Issue 2004-060: Epica - We Will Take You With Use - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
'2 Meter Sessies':
EPICA The Works [41.37]: Façade of Reality [The Embrace That Smothers - part V] (8.31), Sensorium (5.10), Illusive Consensus (5.22), Cry for the Moon [The Embrace That Smothers - part IV] (6.56), The Phantom Agony (9.13), Seif al Din [The Embrace That Smothers - part VI] (6.22)
EPICA Acoustic [14.48]: Feint (4.49), Run for a Fall (4.54), Memory (5.03)
Bonus Material: The Making Of 2 Meter Sessies (21.57), The Phantom Agony (music video) (4.31), Making Of The Phantom Agony (13.35), Feint (music video) (4.21), Making Of Feint (8.53), The Voices of The Phantom Agony (Documentary) (9.57), Slide Shows, Discography, Website links
EPICA The Works: Façade of Reality [The Embrace That Smothers - part V] (8.15), Sensorium (4.54), Illusive Consensus (5.04), Cry for the Moon [The Embrace That Smothers - part IV] (6.45), The Phantom Agony (9.02), Seif al Din [The Embrace That Smothers - part VI] (5.52)
EPICA Acoustic: Feint (4.41), Run for a Fall (4.46), Memory (4.37)
For those of you not familiar with the '2 meter sessies' (2 meter sessions) let me first explain them a little. In the eighties a radio DJ called Jan Douwe Kroeske did a show on the Dutch public radio. Because he is a very tall man (around two meters) his show was called '2 meter de lucht in' (2 meters on the air). In 1987, Crowded House during their new album promo tour, decided to perform some tracks of their new album in the small radio studio. Later on an irregular basis, other artists did the same thing and most of them took only an acoustic guitar and some other small instruments with them. After this 'small live performances' became a regular item on the show and hence it got its name: "2 meter sessies".
Remember that this was two years before MTV started recording acoustic shows calling them unplugged. The sessions were not acoustic per se. Most of them were just intimate, smaller versions of the studio tracks. Its power being just that and the fact that they were performed live in the studio and recorded in one shot. Through the years an amazing list of artists (Crowded House, Paul Weller, Suzanne Vega, Coldplay, Living Colour, Radiohead and so on...) have performed the '2 meter sessies', and Jan Douwe Kroeske being a fan of quality music made sure these were all worth while.
And now it is Epica's turn to be added to this long list of respectable names. There are two items under review here: the 2 meter sessies CD and the 2 meter sessies DVD.
The music on this CD is good, Epica was joined in the studio by a number of people. Taking a small orchestra and a choir should enable them to recreate the songs from The Phantom Agony, and with that my first complaint on this CD can be made. Taking all these people to recreate the album tracks may make good music but it does not create the intimate atmosphere that I enjoy so much in the 2 meter sessies. Furthermore these tracks are so close to the original that they do not really add anything to the tracks from the studio album. In fact I have been playing the studio tracks and 2 meter sessies tracks side by side to discover the differences and have found close to none. This of course is a real compliment for Epica. It shows that no tricks were needed to create their studio albums but these fine musicians are able to let this flow from their instruments without noticeable effort. But does it not also mean that they are not able to add anything to the music? Or maybe they were just trying to stick to the originals as close as possible?
All of this refers to the first set of the session, called The Works. The Acoustic set has all the elements that The Works miss out on. I know that some people dislike acoustic versions but even they must agree that Simone Simons has an amazing voice that is even more impressive in these acoustic songs. I look at the version of Memory (from the musical "Cats") in that light because, well let's just say it like this: it wasn't on my wish list. All in all a nice album but if you own The Phantom Agony the acoustic versions alone will probably not add enough extra to that.
I have a very different view on the DVD: sure it does contain the same tracks but this time these are in a real nifty 5.1 audio mix (both Dolby Digital and DTS are featured). Strange enough, this time it is much more intimate because you get to actually see them perform the session. The surround mix is not flying all over the place: mostly it's the band in front with the strings on the back channels. This makes the audio very good and impressive to listen to. Image quality is very good and in 16:9 ratio. So technically this DVD appears to be in excellent condition.
