Sunday, 29 June 2014

Uriah Heep's 'Outsider' - Album Review

Despite being contemporaries, Uriah Heep are never usually mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. In my opinion though, Uriah Heep are just as important to the development of the hard rock and heavy metal genres as those other three bands, and made big vocal harmonies and big keyboards popular. Over the years, Uriah Heep have covered most elements of rock and metal and their discography is pretty consistent considering how many people have been in the band since forming in 1969. Founding member and guitarist Mick Box is the only original member left in the band, and has been for many years, but he always surrounds himself with excellent musicians that help to further the band's legacy. Frontman Bernie Shaw and keyboardist Phil Lanzon have both been in the band for a long time now, nearly thirty years as they both joined in 1986. These three men are the backbone of the modern Heep sound. Mixing Shaw's strong vocals, Box's wah-drenched guitar and Lanzon's powerful hammond organ has found the band continued success and brings the sound from the band's classic early 1970s era into a new age. Relative newcomer, drummer Russell Gilbrook, helps to add a harder edge to Heep's sound. He joined the band in 2007 and the two albums he has played on have probably been the heaviest the band have produced. Both 2008's Wake the Sleeper and 2011's Into the Wild are excellent albums, and have helped bring Heep back into the spotlight after a ten year gap of recording new material. Outsider is the band's latest album and it follows the same hard-hitting format of the previous couple. There are no ballads this time around, and the album rocks hard as a result. There is nothing new here, but if you have enjoyed Heep albums past, then Outsider will surely please you. Unfortunately though, there is a little sadness surrounding this album as it is the first since 1985's Equator not to feature long-time bassist Trevor Bolder (Equator was the start of his second tenure with the band - he was also a member from 1976 to 1981) who passed away last year. His replacement, Davey Rimmer (Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction) does an excellent job replicating his fluid style however, and locks in well with Gilbrook to form a tight rhythm section.

As soon as the opening number Speed of Sound starts we hear the rumbling of hammond organ. If this is not a sign that this album is going to rock, then I do not know what is! Organ is all over this song, and envelops all of Box's muscular guitar work. Shaw's vocals drive the song and his natural melody is infectious - especially in the chorus where he harmonised by the organ and some of the trademark Heep backing vocals. Lanzon gets to shine with some big organ melodies towards the end of the song and some big vocal stabs recall the band's earliest work. One Minute opens with some gentle piano, which is a fairly uncommon instrument for the band, and Shaw sings nicely over it. This is really the only 'quiet' moment on a very hard rocking album, but it does not last long as the rest of the band join in and turn the one into another signature Heep rocker. Rimmer's bassline is very distinctive throughout the verses and the choruses are secretly anthemic. Box gets a short solo spot to use his wah pedal but it is the overall groove of this song that stands out. The next couple of numbers are a little heavier. The Law has a really strong riff from Box who manages to dominate the song despite some competition from Lanzon's hammond. The chorus has an excellent rhythm, helped by some almost galloped bass sections from Rimmer with Shaw following them with his vocal lines. The Outsider follows in a similar vein and Gilbrook makes his presence felt with some tight double-bass drumming. It is a fast track with some excellent guitar/keyboard interplay and a chorus complete with plenty of those famous vocal harmonies. It is a very catchy song that is sure to go down well live if the band decide to include it in their set. These last couple of songs really encapsulate what Uriah Heep is about at the moment, and recall their previous couple of albums. Rock the Foundation is another groovy mid-paced rock song with plenty of lush keyboards and prominent bass playing. The chorus is probably the biggest and most melodic on the album so far. It borders on the silly, but it stays just the right side of the line and makes for a feel-good sing-a-long song. The next highlight is the upbeat rhomp Looking at You which is simple but really enjoyable. It makes good use of the band's trademark vocal harmonies. Probably only the Eagles mastered harmony vocals better than the Heep, and Lanzon's organ solo is very good.

