There’s definitely something in the water for the symphonic metal genre this year. So many established bands are coming back with arguably their best efforts to date, and there’s been a whole host of memorable releases that I’m sure will still be favourites of mine for years to come. And with Epica releasing their sixth full length album too, they’ve managed to continue the trend. Their last few albums from The Divine Conspiracy onwards have been far too inconsistent, without yielding more than one or two memorable songs from each, and the overblown incoherent nature of the music, as well as the questionable vocal abilities of Simone Simons have meant that they’ve been a band with potential, but there has been a lot holding them back. While by no means perfect, as we’ll get to, The Quantum Enigma is a vast improvement, from a band that it seems feel they have something to prove. With much tighter musicianship and more of a sense of coherence, it’s certainly a breath of fresh air from a band some thought had lost their touch.
Beginning with a 2 minute orchestral introduction with string sections and choirs, it sounds as you’d expect Epica to sound. But it’s much tighter than their recent material, and it’s the first time for a while that their music actually sounds like their namesake – it has an epic feel. There’s energy behind the music, and it creates a soaring atmosphere, like a film score. And that seems to be the strength of the symphonic sections of the album, rather than being there to give the sound that symphonic rounding off as on previous releases, the compositions are well thought out, and have a cinematic, sweeping sound that invokes images in the listener’s mind. Moving into the first “real” track, The Second Stone we’re met with lightning fast riffs, sweeping orchestra, blazing drums, and the voice of Simone Simons. Though questionable on previous releases, she sounds very good here. She seems to be more aware of her strengths and plays it a little safer, sounding more natural and better than her more forced style previously. While playing it safe, it’s by no means boring and she sounds very nice and balanced – her vocals aren’t overly clean and saccharine as they have been in the past. She’s hardly a Tarja, Floor Jansen or a Dianne Van Giersbergen, but a huge improvement has closed the gulf between her and those at the top of the field. The interplay works well with the choirs on the track too. The orchestral sections are thankfully relegated away from the foreground, and their interplay with the metallic riffs works very well to give the music a well rounded sound. Mark Jansens’s growls, while not perfect, are very much improved upon, and while not particularly powerful or evil sounding, are definitely good enough, and definitely better. The fast solo at the end of the track injects a lot of energy, and it’s a good track all told. The fact there are memorable melodies is an improvement already, and the fact that the orchestra is kept restrained is great too. Everything seems tightened up, and the superfluity of certain orchestral elements is toned down, meaning that’s what is left is all contributing to the atmosphere, and the song writing is drastically improved.
Moving to the third track, The Essence of Silence is one of the highlights of the album. With an exotic feel from the strings, to the heavy chugs of the guitars and great duet between Simone and Mark, the song kicks off in stunning fashion, with Simone especially on great form. A fantastic chorus is something the band often lacks, and the riffs throughout the song are simply killers. The guitar tone has been improved from previous releases, it’s heavier and much more potent, while the solos are blistering, although some more unleashed and venomous moments throughout the album wouldn’t have gone amiss. The song seems too short unfortunately, it felt it could have been more fleshed out, and ends too quickly, the opposite of what you might find on their middle material.Victims of Contingency is another great track, and one of the catchiest here, with a great chorus, while Sense Without Sanity – The Impervious Code has more of those great orchestral sections and at seven and a half minutes long is one of the album’s epics, with pounding riffs and all around great song writing, it really builds from start to finish.
Unchain Utopia is another shorter, cinematic sounding track, with eastern sounding symphonics building a great atmosphere, including some great classical guitar running throughout the track. Perhaps lacking in heaviness, it’s still a good track, with some of the album’s best use of choirs and some really great drumming. The eastern atmosphere carries on into the beautiful interlude of the next track – it’s lovely, mellow and lush sounding, fitting well into the album,and work equally well as a part of any film score, and the way it kicks off into Chemical Insomnia, and the way it fits into the album is a testament to how much more coherent their song writing is throughout the album. The aforementioned track and Reverence – Living in the heart are the two heaviest on the album, but they still don’t get as particularly crushing as they could do, but the intertwining guitar and keyboard solos on the latter, while brief, are really impressive, and the drumming too is fast and impressive.
The next two tracks, Omen – the Ghoulish Malady, and Canvas of Life feature some stunning vocals by Simone, she sings absolutely beautifully. The former has more of those sweeping orchestrals and some melodic riffs as a backdrop to her great voice, which is softly mellow and melodious at the start, and powerful as it goes on, and once again its another catchy track, and Mark sounds particular vicious in his section. Canvas of Life has some lush strings and a soft infectious acoustic guitar melody, while Simone’s voice is all at once soft, powerful, rich and vibrant. Some of the melodies bring to mind a little of Trillium’s Slow it Down, and it’s a great ballad in that vein,and rather than seeming the album’s typical ballad, its really well done, and has a great atmosphere,while I can’t praise Simone enough.
All their albums end with their longest tracks, and with the exception of Requiem for the Indifferent, also the album’s title track – and here it’s no different in that regard. Where it is different from the last few though is that it flows really well with a great build up and atmosphere. At no point does it feel overwrought and too ridiculously over the top like the previous ones, but it’s rather a great epic track, with yet more great vocals from Simone. With catchy melodies and a pounding sound, as well as great orchestrals and a powerful solo it’s possibly the best title track in the band’s history, and certainly a great closer.
Another thing that’s quite refreshing is the lyrics. It seems that Mark Jansen has gotten all of his political ramblings out of his system on the new Mayan album, so here the lyrics aren’t so overbearingly fuelled by his ravings as they have been in the past, they’re much more toned down and the album is much better for it. Inner struggles is the main theme flowing throughout the album, and with some sections of great, relatable lyrics it’s much better than painfully overwrought rants.
There are however a few complaints. The choirs are overused, and by the end of the album they start to get a little overbearing, if their use had been cut down a fraction they’d be more effective, but having almost the same vocal lines for the choirs on each track makes them feel overwrought and they become a little grating. A bit more venom and power, as mentioned previously wouldn’t have gone amiss either, as at some points an injection of heaviness seems it would really complete the atmosphere of the album, which can feel a bit weak in places.
Overall though it’s a refreshing effort from the Dutch symphonic metal stalwarts. With a tighter sound and much better song writing, as well as the vastly improved, often beautiful vocals of Simone, it’s something of a statement from them. More epic than ever before, it’s certainly their best since Consign to Oblivion, and Epica fans are going to love it, and their detractors should be giveing the band a serious rethink. While perhaps not reaching the lofty heights of Xandria’s Sacrificium, released on the same day, it’s still an impressive release, especially The Essence of Silence and Canvas of Life. It’s an album which flows absolutely brilliantly from start to end, and this alone is a testament to how much better than it’s predecessors, it’s so much more memorable. Overall, Epica have much improved and this is them at, while not perfect, certainly their best.
The Quantum Enigma was released April 2nd 2014 by Nuclear Blast records.