A Friday night in Camden, North London, saw the debut performance on these shores by Dutch symphonic metal band Epica. This gig was being promoted by DPRP's own Charlie Farrell, and primarily through word of mouth and, more pertinently, word of net, had attracted an audience of around 140 - not huge, you might say, but you have to realise that bands such as Epica, while maybe very popular in their own country, have a practically non-existent profile in the UK, where most rock and metal fans are, unfortunately, rather blinkered and trend-led. This therefore represented a decent attendance, and indeed Charlie scored something of a coup in even getting a band such as Epica to play over here.
The evening kicked off with a set by Belgian outfit Sengir. I arrived about halfway through their performance, so cannot comment on the whole set, but from what I saw the band seemed to err more on the 'gothic' rather than 'symphonic' side of metal. Like Epica, they have a female lead singer, and she appeared a confident frontwoman, with a strong voice and charismatic stage presence. The band sounded good too, although personally I didn't think the mix was great, with the guitars in particular coming off as a little under-powered.
Nevertheless this was a good performance, with the final couple of tracks (Guilty Water and Autumn Tears) the strongest of those I heard.
After a short break, and a chance to chat to some familiar faces in the audience, Epica took to the stage. For those not in the know, they were formed by guitarist Mark Jansen after he left After Forever, and perhaps unsurprisingly are stylistically fairly similar to that band, although they have managed to carve their own identity.
Charlie told me that the band had spent a long time sound-checking, longer than he'd have expected, and from the minute opener-proper Cry For The Moon explodes into life, its clear that this time was well spent. In contrast to Sengir, the sound for Epica is powerful and crystal clear, with every instrument clearly audible in the mix. This includes the voice of flame-haired vocalist Simone Simons. Not only is she an arresting visual presence, but her vocals (delivered in the 'Mezzo Soprano' range) were of a uniformly high quality, floating serenely over the top of the powerful, symphonic metal her bandmates are creating. Hard to pick out a highlight, but her emotional delivery on the balladic Feint did stand out.
I hadn't heard any of Epica's music prior to this gig, but familiarity with After Forever gave me some idea of what to expect. It's a credit to the strength of the band's debut album The Phantom Agony (and the aforementioned crystal clear sound) that the songs made an immediate impact. I know I wasn't the only one to be pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the material on offer, as could be evinced by the wide smiles on the faces of the crowd and the huge cheers that greeted the completion of every song. Generally, the band are a little less heavy than AF, and perhaps even more symphonic (plenty of choirs (not in the flesh alas) and pseudo-classical bombast was on display), although there was no shortage of chugging riffs to get the metalheads in the audience moving.
The band, in addition to note-perfect playing, also seemed to be having a ball on stage, and despite the small size of the stage put on an impressively dynamic performance. Mark Jansen provided the between-songs banter, and was clearly moved by the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd.
The only criticism I would have is not of the performance itself but the fact that Epica seem to overuse that old standby, the male 'grunt'. These are fine when the material calls for it (its very effective on Opeth records for instance), but here, where the music really isn't that heavy, it can sometimes be a distraction. My friend, who isn't familiar with this style of music, enjoyed everything he heard apart from this element of the band's sound. Personally I'd like to see a move away from the 'grunt' and towards a cleaner male vocal counterpoint (as employed to good effect by Nightwish, for example) in the future.
Still, this didn't detract from an excellent show which seemed over all too quickly, despite the fact that the band played their entire repertoire (the whole of The Phantom Agony was aired, plus the non-album track Veniality and an excellent version of the After Forever track Follow In The Cry). This meant that, when called back to encore, the band had ran out of tracks to play, so instead did another run through Cry For The Moon - not that anyone was complaining, as this is one of Epica's strongest tracks in my opinion.
Overall then, a highly satisfying evening for all concerned. Charlie Farrell certainly deserves congratulations on getting the band over to play here - I imagine he was fed up by the number of people (me included!) who came up to him after the show and said 'how about After Forever or Within Temptation next', but this gig proved there is a (growing) audience for this style of metal in the UK, and it can't be too long before Epica's fellow countrymen make the journey across the channel. I for one will certainly be there should Epica (as they hopefully will) make a return visit to the UK.