Can't Take That Away is another excellent song. The verse has a great swing feel to it and the chorus really rocks as Lanzon's hammond accentuates Shaw's vocals perfectly. Looking at recent setlists, the band have decided to play this one live and I can see why. It also gives Box a chance to flex his muscles and his guitar solo on this song really is very good. It is pretty fast, but still retains plenty of melody. He might not be the most inventive guitarist out there, but he definitely has a recognisable style and write great songs! Jessie is slightly more laid back, but it still rocks! The chorus is almost perfect with huge harmonies and melodic lead vocals from Shaw. It is the sort of song that Heep have made a career out of and Box probably writes in his sleep. There are better songs here, but as I said the chorus is excellent and the song is a nice, tight rocker. Kiss the Rainbow is up next and it is another hammond-led piece that has a rather old-school vibe to it. Again, it is slightly more laid back which lends itself to that slightly early 1970s sound. Again, the song is built from the bottom up, with Rimmer and Gilbrook laying a solid, tight foundation with Lanzon's flourishes adding the colour and extra melodies. The second half of the song has lots of good guitar playing from Box with a short solo that then extends under the rest of the repeated choruses. It adds another layer to the already big sound and adds extra melody to Shaw's vocals. The final song on the album, Say Goodbye, is another fairly standard Heep song but it has a really nice guitar riff from Box that dominates the arrangement and reappears often throughout. The start of this song however is Lanzon, who plays his hammond like it is going out of fashion. The solo is excellent and brings us back to a time when keyboards were cool, and even expected! It is a slightly odd way to end the album, as the song is short and fairly basic, but by doing so the album rocks until the very end and does not miss a beat. When the dust settles, Outsider will probably not be held is quite as high regard as Wake the Sleeper or Into the Wild - but it is still a worthy entry into the Heep back catalogue. Heep have been doing for so long now, that is amazing that they can still produce albums this strong without sounding stale. They are not doing anything new, but then nobody expects them to do so. They have already had one groundbreaking era, they are not going to have another! I will enjoy Heep albums as long as they keep making them.

The album was released on 9th June 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for One Minute.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Mostly Autumn's 'Dressed in Voices' - Album Review

Mostly Autumn were the first ever band that I saw live back in 2006, and to this day remain one of my favourite bands. Despite the fact that my music taste has grown and evolved over time, I never tire of hearing Mostly Autumn's music or seeing them live. The band are on a great run of form at the moment, with their last two albums: 2010's Go Well Diamond Heart and 2012's The Ghost Moon Orchestra; being very memorable and strong efforts woth plenty of great songs between them. Band leader Bryan Josh and vocalist Olivia Sparnenn have clearly formed a very strong writing partnership, but it is on the band's eleventh album, Dressed in Voices, where we see the very best of what they can produce. In short, this album is fantastic and, when the dust settles, this might be considered their best work yet. It is also the first concept album in the band's history, and tells the story of a murderer who is forced to witness the memories and life of his victim so he can understand the full implications of his actions. This is not a happy album by any means, but it is very well written and so full of emotion that it barely seems to matter. Music is there to move us in different ways, and Dressed in Voices excels at this. As a result, it is the band's most focussed album to date, and the use of the concept to drive and influence the songwriting has done wonders for the band. All the pieces of this album fit well together and it makes for a hugely consistent piece of work. The band line-up on this album is much the same as it has been for the last few years, minus drummer Gavin Griffiths. As a result Alex Cromarty, who played live with the band for much of last year, makes his debut in the studio with the band. I enjoyed his contributions to the live band last year, and his performance on Dressed in Voices is very strong. He is a different drummer to Griffiths, more laid back and he has a natural swing to his playing which adds something new to the band's sound. Multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder who was absent for many of the band's shows last year also makes some nice contributions to the album. Her flute playing is always welcome and the way her vocals mix with Sparnenn's is always a feature of the band's big live sound. It is also worth noting that rhythm guitarist Liam Davison has left the band since this album's release and has been replaced by another Mostly Autumn alumnus Chris Johnson.

