Sound — 7
Dutch symphonic metallers Epica are no strangers to bombast. Seven studio albums into their career, they have been blending symphonic, progressive, and power metal since 2002. The band has declared that their new album "The Holographic Principle" would be, in the words of vocalist Simone Simons, one of the band's most ambitious albums to date. Ambition has never really been a problem with Epica, who have done many concept albums that have revolved around concepts like quantum theory and religious wars, and this one has a title and overall theme around the universe as a hologram.
Opening with an orchestral instrumental, "Eidola," the album starts off on an incredibly bombastic note, before diving into the album's first single, "Edge of the Blade," which is about as representative of a slab of symphonic metal as you'll get on any album. Big riffs matched by orchestral strings and choral vocals, with a pounding half-time verse, it's an excellent song all around. Such a strong first riff really sets the tone for the rest of the album, which has no shortage of really good riffs throughout. "A Phantasmic Parade" also features some incredibly crushing riffs, and even goes nearly full-on thrash metal at about the two and a half minute mark. Unlike a lot of symphonic female-fronted metal bands, these guys don't trade any kind of heaviness off for melodicness. Even though Simone Simons has an incredible, warm melodic voice, the riffs underpinning it are often truly heavy and even, at times, technical. Isaac Delahaye also gets quite a few memorable solos, like the ones in "Universal Death Squad" and "Beyond the Matrix," the latter sounding almost Petrucci-esque.
The symphonic elements on the album are over-the-top and can get quite a bit grating sometimes, and this is an issue I generally find with this style of music. It's like a layer of cheese over an otherwise delicious steak. Even though these elements can make this album really difficult to listen to at times, especially in one sitting, this band still has some of those tendencies under control better than a lot of their peers (here's looking at you, Nightwish!), and they still give the meaty guitar riffs some opportunities to cut through the cheese and shine. There are ballads on the album as well, like the dark, piano-led "Once Upon a Nightmare," which also shows a bit of Epica's more progressive tendencies. The band's heavier style lets loose either through rhythm guitarist Mark Jansen and drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek's growled vocals, or through heavier riffs and even blast beats in songs like "Ascension - Dream State Armageddon" and "Tear Down Your Walls," which should appeal to fans of more extreme metal styles. The album closes with the eleven and a half minute track "The Holographic Principle - A Profound Understanding of Reality" which serves as a summarization of the themes of the album, both lyrically and musically, featuring choral vocals, a full-blown orchestra and guitar solos galore. It's a pretty ridiculous track in its scope, but it works fairly well, and it pretty much covers all of the musical ground in the album, from gentle ballad-like sections to full-on proggy thrash/death metal.
The playing is great throughout the album. All of the band's members (rounded out from the ones I mentioned already by bassist Rob van der Loo and keyboardist Coen Janssen) perform their asses off throughout the album, and I especially feel like their guitarists are incredible, even when it comes to simple rhythm playing. The production, handled by After Forever and Ayreon keyboard wizard Joost van den Broek, is as over-the-top as the symphonic elements of their music, and the mixing and mastering still leaves a lot of headroom for acoustic elements like live violin and acoustic piano.
Lyrics — 9
Symphonic metal bands are often known for their cheesy sort of "heavy mithril"-style lyrics that are usually so over-the-top in the fantasy sword-and-dragon realm that I never find myself at all interested in them. Epica has managed to eschew that trend by taking on a sort of science-fiction posthumanistic concept, which deals with the idea of the universe being a hologram. While there are a few songs that do not fit into this general concept ("Divide and Conquer" and "Dancing in a Hurricane" dealing with world issues, and "Tear Down the Walls" and "Once Upon a Nightmare" tackling personal issues by the use of ancient German and shamanistic folklore), many of the songs deal with the ultimate nature of reality, with tracks like "A Phantasmic Parade" and "Beyond the Matrix" being influenced by films such as "The Matrix" and "Inception." "Ascension - Dream State Armageddon" and "The Holographic Principle - A Profound Understanding of Reality" deal with the fallout of actually realizing the universe is a hologram. "Universal Death Squad" deals with artificial intelligence and the nature of it. It's all quite compelling stuff, and whether you understand the concepts at play or not, or even if you don't believe in any of it, these are actually some of the more fascinating lyrical concepts to come from a metal band in ages, and it almost seems as if Simone Simons might have grown a bit of influence from her appearance on Ayreon's "01011001."
As for the vocals, Simone's less soprano-esque voice is a much more pleasant listen than many other singers in the genre, though when she goes for her vibrato-laden operatic high vocals, she can still get kind of grating to listen to. The choral operatic vocals also seem quite overdone throughout the album, and they do tend to detract from what is otherwise one of the better voices in the symphonic metal genre. She has a real bell-like tone and clarity to her voice that's absolutely beautiful when she chooses to use it, and it's a bit of a shame that they've continued to rely on the same old symphonic soprano-and-choir tropes on this album as much as they did. Mark Jansen and Ariën van Weesenbeek also provide some levity in the form of growled death metal vocals, and while they're used more sparingly than in some of the other bands in their genre (such as Amaranthe), when they are used, they're hard-hitting and powerful.
Overall Impression — 8
While it might be hard for some (myself included) to get past some of the more over-the-top aspects of this band's music, Epica have released a very strong record with "The Holographic Principle." Lyrically speaking, this is some of the most compelling symphonic metal I've heard in a long time. Musically, while the album is, as a whole, mired in orchestral noodling, if you peel back that layer of cheese, you discover that these guys can really play and riff with the best of them, and that they might be one of the few symphonic metal bands that actually understands the "metal" half of that equation. There's some really top-notch stuff on this album, and I really gotta give it to the first proper song on the album, "Edge of the Blade," for being such a powerful track, and it's definitely one of my favourites on the album. If the band reined in some of their more over-the-top symphonic tendencies in favour of some of their more progressive flavours, this band could really make something that would slay the competition. As it stands, this is still a good album with a lot of quality tracks, and if symphonic metal is your thing, I strongly recommend you check this album out.