3 August 2014

Epica - The Quantum Enigma

Very few albums are able to run to schedule, but even if Dutch symphonic metallers Epica have channelled so much time and energy into this latest effort, from what I gather on their regular Facebook updates, things have been running like clockwork building up to the release of The Quantum Enigma. And their thoughts on the latest work? Guitarist and guttural vocalist Mark Jansen is seemingly overjoyed at it, claiming it to be a labour of love right throughout the recording and mixing process with all members involved with infectious enthusiasm. "I can't wait (until) the moment you'll be able to listen to our newborn which makes us all proud!"

Confident claim from Mr. Jansen, and quite a big leap from their debut album The Phantom Agony (click here to read the review). It wasn't a lame effort to be honest. What I didn't like about it was that all the instrumentation, ie the metal guitarwork and classical backdrop didn't all meld together at the same time when the time beckoned. Also, and this is only my personal thought, Simone Simons was a bit too heavily reliant on her operatic skills initially. However, those shortcomings weren't too much of a hindrance for Epica, and I did like the lyrical pursuits, the storytelling and the world affairs commentary they presented to us, so plenty of strengths and weaknesses in equal amounts to go on.

On first impressions, good point number one of the Quantum Enigma is Miss Simons herself. Yes, she still does operatic, but with less intensity, and her voice feels sharper, cleaner and much more pleasing and rubbing shoulders with the metal nobility more confidently now. The second good point is that Mark Jansen's deep growls are the same, but here, ten years on from TPA, it feels more disciplined and intelligible, his lyrical composing in his vocals is vastly improved now. And the third good point is the only non Dutch member in Belgian riff meister Isaac Delahaye. It's been a while now since I last heard a guitarist offering so much fretwork that alternates picking and tapping with Richie Blackmore tremolo usage, so a mixture of the old and new is very encouraging.

As may well be expected on any epic metal album these days, is a brief curtain raiser to proceedings, and this diet orchestral and choral follows the tried and trusted said format. Originem in all its two minutes has the typified grandoise and operatic backdrop able to match any introductory metal boombastic offering. Co-written with outside help from a Greek keyboardist in Bob Katsionis before The Second Stone, brings in the clean and occasional classic Simons vox and the strongly featured Jansen gutturals, strong power traits demonstrated as well it must be said. A memorable chorus too, so it's worthy of a single release, as has what happened to the following track The Essence Of Silence. It follows the same pace, same classical backups although Jansen takes more of the lead. Victims Of Contingency takes a much more darker and death metal approach, while lyrically it warns us of dark forebodings and vicious circles.

So far a strong showing from Epica, but it's all been four minute format of the tried and tested well symphonic formats, so probably a formality that they're taking a more intense but less thrashy approach with Sense Without Sanity - The Impervious Code, the hookline is the same format and memorable until the bridge and violin strings and a recital from drummer Arien van Weesenbeek add a little extra flavour to what is turning out to be an enriching album to date. Second single release is Unchain Utopia, yet another tune that sticks to the wall, another memorable chorus, there are however one or two little extra snippets just to prick your ears a little more with some solo piano and occasional sitar sounding accompaniment. After a brief respite in The Fifth Guardian, we have a rather curious rhythm introduction in Chemical Insomnia, while the male choral takes more centre stage this time. The theme is that of biblical poisons and just as meaty as the preceding tracks.

Reverence is running on a more positively note musically, but finally we have some Isaac Delahaye leads which is the only thing Quantum Enigma has so far been lacking. Coen Janssen begins Omen - The Ghoulish Malady with piano leads, the pace is much slower and a welcome breather at about the same time. The strings arrangements are more prominent here and now onto Canvas Of Life, it's evident that Epica aren't short on composing ideas with piano and acoustic guitars and a rare break from the metal garnish isn't always a bad thing. Putting me in good stead for Natural Corruption, penultimate track, more Delahaye riffwork in the breaks and leads before the last track, the Quantum Enigma - Kingdom Of Heaven. Now, this is over twice as long as the other tracks at over eleven minutes and to really absorb this, you need to listen to it at least five times to really get the gist of it. Maybe the less hefty offering, and there's some Latin orations which feels a lot more high brow and demanding.

For want of better terms with in mind the band name, this is an epic one hour piece and compared with The Phantom Agony, this is a major (I'm desperately trying to avoid saying quantum) leap. Mark Jansen has indeed delivered his promise that Quantum Enigma is a fully enriched album but it's not one you can get away with listening to just once. Granted that the majority of the tracks here are largely four minute metal/symphonic numbers with plenty of operatic drama, lyrical storytelling and a yin and yang of death growls and clean orations, there's no doubt that this was done in ten tenths. I've had to listen to this at least three times and it still staggers me how Simone Simons and Mark Jansen and co. have managed to couple this together in a matter of a few months between the touring and promotional activities and other commitments. Their best album to date? It's an open verdict yet strong case for the time being.

9 out of ten. Almost perfect....almost.
Best Track : Unchain Utopia

Buy The Quantum Enigma here on Amazon
Listen to the album here on Spotify
Deezer listeners can click on this link here
Official Epica Facebook page here
Epica Official Website on this link here

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