The album starts off slowly with the piano introduction of Saturday Night. This song definitely has a vibe of the band's earlier material (just made a little darker). Sparnenn and Josh's voices mix well as they are backed by delicate acoustic guitar before Sparnenn lets rip a little more as the rest of the band joins in. She always sound excellent, and her performance on this album is no different. Josh's short guitar solo towards the end of the song is one of his signature sounding musical passages that is full of drama and emotion. Iain Jennings' piano returns for the next song Not Yours to Take and sees Josh taking the lead vocals and it sounds like something that the band would have done on 2005's Storms Over Still Water but it soon speeds up to become a more riff-based rocker with guitar and piano mixing well to create a big sound. Sparnenn harmonises with Josh during the choruses as the piano cuts through the mix to create distant melodies. Running is the sort of song that Mostly Autumn have been writing for years and has a very similar sound to things found on Go Well Diamond Heart. Sparnenn's voice really soars during parts of this song. She has a very nice tone to her voice, and easily creates memorable melodies that stick in your head. Piano also features very heavily throughout this song. We have the first true guitar solo of the album on this song, and Josh channels his inner David Gilmour to bend the notes perfectly and really tug at the heartstrings. After the short interlude (See You) we arrive at Home which sounds like something Roger Waters might have written while he was in his The Final Cut and The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking mindset. The keyboard sound, that has an almost military vibe about it, and Josh's almost spoken vocal lines are very reminiscent of Waters at his most visceral. As the song progresses though, more of Mostly Autumn's trademark sounds are added to the mesh of influences. This late Waters vibe continues through to First Day at School where Josh and Sparnenn's vocals meld well together over some very simple piano lines. It is a song of two distinct halves. The first half is very sparse and slightly ominous, whereas the second half is much lusher and more akin to the epic moments on The Ghost Moon Orchestra. This mix of styles works well and captures everything that Mostly Autumn have ever been about.

Down by the River is a much more basic rock song with a slightly clunky riff that is saved by some excellent hammond organ work by Jennings (it would not be a Mostly Autumn album after all without a slightly dodgy riff!). The chorus of this song really rocks though! Cromarty lays down a solid beat and Josh and Sparnenn let rip. I like how Josh's lead guitar lines follow Sparnenn's vocals during the verses too, it gives her singing extra power. Skin on Skin is up next and has an excellent rhythm throughout. It harks back to the band's slightly folky past with good use of percussion and acoustic guitars throughout. The instrumental break in the middle of the song is excellent too, with Cromarty's drumming and Josh's tortured guitar leads standing out. The House on the Hill is a nice ballad that also continues the folky sound of the previous song. It could have sat nicely on 1999's The Spirit of Autumn Past and relies largely on Sparnenn's delicate delivery and big acoustic guitar chords. Well-placed lap steel lines help to enhance that folk vibe, and create a perfect song to enjoy this coming summer with. The darkness returns with The Last Day. Again, piano plays a huge part in the music of this song, and Sparnenn's vocal performance here might be her best ever. She ranges from delicate and beautiful to full of emotion in the space of a couple of minutes and demonstrates why she is such a good vocalist. The end of the song is a musical tribute to the band's past, and brings back memories of the band's older works which suits the reflective mood of the album. The album's title track is up next and sees Sparnenn again take the lead backed by some acoustic guitar before the band's trademark wall-of-sound returns for the big chorus. There is some really good guitar interplay on this song too, with some nice acoustic lead lines before Josh lets rip with a fantastic, emotionally charged solo that will no doubt be stunning live. Excellent lead guitar also fills the introduction to The Library which is quite a laid back rock piece which also contains a great Floydy guitar solo near the end. His soloing might not be as frequent as on previous albums, but it is probably more inspired than before and shows what a great guitarist he is. After another interlude, (Footsteps), we reach the final song on the album - Box of Tears. It is a semi-acoustic song that works well to round out the fantastic album. Mostly Autumn really have done well here, and the fact they are playing the whole thing on tour at the moment shows how much faith they have in it. Brilliant stuff!

The album was released on 2nd June 2014 via Mostly Autumn Records.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Sabaton's 'Heroes' - Album Review

