Released By: Nuclear Blast
Release Date: September 30th, 2016
Genre: Symphonic Metal
Simone Simons – Vocals
Mark Jansen – Guitars, Vocals
Isaac Delahaye – Guitars
Rob van der Loo – Bass
Coen Janssen – Keyboards
Ariën van Weesenbeek – Drums, Vocals
2. Edge of the Blade
3. A Phantasmic Parade
4. Universal Death Squad
5. Divide and Conquer
6. Beyond the Matrix
7. Once upon a Nightmare
8. The Cosmic Algorithm
9. Ascension – Dream State Armageddon
10. Dancing in a Hurricane
11. Tear Down Your Walls
12. The Holographic Principle – A Profound Understanding of Reality
The past couple of years have not been the best for symphonic metal fans, and I personally have not heard many albums from the genre lately that have impressed me much, but one band I can always count on to deliver is Epica. I first discovered them with their second album Consign to Oblivion, which immediately hooked me in, becoming one of my favorite albums in the genre, and they’ve only gotten better over the years. Ever since guitarist Isaac Delahaye came in and gave their music more of an edge, starting with their fourth album Design Your Universe, the band has been easily the most ambitious and most consistently satisfying symphonic metal band by far. Their last album, The Quantum Enigma, in particular, felt like the band had pushed as far as they could possibly push, combining the heavier sound of their newer albums with all the symphonic and choral aspects of previous releases to create what I consider easily the best symphonic metal album I’ve ever heard. So heading into their seventh full-length release, The Holographic Principle, I was both excited to see what the band would do next, and also a bit nervous, because I figured it would be impossible to top their previous album. After giving The Holographic Principle several listens, I’m no longer sure about that. One thing I know for sure: Once again the band has exceeded all expectations and delivered another outstanding release that stands far above the rest of the pack.
After a couple albums in a row where they evolved their sound quite a bit, and experimented a little, The Quantum Enigma felt in many ways like the ultimate album for them, the realization of everything their previous releases had been building towards, so it’s no surprise that with The Holographic Principle they have settled down a bit, and made minor tweaks to push their sound just a bit further. In short, this album feels like they have taken all elements of their music and pushed them all to the extreme, with everything from the guitar riffs, to Simone’s vocals, Mark’s Growls, the symphonic elements (now with a huge, full orchestra) and choral elements feeling even more epic than ever before. The one thing that feels like it’s been focused on most is increasing the heaviness, and while their previous three albums were already quite heavy at times, this album has some truly killer riffs and is by far their hardest hitting release to date. At the same time, the orchestral elements are still as prominent as ever, and the band used some percussion as well as other unique elements at times, making it a packed album, to say the least.
One area where Epica really stands far above the pack is the production. Something I’ve struggled with lately on many symphonic and even symphonic power metal albums has been the mixing, as many bands have fallen into the trap of either putting the orchestra on top and letting it overpower the metal instruments, or watering everything down so it sounds like a muffled mess. Thankfully, Epica has avoided this, instead of pushing the guitars quite high up in the mix, while still leaving plenty of room for the vocals, drums, keys and orchestra to shine. In short, it’s the one recent symphonic release where I can say everything feels perfectly balanced, and I wish more bands could pull off having so many elements in their music and making it sound perfect the way this band can.
Moving on to songwriting, which has always been a strong point for the band, and once again, the band does not disappoint. Where The Quantum Enigma was an awesome album anchored by probably their best song ever, this release doesn’t have quite as big a high point, but if anything I’d say the songs are even more consistently amazing if that’s even possible. As expected, “ Eidola” is an excellent intro track, with a very cinematic feel. It seems a bit darker than most of their intros and it gets pretty epic and intense towards the end, leading in nicely to the first full song, “Edge of the Blade”. This track is once again the kind of opener fans would expect, storming out of the gates with fast-paced guitar riffs and the orchestra is in full effect immediately, before Simone’s ever more angelic vocals take over during the verses, and then it speeds up again for the epic chorus where the choirs take over. Mark’s growls make their first appearance during an intense bridge section, and overall it’s an excellent opener that serves as a perfect example of what to expect from the band at this point. The following track “A Phantasmic Parade” is mostly slower, and a bit more focused on choral vocals, though it speeds up for another epic growled section later on. It’s worth noting, that compared to past releases, this album feels like the band has mostly stuck to a formula, so most of the songs use similar elements in similar ways, but it’s the way every song is so well constructed, and how they each come with their own surprises and memorable moments, that makes the more straightforward approach to songwriting not become a problem in the least.
