Review Summary: A one-trick pony is just fine for once
On the first listen, all the stimuli an album has attack the ear in a hazy, unorganized way and what's left in the end is only the standout moments, both good and bad. Listening to The Holographic Principle in one sitting is quite satisfying. In all its excess, grandiosity and cheesiness, it comes out as a really good offering, with the nice parts outnumbering the mediocre ones. With successive listens though, after the element of surprise is gone, it becomes apparent that there are hidden drawbacks. Don't jump into conclusions, though, because the album really is far from being mediocre.
When ''Eidola'', the album's prelude song, starts with an Inception-like melody, it becomes apparent that Epica draw inspiration from scores. After the intro, however, the album doesn't continue in a particularly strong manner. Metal is masterfully combined with classical music, giving an expected sense of grandeur, but doesn't quite work, no matter how good the songs are. Without focalizing on any individual track, the first half of the album, whilst enjoyable, is the lesser of the two. The songs are one great wall of sounds and musical details, with little space to breathe, which is probably the main mistake, tiring the listener a bit too early. Τhe second half of the album, however, finds the band in greater form, heavier than before, playful and relaxed on their instruments, fully inspired and making good use of gimmicks. Most of the good moments can be found here and the quality is shifted on higher highs. Ideas sound more concentrated, not just scattered around and it's a relief for an album boiling with ideas that can't be channeled properly. It's no surprise that the three most quality songs of the album are found on the second half:
''Once Upon a Nightmare'' already surpasses older Epica classics. The build-up is proficiently crafted, starting off with a sorrowful orchestral piece that slowly leads to the climax, the operatic vocals are superb and all instruments involved shine, with the solo violin stealing the show. Simone Simons proves she is the best lyricist of Epica. Her writing skills are far more poetic and natural than Mark's, showcasing better use of language and control of storytelling. Unfortunately, Mark is limited to self-righteous moralizing. It's true that his lyrics can be cringe-worthy one liners, trying to be revolutionary and help activate our third eye, but they're neither political nor deeply philosophic. His prose is stuck on the same matters that have been bothering him for the past seven years, lacking any depth that might have been there.
While the orchestra has always been a vital part of the band's sound, with ''Dancing in a Hurricane'' it comes to the forefront, the rest of the band appearing later on, on another excellent build up. The mid-eastern vibe is enhanced with the use of sitars and tribal drumming. Simone Simons is again the lyricist and the concept covers the current uprooting of thousands of Syrians, many of them children.
The third song that needs special commentary is of course the final one. Epica always leave the lengthier song for the end, a magnum opus to wrap up the album, which is also the title track. ''The Holographic Principle'' lifts the band to a whole new level. Unexpected, soulful intro with one of their most emotional guitar solos by Isaac Delahaye, playful instruments that present us with the catchiest instrumental parts they've ever written, nice build ups and well-thought transitions, this song is everything a fan could ask for and even more. Coen Janssen's work on the keyboards reigns throughout and transcends it, adding minor details and effects only when needed, indicative of how important he is to the band.
With this seventh release, Epica are well established as one of the best bands of the genre. Do they seem like a one-trick pony? Well, both yes and no would be acceptable, seeing that their current sound pays little resemblance to their debut album, The Phantom Agony. All similarities aside, the songs' mass is bigger, the guitar, bass and drums are heavier (i.e. ''Tear Down Your Walls''), more violins, more horns, more tricks and details, more, more, more, to the point where the present face of Epica seems like their former self on steroids. Studying the band's steps from day one, the Holographic Principle is a natural and expected evolution. While it doesn't sound rushed and definitely not boring, the band needs to find what made their earlier offerings important. Subtracting can be the solution sometimes. This is not a criticism, but rather a warning. They are as good as ever, bursting with ideas, but maybe the first signs of a tired formula have started to show. Honoring your past doesn't mean repeating it, but surpassing it. They have the potential, do they have the volition?