Review Summary: A record with a lot of potential that simply fails to deliver.
It can be quite interesting to listen to the entirety of a band's work within a short amount of time. It enables one to see a band's evolution quite clearly, as well as enabling the listener to have a better understanding of the quality of a band as a whole rather than just one album. As someone who began listening to Epica about five months ago at the time of this writing, I had five full-lengths immediately available for my listening pleasure (or displeasure). I decided to start at the beginning, downloading The Phantom Agony
almost blindly. I didn't read in depth into any other opinions, and went in hoping to find something good. The Phantom Agony
did nothing to impress me on first listen, and further listens have done nothing to elevate it for me.
To understand The Phantom Agony
better, one must look at the events surrounding it. Epica mastermind Mark Jansen left the well-known After Forever
in 2002, and this album was released in 2003, so it is of little surprise that Epica sound extremely similar to Jansen's previous band, to a point where some have accused them of being little more than a glorified After Forever clone. While the accuracy of this statement is debatable when applied to their later works, this unfortunately describes The Phantom Agony
quite accurately. Epica feature the contrast of operatic vocals with death growls, the carefully arranged string sections and choirs, and lyrical themes of the potential dangers of organized religion, all of which are present in After Forever. However, The Phantom Agony
has one notable thing that previous After Forever works don't: non-engaging songwriting.
Epica has made the unfortunate but common mistake of focusing on sound rather than substance. Nothing on The Phantom Agony
besides the growls (more on those later) is a particularly unpleasant listening experience, but there is almost nothing that sticks in the listener's mind afterward. Even after listening multiple times, I recall only about 3 or 4 minutes of sound. This lack of ideas is most prevalent on the title and closing track, where it goes on and on for over nine minutes, yet accomplishes almost nothing.
Another notable weakness of The Phantom Agony
is Mark Jansen's vocal performance. While his vocal work for After Forever was solid if not impressive, he makes many blunders here, failing to adequately provide the intended "beauty and the beast" effect. In addition to sounding decidedly weak and hollow, he gives the impression of someone getting strangled to death. This can get very frustrating when it sounds for a moment that the band may be on to something, an he comes in with his annoying vocal performance. This is well exemplified on "Sensorium", which starts out the album relatively strong (if one disregards the intro piece "Adyta", which does little more than add to the album's running time) with the piano and guitars forming a delicate balance, and Simone Simons performing quite well, until Jansen comes in at about two minutes, making the song fail to reach its full potential.
Simons is a competent and talented vocalist, utilizing her operatic range to develop the grandiose atmosphere present throughout the entire album. In fact, Simons is probably the best part of Epica on this particular album, being gifted by any definition of the word. However, when compared to other symphonic metal singers, Simons sounds quite generic, lacking anything close to the charisma of Tarja Turunen
or the power and versatility of Floor Jansen.
The quality of the lyrical expression will likely be quite different for any listener. The main theme of the album, as mentioned before, is the showcasing of the worse aspects of organized religion. Very vague language is used, but if one brushes it off a bit, the ideas are very blunt and in-your-face, making one slightly wonder why they even bothered with a subtle façade. If one does not like being "preached at", then they will find little of quality in this department. If, however, one enjoys it when a band attempts to sound intellectual, these will be right up your alley.
However, vagueness can be a song's undoing. On the track "Façade of Reality", the lyrics are vague to the point where their intended message falls completely flat. The song is intended to be about the 9/11 disaster, but the only element of the song that directly links to the event is the speech excerpt of former British prime minister Tony Blair. It is quite jarring to hear a vague message that has no clear meaning next to something so blunt it can be compared to getting smashed over the head with an anvil, but yet makes no sense in the immediate context of the song. The other occasion on which a similar tactic is used falls equally flat. In "Seif Al Din", Simons begins a lengthy monologue after the first verse, which takes up the majority of the song. The message contained within is quite profound, but it goes on for far too long and feels shoehorned in. While shorter spoken sections have been used on later Epica albums to much more effect, this one would be done well by taking a cue from William Shakespeare: "brevity is the soul of wit".
The insomnia-curing qualities of The Phantom Agony
can perhaps be attributed to the release date. It was released in June of 2003, barely a year after Jansen's departure from After Forever, possibly showing that Jansen was eager to prove that he could make it without his previous band, and thus rushed to get the album done. It is unfortunate if that is the case, for The Phantom Agony
could have been much better if the band had been given more time to refine their ideas and remove some of the aspects that did not work so well. If one is seeking to begin following Epica, you would be better served by any of their subsequent albums. However, if you're an Epica fan with a little money to spend, you'll likely be quite satisfied with The Phantom Agony