I keep coming back to the title track of Epica’s new album The Quantum Enigma even though I’ve had the CD for two months now. It’s a brilliant example of symphonic metal done right – and by “done right,” I mean with a professional choir and live strings. (Not all symphonic metal bands do this for financial reasons, but it compromises the music’s authenticity.) I love how “The Quantum Enigma” twists and unfolds to show its different elements: the Tibetan throat chant intro, the triumphant rhythm, the labyrinthine structure, the inspiring lyrics (how quantum physics and the power of imagination can effect change on the world), the concentration on choirs and Simone Simons’ seraphic vocals. The live orchestra also adds a rich, playful cinematic quality that makes the song a perfect choice as the CD’s closing number. If you’re not a metalhead but you find your curiosity piqued, take the next 12 minutes (yes, 12 minutes!) and immerse yourself in this riff-tastic philharmonic experience.
Music Monday Review: Xandria – “Sacrificium”
Xandria – Sacrificium
Rating: 2.5 / 5
Recently I’ve noticed a pattern with my opinions about female-fronted symphonic metal albums: When a band releases what ends up becoming my favorite album of theirs, their next release fails to impress me. This has happened with Epica (I loved 2009’s Design Your Universe, then was bored by 2012’s Requiem For The Indifferent) and earlier this year with Within Temptation (The Unforgiving was my favorite album of 2011, while Hydraneeds a miracle to make my Top 10 of 2014). Unfortunately, I’m now adding Xandria to this list. The German quintet’s new album Sacrificium has its moments but doesn’t electrify as its predecessor, Neverworld’s End, had done. (Click here to read my review of Neverworld’s End at Sonic Cathedral.)
Let me be clear: I wasn’t expecting a repeat of the last album. With Dianne van Giersbergen replacing previous frontwoman Manuela Kraller last year, I knew Sacrificium would be different. And it is, with a slight power metal edge, a greater choir presence, and a more sophisticated air – almost like Epica without the male grunts. As for Dianne, fans who are familiar with her work with her other band Ex Libris already know she OWNS the mic. Her expressiveness and operatic gymnastics rival the likes of Floor Jansen and Tarja Turunen. Dianne shows shades of her vocal colors on Xandria’s new material, but she doesn’t paint with her entire palette. Instead, she takes a more conservative and reserved approach that pales in comparison to her Ex Libris recordings. Comparing the work of two different metal bands here may not be the fairest way to review. But with Ex Libris releasing a new album just a few months ago and Dianne’s outstanding performance there still fresh in my mind, it’s awfully hard not to.
What disappoints me more about Sacrificium, though, is that none of the new songs stand out to me. They’re not terrible, but most of them sound… well, like filler. I remember very little about this album when I finish it, so I walk away unmoved each time. Also, my brain just can’t process Sacrificium as a Xandria album. It’s convinced that a completely different band is playing. Sure, this album’s equally as bombastic as Neverworld’s End, but the latter album retained the playfulness and sensuality we’d heard from Xandria on other older albums, going back as far as Ravenheart. I can’t detect those qualities anywhere on Sacrificium, and I miss them.
Sacrificium does have its bright spots. “Stardust” funnels a flurry of guitars, choirs, and synth-strings through an exhilarating worm hole, complete with (what sounds like) a sci-fi lyrical slant that’s new for Xandria and works well. “Betrayer,” on the other hand, breathes down the listener’s neck with saturated, throttling guitars. No competition here for the title of this album’s “Soulcrusher.” (If you own Neverworld’s End, you know what I’m talking about.) “Temple of Hate,” the short yet pretty “Our Neverworld,” and the exquisite winter-tale “The Undiscovered Land” are also worth revisiting.
I can’t say the same for the rest of Sacrificium, though. Even while listening to this CD to write this review, I’m fighting the urge to switch to other Xandria albums in my collection. Stylistically it may be a good example of symphonic metal’s grandiloquence. But as a listener, I want to be stirred or inspired – I want to feel something beautiful. Indifference with streaks of pleasure is how Sacrificium makes me feel, and that’s not what I’d call beautiful.
Highlights: “Stardust” (below), “The Undiscovered Land,” “Betrayer”
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Deciding whether to buy Sacrificium from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”
Coming Soon: The next Music Monday Review, on Divided We Fall’s Dreamcrusher, won’t be ready for a couple weeks. But I’ve finished reading George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows and Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, so get ready for two new Recent Reads! On top of all that, I passed 60,000 words on my novel last week, which means I need to get cracking on the next installment of “Chronicling The Craft.” 😉
Music Monday Review: Epica – “The Quantum Enigma”
Epica – The Quantum Enigma
Rating: 3.75 / 5
I’ve been an Epica fan since 2006 and either liked or loved all of their albums, with Design Your Universe my all-time favorite of theirs. Then came Requiem For The Indifferent in 2012. No matter how many times I listened to it, I walked away bored by its musical wanderings and lack of inspiring melodies. So, when Epica announced the release date for their sixth studio album The Quantum Enigma, I hoped like a maniac that the Dutch symphonic metallers wouldn’t disappoint me again. I wasn’t looking for another Design Your Universe, just an improvement over last time. Now I can breathe a sigh of relief – because The Quantum Enigma hasn’t let me down. In fact, I like it more with each spin.
