It's been five years since The Holographic Principle, but Dutch symphonic metal legends Epica return with their eighth studio album and it's a generous one indeed, running seventy minutes even before we add in the bonus disc on the deluxe edition, Omegacoustic, though that's not particularly long on its own. Then again, this is the first time they've gone beyond a three year gap and COVID has proved to be an accidental boon to many bands by focusing the mind wonderfully, so it isn't surprising that they have such a wealth of new material.
The sound is as you would expect. This is still symphonic metal in an epic style, elegant from moment one but soaring far higher than it dives, though the grounding often shifts into melodic death metal. The vocals still utilise a beauty and the beast approach, with Simone Simons as pure and clean as ever and the growls of Mark Jansen harsh but far from evil. There are also choral backing vocals here, some of which show up on the intro before Simons and Jansen get to open their mouths, but perhaps most notably on Seal of Solomon.
And, as always, Simons is the dominant voice. Abyss of Time, the first song proper, may start out with the two of them going back and forth, but Simons is the louder voice when they sing together and she doesn't take long to strike out on her own. Jansen sings throughout but, the longer the album lasts, the more Simons takes over, to the degree that a song like Rivers, the third single, is almost entirely her and the softer side of the band's sound.
There's a lot going on in this album but it's engaging on a first listen and only deepens when we take another ride through. The majority of songs are in the five to six minute range and they're generally a strong bunch with neat dynamic play. I like The Skeleton Key, with its pure and crystalline melodies that approach saccharine but never get there and a heavy side that sometimes stands off at a greater distance than usual to add edge without changing the tone. Seal of Solomon and Code of Life bring in the middle eastern flavour Epica often explore and they reminded me of classic Therion, especially through the heavy use of choirs in the former and the build of the latter.
You won't be surprised to find that there are longer songs too or that there's one that's getting hard to explain as time goes by. It's the longest by far, at thirteen minutes, and it's called Kingdom of Heaven, Part III: The Antediluvian Universe. As you can imagine, that means that it continues a song that Epica last visited on their 2014 album, The Quantum Enigma. The first part saw release on Design Your Universe in 2009 but it was also the fifth of the six instalments of A New Age Dawns, the second half of which unfolded on that album but the first half on 2005's Consign to Oblivion. Whew.
This one starts out like soundtrack material, with abundant keyboards and plenty of choral sections, as if Epica were pitching to score whatever the next Middle Earth film trilogy will be. As befitting its length, there's a lot more to absorb, but there's a strong piano solo six minutes in and I'd argue that some of the best Simone Simons parts anywhere on this album can be found late in this epic.
I've reviewed a lot of generous albums this year and many of them have simply been too long. What I think might work fine for forty minutes become stretched at sixty and some of those albums would be better for shedding some of their songs for use as single B-sides, if anyone's even using those in 2021. This one is different. Even with The Antediluvian Universe unfolding in six parts; a seven minute mini-epic, Omega - Sovereign of the Sun Spheres, in three; and four or five songs really being two in one, it somehow remains engaging throughout, even on a second or third listen. In fact, it feels like the band could have just kept on going, if CDs could store eighty or ninety minutes of music.
I thought about going with a 7/10 here, because I realised that almost all my favourite songs show up in the first half and I struggled to remember the final three that wrap up the album. However, Rivers is in the second half, as are the closing sections of The Antediluvian Universe, and repeat listens do help the later tracks to grow. As I mentioned, there's a lot going on in this album, enough that we have to step back and catch sight of the whole thing in addition to what portions have stood out to us while we've wandered through at ground level. So an 8/10 it is.
This is an strong, epic and vibrant release to take Epica into what will be their twentieth anniversary in 2023 (or 2022 if you count the year they spent as Sahara Dust).