic and somewhat depressing images depicted. This is one of those albums that, while not quite an absolute homerun, has a good amount of crossover appeal and can probably convince a few of those pretty, pale faced Goth girl types to give the geeky power metal fan a chance at a date rather than the near equally effeminate tortured poet types they often go for. Call it a disturbing case of crosspollination if you like, but metal is all about eliminating taboos, so why not?

Impressive - 90%

Sue, January 29th, 2008

From the ashes of early After Forever came Epica, Jansens's band that would continue the more serious symphonic qualities that his old band would soon abandon. The result is a high quality work that would not only fulfill the 'Embrace' series that the author began with the other band, but add a new vocalist (who sounds remarkably like Floor, but would surpass her talents by Divine Conspiracy), and a new level of quality and classical melody.

By the time Epica got on the air, Nightwish and Tristania had already flooded Europe with this sort of music, and some may wonder why we needed another symphonic metal band with operatic vocals. Phantom Agony tells us: Because it's really, really cool. And this album is really, really well done. The dark chant of the opening, the keyboard segue into a masterful series of songs that would last till the end of the album, every alteration in the theme and leitmotif that will catch our brains is original, inspiring, and as the name would suggest, epic.

The music style will be familiar to anyone who knows Nightwish or Leaves Eyes, but now superior rough vocals are added into the mix; the themes are more influenced by classical music than the riff structure of common metal. Where Epica would later succumb to a greater Andrew Lloyd Weber influence than true classical music, Phantom Agony, and it's B-sides, are the purest form they had to offer. I would be tempted to give the album 99% were it not for the critical error of putting a 2 minute long sample of Tony Blair talking about 9/11 in the middle of what would have been one of the coolest gregorian tracks. Seriously, does a medieval sounding extreme metal album really need a pop culture governmental propaganda speech disrupting it's flow? I don't care what the song is about, the themes about religious hatred and tolerance are all well and good and the lyrics ain't half bad but Tony friggin Blair? Here?

That sickening flaw aside every track on this album is of exceptional quality, There is a soft song, some hard songs, and all are masterful in their use of the instruments, voices and high production value. If you like the genre check it out, if new to the genre start with Nightwish like the rest of the crowd and move your way up.

Not Bad Too, But Definitely Unoriginal - 78%

NecroWraith, July 17th, 2007

The similarities of this band and Nightwish are astounding. That is the first point I wish to bring up: originality. This band lacks it. BADLY. Epica's Simone Simons may be a talented opera singer, but I think it's pretty obvious that she pales in comparison to Nightwish's Tarja. Now that you know what to expect [a Nightwish rip-off band] let me continue...

The Phantom Agony is in no way a bad album. In fact, for a debut, I'd go as far as to say that it is incredibly promising. The song structures are quite interesting, with a mixture of operatic vocals and death-metal-ish growls. But again, it is nothing that we haven't heard before, and we've definitely heard it done better.

A strong similarity between the songs may tend to bore the average listener a bit. There does seem to be a bit of a lack of instruments in some parts, leaving the music to sound plain and empty. There is a use of keyboards, but they would be a LOT stronger if they were used more often. All the other instruments are mediocre, and the only 'instrument' I have to praise is Simone Simons' singing, which is good, although again I say, lacking in originality.

Epica seems like a band with a promising future on later albums, but they simply didn't pull it off on The Phantom Agony. Yet if you're big on female-fronted operatic metal, check this out. Don't let my 78 rating scare you away. Just know what you're expecting. A weaker version of Nightwish.

-Marcin C.

A Promising Debut - 85%

DL_Alexithymia, June 12th, 2007

As we all know, Mark Jansen left After Forever just after their second full-length release due to "creative differences." Since then, he's formed Epica, fronted by his [now] ex-girlfriend, Simone Simons.

Epica's style is very much in the vein of Prison of Desire-era After Forever, a mix of power metal with gothic and symphonic styles. The Phantom Agony even includes live strings, horns, and choir, something that many "symphonic" metal acts cannot boast. Epica has been described as over-the-top, which is true, but at least it's done in a good way.

The Phantom Agony's musicianship is quite good, the highest point being Mark's quick guitar skills and the excellent drumming, definately flaunted in their faster-paced songs. The vocals, however, are their downfall. I'd imagine that guteral vocals could fit well into Epica's music, but Mark's premature "growls/screams/grunts" make me want to bop the fool over the head and shut his mouth.

Any foolish little fangirl/boy of female-fronted metal will probably say that Simone is one of the best female vocalists around. Uh, no. Simone Simons' female vocals here could also have been much better [they've improved over the course of her career] if it weren't for the forced "wailing" that people call operatic, and her/the band's desire to have her sing high vocal lines way outside of her range [she claims to be a mezzo-soprano]. Simone says she was first influenced to start singing when she heard Nightwish's Oceanborn album as a teenager, and began taking lessons. Sadly, her vocals here sound like she's never had a single lesson in her life. When her voice isn't wailing, however, she sounds quite nice.

Songwriting-wise, this album is very excellent, and their best songwriting to date in my opinion. Standout songs include the likes of "Facade of Reality" and "Cry for the Moon." "Run for a Fall" is also a great track that could have been much better if it weren't for Simone's wailing way out of her range. "Feint" is a simple ballad that was released as a single, which includes the best vocals from Simone on this album. "The Phantom Agony," originally about nine minutes long, was also released as a single-- but about 5 minutes shorter. The single version carries much more power, to be honest, as the album version is actually very drawn-out and includes pointless filler, a syndrome later to plague songs on later Epica releases.

