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Saturday, December 01, 2007

CD Review: Epica - The Divine Conspiracy

Epica - The Divine Conspiracy
2007 Nuclear Blast Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

While we're in a symphonic metal kinda mood, let's take a look at the latest Epica album The Divine Conspiracy. At the time of this writing, the raven-haired diva fronting Epica, Simone Simons is reportedly quite ill, which is probably testament to the absolute hunger her band possesses as they bounce around the globe in pursuit of greatness of their craft. If there's such an heirarchy to the whole symphonic metal league, obviously Nightwish would rest on top, though you'd have to consider Gamma Ray and Helloween sovereign ambassadors as genre crossers who at least helped show the way, ditto for Savatage as well as Emerson, Lake and Powell ages before them all.

Epica sits snugly on the next tier, not that they've seemed content to remain there. With each album they've exhibited some interesting ideas and concepts and wielded some pretty wicked presentation, particularly on 2005's Consign to Oblivion. Maybe there was something minute holding Epica back from reaching the level of superiority indicative of Nightwish and Within Temptation, something as tangible as compensating a full orchestra with a master control keyboard that supplements it all. Obviously putting on a concert with a live symphony is an expensive endeavor--just ask Doro Pesch or Manowar--but in the wrong hands, substituting your "orchestra" through sampling and key strikes can come off sounding hackeneyed and cheap.

Epica could've fallen into this pit of mediocrity, but to give them serious credit, they've really reached deep inside themselves on their current album The Divine Conspiracy (yes, also recruiting an in-house orchestra) and what you're witnessing is a band well on its way towards unleashing their magnum opus. The Divine Conspiracy is Epica's most versed and well-thought recording to-date and they are so very close to striking the upper echelon of the genre. The songwriting structure of "Chasing the Dragon" and the way it fools you into believing Epica is content to rest on a soft siren ballad then adding heavier elements with each bar then literally exploding into a thrash-oriented finale, complete with soaring choral and string elements, along with raging growls from Mark Jansen, only to spin the entire thing back into quietude... That's excellent craftsmanship and it's found in abundance on The Divine Conspiracy.

As Simone Simons carries the album with nearly unrivaled confidence, the album rides back and forth between straightforward orchestral rock numbers (all layered better than Epica has achieved in the past) and sweeping factions of heaviness and neoclassical grace combined into exultant and frequently epicurean (particularly the sensuous percussion at the end of "La'petach Chatat Rovetz: The Last Embrace") odyssey modes. If Epica has learned anything, it's how to properly harness its inherent aggression into the woven tapestries Simons and keyboardist Coen Janssen provide. In the past, the snarling of Mark Jansen could be off-putting when merged with the solitary peacefulness that Simons creates for her band. What Epica has learned is how to temper Jansen's beast-to-the-beauty persona until absolutely appropriate, so much that on Epica's mini overture on The Divine Conspiracy (the "Embrace" quartet, for lack of a better term), Jansen only chimes in when the music is at its most tense, trusting his lead vocalist to carry the endeavor appropriately.

Another example of Epica's monstrous propensity on The Divine Conspiracy comes on "Beyond Belief," where again they build to a climax in dosed measures, striking with dizzying solos from Jansen and Ad Sluijter, as well as a strident double-hammer tempo that allows Simons to bring it all home triumphantly.

Epica is exactly where they need to be at this point in their evolution. It's been a fun ride watching them grow and now distancing themselves from a large contingency of their peers. Rather then surrender to the ever-building cliches in symphonic metal, Epica is thinking outside the box and effectively fusing brutality with forthright exquisiteness. They may be the heaviest of the entire neoclassical clan, and a band that has the capacity to cap a worthy excursion with a striking fourteen-minute odyssey is one within reach of their eventual masterpiece.

Rating: ****

**The Metal Minute also wishes Simone Simons a speedy recovery...

1 comment:

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