Sabaton are probably the biggest pure power metal band in the world at the moment. Their heavy, yet instantly catchy songs and their lyrical content based around war and history have made them very popular, and fans all around the world enjoy their music. The band's sixth album, Carolus Rex, that was released in 2012 was easily the band's most complete album to date - even if stronger individual songs could be found on previous releases. The concept of that album worked well for the band and allowed frontman Joakim Brodén and bassist Pär Sundström's lyric writing to really come to the fore. Sabaton are probably unrivalled in the metal scene at the moment in the ability to tell stories through their lyrics. Basing the majority of their songs around war is the band's unique selling point, and Brodén and Sundström's enthusiasm for the subject really shines through. Carolus Rex was a big success for the band, but it was also marked with frustration as, before its release, most of the band's members left leaving just Brodén and Sundström remaining. Guitarists Thobbe Englund and Chris Rörland (Nocturnal Rites), and drummer Robban Bäck (Eclipse; W.E.T.) were recruited to complete the tour, which was a huge success for the band and saw them playing big venues in many different countries. Bäck has since left the band also, and he has been replaced by Hannes van Dahl (Evergrey). Therefore, Heroes, the first album to feature Sabaton's three new members and is the start of a new chapter for the band. Luckily, there has been no drop in quality since the line-up change, and Heroes shows that it is still business as usual for Sabaton. This album has more in common with 2010's Coat of Arms than Carolus Rex in the sense that all of the songs on it are stand-a-lone works that do not tell a bigger story. There is, however, a theme running through the album. As the album's title suggests, all of the songs on Heroes tell the story of heroic deeds in war. I always learn something when listening to a Sabaton album, which makes is more that just a musical experience. People who dismiss metal on the grounds that it shows no intelligence should have a listen to a Sabaton album. Heroes might not be quite as strong as its predecessor, but some of the songs on here stand up with the best the band has ever recorded.

Opener Night Witches is one of those songs and from the outset the guitar riffing is tight and Brodén's famous low voice barks across the metal mayhem. The verses have an excellent rhythm with some excellent uses of gang vocals from the whole band to highlight certain vocal lines. As with most Sabaton songs, there is a huge chorus that is sure to go down well live, and plenty of lead guitar breaks allow the new guitarists to show us their skills. No Bullets Fly is another strong song, even if the opening guitar riff sounds like Nightwish's Ghost River! Sundström's pulsing bassline drives the verses, but it is the chorus that really captures the attention on this song. Sabaton choruses often have an almost shamanistic chanting nature to them, and this makes good use of that formula. Brodén's vocal melodies in general are some of the best in modern metal, and this album is chock full of more killer melodies that he has written. Smoking Snakes has a real old-school Sabaton sound to it and would not have sounded out of place on 2005's Primo Victoria. New drummer van Dahl makes his contributions felt on this song with some nice technical drumming. There is also an excellent guitar solo that has a good neo-classical vibe to it. The soloing throughout this album is excellent, and I would say that - from a lead guitar perspective - this is the strongest Sabaton album in that regard. Englund and Rörland are both fantastic players. Inmate 4859 slows things down a little, and is a crushing mid-paced rocker with some simple riffing and plenty of atmospheric keyboard work. The chorus has an element of swing to it, which is something different for the band. You can imagine people huddled around a campfire singing it, it has that sort of vibe to it - just with added metal guitars! To Hell and Back gets back to the faster stuff, and is another really excellent song. It opens with something that sounds like an Ennio Morricone composition but the metal soon returns and we are treated to another classic Sabaton song with huge melodies. The spaghetti western vibe keeps re-appearing throughout the song, especially during the chorus where lonely keyboard lines cut through the guitars and add something different to the overall sound. There is another really excellent guitar solo which, again, leads into another Morricone-inspired section before a final chorus that sounds really epic after a subtle key change.

The Ballad of Bull is a piano-led piece that lacks none of the power despite being more mellow in appearance. Brodén's vocals fit as well over piano as they do over huge distorted guitars and it shows what a versatile vocalist he is. The song slowly builds, with guitar and drums joining in the fray at certain moments, but the piano is ever-present and is always the leading instrument throughout the song. This sort of song works well for Sabaton, and I am glad they included this song on the album. Resist and Bite is another heavy piece that opens with a nice technical riff that re-appears throughout the song and sounds excellent. van Dahl's drumming is good on this song too, making use of some good off-beat patterns during the verses and some more traditional beats during the hugely catchy chorus. It is Soldier of 3 Armies that has impressed me the most on this album though, and this could soon be my favourite Sabaton song of all time. A really excellent riff drives the song, and Brodén is at his storytelling best throughout this song, as he recants the tale of Lauri Törni who fought for Finland, the Nazis and the USA during his life. The chorus is possibly Sabaton's best ever, it is just so rousing that you cannot help but get wrapped up in it. This song contains everything that is good about Sabaton and, in future, if someone who has never heard Sabaton before asks me to recommend them a song, I think this will be the one I recommend for them. Far from the Fame is probably the song on the album that I do not really care for. It is not bad per se, it is just much less interesting than any of the other songs here. It lacks any big standout melodies and the riffs are not as good as usual. It is passable though, and is pleasant enough to listen to. The final song on the album is Hearts of Iron which is another very good song with atmospheric verses and a nice powerful chorus that grows on you the more you hear it. In fact, this whole song is a grower, as the first couple of times I listened to this album, this song did not really make an impression on me - but now I really enjoy it. It makes for a good end to the album, as it is about one of the closing moments of the Second World War, which seems fitting for the final song on an album. Heroes is an album that proves bands can live beyond a huge line-up change and still produced excellent new music. They have not missed a beat, and this album will please everyone who have liked anything the band has done before.