An early highlight is “Universal Death Squad”, a heavier, faster paced track where the guitars dominate quite a bit. The orchestral elements and choral vocals are in full effect as always, but it’s the lead riff and especially the excellent guitar solo in the middle that really stand out, though Simone’s higher notes during the chorus are certainly quite impressive as well. “Divide and Conquer” is the first track that feels a bit different. It’s very much dominated by the choir vocals, though it’s also the first track where Mark’s growls show up during the verses to alternate with Simone, and it does have some very impressive and heavy instrumental work, especially later on during a full growled section. Another one of my favorites is up next, in “Beyond the Matrix”, a much catchier, more straight-forward song with perhaps the best chorus on the album, and the choirs are truly epic on this track. It also features a quite impressive solo from Isaac later on. Next is a unique track in “Once Upon a Nightmare”, the closest thing this album has to a ballad. One thing’s for sure, though: This isn’t a typical, simplistic ballad. Nope, it has an extended orchestral opening, and it’s a very atmospheric keyword driven track, with some very memorable and extended instrumental sections, as well a bit of voice over work that adds more atmosphere to the track. Simone does get some impressive vocal lines, but it’s surprisingly not as vocal driven as you’d expect from a ballad. It’s certainly quite interesting, though it took multiple listens for me to fully get into it.
On the flip side, “The Cosmic Algorithm” is another instant winner, with a very fast paced choral section leading into another fantastic chorus, but overall it’s actually one of the heavier, more guitar-driven tracks on the album, and some of the riffs are quite aggressive and killer. Unsurprisingly, it has another excellent guitar solo. The next track “Ascension – Dream State Armageddon ” is slower paced, but has more crushing riffs, as well as some intense growls, to go with the usual great chorus, and an epic section later on where the choral vocals are used in a more haunting way, leading towards a brief voice over section. It’s a very dark and hard hitting track, and certainly another highlight. After that, we have another more unique track in “Dancing in a Hurricane”, a more laid back track, that starts off softly with mostly the orchestra, Simone and some percussion, which is used nicely. The rest of the band slowly comes in as the song progresses, but it’s a fairly calm song overall, with the percussion reappearing later in the track, though it does have one brief intense burst in the middle where the growls show up. By comparison, the next track “Tear Down Your Walls” is much more intense the whole way through, leaning more heavily on the guitar work and Mark’s Growls, but as usual, the chorus is very nice, and so it’s a well-balanced track.
Lastly, we have the epic length title track, which I was a bit nervous about at first, just because I couldn’t see the band possibly topping their previous title track. Thankfully, they didn’t really try, instead of doing a mostly more laid back title track, this time, around. Indeed, it has a rather slow start, using the orchestra and choirs to set things up, before the rest of the band slowly comes in. The first half is fairly calm and melodic, and the chorus is once again outstanding, giving Simone plenty of room to give probably her best vocals on the album, and while it’s certainly not huge and epic like the chorus of The Quantum Enigma, it’s still very effective. Growls are used sporadically in the first half, but the highlight of the track comes a little bit past the halfway point, where the music speeds up, the riffs get more intense, and Mark’s growls are in full force. The track then alternates between this and some epic choir vocals, and it just keeps getting more and more intense an epic for a while, before finally calming down again towards the end. While I wouldn’t quite put it on the same level as The Quantum Enigma, it’s still another excellent example of how to get an epic length track right, providing an excellent chorus, as well as a ton of memorable moments and enough surprises to keep the music fresh throughout its near 12 minute playing time.
After hearing The Quantum Enigma for the first time, I very much doubted it would ever be possible to top it, but while I still consider it the best symphonic metal album I’ve ever heard, The Holographic Principle is certainly not far behind. Once again, Epica has successfully built on their past successes and delivered an album full of everything fans would expect and more, with a focus on heavy guitars, epic choirs, and orchestra, Simone’s always wonderful vocals, and of course, a ton of great growls. Right now, Epica is clearly at the top of their game and they’re clearly far ahead of all other bands in their genre, so everything they release is a must hear, both for longtime fans of the band and the genre on the whole. Really, anyone looking for an album that expertly combines symphonic elements and metal is recommended to give this a listen. Easily my 2016 album of the year so far, and one of my favorite albums of the past decade.
Reviewer: Travis Green