Epica – The Phantom Agony (2003) – Review

RockmusicRaider Review - Epica - The Phantom Agony - Album CoverAh, I am relieved! Just listening to Epica and their June 2003 debut concoction The Phantom Agony. And I am really taken aback by the quality and depth of this production. What a nice surprise. Especially after just having reviewed their 2014 Little Booklet of Night Horrors The Quantum Enigma, which was kind of out of control. A real pity by the way. Frankly, I really feared to find something very similar in this record.  

Usually I am not too fond of operatic productions. Most of the time too much pretentious bombastic bullshit to keep a straight face with. But this one is really, REALLY good! Well, well – it is agony indeed, unknown torment to my metal soul too! There is such a thing like good and well balanced bombast. Who would have thought that.

The Phantom Agony was created more than 10 years ago. And is pretty good and very mature stuff. Which is even more amazing if you look at the average age of the talent in this band there back in time. I am really positively surprised and impressed! And guys, this puts this band clearly apart from the totally unimpressive bombastic slop most of these Symphonic or Gothic Metal bands produce. Some of them wanting very much to be a friggin’ opera and completely missing the point.

Mark Jansen founded Epica some time after his departure from After Forever, which – so I understand – did not go too smoothly. To top it, this is Epica‘s very first studio album ever. And to get such quality from a band the first time around is frankly surprising. Clearly a tribute to the very significant talent that was present then and still is assembled in this band.

The style is refreshing, well thought through and innovative. And it is of the surprising quality I like my music to be in. Some of my co-reviewers opine that there are no surprises, all kind of a repeat of the former After Forever style and direction. Whilst there are some similarities, I still disagree. The whole friggin’ genre kind of sounds similar and THAT is why you always need to look for this ounce of surprise in their tune. It is fucking easy to put a female front on top of a few musicians and then start banging away. The terrible SAVN can attest to that. Good grief!!

But in case of Epica this is not the case. For sure not for this record. And truly, there are now crunchy, creepy-crawly changes in direction and mindset. But again true to their tune, this is not bad at all. And mind you, I usually do not like classically tainted shit too much. Also, I am not a fan of sopranos (okay, mezzo-soprano for Ms. Simons) in metal. So this is almost beyond the limit of what I am usually willing to endure. But here our Dutch friends of Epica created something of … epic proportions. It is just simply good, not too bombastic as some of their later followers managed to produce, but well balanced. 

On the negative side of the equation The Phantom Agony sports these embarrassingly weak growls. Those join the the fray from time to time and just do no good. Then there is an almost complete absence of good, exciting riffs and – Loki forbid – solos. In truth, those should bowl us around our well-rounded music universe some, like some goldfish on steroids. The record also boasts a trifle too much operatic involvement. Too much focus on the choir and classical instruments, whereas I would have wished to get a better metal taste to things at times.

However I must say, it is the overall delivery that is pleasant and nice to listen to. To top it, they released a few stellar videos not only featuring the lead Simone Simons and band, but also the beautiful Amanda Somerville of Trillium as a background singer (watch out, there are two different Trillium’s around). I understand Amanda got married back in 2014 – am I jealous or what? And yes, Simone, I love you, too, no worries!

But back to the business at hand: The freshness of this here record blows their latest concoction The Quantum Enigma (the overdone turkey one) of 2014 straight out of the water, no contest there. 

A lot of thought also went into the lyrics, dealing with issues that were on the menu back in the early Y2K – September 11, manipulations in religion – you name it, most of which still of increasing actuality today. The slow ballad Run for a Fall is – so the story goes – a vicious sidekick towards Floor Jansen‘(then After Forever, now Nightwish). Mark and Floor made up again later and she ended up singing some lyrics on Mark’s ‘MaYan‘ project.

Cry for the Moon and The Phantom Agony are just stellar tracks, expertly delivered, very well executed. I like Seif al Din (the sword of faith) for the simple fact that they change to oriental style, but still wonder which one of the many Sayfs (LOL- get my drift..) they make allusion to. Or do they just lament blind adherence to religious faith? Too much intellectual context there. Not clear enough, gang, this ain’t working for the mainstream. You gotta get simpler to be understood. Triumph of Defeat is very good too. I am listening to the Expanded Edition, by the way that was released in 2013.

The Phantom Agony is a complex production and is not very easily digestible. Pretty heavy throughout, you need to get yourself into the groove, listen to it a few (I mean many) times to get somewhere with this. But once you do, this is a great record to listen to. Real depth to what they did back then. Very complex and well (almost too well) thought through and with a lot of lateral width to boot. It is almost as if a few very intelligent, but out of control student thinkers produced something that is almost too complex for people to take on board easily. Apart from very alluring melodies and stellar quality delivery of the tunes. As a debut album goes, I would say this is really very good indeed. To say the least.

*****

Record Rating: 9/10 | Label: Transmission Records | Web: Official Site

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