Sunday, May 11, 2014

album review: 'the quantum enigma' by epica

I've made the statement in the past that lyrics are often the least important thing in symphonic metal - or at least, for the longest time, they were for me. That's not saying I didn't notice bad lyrics or wasn't aware that some symphonic metal could get unbelievably silly or ridiculous, it's just that I didn't tend to mind as much as long as the instrumentation, production, and delivery were able to deliver that epic sweep on their own.

And if I was looking for a band to violently change my mind on this belief, that band would be Epica, an act that I can only describe as the thinking man's brand of symphonic metal. Now for the longest time, I had had a hard time into Epica, mostly because I found the guitar tone chosen on those early albums a little flat and unflattering and Simone Simons to be a talented singer but not particularly engaging behind the microphone, at least early on. And on top of not having a really immediacy to their hooks, I ignored this band for a long time. 

But man, once I got past that first album and really started digging into their lyrics, colour me wrong about this band. Epica was not only tackling big enough subject matter to match their massive orchestrations, but also was doing it with intellect, due consideration, and a lot of richly articulated nuance. This was a band that routinely explored religion, politics, philosophy, and mortality, and once they had improved their production and picked a heavier guitar tone, I found myself really getting into the band. That's not saying they don't have problems - I would be lying if I didn't say that Epica didn't get preachy every once and a while, and I still think as a band they haven't quite mastered a killer hook like their contemporaries Nightwish and Within Temptation have, but Mark Jensen and Simone Simons remain strong songwriters and performers, and they're only getting better.

And coming after their 2012 album Requiem For The Indifferent - an album demanding the audience engage in the world and be willing to work together to tackle world-shaking problems and not be divided and unwilling to compromise - I was very interested in their newest album, titled The Quantum Enigma. Now, this isn't the first time that Epica has tackled the topic of quantum physics - or rather, the complete failure of certain parts of society to not recognize that brand of science and how they need to evolve, all framed as a philosophical argument in a romantic relationship - so I was definitely wondering how on earth they'd manage to pull this off twice. So I picked up the album and dug in deep - what did I find?

Well, a bit of a strange album, that's for damn sure. Not a bad one by any stretch - the instrumentation is epic and vibrant and probably the heaviest Epica has ever approached, and the performances are really something special on their own - but lyrically this album is approaching a very complicated subject and while I admire the ambition behind this, I'm not quite sure the band pulls it off. In other words, this is easily Epica's most ambitious album in five years, and while it definitely is worth your time if you're a fan of the band, or hell, even if you're not, I'm not quite sure it's their best.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, and if you've heard an Epica album, you already know exactly what you're getting going into this album. Huge symphonic arrangements with full backing choirs, potent guitar riffs, and intricate melodies driven from the keyboards, the production on this record is easily the most vibrant it has ever been in capturing both the full orchestral power and the real metal edge. And while I'd prefer a few more quieter moments and a bit more instrumental diversity in the orchestra, I can't deny that with the more technical guitar work and more complex melodies, Epica is only getting better as musicians. What's all the more impressive is that Epica has finally managed to get a firm handle on melody-driven hooks, which easily makes a lot of songs on this album stand out on their own. I won't say the instrumentation is entirely perfect - I do think a few songs could do with a bit of trimming back, especially when we get fewer guitar solos than I'd normally like, and it's hard to ignore the usage of the triggers on the drums, which can get distracting for me - but otherwise, with production this opulent and rich, I have a hard time not loving this music.

It also helps matters that the vocals are pretty damn solid as well. Simone Simons has improved volumes over the course of Epica's career, and she can easily carry the majority of this album - and thus it gets a little exasperating when the backing chorus is brought more to the forefront on this record, often mixed near the same volume is Simons. My only nitpick in the vocals is in Mark Jansen's growled vocals - not that I dislike them in principle or that they don't fit the atmosphere, but that they sound a little less explosively raw in comparison to previous albums. By no means bad, let me stress this, but not quite at the same level of intensity, and considering the screaming has been mostly pared back, I keep thinking the amount of rougher vocals was decreased in favour of the choirs, which to me feels like a bit of a misstep, especially considering this album is easily Epica's heaviest.

But what about those lyrics I spent so much time talking about before? What was that grand concept that Epica was trying to explore? Well, unlike previous albums, it's a lot less defined, and until I really started digging through the lyrics and translating the Latin pieces, I was completely lost. But after several listens I figured it out: this is a record about how the modern human mind deals with concepts it can't possibly understand, the one most referenced on this album being death. And as usual for an Epica album, the band tries to explore every facet of this high concept idea: how to quiet one's mind to attain singular focus in 'The Essence of Silence', how society doesn't want humanity thinking of those bigger questions because it could lead to instability in songs like 'Chemical Insomnia' and 'Natural Corruption', and yet how we must keep trying to tackle these concepts regardless in the title track, 'Sense Without Sanity', and 'Unchain Utopia'. It bears a striking resemblance to themes explored on the most recent Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Push The Sky Away, which was my favourite album of last year, and honestly, I really do love how Epica goes for broke tackling a complicated and very difficult to articulate topic.

But here's my problem: it's almost a bit too high-concept, especially considering Epica doesn't really frame the story through a narrative or allegory of some kind - which might have helped, especially considering unknowable, impossible-for-humanity-to-comprehend subjects do have known symbolism and reference points in pop culture. Hell, forget the whole wealth of imagery surrounding dealing with death that humanity has built over millennia, I'm a little surprised that concepts like The Singularity or deeper religious iconography or even Cthullu didn't really appear on this album. And since the songwriting becomes so vaguely sketched at points, it can lead some lyrics to come across as a little cheesy, especially when delivered through a full backing choir. And yeah, this happens all the time in symphonic metal, but it doesn't often happen with Epica given their more serious subject matter - it's just that in their choice of something so high-concept, they force the songs to go broader in their language. But that's a minor problem in comparison with the big issue with such a high concept premise: in that outside of terrific delivery and presentation, it's a little hard to build a solid emotional connection to this material because it doesn't feel as grounded in human drama. And since the presentation is so bold and epic, I can't help but feel a little distant from this record emotionally. I dig the intellectual challenge of these lyrics, but they don't quite connect with me on a deeper level in comparison with the instrumentation. 

Look, you all know I'm going to recommend this album: as smart symphonic metal comes this year, it doesn't get much better than Epica's The Quantum Enigma. It's a gloriously presented, excellently produced, very stimulating album to listen through and analyze and think about, and on that level it's getting a solid 8/10. But make no mistake, this album is ambitious almost to the point of hubris, and if it had just managed to land the human drama more effectively, I would adore this album. As it is, The Quantum Enigma definitely lives up to the last word in its title, and if you're looking for a lyrical challenge accompanied by some kickass music, pick this up - you won't regret it.

1 comment:

  1. This is a review of a book by two science teachers named, "Quantum Enigma: Physics Activities Awareness." I claim that to comprehend huge techniques you must know the difference between science, metaphysics, and viewpoint. crossword answers