Wednesday, October 12, 2016

album review: 'the holographic principle' by epica

So I don't tend to talk about critical trends that often - as I've said before, critics all have distinct opinions, and if they're expressed well, I can be understanding. But there is a trend, particularly among some metal critics, that I want to address: the critical dismissal of symphonic metal.

Oh, don't act like you haven't seen it, it can happen with power metal too. It's often considered too cheesy and melodramatic, or it's too poppy and accessible and doesn't try to be as complex as 'real' metal bands. Frankly, I'd like to say that we as metalheads have moved beyond this, but that's obviously not the case, and if Evanescence ever follows up with their threat to release another album, I'll explain why in greater detail there. And look, it's not like those stereotypes and criticisms can't have a vein of truth - I've heard acts like Delain, I totally get it - but it also sells short a crop of symphonic metal acts that actually have more ambition and power than are given credit.

So let's talk about one of the most perennially underrated bands in the genre: Epica. I'll admit that it took me a while to come around on this group - growing up Nightwish and Within Temptation were both more accessible, and Epica did take some time to refine solid melodic hooks, but they are one of the most lyrically ambitious bands in any genre that I've covered, tackling big idea material with the sort of insight and depth that deserves a lot more attention, easily as cerebral as most progressive metal bands can be. I still hold The Divine Conspiracy and Design Your Universe as fantastic records, but in 2014 Epica finally managed to hit a sweet spot with The Quantum Enigma, which had their best ever hooks and showed frontwoman Simone Simons finally bringing the dramatic presence to match it. It was also one of their most successful records, and given how they were describing their upcoming project as even bigger, it looked like Nuclear Blast had seen that success as a chance to give them an even meatier budget. And all the more promising was the thematic idea of exploring the universe as a digital hologram - okay, not the most unique theme to explore, but Epica was bound to go deep with this and potentially could reconnect with the human drama that ultimately felt a little slight on The Quantum Enigma. So okay, I was entirely on board with this as one of my most anticipated records of 2016, what did we get with The Holographic Principle?

Hmm... this was a tricky one to evaluate, and not just because of the subject matter that demands you dig into the lyrics in depth. No, The Holographic Principle isn't nearly as immediate of a listen as The Quantum Enigma, aiming for more intricate symphonic complexity that comes with the bigger budget and ambition. And I have to admit, there are definitely points where I feel it gets away from Epica a bit, enough that I'm not sure it's quite on the level of their best work, despite being one hell of a record all the same.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, where it's clear that Epica's ambitions show through the most. Make no mistake, these are some of the most elaborate and borderline-cinematic compositions of their careers, and by far some of their heaviest. The string section is massive, the horns bellow across the mix, keyboards layer in additional melodies, and with the full choral section this is easily the largest symphonic backdrop the band has ever had to work with, and you can tell they're using them all. And when you combine them with the thunderous crunching riffs that drive through and drumming that alternates between progressive and even blast-beat on 'Ascension - Dream State Armageddon', you're getting a record where every moment of atmospheric respite is cherished. And yet, as much as these riffs have impact and power, you quickly realize that the guitar line isn't often carrying the main melody driving these tunes. It's often coming through in the horns or strings or the backing symphony... and sure, that was often true on The Quantum Enigma, but with the riffs being much heavier, there are points where it feels like the rhythm section is competing with the melodies rather than complimenting them, and that can weaken some of your hooks a bit. And maybe I'm just a purist for more melodic metal, but I really do wish this album at least tried to put a main melody on a guitar line beyond just the solos - which yes, are absolutely awesome and features some of Isaac Delahaye's best work yet, especially on songs like 'Universal Death Squad', 'Beyond The Matrix', 'The Cosmic Algorithm', and the title track.

