Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Quantum Enigma | Epica

Epica is without a doubt one of my favorite symphonic metal bands. Their music has such a heavy combination of metal and classical; they aren't afraid to make their music as bombastic as possible. While albums like The Divine Conspiracy and Design Your Universe have absolutely stunned me and are a couple of my personal favorite albums, their last one, Requiem for the Indifferent, didn't strike me with that same sense of perfection despite having some great songs. I must say, their latest release, The Quantum Enigma, definitely didn't leave me with the same impression that Requiem for the Indifferent left me with. I've mentioned this type of improvement with a couple different albums lately (i.e. Within Temptation's Hydra, Lacuna Coil's Broken Crown Halo), but The Quantum Enigma doesn't just mark improvement from Epica's last album - it ranks among their best.

"Originem" opens the album on a bombastic, classical scale, as Epica has usually done with their previous albums. While the strings bring intensity, the choir amplifies it. It's an impressive opener and the band hasn't even begun playing yet - until we get to the second track,"The Second Stone." This song begins with a bang. Strings are meshing with metal in such an intense way; I loved this song immediately. Simone Simons' vocal line is incredibly catchy throughout the song - especially the verses and the choral line at the end of the chorus: "Let me believe between sweet fiction and reality." Mark Jansen comes in during the bridge, bringing his signature grunts, and the lyrics are wonderfully-written and intriguing. "The Second Stone" is full of energy; it's one of my favorites from The Quantum Enigma.
Next, we have the album's first single, "The Essence of Silence." Even though this song opens with a pretty string line, it turns out to be a very heavy song. Mark Jansen and Simone Simons share the verses, creating those beauty and the beast contrasts the world of symphonic metal loves so much. Simons' voice is especially beautiful in this song; she's really embracing her operatic side, especially in the verses. She's owning those high notes like nobody's business. "The Essence of Silence" is anything but silence; it's an explosion of sound, and I love it.
"Victims of Contingency" is the heaviest song on the album, opening with a strong focus on the metal rather than the classical. In the second half of the intro, the orchestra comes in, thickening the instrumentation and making it even more ambitious. The bridge is set up similarly; and honestly, the instrumental breakdowns are my favorite parts of the song. Mark's growls are extremely prominent in this song, but Simone sings the chorus... It's definitely one to headbang whilst listening to.
The following track clocks in at over seven minutes long: "Sense Without Sanity - The Impervious Code." It opens classically before giving way for some driving riffs that remind me a bit of Requiem for the Indifferent's progressive experimentation. It's a great song, but like the songs from Requiem for the Indifferent, it may take time for it to have impact. The middle eight, however, shouldn't take much time at all, for Simone's part is full of adrenaline and is immediately enjoyable.
"Unchain Utopia" is the second single from this album, a dark anthem with a prominent classical side. The choir-led chorus is the most prominent part of the song. It took me a couple of listens to really get into this song, but once I started to love it, I couldn't stop. The final chorus to the end is incredibly powerful as Simone's voice overlaps the choir: "We won't succumb to your deceiving games / Conquer the insane."
"The Fifth Guardian - Interlude" is a repetitive but absolutely breathtaking Asian-influenced piece that crescendos as it goes. It's quite otherworldy and reminds me a bit of Wintersun's "When Time Fades Away." This interlude leads to "Chemical Insomnia," which opens chaotically. This particular track isn't a favorite of mine overall, but I still enjoy listening to it - especially that epic middle eight! The strings pound and throb dramatically over the guitars in a whiplash-like manner. 

The next song, "Reverence - Living in the Heart," is an explosion of sorts. The opening riffs are heavy and epic as the strings lead the guitars, and frankly, the beginning of this song may be one of the coolest things I've ever heard. It eventually breaks down into some less-symphonic riffs before the verse begins. Even though this song has a lot of really strong points, including the general vocal line, the lyrics are a little too corny for the song in my opinion. The term "in the now" is used a few times and that expression always makes me cringe. But, as I said before, the instrumentation of this song is spectacular. Plus, Simone vocalizes beautifully in the bridge before an intense guitar solo, and her vocals overlapping the last chorus are also quite high and gorgeous.

The music becomes more symphonic than ever with "Omen - The Goulish Malady," the tenth song of The Quantum Enigma. It's led by piano before the song really picks up with the strings and choir take the stage. The verses are dark with the piano and mellow guitars creating a more melancholy mood. "Canvas of Life" follows, and it's the only proper ballad on the record. Even though it has a nice piano line, I wasn't too impressed until the middle eight when the instrumentation thickens. Not bad.

"Natural Corruption" brings a hint of folky influence in its melodic, piano-led intro. The verses are upbeat and urgent while the chorus is incredibly powerful with Simone's operatic vocals and the choir's prominence. During the middle eight, the song strips down to acoustic instruments, giving us a more somber moment before picking up the pace once again, and the song ends with one last climatic chorus. There isn't a single thing about this song I don't enjoy.

As much as I love Epica and the samples I heard in the two studio documentaries they released, the last song was the one I most anticipated: "The Quantum Enigma - Kingdom of Heaven Part II." When I first saw this at the bottom of the tracklist, I literally gasped. "Kingdom of Heaven." Part II? Nothing they could have ever said about this album could've made me want it more. Nothing. I mentioned my unending love of "Kingdom of Heaven" in my review of the 2009 album Design Your Universe, so naturally, I was incredibly excited to hear the second part of such an epic masterpiece. In just the first few seconds of this eleven minute album-closer I was pleased, for the epic throat singing found at the beginning of "Kingdom of Heaven" (one of the coolest elements of the track) was also the opening sound of "The Quantum Enigma." It creates such a creepy vibe. But I'm going to be honest, the first time I heard it, I wasn't as floored as I wanted to be; I thought it was nice, just... not as amazing as "Kingdom of Heaven." However, after listening to it about two more times, I fell in love. The choir sounds amazing as they sing powerful lyrics in staccato, blending all too well with the metal aspects: "When we will look around and see / We will affect the energy / When we observe by any means / We will create reality." The haunting guitar line heard at the beginning becomes more prominent in the slower section of the song, and of course, it builds back up the initial vibe of the song with an ear-catching guitar solo. This final song is powerful and heavy without trying too hard, showcasing some of Epica's best elements. It fades out with the Hungarian choir, just as it began, and added chimes overlap to give it a mystic ending.

As many fans know, a different bonus track was released with each configuration of the album. (In other words, Epica is fond of torturing their fans and making them bankrupt. Especially after they released two studio documentaries to get us pumped for the new album, which prominently contained all of those bonus tracks so we'd just have to have each configuration. Just saying.) "Banish Your Illusion" was exclusively released on the digital album and "In All Conscience" is featured on the two-disc edition; I'm assuming most people will get those since they're the least expensive. I truly love both tracks. "Banish Your Illusion" offers an exotic feel and a superb chorus while "In All Conscience" has one of the catchiest string lines in the world, along with a lot of emotional appeal. No matter which configuration you buy, you'll get something great.

And hence, that's The Quantum Enigma. I absolutely love this album; it's a symphonic metal masterpiece with a great combination of heavy riffs and classical elements. The general concept is intriguing, as Epica's concepts usually are, and it's just astounding to see such fantastic musicianship. Even aside from the great music, The Quantum Enigma is amazing simply for the way it was mixed, mastered, and produced - the sound quality is impeccably clear, allowing all the instruments to stand out yet blend together quite well. I don't know if I could ever ask for more in an album.

In fact, I think this is the best album of 2014.

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