The album was releaed on 19th May 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for To Hell and Back.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Black Stone Cherry's 'Magic Mountain' - Album Review

Black Stone Cherry have been one of the most consistent and enjoyable hard rock bands of the past decade, and are arguably the torchbearers for modern southern rock. They mix traditional blues rock and big southern grooves to make melodic and catchy rock music that is enjoyed by many around the world. Magic Mountain is the band's fourth album, and their first in three years following Between  the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea in 2011. While I enjoyed that album a lot (and still do), there was something lacking about it, especially when you compared it to their previous two albums: 2006's self-titled debut and 2008's Folklore and Superstition. There are plenty of great songs on that album, but it pandered a little too much to the post-grunge sound of bands like Creed and Nickelback, which made it lack the charm of its predecessors. There were too many radio-friendly, middle-of-the-road songs; but songs like the excellent Such a Shame still make it a good album. Magic Mountain seems to be a concerted effort by the band to get back to their roots a little and rock hard again. New producer 'Evil' Joe Barresi, who has worked with many bands from Queens of the Stone Age and Wolfmother to Clutch and Coheed and Cambria, has done a great job getting a raw rock sound out of the band. The crunchy riffs are back in force, and frontman Chris Robertson's drawling vocals are powerful and in-your-face. The band's songwriting is just as strong as always, and the move away from outside collaborations is a good one in my opinion. The band have still collaborated with outside writers on some of the songs, but they can write good enough material on their own without too much help anyway. They must be respected songwriters, as a song of theirs ended up on Lynyrd Skynyrd's most recent album Last of a Dyin' Breed, in fact I would like to hear a Black Stone Cherry version of that song, Life's Twisted, some day! I think this album might impress those who thought Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea was a little lightweight compared to their previous albums. Although, with a UK arena tour booked for later on this year, it seems the band are bigger than ever, which can only be a good thing for rock as a genre.

Holding On...To Letting Go is the album's first song, and it opens with monster riff that has all the energy and urgency of the material on their debut album. The guitar work of Robertson and fellow guitarist Ben Wells is nice during the verses. It has quite a sludgy sound and their playing mixes well together to make a dirty sound. Robertson, who plays the majority of the band's lead guitar work as well as singing, unleashes a wah-drenched solo later on in the song, that has become a trademark of the band over the years. Peace Pipe is a little more laid back and more reminiscent of the band's previous album. The verses still are backed up by a nice, meaty riff though - but the chorus is a bit more atmospheric with some effects on Robertson's vocals to make him sound distant, which fits the relaxed mood of the song. There is a really good guitar solo in this song too, that sounds like both Robertson and Wells are taking it in turns to trade licks, which brings to mind the closing moments from the excellent Devil's Queen. Bad Luck & Hard Love is another southern-fried riff-based number that evokes the band's early days. The chorus is the catchiest on the album yet, and is sure to go down a storm when it is played live. The main riff is also very memorable, and is a good air guitaring moment for all you enthusiasts out there! The album's first single Me and Mary Jane is up next and it is another winner. Drummer John Fred Young's shuffle beats really drive the song, and the wah-wah guitar work throughout is the icing on the cake. Young is a fantastic drummer, and I have always admired his skills and style since seeing the band live in 2009. Robertson gets another solo spot, but bassist Jonathan Lawhon steals his thunder with some very inventive playing underneath it. The album's title track is the next highlight. It has another excellent riff that leads into a up-beat verse with some nice staccato guitar stabs, which gives it an unusual rhythm. The chorus is another melodic one that reminds you of the band's early days. Is a non-nonsense, heads down rock number that just hits you like a steamroller and never lets go. It was songs like this that made the band popular in the first place, so it is good to see them keeping up the tradition in writing catchy hard rocking songs.

