Review Summary: A much needed catch of breath
It’s been a while since we last heard from the Dutch, which is quite unusual for a band with a mostly tight schedule, releasing an album every two years since their debut The Phantom Agony
in 2003. Their steady, yet fast-paced evolution, result of their assurance of their compositional and instrumental prowess, seemed to climax with the 2016 album The Holographic Principle
, and – global pandemic aside – it is not specifically weird to see the band occupied with side-quests, releasing renditions of Attack on Titan songs, a book, and an EP, which while not valuable to their catalogue, kept their audience entertained, attracted new fans and gave them incentive to continue.
Five years later, we find a band resting on their well-deserved laurels. Omega
(stylized as Ωmega) is simply a variation on a theme, neither continuing the motif of higher, harder, faster (the «steroid effect» as I like to call it), nor trying anything new. Any Epica release is more or less going to have a standard sound either way, and after almost twenty years of recording, the listener is guaranteed to find some specifics: the cinematic opening track, an accessible song purposed for a single release, a mellow ballad, a complex title track and a long epic. However, it seems to be the first album in a decade to keep a lower profile than its predecessor, with a more controlled compositional approach and more homogeneity.
That’s not to say that the end result is anything close to disappointing, of course. All songs manage an excellent balance between their symphonic and metal nature, with focused heaviness bringing back memories of their Divine Conspiracy
days. Indeed, Epica were starting to tread dangerously close to mastermind’s Mark Jansen’s other band MaYan, which was in the first place a vehicle to express his harsher, more death metal tendencies. Working again together in the same place like in their formative years, Epica crafted songs that didn’t rely on metal aggression to sound refreshing and bombastic. Take a listen, for example, to Seal of Solomon
and Code of Life
. Hitting the right spot of intelligent songwriting and oriental catchiness, decorated by either creative soloing by the band’s dexterous axe-man Isaac Delahaye, or somber wailings over their signature powerful rhythmic stomping (drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek and bassist Rob van der Loo are a beast duo), they surface as strong assets on the new album.
With layers upon layers of meticulous instrumentation, rich dynamics, and careful cutting of any redundancy, Freedom – the Wolves Within
keeps the attention undiminished until the album’s magnum opus, Kingdom of Heaven Pt. III – The Antediluvian Universe
. The third installment of a series that started over a decade ago, clocking in 13 minutes, is not only one of their longest tracks ever, it’s actually one crowning achievement for the symphonic genre. The song evolves without burning out early in, and when six minutes have passed by unnoticed, we witness a creative explosion: a graceful piano intermission (by the amazing Coen Janssen) gives way to a labyrinthine, multilayered climax, where harsh vocals, awe-inspiring choirs and reprises of older themes all mesh together in a groovy interplay, until defusing with an eerie, theatrical demeanor.
As far as the lyrics are concerned, they are once again the typical Coelhian one-liners on self-consciousness, advanced intellect, shallow environmentalism and a well-intended yet naive encouragement for global unity. Epica still deliver bland commandments on doing this and that, and we have to accept that this is also one of the unchangeable trademarks of the band (Damn it Mark! Psychologists are supposed to make
questions, not answer
them!) Some interesting trivia: Omega
deals with a theory of «The Omega Point», in which humanity spirals towards a point of unification and community. The lyrics on any Epica album never shied away from serious topics – such as politics, religion, and mental illness – which was enough for them to be seen as profound, but the end result has always been cheesy enough to accompany wine tasting.
Of course, Epica’s instantly recognizable characteristic is the vocal dichotomy, the Beauty and the Beast schema that gothic and symphonic bands are so attracted to. Simone Simons is the undeniable diva of the symphonic metal scene, all the more so now that other divas seem to have left the limelight. Her vocals are as bright as ever, with moments like the ending of Synergize Manifest capturing a fragility that I have come to miss since the music got more aggressive and hard-hitting. On the darker side of the microphone stands Mark Jansen with his distinct albeit underdeveloped growling, fulfilling his role satisfyingly, even with some fun shrieks delivered.
Epica are nothing but professionals, and I don’t predict any left-field decisions in their music as is the case with many of their contemporaries (i.e. softened sound, electronic prominence, pop flirting, or straight up abandoning metal). Between the album’s apparent strengths and expected clichés, nests an artistic consistency rarely found in the realm of symphonic metal. You would be all too right to reject the new album as more of the same, if
Epica had ever let you to believe that experimentation was their modus operandi – which was never the case. This is precisely why any differentiation has always been welcome, but never the reason Epica were important in the first place. In a genre so prominent to anachronisms and caricaturing, Epica manage to rise as pioneers, because of their distinct formula and stellar production, concerning both fifteen year old goths and experienced audiophiles. Album #8 is another quality product, complete and capable of standing on its own, and while it most definitely can’t claim to be a culmination by any stretch of the word, it can still find a place in our music library as an enjoyable listen. Besides, when the bonus tracks include gypsy and funky renditions of the songs, it becomes obvious that behind the pretentious song titles and pseudo-intellectualism, there is a band having fun, and in a world more and more hostile to musicians it is a relief to see big names still finding meaning in pushing the stone up the mountain.