Round Table Review
Tracklist: Hunab K'u "A New Age Dawns" - Prologue (1:43), Dance Of Fate (5:13), The Last Crusade "A New Age Dawns" I (4:22), Solitary Ground (4:22), Blank Infinity (4:00), Forces Of The Shore (4:01), Quietus (3:45), Mother Of Light "A New Age Dawns" II (5:55), Trois Vierges (4:40), Another Me "In Lack'ech" (4:39), Consign To Oblivion "A New Age Dawns" III (9.45)
Although Epica did release a number of appetizers after their debut album, finally they have released a successor to The Phantom Agony. Not that it has taken them very long (certainly not compared to others) to create this second offering but if you create such a highly appreciated debut you make an audience want for more. Noblesse oblige n'est ce pas? Highly appreciated debut, highly anticipated second, the main question of course is: does this album live up to the high expectations?
For those of you that are unfamiliar with The Phantom Agony: it is a mix of prog metal, film music and gothic. Part of the strength of that debut was it's surprising style. As this album does not have a complete new style the surprise is gone but that does not diminish the effort on this second. Although building on the fundaments of their previous offering, it is not an exact copy. There's the same or (even more) prominent bass drums and bass guitars, some quieter moments (a bit less then on TPA). But there are also some new ingredients like medieval instruments and added are even more violins and brass. Furthermore Simone uses her voice in other ways than on the TPA. Of course her brilliant soprano is still there but also some lower pitched vocals can be found. It is a well known fact that she can sing but I did not expect her to be capable of doing it all. It is a pleasant surprise, she should do it more often! This Album does have it quieter moments (like an duet with Kamelot's Roy Kahn) but overall it is very heavy and bombastic (but that's not a bad thing is it?). As said: in this case it means music filled with violins, horns, choirs and much more (electric guitars and drums for instance), there's a lot going on at the same time.
Like on previous albums four of the tracks belong together: Hunab K'u, The Last Crusade, Mother Of The Light and are all part of A New Age Dawns. Like in the After Forever days, this might mean that another part might be added on a new album (in fact one of the After Forever songs was prolonged on the first Epica album) so we will see.
Hunab K'u is like the obligatory music track that starts of all Mark Janssen's albums, it is a nice prologue but the actual work starts with Dance Of Fate, a track that mixes speedy bass guitar a melodic refrain all kept going by a firm drum beat. The Last Crusade starts of with a choir and then an heavier guitar, again the solid drum and bass guitar set the pace to this track. The orchestra mixed with the speedy rhythm loops are what defines this track. Solitary Ground is a ballad in which Simone is not singing as high as she can but she really makes the words float into the air and again I am left in awe, boy can she sing. Blank Infinity starts of like a Bonnie Tyler song but as soon as the violins and rhythm section kick in that thought is gone (luckily). On this tracks I had to listen twice to make sure the voice is actually Simone's.
Forces Of The Shore again has an driving rhythm and finally Mark Janssen starts grunting, the track has a very lovely break (with whispered words like on TPA) ending in a climax of choir and again the very metal rhythm section. The instruments at the start of Quietus give it a real medieval feel, the voice of Simone is superb on this track, it is one of the best on the album because it absorbs this medieval feel and then let it seep out here and there. Mother Of Light starts of with haunting violin loops, the track conveys a certain of feel urgency. On Trois Vierges Simone does a duet with Roy Kahn of Kamelot (but also very recognizable from his work for AINA). Because of the clavicemble sound it might have also been used on AINA it has the same structure and feel. Those that regularly read DPRP News know that this track will also be used for the Dutch movie 'Joyride'. Another Me “In Lack’ech” has excellent lyrics (Simone's not a nice girl on this one) and a good build up towards the refrain. But the piece de la resistance is without any doubt the title track: Consign To Oblivion starts off slowly (with dramatic violins and piano), but soon plunges into the driving metal sound and sharp violins. This song exists in all it's bombast: choirs, grunts, copper blowers, tempo changes, etc are used in this song, Simone's voice is as high as it can be. It has all the features of the other tracks on this album (and then some).
