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Epica - The Quantum Enigma

Epica -  CD Review
The Quantum Enigma






Nuclear Blast Records
English lyrics
13 tracks
2014 release
10 / 10

In essence,Quantum Enigma’s rich, elusive sound, as a whole, provides Epica fans with one of Epica’s most most nuanced, accomplished symphonic metal albums yet in their musical career. While I hate to be so effusive at the beginning of the review, Epica’s sixth studio album is truly a musical gem that takes far more than a month’s worth of endless, exhaustive listening sessions to truly appreciate and even fathom. The intricacy and mathematical scheme of the musical arrangements themselves has always piqued the interest of hardcore metal fans, but this album goes leagues beyond their first album in terms of sheer complexity. This is the album that makes Epica take a large quantum leap to a new dimension of sound.

Starting at the beginning of this thrilling, “quantumized” album,“Originem” is the thrilling instrumental overture that assails the listener’s ears with a rich string arrangement, underscored by a haunting choir. Choirs are a staple in Epica’s brand of bombastic metal, but this album is never derivative of other Epica albums in both sound and style. One of the glorious qualities of Epica’s music,exemplified by this excellent introduction track, is that Epica’s music invariably will always carry a certain familiar sound for the seasoned Epica listener, yet they are still able to create something completely different at the same time.

Following Originem, we have our first vocal track-The Second Stone-showcasing Simone Simons versatile metal vocals. Ever since Requiem for the Indifferent, Simone Simons has erased the restrictive, classical veneer of her voice. It was always a slightly pretentious, though fairly pretty gloss to her voice which has incidentally prevented Simone Simons from truly showing off her true, hidden talents as a vocalist. As with their previous album, Simone Simons feels much more free and unrestricted with her vocals, and she proudly sings in many more ways than just singing prettily with a song-bird high voice. Instrumentally, this song is non-stop, in terms of its intensity; it is a fantastic headbanger that is sure to leave the listener head-banging while letting the frenetic pace of the drums and guitar chords fill their brains with epic Epica goodness. (The internet-friendly acronym for this term would be EEG-Epic Epica Goodness.)

Much like quantum physics, the one marked difference with this album is that the instrumental pieces in isolation are complex enough to warrant observing them all on their own, without even the lyrics to accompany them. Fittingly, most of the songs, beginning with “The Second Stone” and ending with “Quantum Enigma: Kingdom of Heaven: Part 2” will always seem to behave differently, with each subsequent listening session. Essentially, if you focus solely on either the lyrics themselves, and the way they blend seamlessly with the rich instrumentals, you will forget that Simone Simons and the chorus will often sing different lyrics, and that one relationship between those elements in the song will surely reveal a new dimension to that song. Mind you, I have a very facile grasp of quantum physics, but it is very interesting to see how much their songs carry the illusion of sounding different upon each listen.

Artfully, Epica allows us quieter moments of meditation in the sound- a lull either at the beginning or the middle of the composition- to allow us to carefully allow our senses to fully adapt to the nuances that each new track presents. The Quantum Enigma respects the listener’s need for a short peaceful, meditation on what emotions and thoughts were released in our minds during one of their many intricate songs. “The Essence of Silence” typifies that need for metal music to never be frenetic for the sake of being speedy and overdramatic. Sometimes, these quieter moments at the beginning of Epica songs, though, kinda presage the musical chaos that the song will plunge into. And, “The Essence of Silence” is a classic Epica song, in that Mark and Simone both seem have a vocal warfare between each other, as the music vies for silence in the sheer chaos of the sound. Perhaps, the song is deliberating over whether chaos is truly the impetus for balance and peace; they are somehow inextricably linked in the forces of quantum physics and the progression of life. More importantly, both these contrasting elements are vital elements for sophisticated, interesting music.

Beyond just the implications that the rich symphonic sound presents in this album, songs like “Victims of Contingency” and “Unchain Utopia” have beautifully written lyrics that are loaded with political messages. For example, “Victims of Contingency” speaks of the dangers of nations or political powers that blame others for their corruption, instead of looking inwards for the cause of their own country’s troubles. Meanwhile, “Unchain Utopia” cajoles those subjected to abuse from corrupt political forces to rebel, and seek freedom and agency over the way their country is governed. Rather than just having vacuous lyrics that repetitively and boringly speak of living life to the fullest, Epica’s music has lyrics that are much more thought-provoking for the listener, and rewards listeners, who might want to examine the lyrics closer for poetic depth.

