Saturday, February 11, 2012

Design Your Universe | Epica

In 2009, Epica released a studio album called Design Your Universe, living up to their reputation as a heavier (and perhaps even darker) symphonic metal band than others of their genre. Epica has always been epic, musically dynamic and lyrically thought-provoking, but this album seems to surpass a lot of their previous work. Its heaviness will have an appeal to lovers of general metal, Simone Simon's voice will appeal to anyone with an appreciation for singers, and the classical elements wrap it all together an a most irresistible way.

The first track is a prelude, entitled "Samadhi," and it's completely classical, immediately making a bold statement. This song quickly leads into "Resign to Surrender," which is nearly identical to the prelude, except the metal comes in and Mark Jansen begins grunting. Simone Simons' (their vocalist) striking voice is also found on this headbang-worthy track, of course. Everything about this song is energy and power, doing the lyrics justice.

A more melodic but still relatively heavy "Unleashed" comes next, a song of freedom that features Simone's voice entirely and no grunting, giving it cross-over appeal to those who aren't as fond of the band's influences. I don't really see how it's possible to dislike this woman's voice, especially on this song. Out of the entire album, "Unleashed" is probably the most mainstream song, but it's not unoriginal in any sense I can find.

"Martyr of the Free Word" is a fist-pumping song that I'd want to listen to if I were to ever overthrow a totalitarian state. That statement alone should help you indicate that Mark Jansen's lyrics within this standout song are full of truth. (For example: "When liberty seems out of reach, we'll fight for our freedom of speech!") Plus, the guitar riffs are just as lifting, toning it down a bit when Simone sings and then exploding into amazing metal-classical-chaos when there's grunting in the chorus. All in all, don't expect to sit still when listening to this song.

Next, we come to the fifth track, "Our Destiny." Though this isn't exactly one of my favorites from the album, it's alright. Although the lyrics embody strength, they comes off as a bit corny and don't get me particularly excited, and neither do the piano-led verses. Really, the only highlight of this track is Simone Simons' operatic voice in the pre-chorus.

A mystical male choir opens the next song with a chant before fading darkly into the string-led portion of the creepy intro. Then, all of a sudden, the best guitar riffs I've ever head in my life burst in, making my jaw drop dumbly. This is "Kingdom of Heaven," and it is easily my favorite Epica song and one of my favorite songs of all-time. There's metal and epic classical music intertwining in a way that makes me think of ancient times. There are grunts, and Simone's operatic voice. And the lyrics... Oh my goodness, it's about time someone wrote such mesmerizing, almost controversial lyrics. And just like that, I'm in love. Yet, the song isn't even halfway over; it's over thirteen minutes long. So, the music changes with the different sections of this symphonic metal masterpiece, giving us a guitar solo, urgency, and even a slowed-down bit before building back up with a portion that resembles the very first, but then suddenly changing before the song ends, sending a final chill down my spine.

As if knowing that "Kingdom of Heaven" would leave listeners taken aback, the next track is an interlude called "The Price of Freedom," which doesn't feature much other than acoustic instruments and men (who sound like politicians) speaking. Then, it leads into "Burn to a Cinder." Of all the songs on Design Your Universe, this is probably one of the most catchy with its fun vocal line and the way the grim lyrics remain somewhat romantic through it all. Throughout the song, there's a strong sense of urgency present, but as one reaches the last minute, the music is nearly gone except for some choral synth (that's the only way I can describe it) and Simone, ending the song sweetly.

At this point, one may think, 'Wow, this band is so hardcore that there isn't a ballad!' This is where that thought is proven wrong. "Tides of Time" is the next song, completely going in a different direction than the rest of the album. It's led by a pretty piano bit (accompanied by strings) and Simone's voice singing moving lyrics. I thought Simone blew me away on songs like "Unleashed" and "Our Destiny," but that's nothing to this song. "Tides of Time" clearly showcases Simone's beautiful voice, especially in the chorus. Then, the music swells in the bridge, bringing in electric guitars and drums, and Simone's voice grows with it. There is no denying a voice like this, a song like this. I loved it.

"Deconstruct" follows the ballad, picking things up once again. Nothing really struck me as grand about this song until I reached the bridge, where the choir comes in, singing the main lyrics in an ambitious staccato style. Then, we come to "Semblance of Liberty," which primarily consists of grunts though Simone is also included. Musically, it's what I consider to be the catchiest and it'll definitely appeal to metal-heads. However, the lyrics struck me more than anything. When reading along with the song, I said aloud, "This guy is deep."

A duet between Simone Simons and Tony Kakko left me relaxed with "White Waters." Right off the bat, the opening guitars intrigued me, and since it's Epica, I figured the song would blow out of the water (in a good way) with guitars and grunts, but I stand corrected. This song is actually quite calming, and I loved that. Besides, two gorgeous voices, soothing harmonies, great lyrics... do I need to say more?

The album ends with "Design Your Universe." It will fool the listener with its rather relaxing intro, but it soon picks up, adding guitars before breaking down to the verse. Again, the lyrics are really interesting and powerful, particularly in the chorus and the haunting choir bit (which is my favorite part). Also, I'm quite fond of the bridge, where the classical instrumentation seems to dominate, sweeping my ears away on an epic journey. Even so, the main choir bit left me breathless, and Simone sings a bit of it at the very end of the song, in the midst of fading piano bit that gives me chills every time.

Design Your Universe is a majorly impressive album; I think I've made that clear by now. Fans of just about any type of metal should give it a try, and to classical music lovers - go listen to this album and you'll see that metal and classical music have much in common.

5/5 Stars

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