Makes sense to cover this one, after interviewing Simone recently. 😉
Album: “Design Your Universe”
Released: October 2009 (Europe), November 2009 (USA) on Nuclear Blast Records
Genre: Symphonic power metal with progressive and death metal influences, with a classically trained female singer and a male grunter.
Background Info: Epica has steadily grown since their 2003 debut “The Phantom Agony.” Some herald that album as a masterpiece, others (like myself) felt there was something more to be desired. From there, it’s been all uphill. Next came “Consign to Oblivion,” a far less complex album, with shorter songs and fewer operatic vocals from Simone Simons. It was also a more orchestral and playful record, with Simone trying her hand at lyrics for the first time (and they were pretty good!). Then there was “The Divine Conspiracy,” a mesh of CtO’s playfulness with TPA’s intricacies and aggressiveness, and not too preachy or anti-religious, considering it’s a religion-themed concept album. TDC has since been called Epica’s best album to date. Thus, expectations for studio album #4 have been quite high.
This hotly anticipated set, “Design Your Universe,” sees some line-up changes in Epica. Isaac Delahaye (formerly of God Dethroned) has replaced Ad Sluitjer as the lead guitarist, and Arien van Weesenbeek (also a former GD member) now has full-time duty on drums. Both men (especially Isaac) contributed to the songwriting on DYU, working with founding members Simone, grunter/guitarist Mark Jansen, keyboardist Coen Janssen, and bassist Yves Huts. The difference is astounding – as you’ll read in “Music.”
Music: DYU is by far Epica’s heaviest, darkest, and most experimental album. The guitars are more prevalent and varied. Not just the jumpy, triumphant riffs we’ve come to expect from Epica’s past two albums, but lots of lingering chords, rapid grooves, quick picking… OK, I’m no expert on the different types of guitar chords. So believe me when I say “Trust me, the guitars sound even better this time around!” Isaac also performs several solos on DYU, a big increase from TDC (where Ad did only one). It’s hard to believe that the addition of two new members and songwriters could have influenced the music this much. But they have, and boy does it sound incredible.
The acoustic guitar seems to play a bigger role in DYU than on previous Epica album. You hear it on some tracks where you’d expect to hear it (the dreamy ballad “White Waters,” and the slow sections of “Kingdom of Heaven”) and on some tracks where you don’t (the protesting “Martyr of the Free Word,” and the flamenco-inspired intro of the title track).
The orchestra also sounds even better than ever. It’s much more theatrical and intriguing this time. I love the ringing of the brass instruments towards the end of “Burn to a Cinder,” the rousing intro and ending of the title track, and the quick beats of xylophones in “Kingdom of Heaven.” Actually, “Kingdom of Heaven” has lots of greats orchestra parts. It should – since it’s 13 1/2 minutes long!
Lyrics: With DYU, Simone and Mark chose not to write a concept album. So there is more variety in terms of subject matter this time, but some common themes can be found throughout. Freedom seems to be a big topic this time, from “Unleashed” (the struggle for individuality) to “Martyr of the Free Word” (freedom of speech) to “Semblance of Liberty” (questioning the definition of freedom). Other topics include belief in dreams, camaraderie, and being proactive in creating one’s future. Mark also completes his “A New Age Dawns” series, which began in CTO and was heavily influenced by the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
Vocals: Anyone who thinks Simone Simons is just a pretty face with a nice voice based on her previous performances should seriously reconsider what they think of her singing now. Just as the boys musically experimented on DYU, Simone experimented with her voice to see what she could really do. She uses a wide variety of techniques this time around: Lower range vocals (“Burn to a Cinder,” “Martyr of the Free Word”), lots of plush operatics (“Our Destiny,” “Kingdom of Heaven”), and her normal sweet voice. Her standout performance is “Tides of Time,” however. Her delivery is so bittersweet and heartfelt, it makes this sad song a true tearjerker – and a sparkling gem.
DYU features Epica’s strongest choir performances, IMO. Like with the orchestra, they are more dramatic and natural on this album. I could go on and on, but if you’re looking for lush choirs on DYU, check out “Unleashed” (particularly the first 20 seconds), “Kingdom of Heaven,” the title track, and the bridge in “Deconstruct.”
Now, if you’re not a fan of grunts or screams, Epica may not be your cup of tea. Mark’s gutteral vocals don’t appear as often as Simone’s beautiful voice, but there are a couple songs where he takes the lead. There is one track with clean male vocals: the ballad “White Waters,” which features Tony Kakko (lead singer of Sonata Arctica). He doesn’t give a particularly emotional performance, but it still fits the song pretty well. And, keep your ears open for drummer Arien’s spoken word passages, which are sprinkled throughout the album. (“It’s not your time. You have to go back… Back… NOW!”)
Weaknesses: As with every album, DYU has a couple weak songs. “Deconstruct” is a bit generic, and its chorus reminds me too much of past Epica songs. “Semblance of Liberty” is not a standout, either. Its verse-to-chorus transitions don’t flow very well. Otherwise, this album is almost faultless.
Overall Rating: 5 / 5 Epica’s best album, IMO. This is the album that truly defines their sound. It completely exceeded my expectations and blows the previous albums out of the water. Any weak spots on this album are quite minor, and the most awesome parts more than make up for that.
Best Songs: Ugh… I can only pick three?? All right, then… “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Burn to a Cinder,” and “Design Your Universe.”
Oh, and I played with the DYU lyrics on Wordle. That site is a little too much fun. 🙂 See what I came up with below!