Change seems to be the overall theme on this album. Instead of continuing with long-time producer Sascha Paeth, Epica worked with Joost van der Brook, who’s produced albums for a slew of other female-fronted metal bands (Stream of Passion, Xandria, ReVamp). The Quantum Enigma also features live strings for the first time since 2005’s Consign To Oblivion, a massive professional choir instead of a “choir-like” group of session vocalists, and a more modern metal sound. Mark Jansen and Isaac Delahaye have really honed the guitar sound for the new material; it’s thick, complex, razor-sharp, and at times appealingly tangled and chaotic. This new edginess gives fresh perspective on some songs (“The Second Stone,” “The Essence of Silence,” “Chemical Insomnia”) while enhancing the band’s triumphant sound of old on others (the title track, “Sense Without Sanity,” “Unchain Utopia”).
The Quantum Enigma’s brightest highlights show Epica’s ability to reveal subtleties in complex arrangements. The title track is a stunning example; it’s a 12-minute blossoming flower, unfolding in the same purposeful way as past climactic epics. And how about those memorable hooks and melodies? They were sorely missing from Requiem… and now make a welcome return. The strongest hooks transfer effortlessly from one instrument to another, from ascending keyboard / guitar lines on “Natural Corruption” to the graceful Oriental wind and acoustic notes on the gorgeous instrumental “The Fifth Guardian.” As for melodies, the title track’s call-for-action choral chants are bound to stir concert crowds to sing along, while bonus track “In All Conscience” boasts the band’s most majestic chorus ever.
I have to admit, my initial impression of The Quantum Enigma was tainted by the first two tracks. The flurry of excessive high notes in “Originem” grates on my nerves, while “The Second Stone” starts off exhilarating but loses its energy come chorus-time. Together they soured my mood enough for the rest of the album on that first listen. Now I skip those two tracks and listen to the rest of the CD thinking, “Hey, this is better than I originally thought!” I say that now because The Quantum Enigma is a stronger, more memorable collection of songs than Requiem…. Some melodies and musical moments do fall flat or feel recycled, and sometimes I wish frontwoman Simone Simons would sing with more emotion like how she did on past albums. Overall, though, I enjoy this set almost as much as I enjoy Design Your Universe and 2007’s The Divine Conspiracy.
I can’t say that every fan who was dissatisfied with Requiem will like this new albummore. But for me personally, The Quantum Enigma rights the ship that was tipping two years ago. The grittier direction, improved songwriting quality, and return of live strings all help to inject new life into the music. So, in short, this album has restored my faith in Epica. And in a year when other big names in the female-fronted metal realm haven’t satisfied me, The Quantum Enigma is an ultimately gratifying winner.
Highlights: “The Quantum Enigma,” “In All Conscience” (bonus track), “Natural Corruption,” “The Essence of Silence,” “The Fifth Guardian” (instrumental)
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Deciding whether to buy The Quantum Enigma from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”
Coming Soon: Stay tuned for Music Monday Reviews on Xandria’s Sacrificium and Divided We Fall’s Dreamcrusher in the coming weeks!
Music Monday Review: Stream of Passion – “A War Of Our Own”
Stream Of Passion – A War Of Our Own
Rating: 4.5 /5
After leaving Napalm Records last year due to creative differences, Dutch prog-symphonic metallers Stream Of Passion have opted to go unsigned and forge their own destiny. The band chose to involve their fans in this leap of faith, and financed their next album through an immensely successful Indiegogo campaign (nearly doubling their goal of €25,000). Donors and other fans alike can now savor the fruits of SoP’s labor of love: A War Of Our Own is without a doubt the band’s most consistent and – no pun intended – impassioned album of the band’s career.
A War Of Our Own shows Stream Of Passion continuing down the “symphonic metal” road less travelled. The band focuses on the metal elements first, then molds the string quartet around that foundation. Thus, the thick guitars, intricate piano-playing, challenging arrangements, and Marcela Bovio’s entrancing voice remain front and center. Marcela’s Mexican heritage appears once again through Latin music influences (which first surfaced in 2011’s Darker Days) and her multi-lingual lyrics (which have always been a part of SoP’s sound).
