Sound — 10
With the blend of melody, heaviness and technicality, Epica manages to separate themselves from the typical symphonic metal bands. The song structures are unpredictable, some songs have two choruses, others have three. Some have a guitar solo, others don't and every song isn't just harsh verse, clean chorus. You hear a lot of thrash and death metal influences in the drum and guitarwork, which is pretty fantastic throughout the record.
New guitarist Isaac Delahaye brought a lot of energy to the band, and his solos are quite impressive. Rhythm guitarist and founding member Mark Jansen is very inspired by Death guitarist Chuck Shuldiner, and this might the reasons why he growls. When it comes to the riffs, songs like "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Semblance of Liberty" will amaze you at first listen, and Arien van Weesenbeek's technical drumming is impressive to. Still, what's most impressive is the bombarding symphonies and the fantastic voice of Simone Simons.
Epica has always had flaws in every album, but manages to distract you from them almost completely. The flaws on this album are found in the ballad "White Waters" and the total running time, which is about 5 min. Too long. This has been a problem on most Epica records; too long and too many ballads. Not that I hate ballads, but most of them are pretty slow and boring. The thing saves most their ballads from distrupting the flow of the album is Simone's amazing singing. "Tides of Time" is an excellent song, while "White Waters" is a boring filler that I usually skip. The songs are both heavier and more catchy than on "The Divine Conspiracy," and while that album only had one guitar solo, this one has five. The choirs and orchestrations are also more impressive. When it comes to the production, everything is perfectly balanced. The 7-string guitars where tuned down lower, which made Mark's pretty average growls sound better, and I'm glad they've kept it this way.
As usual the album starts with an orchestral prelude, this one containing melodys from the first and last song on the album. It leads into the opening song "Resign to Surrender," which is an excellent track and one of my favorites on the album. Awesome main riff, great chorus and nice solo. Next is "Unleashed," one of the bands most popular songs. Simone does some highly impressive singing on this track, and the verses are very catchy. "Martyr of the Free Word" is fast paced song with some the best riffs on the album. I like the haunting way that Simone sings the verses, and the guitar solo is just incredible. A serious contender for the best Epica song. Simone does some more different sounding singing on the awesome and varied track "Burn to a Cinder." "Kingdom of Heaven" is the longest track on the album, clocking in at over 13 min, but manages to remain interesting throughout. The song has a varying pace and uses a variety of different atmospheres to keep you engaged. The guitarwork is progressive and technical, but even if it's a fantastic song, it could've been shortened down by 1 or 2 min. "Our Destiny" features some nice bassplaying and is one of Simone's best performances. The fastest and heaviest song, "Semblance of Liberty," is another one of my favorites from this release. The 9 min. long title track ends the album in an epic way, just like how every Epica record ends.
Lyrics — 9
The lyrics deal with a variety with things, but are mostly about life or the worlds problems. "Unleashed" is about a man that's been involved in a robbery and now suffers from severe paranoia and seas the robbers everywhere, "Martyr of the Free Word" is obviously about freedom of speech, and "Design Your Universe" is a song about reaching for your dreams.
Simone delivers an interesting and varied vocal performance, but her vocals are even better on the lastest album. She is in my opinion one of the best female vocalists in the world, with a a very classical edge to her voice, mixed with sounds of a rock vocalist. She definitely has the most beautiful singing voice I know of. When it comes to the guttural vocals, Mark has never been the best at growling, but improves with every album. Some of the growls are also done by Arien. Finally, I have to mention the great performance of the choirs.
Overall Impression — 10
What stands out most for me are the fantastic songs and aggressiveness balanced with melody and subtle dark emotion. The instrumentals of the band improved on all points, and Simone did another excellent performance. Arien is a fantastic drummer and is probably one of the most underrated in metal. Epica also has the best orchestrations of any band.
The highlights are "Resign to Surrender," "Martyr of the Word" and "Kingdom of Heaven," closely followed by "Unleashed," "Semblance of Liberty" and "Burn to a Cinder." Anyone who's not convinced that symphonic metal is any good, might just be convinced otherwise by this phenomenal album. The breakthrough record "The Divine Conspiracy" was great, but gets crushed by "Design Your Universe," which is still Epica's best album.