21 April 2014

Epica - The Phantom Agony

More symphonic metal from The Low Countries and probably at no better a time either as Epica have their soon to be released sixth album in the twelve or so years they've been together, so I thought to begin reviewing their entire discography, starting with this curtain raiser The Phantom Agony. Before that, first a little background information from the Dutch sextet. Initially called Sahara Dust albeit briefly, the male/female voices of the band are Simone Simons rubbing shoulders along the ubiquitous death grunts from guitarist Mark Jansen. Their music follows the tried and trusted format of sharp and heavy six stringwork coupled with a choir and a small clutch of various classical stringed instruments, some gothic, some progressive as well as power metal.

From the same stable as After Forever (of which Mark Jansen is a former member), Within Temptation and ReVamp, Miss Simons is a classically trained soprano who at first listen could certainly Finnish operatic chanteuse Tarja Turunen as one of her influences. All six band members are credited with the musical composition, while Simons and Jansen are the chief scribes behind the wording. The lyrical themes behind the songs deal largely with philosophy, science, world issues and religion in general. Jansen's purposefully distorted singing, almost hushed as well, follows along a similar ring to Amorphis's Tomi Joutsen.

At the beginning is the brief two minute Adyta (The Neverending Embrace), a string octet introduction before the choral group utters a couple of lines in Latin followed by the album opener proper Sensorium. It's a steady not too thrashy beat, good rhythm as well although there's more emphasis on the keyboard work rather than the shredding. Hopefully there'll be more guitarring as the album progresses. As mentioned above, some of Epica's work deals with some worldly affairs, and the next track Cry For The Moon deals with the rather thorny issue of Catholic priests abuse of children, bringing out some heavy truths and naturally bringing the apparent perpetrators to account.

Next track is Feint which looking at the wording seems to suggest a loss of innocence. In fact it deals with the murder of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician noted for his rather controversial and perhaps anti-multiculturalist views and I think from a commentary point of view, Epica have got these observations right on the mark and probably right where it hurts too. We're coming up to the end of the first half of Phantom Agony, where Illusive Consensus picks the beat up rather briskly and Simone Simons is concentrating on the slightly higher alto notes. An album filler I suspect with a few more Latin lines written into it, as is the next track Facade Of Reality. Yet another contentious track this time charting the events of 9/11 but it's one that sticks with me well. More emphasis on the drumwork, the guitars as well as the orchestral backdrops and choral work, it's the best of all worlds, with a couple of Tony Blair soundbites included in a more full blooded performance.

There's echoes of Metallica's Nothing Else Matters with the introductory acoustics of Run For A Fall although midway through it the pace becomes more power metal-based and Jansen's guttural vocals feature once again in a few lines. The theme feels mystical if hinting towards the reasons behind his departure from After Forever. Even Islamic fundamentalism isn't safe from the scathing criticisms with the next track Seif Al Din, granted it isn't as blatant as some Iraqi grindcore act I recall that were once screaming "Fuck the Quran!" but still as on the subtle edge nevertheless. The title song Phantom Agony again features Jansen but the precedence is set by the heavy string combo and the choir which feels more gothic based than anything else in the metal inventory.

There's another 13 tracks on the Spotify release, but they're predominantly orchestral versions of the above tracks. Aside from them, there's Veniality with its deft stickwork, which feels a bit lightweight sans the shredding, but made up in the instrumental Triumph Of Defeat, which feels very prog-rock, very Rick Wakeman with the added bonus of hammer ons. Now I mentioned lightweight and that's what this album feels like. If I was ever going to compare Epica to one of my all time loves in Nightwish, they may claim to be of the same metal genre, but the latter is much heavier and much more punchy than Miss Simons and Co. or compatriots Within Temptation. But too cruel to compare in my opinion, and where Epica may lose out in terms of metal punch, the gains made on their fellow peers is in the songwriting. Hoping that more guitarwork is featured in the forthcoming album The Quantum Enigma.

7 out of ten. This is good and well worth a check.
Best track : Facade of Reality

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