What sets A War Of Our Own apart from other Stream of Passion albums are its progressiveness, contrasts, and musical and lyrical heaviness. “Monster,” “Exile,” “Earthquake,” and “The Curse,” for starters, balance corrosive riffs and atypical time signatures with haunting melodies, quieter passages, and a wide variety of hooks. Other songs like “Don’t Let Go,” “Autophobia,” and the title track feature more traditional structures with those distinctive SoP elements. Lyrically, Marcela explores conflicts of all kinds: relationships, internal, and cultural, particularly current events in her native country. Her emotionally engaging writing style makes her a true storyteller and is accentuated by her moving vocals.
I really have no complaints about A War Of Our Own. A few tracks (“Secrets” and the bonus “The Distance Between Us”) don’t shine for me as brightly as others do, but this is the first Stream Of Passion album where I don’t skip any songs. I can listen to it all the way through because I either like or love each track. It took a while for me to decide on my favorite tracks, which only speaks more to the album’s overall strength.
A War Of Our Own is much more than Stream Of Passion’s “emancipation proclamation.” It’s a gorgeously bold statement of worldliness, identity, and defiance. The band has unleashed their creativity like never before and proved that their fans – the people who matter most to the band – care about their vision for their music. If you’re looking for the truest representation of Stream Of Passion’s sound or for female-fronted metal bands that focus more on emotion and songwriting with only a hint of symphonic bombast, you’d be muy loco to overlook this stunning War.
Highlights: “Monster,” “The Curse,” “Exile,” “Out Of The Darkness”
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Deciding whether to buy A War Of Our Own from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”
Coming Soon: Expect my final CD review at Sonic Cathedral (for Die So Fluid’s The Opposites Of Light) and a new Recent Reads (book review of Lynn Kurland’s Dreamspinner) later this week!
Mini-Review Monday: Kowai – “Dissonance”
Kowai – Dissonance
Rating: 4.25 / 5
Are you a long-time fan of female-fronted metal? Do you who miss the music of the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s, when Within Temptation, Nightwish, and Epica were first experimenting with the combination of symphonic metal with gothic undertones? Most newer bands have steered clear from this sound since then, probably to avoid drawing obvious comparisons. Kowai, however, embraces their genre’s history with open arms. The Dutch newcomers’ debut album, Dissonance, oozes with the wintry soundscapes and whimsical themes of their influences while leaving their own stamp on gothic symphonic metal.
Dissonance contains everything you’d expect to hear from a gothic symphonic metal band with a female singer: lush keyboards / synths, rhythmic guitars, haunting melodies, and semi-operatic vocals contrasted by occasional grunts. What sets Kowai apart is the varied, melancholy-toned guitarwork that hearkens Anathema’s Alternative 4 and Judgment days, and Laura van Nes’s range as a singer. She has a warmer, lower voice (maybe borderline alto / mezzo-soprano?) that taps into both power and a rare emotional depth, and reminds me more of Marjan Welman (Autumn) and Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) than Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) or Simone Simons (Epica). Whether they intended so, Kowai wrote their music around Laura’s voice, selecting the right pitches and keys so she can use her voice naturally rather than strain for consistently high notes. Listen to “In Retrospect,” “The Promise,” or “Undisgraced,” and you’ll hear what I mean.
I really enjoy listening to Dissonance, so much that I often play the album again after reaching the end. And no, it doesn’t get boring! This album’s balanced, smoothly flowing mix of bombastic epics (“Yield,” “Ice Cold Sun”), uptempo forebodings (“Undisgraced,” “Man’s Downfall”), and musing ballads (“In Retrospect,” “Pride”) will satisfy just about any listener. My only critiques would be that a) Laura’s high notes sometimes sound weak, and b) the musical approach lacks originality. Then again, it’s damn near impossible for gothic symphonic metal bands to be original these days. Kowai do what they do extremely well, and that speaks volume for a band with only one album under their belt. If you like Within Temptation, Epica, Delain, Xandria, or Stream of Passion, I invite you to lose yourself in Kowai’s Dissonance. You won’t be disappointed!
Highlights: “In Retrospect,” “Yield,” “Undisgraced”
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Deciding whether to buy Dissonance from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”
Coming Soon: The next installment of Mini-Review Monday will feature Ideal Zero’s first full-length album In Perfect Darkness. Since I received the album only a couple days ago and need some more time to listen to it, I’m aiming to have the review online in 2 weeks (March 24th).
Mini-Review Monday: Within Temptation – “Hydra”
Rating: 3 / 5
Boy did I have to wrack my brain to figure out how I felt about this album. And anyone who knows my taste in music well enough knows that Within Temptation has been one of my favorite bands for nearly a decade. So, naturally, I was excited for the Dutch symphonic metal band’s sixth studio album, Hydra. This is WT’s most sprawling set to date, with songs that draw from every possible corner of their sound. Thunderously heavy, dreamy and pop-tinged, bombastic and cinematic, airy and melancholy – you truly get it all here. Hydra also features four guest vocalists with equally unique sounds: metalcore titan Howard Jones (ex-Killswitch Engage), soprano star Tarja Turunen (ex-Nightwish, now solo), Soul Asylum frontman David Pirner, and – bet you didn’t see this coming – rapper Xhibit.
