Well, is it better than the other records or is it not? After Consign to Oblivion I grew a bit wary of what I was going to find in this Pandora’s box that this band usually delivers. Much to my relief, Epica‘s fourth studio album Design Your Universe is probably one of the better records – previous and past. It kind of sounds like a mix between Delain, Within Temptation and Nightwish fueled by top quality vitamins. They actually quite shamelessly erred on the latter’s territory.
But seriously, this is probably one of the most authentic and complex albums this side of The Phantom Agony. Even if the cheese has grown exponentially in some of the tracks. And as is custom, Epica – or more their fearless leader Mark Jansen – have again chosen a difficult and almost scientific target of desire, which is how things connect together in sub-atomic way of thinking, no less. Oh my…!
Design Your Universe generally comes across as very refreshing!
The super-cute Simone Simons is at her best behavior. This time also varying her voice a little better, not just trying to be an opera singer in disguise. And the band sorely needs this red-headed talent. She – for sure – pulls this band waggon through pretty well on her own. Even using guest performers: Sonata Arctica lead Tony Kakko features in White Waters, “ballading” away together with Simone. One of the more magical moments in this album.
Another positive point: Whilst still very prevalent, Epica kept the choir plague somewhat at bay this time, and I am glad. Some of the stuff they produced earlier and later just sounds like the atrocious contest of choirs we had the displeasure to be presented with on television. Amanda Somerville again plays a role in Design Your Universe as a background singer. And joining Simone on Unleashed in the duet version of this song (plus a few other roles as vocal coach and such).
Also, the croaking about the soundscape improved much to my relief. Not overwhelmingly used like in Consign to Oblivion, but well spaced and positioned. AND the guitar work largely improved too. Much more energy and oomph in there, even sprinkling a few solos into the fray – what a surprise. This thanks to Isaac Delahaye, the new lead guitar. Good stuff!
Solos are found in Martyr of the Free Word, but alas probably the worst and ugliest one I have heard in my life. So, no! They need to go to school with Arch Enemy. But then, there is light on the horizon. After Thor’s cheesy appearance speaking to Loki or something in that direction (good grief…) in Kingdom of Heaven: A New Age Dawns, Part V – Hold In Derision/Children (yep, that is the name, a mouthful I know, sorry). Exactly, after that one they actually produce a better solo – short, but good. So, not all hope lost.
The good is however co-existing with a lot of bad and ugly.
For starters, Epica put too much emphasis on the epic delivery and bombast. And the drums – the ubiquitous, fucking drums – have a tiring tendency to pound you to dust after a while and lead you to forget about the sometimes strikingly beautiful music. What did they give Ariën van Weesenbeek – the new drummer – to drink during recording? A major, sad setback in this record. I wonder why they did not pick this up during production.
On the other hand, Design Your Universe is generally very well produced for the rest. Almost too well – like its 2014 successor to follow later in time, less the overdone turkey part perhaps. But the record is dangerously close to overproduction. Thanks to the things you can do with modern recording technology! The danger here is overloading your music with needless elements transforming your tune into a mess. Luckily, this did not happen – or not quite. There are passages when compression gets so far out of hand that Simone almost drowns in the frantic bleating of a legion of instruments all around her.
But in the end, this is good stuff. Not stellar, but good. Exquisite complexity and perfect production of thoughtful Symphonic Metal of the Gothic kind. No track is alike, surprises at every turn of this windy road this album represents. The best track is actually Design the Universe (the title song) at the very end. Go figure! But I still love that one by the way. If only the drums would not have been so overwhelmingly present all along the record to almost knock me sideways all the time, I would have given this album an additional star.
[Editorial note: The review made it successfully onto the first ever Intermittent Best Of of the RockmusicRaider blog. Congrats!]