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 Ariƫn 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.

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