The overall opinions on Hydra have been as varied as the sounds WT explores on Hydra: Some people love it, others don’t, and still others are torn by it. I’m in that third category – which has turned this from a normal CD-reviewing experience into hair-yanking agony.
Truthfully, I enjoy a number of songs from Hydra. “Dangerous” absolutely rocks, with palpable tension, stormy rhythms, and one of the most unexpectedly awesome vocal collaborations I’ve ever heard. Other dramatic uptempo numbers (“Tell Me Why,” “Silver Moonlight”) whisk you away to metal fantasyland, while the strongest ballads (particularly “Edge Of The World”) envelop you with evocative melodies and arrangements. Some tracks also hearken back to older WT records; “Covered By Roses,” for example, would have fit The Heart Of Everything as well as Hydra. Then then are songs that either I’ve remained indifferent toward after several listens or that fall short of WT’s usual high standards of lyrics (“Dog Days,” particularly the chorus) and overall impact (“Let Us Burn” lacks that special “kick-off” spark). Finally, four is an annoying high number of guest collaborations on a rock or metal albums. It’s nice to see and hear WT in that kind of spirit, but it’s overkill. They’re who I really want to listen to when I play a WT album.
My best advice when it comes to Hydra is to listen with an open mind. You might love everything you hear, or you might not. Or you might seesaw back and forth, like I did. And you’ll find this rift in opinions in the reviews you’ll read on Hydra on Amazon as well as webzine and print reviews. Personally, I like Hydra, but it’s inconsistent. I skip over a few tracks because they don’t appeal to me, and one or two others get little more than a shrug as my reaction. This doesn’t mean I’m jumping off the WT bandwagon. It just means this album leaves me dissatisfied, and it’s hard to hide it when one of your all-time favorite artists leaves you feeling that way.
Highlights: “Dangerous,” “Silver Moonlight,” “Edge Of The World”
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Deciding whether to buy Hydra from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”
Coming Soon: Next week’s Mini-Review Monday will feature another Dutch band: gothic symphonic metallers Kowai, and their debut album Dissonance.
Mini-Review Monday: “Medea” by Ex Libris
Welcome to the first installment of Mini-Review Mondays! I started the meme on my Facebook page a few weeks ago and thought it was time to introduce it on the blog.
On Mini-Review Mondays, I’ll post a fairly short review (2 or 3 paragraphs long – short for me!) of an album I’ve recently purchased. Expect the reviews to cover the same genres of music I’ve reviewed for other sites: different styles of rock and metal, with maybe some pop or other genres thrown in here and there. Reviews will be posted as new music comes my way, so probably a few times a month instead of every Monday. I hope you’ll enjoy them!
Now, time for the first mini-review… Continue reading
Five Years at Sonic Cathedral – A Retrospective, Part 3: Artists #10 through #6
Finally getting around to the next part of my retrospective! We’re halfway through the countdown of my 20 favorite artists that I’ve covered at Sonic Cathedral over the past 5 years. If you’ve missed the first two installments, now’s a great time to catch up:
Part 1: Artists #20 through #16
Part 2: Artists #15 through #11
Which means that today I’ll reveal the first half of my top 10. 😉 And remember that you can catch the daily version of the countdown at my official Facebook page.
Five Years at Sonic Cathedral – A Retrospective, Part 2: Artists #15 through #11
As you may already know, I’m celebrating 5 years of writing for Sonic Cathedral by counting down my 20 favorite artists covered at the SC WebZine. I revealed Artists #20 through #16 last week. Today, it’s time to reveal #15 through #11. So let’s continue!
By the way, a big apology that the artist photos in the previous SC Retrospective article. I’m not sure what happened in the uploading process, since they were all of decent size to begin with.
NOTE: If you’d prefer to catch the daily version of the countdown, please visit and “like” my official Facebook page.
5 Years At Sonic Cathedral: A Retrospective – My 20 Favorite Artists I’ve Covered To Date (#20 through #16)
It’s been quiet here lately, only because things have been hectic in my offline life. But now that things are calming down, I can start catching up with the blog. And today is the start of a celebration. Why? This August marks five years that I’ve been a staff writer at Sonic Cathedral! 🙂
To celebrate this milestone, I’m counting down my 20 favorite artists that I’ve covered since I joined SC. The countdown has been underway on my Facebook page for a few days now. Now it’s time to catch up with the blog audience.
Today I’ll reveal Artists #20 through #16. Here we go! Continue reading