This album is available as an SACD, unfortunately I did not get a chance to slip it in my SACD player. And that's a pity because I think this music is really suitable for a multi-channel mix. All these different instruments could be spread across the channels easily. At the moment my favourite SACD is still Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and I can't imagine Epica taking their spot. But then again: I have not yet heard it, so who knows?
Although Epica got rid of some of the movie-score like sounds of the previous album, a lot of it is still there. Mark Janssen did slip in bits of the old After Forever, but at the same time kept intact Epica's distinct and unique features. So to get back to my question of the beginning: does this album live up to the high expectations? Yes sirree!
In 2003 Epica released their debut album The Phantom Agony and the musical press was unanimous in their opinion. Another great Dutch gothic band was born and they could certainly compete and be compared with bands like After Forever and Within Temptation. Last year they already released their first DVD called We Will Take You With Us, a rather disappointing collection of songs from their debut album, recorded for the prestigious "two-meter sessions" of Jan Douwe Kroeske. The debut album was a good gothic metal album, but according to me there were too many grunts, no guitar solos whatsoever and sometimes the voice of mezzo-soprano Simone Simons "drowned" in the choir and the rhythm guitars. So, what has changed on the new album?
In the first place I would say that there is a lot more melody and bombast on Consign To Oblivion. Furthermore there are a lot more classical influences, less grunts (which I think is excellent), but again no guitar solos! Still this new CD wins easily on points from its predecessor as it has lots more atmosphere, more filmscore-like songs and most of all Simone sings like never before. Just listen to heavenly, melodic songs like The Last Crusade or the breathtaking ballad Blank Infinity and you will have to agree with me that Simone's voice never sounded better. Blank Infinity is a rather special song, as it is not really a typical Epica track, it is sheer melodic, mysterious and a song that would do great on radio as well. Another example of such a non-Epica song is Trois Vierges, where Simone sings a duet with Roy Kahn from Kamelot. That song could best be described as a musical-like track with also some definite hit potential.
What else is different on this new CD? Well, the first song is a real classical, bombastic overture, which shows that this album is much more diverse as songs like Forces Of The Shore, Mother Of Light and the title track are true metal songs. Which means that they are "filled" with heavy riffs, lots of drum violence, dark atmosphere, howling keys, epic choir parts and last but not least Simone's heavenly voice. Consign To Oblivion is an album that grabs you by the throat right from the start, gives you goose bums and makes your head want to bang on the addictive guitar riffs. An overwhelming album and also a varied album, making Epica one of the best female fronted gothic metal bands of this moment. But, please, can we hear some guitar solos on the third album??
Definite highlights: Blank Infinity and the awesome title track!
A review from someone who doesn't know what he's talking about: I'm not really into female fronted gothic metal bands. In the past there have been songs by fellow Dutch bands Within Temptation or After Forever which I liked, but never enough to ever buy any of their albums. Epica's debut The Phantom Agony went largely past me but it was when I watched their DVD We Can Take You With Us that I started appreciating this band, not in the last place because of the stunning performance by young Simone Simons. But the band incorporated those two elements that I like most in prog: classical music, coming from a chamber orchestra, mixed with heavy metal guitar riffs.
And then I got invited to listen to this new album, mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, in a professional studio. I was hooked! Where The Phantom Agony relied too much on the interaction between Simons' mezzo-soprano and guitarist Mark Jansen's grunts - something which is more a gimmick than a basis for a good song - on the new album the band has managed to come up with some really good songs with particularly strong melodies. Goth metal with accessible melodies that stick, now there's something different!
Album opener Hunab K'u shows the band's love for the film music of the likes of Hans Zimmer. The short orchestral piece could have been lifted straight from the soundtrack to Pirates Of The Caribbean. Then the band kicks in full force with Dance Of Fate, which is a full-on roaring guitar and double bass-drum fest, enriched with the symphonies of the orchestra and a choir. It's like vintage Alan Parsons on speed!