Never Surrender continues on with the hard rock of the album's title track. The verse however, as a very circusy rhythm with some inventive off-beat drumming from Young. It is over as quickly as it begins, but it is heavy with a urgent chorus which sees Robertson use a more agressive side of his voice than previously. It works well though, and is a nice addition to the album. Blow My Mind is more of a mid-paced number with some more big guitar grooves straight out of the southern rock school. The guitar work on this song is excellent and Robertson really lets rip with an excellent solo towards the end of the song. The chorus is another memorable one that really sticks in the brain. The next highlight is Fiesta del Fuego, which is probably my favourite song on the album. It has the biggest grooves on the album, and all the riffs are excellent. Lawhon's big basslines help to drive the song, and tortured leads cut across the heavy riffs to create some distant melodies. Robertson's solo here is probably his best on the album. It soars in places and is fast and fluid in other places, and it shows that he is an excellent guitarist as well as a singer. Towards the song, it speeds up and we get a tight jam from the band with yet more excellent riffs and some great kit work from Young, showing what he can do with a single bass pedal. After the ploddingly average Dance Girl, we reach the final two songs on the album. Hollywood in Kentucky is a humorous look at life in both of those places, and it has a strong country rock feel to it. It is a light-hearted song, I like the message it conveys. It is catchy, and almost anthemic in places with some sing-a-long 'lalala' lyrics. Bits of the song have some nice slide guitar lines that, although slightly burried, enhance the country/blues feel of the piece. Towards the end of the song, there is a real rockabilly workout which is good fun. Remember Me is the album's final song, and it is the longest the album at over 6 minutes long. It is a good song, that reminds me a little of Alter Bridge in places, but sill retaining Black Stone Cherry's signature sound. It is larger in scope for the band, and might be something the band want to explore more in the future. Either way, this is a good song to end the album on, and plenty of excellent guitar breaks leave a good impression on me. Overall, this is another solid album from the band that have brought southern rock back and to a large new audience. They are showing no signs of slowing down yet, and that can only be a good thing.

The album was released on 5th May 2014 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Me and Mary Jane.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Epica's 'The Quantum Enigma' - Album Review

Epic by name and epic by nature; no-one does over-the-top symphonic metal quite like Epica. When you pop one of their albums into your CD player, you are always going to be blown away by the sheer scale of the music you hear. Heavy progressive riffing, sweeping orchestral arrangements, the mix of female mezzo-soprano vocals with male harsh vocals; Epica have it all. Their music is always a lot to take in, but once it grabs hold of you it never lets go. Despite the complexity of the music, the melodies are always fairly simple and very memorable. Even if the lyrics never quite sink in, the melodies will and you will find yourself humming them for days. The Quantum Enigma is the band's sixth studio album and the latest in a long line of excellent releases. The last album, 2012's Requiem for the Indifferent, was - for me anyway - probably their weakest release so far. I enjoy it a lot, and continue to do so, but for some reason it did not have the affect on me that their other four albums did. I put some of this down to the production, which was extremely muddy. Music like this needs to sound fantastic, or else all the nuances are going to be lost. On Requiem for the Indifferent, the guitars had very little tone and the drums sounded distant and hollow. As a result, the album lacked the punch of the band's earlier albums, despite the fact that many of the songs were excellent. Therefore, I am glad that Epica have decided to move away from using Sascha Paeth and decided to work with Joost van den Broek (Sun Caged; Star One; After Forever) instead. His excellent production jobs on both ReVamp's Wild Card last year, and MaYaN's Antagonise earlier this year convinced me that he would be perfect for Epica. When I heard Antagonise a couple of months ago (sadly an album I did not have time to review) I was blown away by how good it sounded. I remember thinking at the time that if The Quantum Enigma sounded as good as that album then Epica would be on to a winner. Luckily, it sounds just as good as that album, and this album is easily the best sounding Epica album ever. The songwriting is as good as ever too, and in years to come this could be seen as their watershed album, and the time when everything truely came together. This is also the band's first album with Rob van der Loo (Sun Caged; Delain; MaYaN) on bass guitar, who replaced founding member Yves Huts in 2012 after the release of Requiem for the Indifferent.

