Released: 2009, Nuclear Blast
Reviewer: Kyle Moore, the Metal Magnus
In all fields of life, there are some who say that passion can only get you so far. Elbow grease, moxy, and sheer force of will may accomplish all manner of things in our world, but without that inborn spark we call talent, perseverance will ultimately hit an unyielding wall. While combining talent and perseverance often does wonders for the visionary artist, the discipline required to forge a true masterpiece from these elements is rarely held. Holland’s Epica was a textbook example of how all the talent and passion in the world would not always yield something special, even if their fans and critics could almost taste it seeping slowly from the gaps in their caged potential. Epica’s past efforts have shown fragments of their true capacity, but they had not yet wielded the discipline and experience needed to craft something truly great; that is, until DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE knocked my socks off.
My first exposure to Epica was 2007’s THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY, which I listened to extensively but could not bring myself to really like. Some individual songs like “Chasing the Dragon” stole the breath from my lungs, while others like “Menace of Vanity” left me scratching my head with its crude orchestrations, cringing grunts, and pretentiously overwrought choirs. As an overall listening experience, CONSPIRACY failed because it simply tried too hard. The discipline just wasn’t there yet, even if the talent and willpower were. All the pieces for greatness were laid on the table, but Epica hadn’t yet learned how to put them together.
Upon my first listening of DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, it was very clear that Mark Jansen, Epica’s primary composer, has learned a great deal about successfully assembling songs from the plethora of cinema-quality themes sprouting from his mind. CONSPIRACY’s approach was to throw a giant stew of musical giblets at a wall to see if anything worthwhile stuck; with DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, Jansen has learned to weed out the unnecessary scraps that dilute his grandiose, thrilling soundscapes. Gone is the jarring, undisciplined hopscotching from cartoonish keyboard ditties to milquetoast, grumbly guitar riffing. Gone also is the over-saturation of Jansen’s death vocals, which have benefited vastly from a crisper production as well as less frequent application. Now, Jansen’s fierce roar cuts through the mix to deliver just enough brutality to suck the listener from the blissful hypnosis induced by Simone Simons’ unequaled voice.
Speaking of Ms. Simons, Mr. Jansen must still be thanking his lucky stars that he found the young ingénue when she was only 17. He has clearly tailored his songwriting talents to suit his muse, because I cannot imagine an Epica song working without Simone’s thrillingly versatile voice. Her sizzling mezzo-soprano easily torches every other female metal vocalist active today (with maybe Tarja Turunen serving as a distant second); nobody else can match her versatility, range, and the tempestuous flurry of emotional breadth she provides. She can transition from a girlish lilt to a torch-song belt effortlessly (and back again), but her bread-and-butter has her holding the high-end of her range with a tone of glasslike, magical purity beneath a deftly-wielded vibrato. Simone immediately became my favorite vocalist in metal from the moment I heard her ethereal, breathtaking performance on “Chasing the Dragon” off of CONSPIRACY. All the imitations in the world combined (because there are several) don’t have a fraction of the talent this woman possesses.
But Epica is more than a sum of a few parts and one amazing voice; Epica is now a well-honed songwriting beast. Opener “Samadhi/Resign to Surrender” is a wildly bombastic chorus-centered epic that quickly pares out the orchestral flourish for Mr. Jansen’s biting growl, while a monstrous rhythmic riff pounds beneath. Jansen and Simons alternate verses, while the choir occasionally interjects; the choirs are used much more thoughtfully on DESIGN than on past efforts, though I could do without half the choral lyrics being sung in Latin. “Unleashed” is designed as a vocal vehicle for Simone, who also penned the lyrics; the pleasant, but unchallenging riffing is meant to underpin the belted vocal melodies in the chorus. But “Unleashed” earns its name when Simone pulls out all the stops on the final chorus (with a clichéd, but still marvelously powerful upward key change;) she vents the full force of her voice on a few brassy high notes, then transitions into a soothing, breathy softness without missing a beat. “Martyr of the Free Word” opens with a rollicking guitar riff and some thorough double-bass abuse by drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek, then makes a great transition into a ringing clean guitar with Simone crooning above. Mr. Jansen’s vocals in the headbanging chorus are particularly effective here. Clocking in at over 13 minutes, “Kingdom of Heaven” is another bombastic, movie-inspired epic with sections that sound like they was co-written by Behemoth’s Nergal and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt.
But Epica can do more (or is it less) than compose lengthy symphonic cataclysms; they can do touching ballads and mid-tempo, “mainstream” grooves when the album needs a break from all the orchestral blasting. “Tides of Time” is a startlingly touching, emotional whirlwind of a ballad, with an exceptional drum performance by Weesenbeek; this track is another Simone vehicle, featuring the softer textures of her vocal palette. But the gradual introduction of orchestral elements that culminates in Weesenbeek’s thunderous drum fills is what really sets this track apart; Simone’s electrifying performance in the gorgeous finale does the rest. This the kind of track Tuomas Holopainen wishes he could write (and failed to achieve with DARK PASSION PLAY’s “Eva”.) Simone’s mellow duet entitled “White Waters” with Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko is suitably heartfelt and pretty.
But with more than 70 minutes of music, there are a couple holes. “Our Destiny” has Simone going for an operatic belt, but the underlying dirge doesn’t mesh with her vocal. “Semblance of Liberty” is driven mostly by Mr. Jansen’s grunts, but it sounds a lot like an unwelcome throwback to CONSPIRACY-era waffling. His songwriting style is tailored much more towards melody than brutality, and his voice quickly tires out the mix when he overuses the dirty side of it; his vocal violence is marvelously effective when employed sparingly, not when featured. Lastly, “Deconstruct” has a great opening groove, but gets too slow and overbearing after a couple minutes, quickly losing my interest.
With DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, Epica has hit a new creative peak. One or two middling tracks aside, Mr. Jansen’s melodies & orchestrations have finally erupted into perfect balance with the stinging guitar riffs (with some rare, but blazing guitar solos) and shades of ugliness that add that killer edge to Epica’s unique breed of symphonic metal. And the peerlessly beautiful vocal performance of Simone Simons is not to be missed. Fans of the band will already own this record by now, and anybody wanting to know what talent, perseverance, and discipline tastes like when properly forged together should buy it immediately. Epica is a power to be watched, and I eagerly await their next offering.