It's a pity that the introduction by Jan Douwe Kroeske is only displayed on screen in text, would have been nice if he himself in front of a camera spoken the same words. What I find strange is the fact that everything in the booklet of this DVD is in English but the introduction in between the songs, by Mark Jansen, are in Dutch, without subtitles.
This DVD also makes you realize that although Mark Jansen is always stated as being the key band member, he might be outshone by Simone Simons. You see a thin almost fragile girl sing these opera-like vocals with an unbelievable ease. The drums, keyboards and guitars seem nothing more than incidental music to her voice. This is in now way meant to put down the performance of Epica but only goes to show that Simone is really really good. Speaking of the Epica performance: as stated in the CD review their music is near to perfection, performing each track as if it was to be recorded for a studio album.
For the acoustic part also the piano parts should be mentioned they are full of emotion and are at the same level as Simone's vocals. During this acoustic part Simone is constantly eyeing Amanda Somerville, who then smiles back in reassurance (or so it seems) - I find this a bit annoying.
The CD contains a number of extra's amongst which are the videos to The Phantom Agony and Feint that I had not seen before. It also contains the making of these two videos, giving a good insight in the making of these videos but also made me realize how young these band members are. Again these video's are presented in stereo, dolby digital 5.1 and DTS audio.
The Voices of The Phantom Agony is a 10 minutes Making of the Phantom Agony documentary, it is nice but not all the video is of the same good quality which is a pity. There is a German version of thePhantom Agony in there somewhere (Falsches Spiel, that should be on the CD somewhere, well, not on the promo). What I like most in those making of documents is artists explaining a little of how a certain piece of music came to live, unfortunately there is no explanation whatsoever with these videos, so we'll have to make do with that. We will manage, but it could have contained this small extra.
Then there are the obligatory picture slide shows that are good to watch but looking at these photographs on a web page using my computer is much more convenient, this is even more so with the discography.
So my final verdict would be to leave the CD as it is but to buy the DVD. It has the music of the CD in a very good surround mix and as an added bonus, all the extra's. If you like Epica the DVD is a must, if you have not heard them before the first two acoustic tracks might win you over but still my advice would be: buy the DVD and not the CD.
I must admit that when I put my hand up for the latest Epica release, I assumed that I would be getting something that contained (at least partly) some genuine new material. But no – this is instead Transmission's latest (and hopefully last) attempt to wring every last drop from Epica's only album to date (The Phantom Agony). The release centres on a TV session at the renowned (in the Netherlands, at any rate) Wisseloord studios. As mentioned by Dries, the sessions are (named after the very tall host, apparently) has hosted big names such as REM and Radiohead, so for a new and relatively unknown band this obviously represents a major coup.
The session is basically split into two: six songs (The Works) are played with the full electric band, a six-piece string section and eight strong choir (the latter including Amanda Somerville, one of the leading lights behind the excellent Aina project). In addition, another three songs are played in a stripped-down, acoustic setting.
I don't want to say too much about the songs themselves, as they've been analysed plenty of times already, given the plethora of singles the band have already released. Suffice to say, the six electric tracks pretty much hold their own with the studio versions – perhaps not so surprising, given the fact that the full orchestral treatment is finally available to the band in a live setting. Epica themselves clearly know this material inside out and give as expected a flawless performance, whilst the choir and string section acquit themselves expertly. Yet, with the absence of any sort of audience noise, this is ultimately inferior to the studio versions, not least as the sound, whilst generally good, sounds a little compressed in places, and clearly misses the extra spit and polish applied by (The Phantom Agony producer) Sascha Paeth.