Now that's not saying some of the melodies and hooks aren't catchy as hell - 'Edge Of The Blade' might feel a tad abortive in its hook and 'A Phantasmic Parade' feels kind of wonky all around, but by the time we hit 'Universal Death Squad' with that phenomenal trumpet line and the grinding gallop of the groove, I'm definitely on board, especially on tracks with really strong hooks like 'Beyond The Matrix', 'The Cosmic Algorithm', and the huge climax of 'Dancing In A Hurricane'. Now that's one of a few songs that brings in some Arabian-inspired flourishes in the tones and composition, which normally aren't quite my thing but Epica pull off pretty damn effectively, arguably better than Nightwish did back on Dark Passion Play. And speaking of Nightwish, I was getting some of that vibe on the ballad 'Once Upon A Nightmare' thanks to the focus on strings and piano, but again, Epica knock this out of the park, mostly because of ridiculously solid control of their atmosphere - this is a strikingly cohesive project - and the talents of Simone Simons. If anything, her job is even harder here than usual, given she's now stuck competing with even heavier riffs and the full backing symphony - and yes, there are points where the multi-tracking isn't quite thick enough to give her the presence she needs, but when she does get it like on the interlude of 'Beyond The Matrix' she sounds outright stunning, and her interplay with Mark Jansen's growls continues to work with real power, especially as the group takes advantage of the very different styles to accentuate different points in both content and language.

And that takes us to the lyrics and themes, and one of the big reasons I'm a huge fan of this band: lyrical depth. The overarching concept of a holographic universe - the idea that in a higher dimension we could just be considered a hologram for others to observe on a plane incomprehensible to human minds - that's the sort of thing that makes for a fun thought experiment as a physics major but can be a little uninvolving on an emotional level. I mean, think about it: the most basic approach to this sort of idea is just to play to Matrix-esque paranoia and play it as sci-fi horror or a thriller, which is ideal for metal but for lack of better words it can feel a little one-dimensional. But what I've always liked about Epica is the follow-up: they hit that initial conclusion and power right through it to the next steps. 'Universal Death Squad' snaps to the question of A.I. and if we are in a holographic projection what this says for our own free will... and then they follow it with 'Divide And Conquer', snapping to real world fighting in the Middle East where the focus is peeling back the layers to find the real motivation for control of that region, be they religious or more often purely economic. Not only is the thematic core intact, they humanize the drama by finding the high concept: peel back the layers, understand your broader world with rationality and reason, and if you're a part of that system, work to understand it. And while they don't shy away with showing the loss of innocence that will come with that sort of dark revelation on 'Once Upon A Nightmare', it's also a tremendous liberating force to know the system around you - once you get the cosmic algorithm, that 'system', you can see all the areas it can be bent if you choose to do so. There's a really potent undercurrent of optimistic humanism that runs through this record that initially did catch me off-guard but ultimately lends it a lot of invigorating force - it embraces its concept and then goes right into the 'what now' with such conviction you get swept up on the ride. And it doesn't shy away from bigger questions, like if we're just in a holographic projection what does a 'soul' really mean, or what this means for free will, or what could happen if we were able to perceive and break out of this dimensional experience. In the last case, Eoica suspects it'd probably lead to some form of armageddon or break the human mind into pieces, and so the question shifts: do you allow yourself to be paralyzed in existentialist crisis, or do you choose to live in what could be a dream but one of your own making?

Now these are out-there, big idea concepts, and I'd argue they're grounded in human emotion in a way The Quantum Enigma never quite connected... but on the other hand, on a compositional level in terms of hooks and production I feel The Holographic Principle doesn't quite connect as strongly. It's still a great listen, but I get the feeling that having a greater symphonic budget and going even bigger might have led to some indulgence, pieces that could have been tightened or refined to make a symphonic release that was a little more dynamic and varied rather than as full force as it is. But still, it's a great record and netting a light 8/10 from me - if you're a symphonic metal fan, or hell, even if you're not and looking for some tremendously huge music with big ideas explored in depth, The Holographic Principle is the record you've been looking for - definitely check this out.

1 comment:

  1. Aside from all the additional orchestral elements, I enjoyed the increased amount of choir vocals. I kinda agree with you about The Holographic Principle not living up to The Quantam Enigmas awesomeness, but lets be honest: it would be insanely difficult to beat it. That said, I am really enjoying the album, and will continue enjoying it for a while.