Many of the other tracks would take eight more in-depth pages of exploration to fully elaborate the riches of the sound in this album. Of course, this album contains a stand-out, power ballad “Canvas of Life” that is soulful, heartrending, and seems to beautifully reflect the beauty and mystery of our lives, the universe; it is this complexity that is shown powerfully in this album. True art should always be vying to reflect the true depth and intricacy of life and the universe, as much as possible. This is easily their best ballad, since “Delirium” from their last album, and it is never too cheesy in the way some metal ballads can be on some occasions.

One of the brightest moments of this album is the continued way that Epica’s known gimmicks are used more wisely and carefully. In this album, Mark Jansen’s growling is still very present, but his growling serves more of a purpose to the music; his growling does not seem carelessly thrown in this time around. Much like with Requiem for the Indifferent,his growling is used effectively, and that is why I have come to appreciate just how pivotal his growling is to the bombastic nature of Epica’s music.

Also, the choirs are used so masterfully in this album; they are soul-tingling in songs like “Unchain Utopia.” In tracks like “Natural Corruption,” the choir seem to deliciously elide with Simone’s high notes in a way that is never overwrought. While some listeners may bemoan the continued presence of either the choir and Mark Jansen’s growling in Epica’s music, these are key elements that continue to differentiate bands that are forsaking these elements in the name of becoming more mainstream in their approach.

Conversely, Epica only continues to create mind-blowing, explosive songs that are riddled with amazing guitar solos, rich string arrangements, intelligent lyrics, that reward the patient, attentive listener with musical goodness. Amazingly, Epica really outdoes themselves with the closing track “Quantum Enigma: Kingdom of Heaven Part 2,” which begins with the same quiet acoustic guitar solo that also was used as the start of “White Waters” in Design Your Universe. In many ways, The Quantum Enigma is the parallel version of Design Your Universe, and many recognizable musical elements utilized in that album slyly appear in parallel places on this album. The chanting Tibetan monks, from “Kingdom of Heaven Part 1” on Design Your Universe, are also here. This entire eleven minute song requires weeks upon weeks of listening sessions to fully appreciate just how complicated the song is. If you were to mathematically map out the relationships between all the discrete musical elements on this piece, your mind would probably be blown, and then you would probably understand why this song may seem dull to the listener for the first few listening sessions. No, it does not surpass “Serenade of Self Destruction” as being the best concluding Epica song, but it really is the second best. If anything, the fact that is seamlessly parallels and continues the sound established in its first part, from Design Your Own Universe, is definitely a very impressive achievement in of itself.

Optimistically, Epica’s musical career continues to be one of wherewithal, considering the band’s music only continues to organically become more complicated with every successive album. The band seems to have a very mature grasp on the fact that becoming more mainstream is not always the best artistic path, even though it might be the most pragmatic option from a business angle. All the elements that define an Epica album are here, and they are utilized in purposeful ways that progressively feel less and less like gimmicks.

Amazingly,this Epica album is easily the best Epica album in their career thus far. Far from succombing to the allure of commercial success, Epica continues to produce a symphonic metal sound that is never derivative of another band’s sound. As always, this album, much like Requiem for the Indifferent, the sound never becomes boring or generic. All the elements that were at play in their past albums are finally reaching their most polished form, and the listener is left wondering just what musical form they will evolve into next in future albums.

Will they perhaps make that prodigious musical leap to creating music that goes beyond multidimensional world of atomic reactions on the quantum scale, and successfully mimic the even more complex nature of quirks on an even more microscopic? Impressively, the nature of Epica’s music is successfully become more and more relative and nonlinear, making it even less predictable and more open to the subjective response of the listener that reflects a world that is slowly departing from the orthodox world of established truths and to a more mysterious world where these things are being called more into question. The Quantum Enigma leaves metal audiences debating the most important question: How much more complex and different can metal music, or really, Epica’s music become at this point?