Sound — 8
Whether or not their band name is as subtle of an implication as getting hit in the head with a guitar, it can't be argued that Epica does indeed strive to compose music of epic proportions. Being founded by former After Forever guitarist/vocalist Mark Jansen and Dutch soprano Simone Simons (who has worked with several power metal and symphonic metal bands such as Kamelot, Sons Of Seasons and Primal Fear), the band started off with a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish. Fusing powerful death metal with a grand arrangement of orchestral elements, Epica has gone on to make five studio albums in their 12-year career, with their fifth album, "Requiem for the Indifferent," achieving the most international acclaim, including reaching the Billboard Top 200 chart in 2012. Now, Epica has released their sixth studio album, "The Quantum Enigma," and despite it being a relatively short time since their 2012 release, guitarist Isaac Delahaye has said in an interview that this album had a much longer pre-production phase than other albums, and that the composition process was much more of a group effort than before.
Starting off with "Originem," the album opens the sonic landscape with an orchestral intro that sounds a lot like the background music you'd hear in a movie trailer, fully-stocked with piano, string and horn sections, thunderous drums, and choir vocals sung in Latin. Carrying over into the next track, "The Second Stone," the death metal elements finally come in to crash the orchestral party, and a fleeting fast guitar line leads the intro along with string melodies and fast double-bass rolls. From then on to the next few tracks - "The Essence of Silence," "Victims of Contingency" and "Sense Without Sanity - The Impervious Code" - the album strikes a strong balance between the melodious side of orchestral instruments, choir vocals and Simons' lead vocals, and the raw metal energy of driving guitar riffs, relentless drums (with the furious bursts of double-bass rolls and blastbeat drumming in "Victims of Contingency" being the crest of extraordinary drumming), Jansen's harsh growling vocals (which juxtapose Simone's clean and righteous vocals very well) and some good guitar solos in "The Second Stone" and "The Essence of Silence."
While "Unchain Utopia" adds some different sound elements with harpsichord and keyboard melodies, the song unfortunately gets stuck with being the first song to falter in the metal energy - with the drums being much more restrained throughout the song, the role of guitars pale in comparison to the former songs, and the lack of growling vocals. "The Fifth Guardian - Interlude" clears the table for another film-score-esque track akin to the album's opening track, but this one is embedded in an oriental orchestral sound - containing gaohu, zheng, and xiao melodies - and comes off as very refreshing in contrast to the conventional violin and piano melodies heard thus far. Following the interlude, "Chemical Insomnia" wastes no time kicking things back into a heavy gear, jumping straight into a dirty, cut-throat death metal intro. The bridge of the song brings back Jansen's growling vocals, as well as some nice technical riffage from the guitars. The album is taken to another metal apex with "Reverence - Living in the Heart," which contains arguably the most bada-s guitar riff Epica has ever crafted, more frenzied-level drumming, and an admirable, Dream Theater-esque guitar/keyboard solo - and perhaps it is this apex that makes the following song, "Omen - The Ghoulish Malady," feel lackluster. "The Canvas of Life" shifts things down into a more reserved gear - where the grand array of metal and symphonic instruments slowly progresses to swell mightily at the end - but this is the song that boasts Simone's best vocal performance on the album, as well as having a great, folklore-inspired lead melody. "Natural Corruption" continues the melody-richness from the previous track, but brings another wave of forceful metal, including a captivating bridge of guitar and orchestral string tradeoff accompanied with blastbeat drumming, as well as another nice, elaborate guitar solo. The album finishes with the colossal, multi-phase progressive metal song "The Quantum Enigma - Kingdom of Heaven Pt. II," which, while being a marathon of a song, is a full-bodied song that brings nearly everything heard in the album together for one grand finish.
Lyrics — 9
Though "The Quantum Enigma" isn't an album that forms a concrete story concept, the general theme found in the lyrics throughout the album is about transcending one's own mind and conventional thoughts to find a deeper understanding in life and beyond. Remarks about memories and deceptive perceptions are found in "The Second Stone," "The Essence of Silence" and "Reverence - Living in the Heart," and the poisonous potential of one's thoughts get more specific in "Chemical Insomnia," which deals with the mental burden of addiction, and "Sense Without Sanity - The Impervious Code," which deals with fear of death (the line "the longer you wait for the future, the shorter it will be" drives the point home perfectly). Other songs like "Omen - The Ghoulish Malady" and "Victims of Contingency" are more oriented towards bettering oneself in this life, with the former song being much more uplifting and motivational (possibly treading the line of sappiness), and the latter song being much more of a kick in the a-s (case in point: "blaming it on life will never make you stronger"). Songs like "Unchain Utopia" and "Natural Corruption" deals with the corrosive characteristics of society - a familiar topic that Epica has written about before - and while this adds some more lyrical flavor to the entire album, the main focus of the lyrical themes is embedded in reaching a deeper understanding of life by perceiving things beyond your own mind - "The Quantum Enigma - The Kingdom of Heaven Pt. II" sums up this premise of the album quite nicely, with several lyrical themes from previous songs being called back in this song and wrapping them up in a nice bow.
Overall Impression — 8
Even though a couple of songs on the album may not be as captivating in comparison to others, "The Quantum Enigma" accomplishes a consistent aesthetic of metal energy and symphonic grandeur spanning from front to back. The polished mix of the album makes it able to appreciate every sound you come across on the album, and the compositions on the album flow in an interdependent nature - much like how a classical symphony is written. With some songs on the album being suitable for a colloquial award of "best Epica song," the whole output of the album may very well be suitable for being considered Epica's best album thus far, both by fans and the music charts.