Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Epica's 'The Holographic Principle' - Album Review

With the exception of Nightwish, there is no symphonic metal band out there more popular than Epica (Within Temptation are excluded from this as they are not really a symphonic metal band these days!). Since forming in 2002, the Dutch band have been perfecting their over-the-top, heavy brand of symphonic metal that includes plenty of influences from death metal and progressive music. While the band have never made a drastic departure from the basic sound that has been in place since their 2003 debut album The Phantom Agony, each album does tend to have a slightly different identity driven by intertwining lyrical themes. The theme behind The Holographic Principle, the band's seventh album, is similar to that of the band's previous opus, 2014's The Quantum Enigma (which I reviewed here), and could be seen as a natural companion to that album. Much of the band's previous work has been more focused around more 'romantic' tops, with the Mayan civilisation and questioning the existence of God being a couple of examples. This album deals more with reality and how we view the universe, often with slightly science-fiction leanings, which follows on from The Quantum Enigma's themes. As I said at the time, The Quantum Enigma was a big step forward for the band as far as production goes. Gone was the overly-compressed style of long-term producer Sascha Paeth, something which I felt had really hampered 2012's Requiem for the Indifferent, and in it's place was a bright and bombastic production courtesy of Joost van den Broek. For me at least, van den Broek's work with Epica was a revelation. Paeth was in a bit of a rut generally, with many albums he had had a hand in around the same time as Requiem for the Indifferent had extremely flat and compressed productions, and Epica were wise to step away and seek someone else's services. Paeth has upped his game again since, and his more recent works have sounded better, but van den Broek is clearly the man for Epica now. He returns again here and, in sound as well as theme, The Holographic Principle is a great companion piece of The Quantum Enigma. As with all of Epica's albums, the band have introduced a few new little sounds into the mix while sticking firmly to their successful and signature formula. More electronic sounds seem to be used this time around, with futuristic synths mixing in well with the more traditional orchestral and piano sounds. There is even a song here that has a real classic rock groove, and it is these little changes that help to keep the band sounding fresh. On a final note before I get into the review proper, this is the band's first album where founding member Mark Jansen has not been credited for playing guitar on the album, only for his trademark harsh vocals. He still plays guitar live, and still seems to have a strong hold over the band's songwriting and thematic direction, so it seems strange that he chose to hand all guitar duties over to Isaac Delahaye this time around? It makes no real difference to the album's overall sound however, it was just interesting to read in the album's sleeve notes!

As with all of Epica's albums (and, in fact, the vast majority of symphonic metal releases) The Holographic Principle starts off with an orchestral instrumental. Eidola is the piece here, and helps to set the tone for the album with dramatic orchestrations and some beautiful vocals from a young child. This leads nicely into Edge of the Blade, one of the album's 'singles' and a song that will instantly be a hit with Epica fans due to it's recognisable style. A synth riff sits atop a snarling prog metal riff, before a groove-based verse introduces Simone Simons' angelic vocals once again. Her performance here is fairly restrained by her standards, before really letting rip in the powerful chorus backed by Jansen's growls. The song is instantly memorable, and is destined to become the band's latest concert opener. It has everything that is great about Epica's sound crammed into four and a half minutes, with a heavy focus on Delahaye's technical riffing. A Phantasmic Parade is more of a mid-paced piece, that opens with some plucked strings before exploding into a grinding rhythm and a verse that sees Simons use the higher end of her vocal register while a three-note melody repeats to great effect. Drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek is the song's principle composer, which makes the focus on rhythm here more obvious. The drum patterns are varied too, especially during the verses which have an off-kilter technicality to them, but is the the flat-out death metal section late on complete with blast beats that really shows off his skills. Universal Death Squad, the first song released from the album online a few months ago, was a great introduction to the overall themes and sound of the album. A great groove-based riff sits over a fast drum pattern, which acts as a great contrast, and Coen Janssen's synths and gorgeous orchestrations soon join the party to add more layers of melody. This is another microcosm of Epica's entire sound, with strong choral-led vocal sections, and one of the album's best choruses with a snaking vocal melody from Simons that sits atop Delahaye's staccato riffing. The song is consistently pretty heavy but a grinding slower section later in the song, complete with Jansen's powerful harsh growls, amps up the 'metal' before a speedy section complete with classical piano runs shows the band's diversity. There is even a short guitar solo thrown in, and all of this is in the space of little over a minute. If someone was to ask me what Epica sounded like, I would direct them to this song, as I feel it perfectly sums up the band's raison d'être. Divide and Conquer shows the simpler and atmospheric side of Jansen's songwriting with a lengthy orchestral intro and plenty of choral sections throughout. The progressive elements are paired back somewhat, and a call-and-response verse between Simons and Jansen provides some early crunch. The guitars are more a background instrument here, which is more reminiscent of the band's early works, which lets the orchestrations and vocal melodies shine through. Simons' chorus vocals are particularly strong, with a surprising lack of other interfering melodies to compete with. This song definitely has an old-school Epica vibe, which shows how far the band has come musically without ever making any dramatic changes in their sound. The political soundbites used, including a rather rousing one from former British Prime Minister David Cameron, also hark back to the band's early work. Beyond the Matrix is a real mish-mash of different sounds, but the influences meld together and manage to create something cohesive. The choral intro is typical of the band's sound, but the verse comes out of left-field with Rob van der Loo's bass dominating and Simons delivering the vocals with a real classic rock strut. The choral intro also forms the song's chorus, but it is the verses and the build up to these chorus sections that show the band at their most creative. Simons uses her full range her and shows considerable depth in her performance, going from uncharacteristically warm, low vocals, to higher notes within the space of a few words.