As usual with Epica albums, The Quantum Enigma opens with an orchestral piece called Originem which helps to set the tone for the album. There is always something very film score-esque about these pieces of music, and it shows how much effort goes into making these albums. The first 'proper' song on the album is The Second Stone which opens with some tremolo picked guitar lines and furious drumming, before the whole thing morphs into a more traditional Epica groove-based number as frontwoman Simone Simons adds her signature angelic vocal lines over the top. The chorus is a much slower, vocal-based affair - giving the listener plenty of memorable vocal lines to hum and another change of pace in a very short space of time. During an Epica album you are never far from some huge harsh vocals from rhythm guitarist Mark Jansen and he makes his contributions on this song count. The contrast between his and Simons' vocals have always been a big part of the Epica sound, and it is good that that still is the case. The Essence of Silence is up next and opens with an almost djent-like riff with some dissonant guitars, but it is not long before the traditional Epica hallmarks are back as Jansen growls his way through a powerful verse while Simons adds some high vocal lines every so often. She also takes over on the chorus which starts off quite delicate, before exloding with orchestrations and a huge choir to help her out. Some nice Arch Enemy-style twin guitar leads add some extra melody to the song, before a final go around of the chorus brings things to a climax. After the more basic but enjoyable Victims of Contingency, we are treated to the mini-epic Sense Without Sanity (The Impervious Code). It begins with some gentle strings with a choral accompaniment but it is not long before the metal returns with all the ferocity you would expect. Simons and Jansen trade off vocal parts throughout the song, which takes many twists and turns throughout its seven minute plus duration. Delicate sections follow the heavier sections, giving us a good balance of light and shade, and there is even some spoken word from drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek. The most melodic part comes just over half way through, which sees Simons sing some highly memorable vocal lines that are very reminiscent of the band's earlier work. Unchain Utopia is another more straightforward piece that has single written all over it. Epica have always written very good traditional metal songs as well as the longer progressive epics, and this is a good example of the former. The big choir leads throughout the song's chorus and I would imagine this song will become a setlist staple for many years to come.

After a short instrumental, The Fifth Guardian, which sounds like something from The Lord of the Rings' soundtrack Chemical Insomnia comes roaring out of the speakers with a really dramatic riff that is doubled well by the orchestra. Simons uses the true classical side of her vocals a lot during this song, giving it a very classy sound. The strings really lift the mood of the piece, but some really mean riffing about two thirds of the way through the song bring it back to earth with a tight groove from van Weesenbeek's quick feet. He is probably one of the best drummers in metal at the moment, and he plays his heart out throughout the entire album. Reverence (Living in the Heart) has some more of the djent-like riffing but the rest of the song is very traditional Epica. The cheesy bombast of much of the song reminds me a lot of the material from 2005's Consign to Oblivion but with a much bigger sound and better production. There is also a really speedy guitar and keyboard duel between Issac Delahaye and Coen Janssen. Solos of any kind and fairly rare in Epica songs, so this little hint of power metal is fun and helps to break up the constant orchestral bombardment. Omen (The Ghoulish Malady) continues on with this old-school sound. The verses are piano-led, with minimal guitar backing, but the choruses are huge and almost anthemic - with Simons singing in a much more traditional way as opposed to anything influenced by classical music. Canvas of Life is the album's ballad and beautifully fuses piano and classical guitar in the beginning before Simons begins to sing over the top. She can rock out, but she can also handle the slower material just as well. Epica have always written stunning ballads, and this is another excellent one to add to the list. The arrangement of the song grows larger as it progresses, but it never loses the subtlety introduced at the beginning. Natural Corruption is another more basic, enjoyable song but suffers from being sandwiched between Canvas of Life and the epic closing number The Quantum Enigma (Kingdom of Heaven - Part II). Epica's longer, more progressive songs have always been very popular and I am sure it will be no different for this song. As usual with these sort of songs, there is so much going on that it is hard to take it in all at once. I am not sure if it is quite as good as some of the band's previous epics, but it is still excellent when viewed on its own merits. The choir really dominates this song and it makes you realise just how important they are to Epica's overall sound. They are like the third vocalist after Simons and Jansen. Overall, this album is excellent and was exactly what I hoped it would be, right down to the stellar production. Epica have really upped their game here, and I look forward to where they will go next!

The album was released on 5th May 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official lyric video for The Essence of Silence.