You see, when you finally find that diamond in the rough, that one band that knows what they're doing and why they're doing it, and can actually do it, the whole world seems right. That was my excitement at finding Dutch Gothic/Symphonic metal band Epica. This album doesn't seem to give a care what everyone else around them is doing, they just want to make kick-butt soprano mayhem and they seem to be doing it right.
Epica blends highly technical metal (read: 5 of the 6 members have a degree of even a masters degree in music) and second-to-none lead vocals, courtesy of the beautiful soprano Simone Simons with a tempered orchestral layer (used for emphasis, but not taken too far as some bands in the genre have done) and a small-but-effective choir that is often singing in latin and gives a wonderful feel to the music. On top of that, co-founder and guitarist Mark Jansen lends his death metal grunts to the mix with moderate effectiveness throughout the album, giving a bit of a beauty-and-the-beast atmosphere to the band. In fact, the band seems to focus a lot on the light-and-dark contrasts in every facet of their music, truly exploring the limits of dynamics and grandure.
"Design Your Universe" is a high point in their career, showing a band who are not willing to relent in their pursuit of head-banging riffs mixed with fist-pumping choruses. Throughout the 75mins+ running time, they rarely slow down for long enough to catch your breath, but when they do it is with stunning results: the ballad "Tides of Time" (one of only two real ballads on the album) would not only have made my Best Songs of the Year compilation CD, but would probably have been its crowning glory. It's pure beauty, and Simons is allowed time to really show us what her voice is made of. As far as the rock goes, "Martyr of the Free Word" is one of the most fun moments on the album; there is just so much going on. The musicians seem to get lost in the moment, and there is about a 2-minute instrumental in between the first chorus and second verse where they just seem to get lost in what they're doing. There are numerous head-turn moments, where a casual listener may have to stare at the speakers and say "did they actually just do that?". So good.
I really do have to mention the 13-and-a-half minute title track too. One has to ask themselves: who would not want to hear a gothic choir singing about Quantum Physics over the top of raucous double-kick patterns? It's just sublime. There really isn't a weak moment on the album, although one could argue it loses a little bit of steam in the track 10-12 area. But that's a very small complaint against the backdrop of almost 80 minutes of sublime metal. Overall, the sound may seem a little quirky or even cheesy at first listen, especially to those not used to the orchestration of symphonic metal, nut it really is a rewarding album once you've given it enough listens. Great band, and almost a perfect release for them in my eyes. 5/5