So far, The Holographic Principle has been a pretty relentlessly heavy affair. The changes on Once Upon a Nightmare, which is a ballad in the band's traditional style. Epica have always done strong ballads along side their heavier material. Janssen is the band's principle ballad writer, and his piano dominates here, as well as a varied vocal display from Simons with some parts of her delivery sounding almost like whispers, which works really well. She also unleashes her full-on operatic voice at some points, which fit perfectly alongside Delahaye's soaring guitar leads that come in at the same time. The pairing creates quite an emotional sound, and is the start of the song moving into heavier territory. It never totally leaves it's ballad routes however, and the song moves between heavier and quieter sections with ease. Janssen's piano and synths are always the dominant instrumental however, and shows what he brings to the band. The Cosmic Algorithm is probably the first song on the album that fails to really connect with me. After the diverse and strong material that has come before, this song does not have the wealth of hooks or melodies that the others have. Simons turns in a great vocal performance however, but the music is flatter and less interesting than other songs on this album. Ascension - Dream State Armageddon picks up the quality with a really strong mid-paced heavy song that showcases Jansen's harsh vocals. His vocals are often used more in the background, or on heavier breakdown-type sections of songs, but here he has more a staring role with big sections of the verses dedicated to him. Simons' operatic voice is used again here to great effect, and gives the chorus some real class. The song's mid-section is almost symphonic black metal, with van Weesenbeek's blast beats (he also contributes some eerie spoken word parts) and gothic orchestrations which fit perfectly with Jansen's howls. Dancing in a Hurricane is another instantly catchy song, but this time the band use some strong Middle Eastern influences to create some fantastic melodies. The opening has a very percussive feel, with tablas and other ethnic percussion used to great effect, and the orchestrations and guitar melodies also add to this feel. The song takes a while to build up, using Simons' voice to help grow the sound, but when the song explodes into the chorus it really begins to hit home. It is one of the most instantly powerful songs on the album, driven by that percussive feel and the triumphant chorus. There are heavier sections too, with harsh vocals, but this song is all about Simons really, and showcases her unique vocal talents. Tearing Down the Walls is a song that sounds quite different from anything the band have done before, yet it is hard to say why that is the case as there is nothing obviously radically different! Jansen's vocals again dominate, which is possibly why, but I think it comes down to the fact that the melodies are slightly out of keeping with the band's usual style. It works well though, and Simons sounds freed during certain parts, using bits of her voice that are not on show too often. As is usual with Epica albums, The Holographic Principle ends on an epic song. It is the album's title track that provides the album's final entertainment, and has everything you would want from a prog epic and more. As you would expect, the song moves through many different sections, but keeps returning to a great heavy riff with Jansen's devilish vocals atop it. Everything including Gregorian choirs, atmospheric guitar solos, and beautiful vocals from Simons are present here, and this is probably my favourite epic from the band since the title track of 2005's Consign to Oblivion. It is extremely melodic and memorable despite it's length, and is the perfect way to end the album. Overall, The Holographic Principle is another excellent album from one of the biggest creators of symphonic metal. They are a band that continues to deliver and showcase all of their strengths on this latest opus.

The album was released on 30th September 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Edge of the Blade.

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