Released: 2007, Nuclear Blast
I think I can honestly say I'd never expected to be reviewing albums from two female-fronted Dutch progressive-symphonic-gothic metal artists with vocalists named Jansen in the same month. Epica, brainchild number two of guitarist / "beast" vocalist Mark Jansen, is back with, depending on whether you count the movie soundtrack THE SCORE - AN EPIC JOURNEY or not, either their third or fourth full-length release, a seventy-five minute monster of a concept album focused on the subject of multiple religions being created by God in order to allow humanity to resolve their differences and figure out the true nature behind all of them. It also concludes in the course of its length the conceptual piece "The Embrace That Smothers" begun on their debut full-length THE PHANTOM AGONY, and oddly enough, that particular phrase applies rather well to the contents of this album, for while it is marvelously constructed and brilliantly arranged, it seems like a little bit of the divine spark of life has been smothered out of what's presented here.
Take the opening instrumental "Indigo," for example, which starts off with a symphonic theme resplendant with swelling string passages and choir vocals that sound ready to be brought directly into a big-budget fantasy movie soundtrack...but doesn't go anywhere. The music hovers right on the very edge of delivering a big emotional impact, but never quite crosses that line, and as a result winds up being eminently forgettable. From there, the band jumps right into "The Obsessive Devotion," which brings the full force of what you'd expect from Epica to bear and turns it up several notches with speedy guitar riffing, lots of choir segments, plenty of complex symphonic dynamics, and of course plenty of 'beauty and the beast' vocal duelling between Simone Simons and Mark Jansen. Great song, but when listening to it, I can't help but think two things - one, Simons is holding back just a little bit, sacrificing a degree of emotional energy in her delivery in favor of remaining note-perfect - and two, the song seems a good deal longer than it actually is because of all the directional changes it pulls the listener through. Both of these issues remain pretty consistent throughout a lot of the album, making the disc as a whole an exhausting rather than an exhilirating listen - still very enjoyable, but not something that sticks in your head as exceptionally memorable. That said, there are dozens of moments of pure gold spread throughout the album and tons of variety to be heard, pushing the boundaries of what a listener might expect into previously uncharted territories. There are gorgeous melodic moments like the acoustic portions of "Chasing The Dragon" and the piano-and-symphonic orchestration beauty of "Safeguard To Paradise." There are near-progressive-metal guitar licks on many of the tracks interspersed with the symphonic elements, though there's only one actual guitar solo (a real fret-burner on the relatively mainstream-oriented "Beyond Belief"). There are surprising explosions of aggressive black metal stylistics, namely raspy vocals from Jansen and bursts of blastbeat drumming from session drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek (from God Dethroned) on tracks like "Menace Of Vanity" and "Death Of A Dream," the latter of which also shows a good sign of maturity from the band which might pass right over the heads of listeners not familiar with the group's history - namely the guest death vocals of After Forever's Sander Gommans trading off with Jansen's. This particular combination is interesting in that a feud between these two men over what musical direction to take After Forever is the reason Jansen left the group in the first place. Epica even suffers a minor identity crisis on "Never Enough," when they spontaneously transform into Lacuna Coil for one song, complete with goth-metal riffs and keyboard lines, electronica backing effects, and big radio-friendly chorus. The best song on the album is definitely the near-fourteen-minute title track, which features hugely-dramatic classical instrument and operatic choir arrangements, plenty of tempo shifts, lots of vocal duelling, and great musicianship all around. Unfortunately it, like the majority of the rest of the album, sounds great while it's playing but doesn't stick with the listener for long after the music stops.
I mentally debated for quite a while about what rating to give THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY. I like every track on it and I'm impressed by the complex musical arrangements and degree of experimentation present on the album, but somehow I find very little of it stays with me even after multiple listens. In the end, I can only state it's a far better release than the relatively lackluster CONSIGN TO OBLIVION, but in the process of expanding its musical horizons as much as it has, the band appears to have lost some of the focus they held on THE PHANTOM AGONY. While it may not be a perfect release, Epica fans and fans of symphonic metal in general will definitely find plenty to like.