Inexplicably, it feels as though the Dutch symphonic metal band Epica has reinvented itself. Typically, when this transformation happens with a band, one can point out the changes easily -- it is usually fairly obvious. The unique thing with Epica and its new release, The Quantum Enigma, is the very enigmatic (!) nature of the evolution. It is a transition almost impossible to describe, but fortunately, it has proven to be thoroughly enjoyable. See, it was unfortunately all too easy to feel indifferent about the inconsistent 2012 release, Requiem for the Indifferent, and Design Your Universe (2009) was ultimately forgettable, despite a few great moments, most notably "Kingdom of Heaven".
But after recently celebrating ten years as a band with a massive three-hour concert CD/DVD release, Retrospect, and taking a brief hiatus from touring after lead singer Simone Simons' pregnancy, Epica has unleashed its sixth studio album, a refreshing blast of energy which is the absolute epitome of fantastic, symphonic metal.
When it comes to song topics, Epica appears to adhere to the old adage of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." No complaints there. Common familiarities lie within the lyrical paths taken by Simons and the band's founder, guitarist/grunter, Mark Jansen. With Epica, fans can always expect questions of reality, time, perception and illusion, deception and dreams. There is a psychological slant, an insatiable curiosity, sense of wonder, and intelligence in Epica lyrics, and this has remained one of many things which make them so distinctive within the "female-fronted-metal" genre. The passion and intensity of the band's music also sets them apart. Rather than approaching their music half-heartedly, Epica runs at 100%, at full force -- love or hate the final result.
A quick glance at The Quantum Enigma's booklet allows listeners to see that this time around, the songwriting process was much more of a group effort this time around than on previous Epica efforts. Typically, the overwhelming percentage of the music is composed by the exceptionally talented Jansen. This time around, it looks like a true, collaborative effort, which makes it an interesting and versatile listening experience. The Quantum Enigma marks the first studio recording with bassist Rob van der Loo, who replaced original band member Yves Huts in 2012. Additionally, Epica has enlisted a different producer this time around, Joost van den Broek, who longtime fans of symphonic metal will certainly know as the ex-keyboardist of After Forever. All previous Epica albums were, of course, produced by Sascha Paeth, so this tidbit might also add to the puzzle of what precisely makes this Epica album sound so different, so genuinely rejuvenated and full of life.
"Originem" opens The Quantum Enigma with suspense and thrilling bombast, gorgeously orchestral and with Latin chants from the choir. The introductory track is truly an 'edge-of-your-seat' listen and is wondrously cinematic. As always, Epica keyboardist Coen Janssen has directed the choir wonderfully. "Originem" glides seamlessly into the manic brutality of "The Second Stone", with speedy drums, gritty guitar riffs from Jansen and Isaac Delahaye (who is credited as the main songwriter of this particular tune), and charismatic vocals from Simons. Jansen's growls appear later in the song to create the perfect balance. With a galloping drum pace from Arien van Weesenbeek and brilliant use of the choir, "The Essence of Silence" flawlessly demonstrates how a song can be amazingly catchy and aggressive at the same time. The vocal interplay between Simons and Jansen is incredible here, and the chorus can linger in listeners' minds for hours at a time.
"Sense Without Sanity (The Impervious Code)" initially feels more somber than many of the other songs on the album, and it is one of the absolute highlights. With a slow build-up, lyrics about perspectives and fear, and numerous unexpected twists and turns, it is an adventurous, nearly eight-minute song that is sure to become an Epica classic. "Unchain Utopia" has an unforgettable chorus that can immediately create goosebumps on the skin of listeners everywhere. Somehow, the addictive nature of it and the vocal melody in the chorus brings to mind "Cry for the Moon" from the band's debut album, The Phantom Agony, and, by all means, that is a good thing. Simons offers one of her most lovely vocal performances to date here.
"The Fifth Guardian - Interlude" and "Chemical Insomnia" rank among the most unique things Epica has ever done. Truly, the interlude is mind-alteringly beautiful. It is a mystical, soothing interlude that is somehow full of tension and depth, and it bears a strong, exotic Chinese influence. "Chemical Insomnia" is a headbanger of a tune, which is multilayered yet somehow flows so well, revealing some of the most crushing guitar work on any Epica release so far. The same can be said about "Reverence (Living in the Heart)" and "Omen - The Ghoulish Malady", expertly crafted songs which depict how tight the musicianship of Epica has become in recent years. It is impossible to forget the refrain of "Life is always challenging" from "Reverence" -- what an amazing treat a song like this one will be in the live Epica experience. There is also something quite powerful about Jansen's lyrics in "Omen - The Ghoulish Malady", particularly "When it seems like the world is shattering, remember that you set your course." Although the line is simple, it is extraordinary and meaningful.
There are no seriously weak moments on The Quantum Enigma, though certain songs admittedly do not stand out as much as others. "Victims of Contingency" has an awesome and intriguing introduction, but winds up to be much less memorable than the majority of the album. And while the twelve-minute title track "The Quantum Enigma - Kingdom of Heaven Part II" has its very good moments, it does not live up to the promise of its first few majestic minutes, especially when considering how phenomenal other Epica title tracks have been in the past (especially "Consign to Oblivion").
Overall, The Quantum Enigma is a thoroughly impressive, eclectic, lively symphonic metal album, and it is sure to reignite worldwide enthusiasm and excitement for this great Dutch band. Somehow, new vigor and spark has been breathed into Epica, and while they had lamentably begun to tread a less interesting path for a few years, that has all now changed in a serious way. After more than a decade of being symphonic metal game-changers, The Quantum Enigma is proof that Epica has, in a sense, only just begun, and perhaps they are stronger than ever. Not since Consign to Oblivion has this band created something so gripping, captivating and magnificent. The songs from The Quantum Enigma will resonate for years to come. As far as 2014 goes from this point forward in terms of new releases, this album has set the bar quite high, and it will be challenging to match and nearly impossible to surpass. Both longtime Epica listeners and those new to the band should find something to please them with this release.