However, in conclusion, this album was an amazing start for Epica, and it's a shame that some quailties of this album did not carry over to their following release, Consign to Oblivion.

The way gothic metal should be done - 94%

TommyA, December 13th, 2006

A year before this was released; Mark Jansen had left After Forever to form Epica. "The Phantom Agony" is their fantastic debut album. Everyone considers "Consign to Oblivion" as Epica's masterpiece, yet I find their debut to be much more moving and original.

Similarities between Epica and early After Forever are unavoidable. After all, they both had the same composer, so you have to expect some similarities. Yet After Forever had a lot of elements orienting towards power metal, while Epica plays symphonic gothic metal. However, you will definitely like this if you enjoyed "Prison of Desire" and "Decipher".

Epica is made up of 2 guitars, a bass guitar, drums and synths. Besides that, it has a small orchestra with 3 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a contrabass. They also have a choir with a bass, a tenor, 2 altos and 2 sopranos. So, as you can see, Epica has a pretty unique sound. They play symphonic music that sounds like a historical movie soundtrack (just listen to the ending music of the title track to get the idea).

To top it all, there's the amazing mezzo-soprano; Simone Simons. Her voice is very serene and adds beauty to all the tracks. Although she's not able to reach the same high notes as Floor Jansen (After Forever) could, her voice is still very delightful. In the songs "Illusive Consensus" and "Facade of Reality", Simone is simply stunning.

Lyrically, "The Phantom Agony" is quite varied. It ranges from tracks about life and how we're ruining it ("Sensorium", "The Phantom Agony") to tracks about religion ("Facade of Reality", Seif al Din"). There's also a track in which Mark Jansen talks against his old band; After Forever. The best lyrics have to be the ones on "Facade of Reality" which talk about how we're destroying ourselves through religion dividing (emphasizing the events that occurred on the 11th of September).

Every track in the album is unique and different than the others. No track sounds the same. If I had to pick the highlights, they would be "Cry for the Moon", "Illusive Consensus", "Facade of Reality" and "Seif al Din". My personal favorite track is "Facade of Reality"; one of the best gothic metal songs I've ever heard.

I’d recommend "The Phantom Agony" to anyone into gothic metal. However, I’d suggest buying "Consign to Oblivion" first, since it is much more accessible than this is. Just make sure to buy this along the way. This is one of the best gothic metal releases I’ve ever heard.

The Phantom Agony - 85%

RedMortalFlower, July 5th, 2004

EPICA
The Phantom Agony

Convinced that his old band wouldn't give him a decent future, Mark Jansen decided to re-start everything. The result of the work is Epica, an exponent of the Gothic Metal scenery. With a young singer, Simone Simons, and skilled musicians, Epica is growing more and more.

The influences of After Forever are evident and inevitable: Mark Jansen is the mentor of both of the bands. But this is not a problem, Epica has its own quality. For example, Simone Simons' voice, that is unique.

Epica lyrics are an open critique for the actual world, that has been prejudiced by a lot of wars caused by religious disagreements. This theme is more evident in musics like 'Cry For The Moon', 'Façade of Reality' and the marvellous 'The Phantom Agony', which gives its name to the album (although the other musics talk about the theme, too).

The melodies are very well-done, and the arrangements are good, too. These last ones are interesting, with their influences of arabian musics, as you can hear in 'Seif al Din".

Epica is a good band. Although it's a new one, the good work is evident. We hope the next albuns are so good as 'The Phantom Agony', or much better.

Different... - 50%

PowerMetalGuardian, June 23rd, 2003

This album is very different. In that I mean the music is out there! It has good quailities, and bad quailities which both equal each other out. Epica is basically like any gothic band. Opera girl singer, dude that does growling vocals, soft enchanting ambient music, while having some decent guitar riffs.

This album opens up with Adyta, which is a pointless intro. It fails to connect the music. It fails to leave an impression of greatness. Once the intro gets going it's to late. The paino comes in and then jumps into the next song, Sensorium. The begining of this song kicks major ass because the awsome piano piece goes great with the fast guitar riff and awsome drum tempo. If it is one thing great about this album it is the guitar work. The riffs are blazing and drum beats hit on everytime. Some examples of awsome riffs are the intro riff to Illusive Consensus and main riff of Facade Of Reality.

Another great thing about this album is the way everything blends togther. The drum does its job by creating a nice steady beat, while delievering a kick ass fast performance. Even the instruments, such as the violin and piano all work wonderfully on this album. One thing that sucks about this album is the singing. The female singer sings in an operatic voice, that while nice, is just bland. It has been done, and gets boring fast. Same for the male singer. For example the song Seif Al Din, the male singer takes on, and manages a very dull performance. How can you really be good at growling though? It has been done. Some other cool things are the talking parts in this album, which creates a story and allows this album to have some kind of feel to it.

This album gets boring fast. It has some kick ass songs with nice riffs that will make you headbang. But the mix up of slow songs to fast songs ratio is not equal. While the singing is nice, there is nothing to brag about. The backup vocals suck hardcore. Sometimes it feels as though I am listening to a church choir with distorted guitars. Sometimes it takes on an almost Therion type of fantasy/mythology feel, I could be wrong though. If you're into the whole goth music then you will like this one, but if not -then be warned this is very different.