Epica is a symphonic power metal/gothic metal band from the Netherlands that has really taken the scene and the world by storm since their founding in 2002 due to the amazing voice of their mezzo-soprano vocalist (who also happens to be a hotty, there are no coincidences in metal) Simone Simons and the epic *cough* nature of their music. Design Your Universe is the band’s fifth album, and honestly, the first one I’ve ever sat through assuming the band would be like a mix of old Theatre of Tragedy and Nightwish.
So, I guess the best way to describe Epica is as a mix of old Theatre of Tragedy and Nightwish. Every track on this album is heavily orchestrated, bombastic and saturated with huge choirs and vocals. The music is pretty much your standard orchestrated female-fronted metal, except a bit heavier due to the death metal side of the band, which is definitely a welcome change from a lot of these bands that seem to be afraid to actually have anything heavy in their music.
No, Epica is not afraid of much of anything. It’s almost as though they don’t have any shame or self-insight. There’s no one in that studio going “do you think this is too much?” No, this record is pretty much a balls-to-the-wall, over-the-top example of what you can do if you have 256 tracks on every song! And honestly, it’s pretty good for a few reasons. Let’s take the most obvious (and red-headed) aspect of the band to focus on first: the vocals. Often a make-or-break aspect of modern power metal and symphonic metal bands, Simone Simons is definitely a serious talent. Able, unlike other divas, to wander between poppy sounding smooth vocals and operatics, Simone pretty much wanders the range throughout the album delivering her parts with a sincerity and force that few other vocalists can muster. In a lot of ways, she really carries this album. While the music is pretty interesting, it is her vocals and melodies that draw me back to the album time and again.
On the other hand, there are some pretty cheesy lyrics on this thing and vocal approaches as well. On the 13 minute Kingdom of Heaven, even God shows up to scream at someone “NO! You must continue!” I’m surprised these guys didn’t call in Fabio from Rhapsody of Fire to cheese it up a little bit more for them. Yes, it’s that bad. But aside from a few moments like that, and some lyrics that completely lack subtlety (including a rant about martyrdom at one point), I really enjoyed the vocal approach, which honestly goes hand-in-hand with the excellent musical approach. (Also, for you die-hard Sonata Arctica fans, keep your … ears out for Tony Kakko the track White Waters, where he croons a duet with Simone.)
Part of the melodramatic aspect of Epica means that Design Your Universe has a penchant for hugeness that I just can’t resist. Sure, they try to convince the listener of their extreme existentialism in any way they can, but at the same time they deliver sickly sweet melodies vocally (and sometimes on the guitar, or in the orchestra) and then they layer the hell out of it! Some people don’t like this, but this approach has always appealed to me. Sure, bands can go overboard with it, but for whatever reason one just accepts that Epica can’t do without it. Of course, this approach also lends itself to a much more dynamic approach to music, which allows the band to go into softer, more subtle pieces well. In a word, they’re … epic.
Design Your Universe picks up where Lost Horizon left off with it’s theme (”I SEE THE WORLD THROUGH MY FATELESS EYES!!!”), but it is deftly executed and will definitely appeal to the fan of symphonic metal. Those of you who don’t like chick-fronted bands might find some things you like in here with the death metal stuff, but all-in-all, this band is definitely for the fans of Therion, Trail of Tears, Leaves’ Eyes and so forth. But honestly, since Nightwish’s masterpiece Once, this is easily the best symphonic female-fronted band I’ve heard. But take that for what it is.