Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Epica's 'The Solace System' - EP Review

I have said this on here previously, but there is no bigger symphonic metal act in the world right now (with the exception of Nightwish) than the Netherlands' Epica. Since forming in 2002, the band has become genuine big hitters on the world stage and have an impressive discography in which consistently great albums are released at a regular rate. Last year saw the release of The Holographic Principle (which I reviewed here), the band's seventh album, to near-universally excellent reviews. Despite never really releasing a bad album, I felt the found themselves in a bit of a rut with 2012's Requiem for the Indifferent. While the material on that album is still strong, I felt that the production of the songs really constrained their impact. Epica's sound has evolved gradually with each album, and has become more expansive and bombastic each time. In the band's early days there was a greater reliance on synths for the band's orchestral stylings, but over time this has become more organic with huge orchestras and choirs being used in the studio for an authentic symphonic sound. It is clear that the band felt a change was needed, and employed the services of producer Joost van den Broek for 2014's The Quantum Enigma. Suddenly, under this new guidance, Epica's sound really opened out and the music had real breathing room. The compression and dry guitar tones found on Requiem for the Indifferent were gone and instead replaced with warmer and more striking tones, that naturally increase the heaviness and power of the band's material. This sound and trend continued with The Holographic Principle, and continues again on the band's latest studio effort The Solace System. While not a full album, The Solace System still feels like an essential part of the band's discography. This six song EP came from the same sessions as The Holographic Principle, so overall has the same sound and production style, but still feels like a coherent standalone release. With these 'off-cut' releases, there is sometimes a danger that they will contain sub-par material. After all, if these songs were not good enough for the album during which sessions they were recorded during then why are they good enough for a stand-alone release? Thankfully that is not the case with The Solace System, as the six songs here all have strong identities of their own and do not feel like poor cousins of the band's other recent releases.

The EP gets underway with the title track, which in typical Epica fashion is introduced with a gothic choir and a dense symphonic arrangement. The songs on this EP are mostly short, to-the-point efforts compared to many of the sprawling epics on the band's past couple of albums, and this is no different with a strong vocal presence from frontwoman Simone Simons, who particularly shines during a groove-heavy verse. Mark Jansen's harsh vocals are used more sparodically than usual throughout the six songs here, but a heavier pre-chorus here sees him duelling with dramatic strings to good effect. Interestingly, he is once again credited with rhythm guitar on this release, unlike The Solace System's parent album, but I suspect all of guitars on this EP were handled by Isaac Delahaye. Speaking on Delahaye, his strong riffing drives the whole song, and his short guitar solo towards the end adds some extra melody into an already memorable song. Fight Your Demons is a faster, heavier song with some excellent double bass drumming from AriĆ«n van Weesenbeek and a string-heavy opening riff. While the previous song was more of a mid-paced effort, this song showcases the band's death metal influences perfectly, with a few parts that feature Jansen's harsh vocals heavily and some a pummelling drumming performance. Simons also uses the more operatic side of her voice, especially during the choir-dominated choruses, which works well to contrast with the heaviness of the majority of the music. Architect of Light showcases the band's more progressive side somewhat with a great mix of sounds thrown together from the off. A gentle symphonic intro gives way to a heavier riff-heavy section, with plenty of gothic choral lines to provide a dense and foreboding atmosphere. This mood is shattered with the verses, which are based around a very simple guitar riff that has real classic rock swagger and Simons' confident vocal display. Other heavier sections are used throughout, including a great call and response section between Simons and Jansen set to a death metal backing, but overall this is a more melodic piece that stays interesting by constantly changing style.

Wheel of Destiny is more of a guitar-heavy piece with a riff that sounds like something a NWOBHM band might have come up with in 1980, with occasional stabs of orchestra for dynamic effect. While the strings do come to dominate slightly more as the song moves on, Delahaye's riffs, and a strong bass presence from Rob van der Loo, always form the basis of the song. The chorus is a really memorable one, and probably the best on the EP, and features some prominent piano playing from Coen Janssen. In some respect this song has the feel of the band's first couple of albums, before their progressive influences really came to the fore, as it is a more stripped-back song with overt melodies and a simple structure. It also contains one of Delahaye's best guitar solos ever for Epica, and he really lets rip with some really fast, shredded melodies. Acoustic songs are not something that Epica do often, but Immortal Melancholy is just that. Simons' voice really shines here over a simple acoustic guitar and orchestral backing. There are some renaissance-inspired melodies here, which give the song a bit of a Blackmore's Night vibe at times, but overall it feels like a typical Epica ballad that is stripped back even further to it's roots. After that short lull, the EP's final track Decoded Poetry picks up the pace again with a furious opening riff that has a gloriously dramatic symphonic backing. This is another real standout piece on this EP, with another excellent chorus that just gets embedded in your head and a grindingly heavy section with Jansen's grunts. This is another song that mixes things up quite a bit, with an almost-tech metal riff coming out of nowhere towards the end and a discordant symphonic section with demonic choirs galore. It ends the EP on a high, and shows that Epica are capable of cramming a lot into a relatively short space of time. Overall, The Solace System is a must-listen for all Epica fans, especially those who have enjoyed their expanded sound of late. It will definitely keep fans occupied until the band's next album which I am sure, given Epica's usual work rate, is not too far away.

The EP was released on 1st September 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Solace System.

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