By Adrien Begrand
Permit me to say straight off that when it comes to the gaudy, overblown strains of symphonic metal, I tend to be a little more sympathetic than your average writer. There’s nothing wrong with operatic, orchestral metal music; it’s merely one of the many ways heavy music can sound bombastic and larger than life, and when it’s done capably, as a band like Therion has continually proven, that blend of metal and classical can often be revelatory. And although they struggled with consistency on their first three studio albums, Epica had shown enough promise to make many people, including yours truly, believe they can eventually rank among the genre’s leaders.
Note, dear reader, the use of the word “had”. Epica’s fourth full-length Design Your Universe was the perfect opportunity for the Dutch band to make some serious artistic and commercial strides, but what we’re stuck with is a record that tries so hard to impress that its blind ambition completely gets in the way of tasteful songwriting. Although singer Simone Simons sounds her best on record to date, often incorporating more of a “rock vocal” style to offset her usual mezzo soprano arias, the rest of the band is often so preoccupied making nearly every track so labyrinthine and EPIC that everyone quickly loses sight of the forest for all the trees. There are positives, though: “Resign to Surrender” is the hookiest of the album’s lengthy neoclassical cuts, “Unleashed” and “White Waters” are a couple of solid showcases for Simons’ more pop-oriented interests, and “Burn to a Cinder” is a very good slice of mid-tempo power metal reminiscent of Iced Earth. Unfortunately, the rest of the record is bogged down in a tar pit of overblown string synths, choirs, unnecessary death growls, awkward political commentary, and narrators, the whole shebang culminating on the obviously sincere but hopelessly inept 13 and a half minute centerpiece “Kingdom of Heaven”. When you have your drummer pretending to be the voice of God (yielding the album’s most unintentionally comical moment: “It’s not your time / You have to go back…back! Now!“), you ought to know you’ve taken things much too far.