When Simone's not singing with her 'opera' voice, her vocals sound somewhat flat. Dance Of Fate is a good example of this as she starts singing normal, and halfway switches to opera style, and when she does her voice becomes so much fuller. However, as I stated above, the opera thing is not much more than a gimmick, and you can't fill an entire album with it. So it is a good thing she is singing more in her natural voice as well, but the effect just goes somewhat lost amongst the bombast of the music.
The first of the two ballads on the album, Solitary Ground, is a welcome break after the power of the first two songs Dance Of Fate and The Last Crusade. Sounding everything like a song from a musical the lyrics deal with Simons' feeling on displacement and alienation of a musician's life. Compared to the lyrical themes touched upon on the rest of the album (mainly inspired by Mayan culture) the lyrics to Solitary Ground are surprisingly down-to-earth and personal.
The second ballad, Trois Vierges, is a duet with Roy Khan of Kamelot, returning the favour of Simone appearing on Kamelot's latest album The Black Halo. This song will be used in the upcoming Dutch movie Joyride, for which Epica will also write the film score. It is a very classical sounding song, with some medieval influences, which once again could have come straight out of a Lloyd Webber musical.
Probably the best song on the album is Blank Infinity which contains the best vocal melody on the album. The choir and orchestra add a certain grandeur to this half ballad/half metal song. While Solitary Ground has been chosen as the first single for the album (and Trois Vierges a likely second, to coincide with the movie) this song would actually be a more representative single for the band.
The other highlight is the nine-minute title track of the album. Never mind the clichès, but long songs rule! It is a tour-de-force with a leading role for Mark Jansen's grunts. Grunting is something which will not be appreciated by everybody (including yours truly) but when used sparingly it can be quite effective. Epica uses them on only two songs on this album (the other is Mother Of Light). The song features all the good things this band has to offer: dark and heavy guitar riffs, elaborate orchestral passages, and Simone's beautiful singing.
As a non-fan I was pleasantly surprised by the album. Though there is still plenty room for improvement, especially in the arrangement of the songs. While most songs contain excellent vocal melodies, the music is all rather straightforward in a somewhat simple ta ta ta-da-da manner and the choirs sing almost the same melodies on all the tracks. The hand of Sacha Paeth and 'vocal coach' Amanda Somerville is too obvious stripping away much of the identity of the band. The production of Sacha Paeth can be spotted from miles away, and the orchestra and choir used is the same orchestra and choir that was featured on the Aina rock opera. The start of The Last Crusade sounds more like a left-over from that album than an original new track. The best example of studio cross-pollination is the duet with Kamelot's Roy Khan. Kamelot is another one of Paeth's protégés and this song would have fitted as well on the latest Kamelot album as it does here. And nobody would have noticed!
Furthermore inserting a solo here and there certainly wouldn't hurt. A guitar
solo -or any solo at all- is what the music lacks the most. Instrumental passages on the album are the same for each song: a continuation of the
guitar riffs with the orchestra accentuating these riffs and not the slightest bit of melody.
But that is just minor quibble. The band has delivered a strong album and deserve to become every bit as big as (or as far as I'm concerned bigger than) Within Temptation and the likes. Overly bombastic and pretentious? Sure, but what gives. It is a great album to listen to with excellent musicianship and some terrific melodies. Provided you can stand a healthy dose of heavy metal guitar riffs, highly recommended!
The album is available as a strictly limited edition CD/DVD digibook, or as a hybrid Super Audio CD version (which plays on all CD players). The SACD version contains three different mixes (normal CD quality stereo, Super Audio stereo and Super Audio 5.1 surround) with bonus tracks. Unfortunately no info about the bonus tracks or DVD content is available at the time of writing, but experience from previous digibooks from Transmission Records learns that the choice as to which version you should buy is not a difficult one. For the time being there is no standard CD version available, as this will replace the limited edition once it sells out. However, as this type of music really benefits from the surround mix, there's really no point waiting for this.