It surely is interesting to see how the Dutch bands, which had been so numerous within the Symphonic/Gothic genre a few years back, have evolved in such very different ways. While AFTER FOREVER had taken a dip into a bit more progressive and a little more electronic tinged waters, WITHIN TEMPTATION gave in to the full bombast and AUTUMN surrendered most of their heaviness for a quite basic and drier sound. Out of the four probably best known bands of this style, this leaves EPICA, who I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with, I love “The Phantom Agony”, then the two following “Consign To Oblivion” and “The Score-An Epic Journey” completely passed me by unnoticed, so that I am having a hard time to put their fourth full-length “The Divine Conspiracy” into the right context, but one thing I can say is that I love it even more than their debut!
Now I am a sucker for the Symphonic Metal genre, especially if it has dynamics, different vocal styles, bombast, gripping melodies and all these things and the Dutch band fully embraces this, almost to the point, where I could see some people complain about them going over the top, but the sheer grandeur of what we get here makes me shove these naysayers aside, showing the sextet from Limburg at their best. “The Obsessive Devotion” showcases this in perfect manner, fast, dynamic, bombastic and symphonic, with mostly angelic voices and some accentuating harsh growls and choirs thrown in, before “Menace Of Vanity” steps things up even more and speeds things up even more.
The strength of EPICA, though, is to combine emotional passages, huge orchestration and heaviness into a cohesive whole that will not fall off either side, but manages to balance on the narrow ledge between kitsch and class, while staying true to their roots. Just take the juxtaposition of the first three songs, with “The Obsessive Devotion” standing for orchestration, “Menace Of Vanity” for heaviness and “Chasing The Dragon” for emotions (it is a truly wonderful ballad until after three and a half minutes we get a few light growls and some more orchestration, before towards the end we get some ferocious blastbeat passages followed by a quiet, orchestral break, so technically this song combines all three cornerstones of EPICA), and you have an idea what to expect. And that’s not all, because of course we get the continuation of the “The Embrace That Smothers” saga, “The Divine Conspiracy” contains the part 7 through 9 and man, does especially “Death Of A Dream” smoke and Simone’s vocal performance on “Fools Of Damnation” is just outstanding, and don’t even get me started on the almost 14-minute title track at the end!
The only downfall of some songs are the blastbeat sections, which are clearly Black Metal influenced and while probably used to loosen things up and maybe even serve a purpose, the disrupt the flow of the songs, which are so meticulously built up and arranged, so often based on harmony and flowing structure, but that is the only real complaint, as the production gives the compositions the full volume and clarity, as it deserves.
When it comes to this kind of Symphonic Metal (which is a very broad genre anyways, as you can dump VIRGIN BLACK, THERION, EPICA and NIGHTWISH into the same category here), “The Divine Conspiracy” probably is as good as it comes in 2007!
(Online December 28, 2007)