Perhaps of more interest to fans who already have the album is the acoustic segment. Both Feint and Run For A Fall are eminently suited to the acoustic treatment, both being ballads in any case. In fact, fans may already have heard the 'piano version' of Feint on the single version of that track; here its in a similar guise, although it also features a cello (not that you can hear it much – I only know because I've seen the DVD!). Run For A Fall also features Ad Sluyter on acoustic guitar, and both tracks have at least two choir members helping to flesh out the vocals. Also included is a version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber standard Memory – not an entirely surprising choice of cover version, I must admit. Simone Simons equips herself well, but I couldn't help thinking that her voice isn't really suited to this song. This, coupled with the fact that I'm not a big Lloyd Webber fan anyway, means that this is probably the weakest track as far as I'm concerned, despite being the one true 'extra' that fans probably won't have.
Musically, then, this is fine, if inessential. Visually, however, it's a bit of a no-no. Basically this is akin to the filming of a band in a studio – albeit with all the band playing at once! The majority of band and orchestra members wear headphones, and their performance is clearly aimed more at hitting/ playing each note perfectly than being something that's actually visually stimulating. Yes, its quite interesting seeing the orchestra and choir contributing their parts, and the performance is filmed well enough, but with no live audience, and corresponding crowd interaction, and no real attempt to provide any form of entertaining visual presentation, ultimately I find it hard to believe I'll be rewatching this much now that I've reviewed it.
In addition to the main content, the DVD has the now seemingly compulsory array of extras. There is the usual 'making of' of the '2 Meter Sessies', which (as I usually find with these things) is probably only interesting if you're somehow connected with the band and/or appear in the documentary. More entertaining are the promotional videos for The Phantom Agony and Feint. These hardly have the highest production values, and in fact remind me more of the videos you used to get in the eighties (lots of questionable miming whilst standing on hills and castles and suchlike) but they were clearly fun to make, and besides any video which has the delectable Simone Simons parade about in no fewer than six equally alluring outfits (as does The Phantom Agony) has to be recommended!… ahem. We also get the usual 'making of's' for both the videos, plus a section on the making of The Phantom Agony. All are OK in a home video type way, but again, for me, are of the 'once only viewing' variety.
The limited edition comes encased in very nice hardback book-style packaging (similar to Ayreon's The Human Equation special edition), with lots of photos and some words by Mark Jansen on the Epica story so far.
Overall then, this will probably be on the 'must have' list for die-hard Epica fans, and I don't think they will necessarily be disappointed. For more casual fans, however, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it – the 'live' tracks are so close to the studio to make the CD somewhat redundant (unless you absolutely must have that Andrew Lloyd Webber cover version) whilst the DVD is hardly a visual or informational feast, even with the extras tagged on. In summary, I hope this is the closing chapter on "The Phantom Agony" era, and look forward to new material and live dates from this undeniably exciting and talented band.
Just after releasing only one complete album the Dutch gothic sensation Epica already bring out a DVD. The Phantom Agony was a wonderful album that ended up high in the Dutch album charts. So, what can you expect on this DVD? First of all you can enjoy six tracks from their debut album, on which a genuine string section supported Epica, and eight beautifully choir voices. Songs like Sensorium, Cry For The Moon and The Phantom Agony, already my favourite Epica tracks, really get a sort of extra dimension because of the strings and the extra vocal parts. Then you get three acoustic (boring!!!) songs; Feint, Run For A Fall and Memory. The latter being that "well-known" song from the musical "Cats"; a track which I would call Epica-unworthy. During these three tracks two female choir singers support Simone Simons (vocals and piano). During all these nine tracks nothing special really happens, so that makes this DVD rather boring to look at, and you can better buy the CD, with of course the same songs on it.
The extras on the DVD make this release a worthwhile item for the true Epica fans. It starts with a documentary about the making of this DVD, so what goes on behind the scenes. There are also a few interesting interviews with several band members and you can enjoy the clips of two songs, namely Feint and The Phantom Agony, which are both very professionally made. Then there is a documentary called The Voices Of The Phantom Agony which is a mix of amateur pictures of Epica during their shows and of course there is an extended photo gallery, a slide show, discography and the web link. All in all a real must have DVD for the fans, but for me there is nothing new under the sun, no new compositions, or other real surprises, so in other words what is the surplus value of this release if you already have their amazing debut???