If I were reviewing only Simone Simons, the vocalist, this would be a five-star album. The young mezzo-soprano is flawless in her performance with a voice as shatteringly beautiful as her appearance on the masterpiece of an album cover. Unfortunately, she is under-utilized, and this excellent album is marred by over-used “death grunt” gutterals, and musical composition that at times tempts one to rename the band “Frantica” and the album “The Digressive Cacophony.” Buy this album, certainly, but be aware that it is an acquired taste unless you’re already an Epica fan, or into gutturals and manic double-bassing. However, it’s a taste you’ll grow to like, and a spoonful of Simone Simons’ singing will make just about anything go down smoothly.
1. Indigo–A beautiful classical/choral intro worthy of any good symphony or soundtrack.
2. The Obsessive Devotion–This piece is down-right schizophrenic, combining some extraordinary vocals by Simons with a great bouncing bass-line, classical composition and excellent choir parts. However, there are too many abrupt transitions. Sudden bursts of frantic double-bassing really add nothing, and often drown out Mark Jansen’s “grunts” which would be better used more sparingly and in call-and-response fashion to Simons’ operatic parts. An inserted voice-over spoken by a female guest vocalist is also abrupt and its import is lost for being unable to understand half of Jansen’s vocals beforehand. A unique feature of this song is Simons’ uncharacteristic snarl on the lyric “Don’t ever trick my mind” in which for a split second she captures the sound of a she-wolf in bad temper with fascinating fidelity. Despite its flaws, this piece actually works as a sort of multi-part mini-opera. It’s just not smooth.
3. Menace of Vanity–This piece is forgettable, with too much of Jansen’s grunts, the choir and double-bassing. As you listen to this album you will begin tuning this song out and wondering what happened to the time between tracks 2 and 4.
4. Chasing the Dragon–A tour de force for Simons, this piece starts slow and lovely and then lets Simons roam about her vocal range most impressively. The transitions are much more smooth than TOD, and the bouncing bass-line returns momentarily. The choir and orchestra are once again excellent. Jansen’s grunts and whispered snarls, and the rapid double-bassing only come in near the end as the piece spirals to a climax. This is how these devices should be used.
5. Never Enough–Another showcase for Simons, with a more “commercial” sound–at least in the opinion of some fans that seem to think a band has jumped its stylistic shark if anyone but their narrow sub-genre might enjoy a song by them. In fact, this piece is thoroughly metal enough for any real fan. The bass-line is fantastic; Simons soars; Jansen provides just the right guttural vocal insertions; the keyboard and guitar work are superb. The only thing missing is an overwhelming choir part, but they’re there if you listen closely. Simons’ ten-second closing note will shame you out of singing in the shower for at least a week.
6. La’petach Chatat Rovetz–A superb classical and choral interlude misused as an intro to track 7.
7. Death of a Dream–Crashes in upon the heels of the preceding track too abruptly and shares a number of the flaws of TOD as far as musical composition and transitions. What saves it is that it does flow more smoothly, shares the recurring bouncing bass-line, and as always Simons performs superbly. Her parts are uniquely sinuous and even saucy at points, and always beautiful. The double-bassing is over-done, and occasionally Jansen’s and guest “grunter” Sander Gommans’ gutturals depart intelligibility. Still, it’s a powerful piece, another mini-opera, and superior as a whole to TOD. It also starts a lyrical arc that continues in tracks 8 and 9.
8. Living a Lie–Initially this seems like it will be weak, like MOV, until Simons comes in on vocals, at which point it focuses your attention nicely. A good balance is struck between Simons and Jansen in this song, and although the choir can be over-powering, its contributions are short. The Latin voice-over of the priest’s part makes sense and is easier to fit into one’s comprehension of the song than the voice-over in TOD. A good, if lesser track compared to 4, 5, 9, 10 and 12.
9. Fools of Damnation–Wow! Simons is why Odysseus had to be lashed to the mast. Any Nightwish fans in deep mourning for Tarja Turunen’s departure from the scene can listen to Epica for their opera fix. Simons simply soars! Beyond her blistering belting, this piece is everything TOD and DOAD were trying so hard to be. The transitions, the double-bassing, the voice-over, the choirs, the gutturals and Simons’ operatic perfection all gel in a superb work that is also a perfect lyrical take-down of the shared hypocrisy of the world’s major religions. The one verse of snarled gutturals observes: “Believing is the cure/Religion is an opium/You’d better feed them all/Before they start eating you.” It’s a warning religious demagogues everywhere ought to heed.
10. Beyond Belief–This track begins an arc of three in which Simons is the star and relatively undisturbed by gutturals, although the choir gets quite loud on this track. Thematically the piece sums up a large part of the clash of science and religion without necessarily coming down on either side. The background voice-over insertion and Jansen’s gutturals actually compliment the piece, providing useful contrast. This one sticks with you and yanks you into the theme at the bottom of the entire problem: “We struggle with our certain death.” This song is as lyrically good as FOD.
11. Safeguard to Paradise–Obviously recorded while the double-bass pedal (worn from too much use) was being replaced. A pretty ballad, this piece lyrically questions the methods of coercion and persuasion at play on the minds of suicide bombers. Not exactly the topic you would expect from what is otherwise a light, sweet little piece (at least, by this band’s standards…).
12. Sancta Terra–The double-bass pedal was obviously back from the shop for this song–with an admonition not to abuse it. Instead of frantic double-bassing we get a return to the bouncy bass-line, and a nice storm-treader beat. The lyrics deal with the seduction of a false paradise. Simons and the choir are superb, with the latter getting the opportunity to show off its individual components.
13. The Divine Conspiracy–You have to wonder if Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish, and Mark Jansen of Epica are competing to channel Hans Zimmer…and whether we should be trying to spot them both as extras in recent pirate movies… Epic in length at nearly 14 minutes, the title track opens like a pirate movie sound track and progresses into Jansen’s gutturals backed by a nice galloping beat for once instead of the distracting trip-hammer of double-bassing. Simons’ refrain is clear, haunting, and pointed: “Who possesses your time/Also possesses your mind.” The choir is used to good effect. Sadly, some of the transitions are abrupt and the piece as a whole doesn’t flow as smoothly as it perhaps should. After starting on a pirate movie note, it ends in a Bond-movie motif. Another mini-opera, like several others on this album, it is overshadowed by more polished gems.
Over-all this album gives the impression that Epica may be trying too hard. Trying to over-shadow Nightwish; trying to be classically artistic; trying to maintain its death-metal “street-cred.” Turn the amp down from 11 to 10; stop slipping uppers into the drummer’s Red Bull; forget about anything Tuomas Holopainen might be doing; and don’t worry about some child whose self-image is overly invested in the band. You’re good, already! Relax and enjoy what you do and you’ll shine.
Only Simons isn’t overdoing things. She is spot-on and scintillating. To my ear she combines the power of Tarja Turunen, the clarity of Liv Kristine, the technical capability of Sharon den Adel, the verve of Christina Scabbia and the honeyed smoothness of Nell Sigland. A mezzo-soprano, her vocal range permits her to rove over the aural landscape in ways that sopranos and contraltos cannot. She shares her range with the similarly extraordinary Enya, and if you’ve ever wondered–in one of your more perverse turns of mind, no doubt–what it would sound like if Enya sang metal, Simone Simons is your answer. Follow this young woman’s career with keen interest.