Epica’s The Quantum Enigma is the type of album that would soundtrack the Book of Revelation. The thrashing metal of Hell marches forward through its symphonic epics to the cadence of double-bass drums. Their shred-guitar onslaughts are met on the field of battle by angelic choirs backed by a battery of strings. Its an operatic battle, one that tries to live up to Epica’s namesake.
In many of the most literary and literal ways, The Quantum Enigma lives up to implied epicness. The listener is introduced to Quantum Enigma’s world via Latin chants and a symphonic theme that flows between blissful string dances and ominous bombast. Titled “Originem,” it sounds like a prophesying prologue to Epica’s symphonic metal epic.
The transition into metal is pretty abrupt; “Originem”’s symphonies are suddenly matched by thrash-happy guitar riffs and furious double-bass drums in the following track “The Second Stone.” The guitars roar alongside the symphony, slowing down in operatic choruses and shredding along with choral breakdowns. Simone Simons sings the story of a mentally estranged protagonist, her classically-trained voice begging for some kind of relief and recognition alongside the choirs before the deep groans of guitarist Mark Jensen take over in a scorching finale.
The majority of the album plays out like this, following Simons’s disheartened protagonist as she makes sense of her world. Simons and Jensen trade off the vocals with the members of the Dutch Kamerkoor PA’dam (the choir backing the album), while batteries of drums and volatile guitar solos weave through the not-so-subtle orchestral onslaughts of Epica’s Sandlane String Session. The sounds are large, shifting between intense metal attacks and lifting symphonic strokes before coming together in dramatic climaxes featuring all-of-the-above.
For the most part, everything is well executed; by the time the album reaches closer/climax “The Quantum Enigma,” a grand story had been told through Simons’s operas and Jensen’s grueling thrash metal breakdowns. The orchestra never misses a beat, the choir delivers its grandeur, and the guitars and drums only add to it with their inherent machine gun intensity.
Yet, The Quantum Enigma, with all of its big ideas and big sounds, doesn’t seem to stand out against the well-exercised genre that is symphonic metal. Epica is clearly a band that’s talented at what it does, but so much of it relies on symphonic metal tropes: the female singer belts her vocals against a guitar player’s rasp, scattered shred-guitar solos are thrown in and metal hooks are echoed by choirs. That’s why the small film-score breaks like the oriental-inspired “The Fifth Guardian (Interlude)” are so welcome; they breath without the rehearsed intensity of metal. They give the listener a break before he or she descends once more into the perpetual battle between metal and classical.
That isn’t to say The Quantum Enigma is an album for overlooking. The story is universal, and the way Epica’s mastered symphonic metal’s epic storytelling over the years is definitely remarkable in its own right. It doesn’t break the ground its battles are fought on, but it fills that battleground with formidable combatants. Whether it’s “Reverence’s” blazing guitar/organ solos or the melodic powerhouse of lead single “Union Utopia,” Epica has a solid arsenal of songs to field. Their symphonies are grand, their breakdowns are dynamic, and their work just shy of truly epic.
For me there is nothing better in the world of music than a song, album, or anything for that matter that can flawlessly weave together classical music and heavy metal influenced guitars, drums, etc. Take Metallica’s 1999 album S&M (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the album it features Metallica performing live with the San Francisco Symphony). S&M mixed the orchestration and rock music so well that one of the songs, “The Call of the Ktulu,” won a Grammy. Another testament to my love of metal with classical elements is Dream Theater’s self-titled album which I gave an 11/11 last year. One band that doesn’t get as much credit for their work in the same field is Dutch band Epica.
I first heard about Epica when I was researching music in the sub-genre discussed above for my Dream Theater review. This search led me to their album The Classical Conspiracy that was released back in 2009. That album took some classical pieces and some more recent movie compositions and injected metal into the mix. The album was phenomenal, especially its version of Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean Medley.” Naturally, I was excited when I saw that they were releasing a new album entitled The Quantum Enigma.
The album kicks off with a song that bears quite a resemblance to many other songs; most noticeable is Kamelot’s “Leaving to Soon.” The next song “The Second Stone” has some fantastic guitar riffs and good orchestration but seems to fall a bit flat in the vocals. My favorite song on the album is lead single “The Essence of Silence,” which has fantastic choir compositions and great instrumentation throughout.
The album excels in all aspects of instrumentation, from fast drum pieces to horns and violins. The major downfall of the album is its length; at an hour and fifteen minutes the album drags on a bit, and the lead vocals (which at the beginning of the listen are artistically crafted) become a bit of a head ache. Also, the slower pieces in the album are just not as good as the ones that really shred and show off the band’s expert skills. Another plus that you don’t get out of many other hard rock albums is fantastic lyricism that has an underlying meaning that can get pretty deep in some places (like title song “The Quantum Enigma- Kingdom of Heaven part II”). Overall the positives of the album really outweigh the few negatives, though I would recommend only listening to a few songs at a time because it truly is a marathon to get through the album.
The Quantum Enigma is out now on Nuclear Blast.