(2016) Epica: The Holographic Principle

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Artist: Epica
Album: The Holographic Principle
Release: 30.09.2016
Label: Nuclear Blast

 

There can be no denying that Epica has a huge fanbase, nor that they deserve it. With their bombastic sound, strong vocalists, talented instrumentalists, and complex song construction, there is no wonder that these guys are as popular as they are. The Holographic Principle, the title of their latest album, relates to “… a property of string theories and a supposed property of quantum gravity that states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a lower-dimensional boundary to the region—preferably a light-like boundary like a gravitational horizon.” [Thanks, Wikipedia!] It seems that science is a popular theme in the metal scene these days, no?

Disclaimer: This album became available to me only a few short days before the release, so there was no time for me to do a proper, comprehensive review. However, Epica has always intrigued me without ever truly blowing my mind the way they have for many, many others, and in spite of not considering myself a big fan, I have always been very impressed by their songwriting and live performances, and they have been growing on me in the years since Design Your Universe (2009). I always give their new albums a few runs to see if anything sticks, and so I wanted to give this one a listen as well. However, with this in mind, I won’t be granting this album an ‘official’ score because I only had the chance to listen to it once and didn’t get a chance to let it grow on me. Don’t worry though – I have plenty to say.

Hear the album in full here:

 

1. Eidola
One thing I’ve always liked about Epica is their ability to write fantastic intro songs, if/when they choose to do so. “Eidola” is one of such songs, sounding like exactly the kind of kickass movie score that I want to hear in an intro. It starts off with that movie trailer note, repeating. You know, the ‘evil note’ that was overused in Inception? It lightens up to some light and pretty Gothic-type music with some haunting and creepy child-like vocals, and then builds up very nicely with the regular choir. That choir sounds very typically Epica. Off to a good start!

2. Edge of the Blade
The transition between “Eidola” and “Edge of the Blade” is unfortunately not particularly smooth. This is the one song I’d heard once or twice beforehand and it has one aspect of Epica songs that I don’t like, followed by pretty much everything I do like. That thing that I don’t like is that they do too much too soon. You’ve probably heard this song, and the thing I’m referring to is the extremely dynamic music coupled with epic choirs right off the bat. To me, this has always been overwhelming when it happens so immediately. If this song had followed a more gentle build-up, or had left the choirs to the end, I would give this song a full score, because I like everything else about it, including the strong performance by Mark Jansen on growls, and particularly Simon Simons, who I have always appreciated but not always found to be used to her potential, often overusing the operatics or under-using her regular vocals. When that choir returns after 4 minutes have passed, it’s in the perfect place and that would have been enough. I just wish it hadn’t been included at the beginning.

Check out the music video here:

3. A Phantasmic Parade
“A Phantasmic Parade” has… not exactly a tip-toeing intro, but however you would describe it, I like it. I wondered immediately if there was a guest vocalist harmonizing with Simons in this track, or if both voices belonged to the same person. I wasn’t able to learn more from the promotional material, so I guess I’ll have to wait to find out after the album is released. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a harmony that sounds like two different people (that are likely the same person) and I’m quite fascinated by it. This is a very strong, energetic song, and it’s unique. I like when Epica gets epic (bad joke not intended) and this song is impressing me without overwhelming me, even though there is a lot going on. It rides the edge of being too much without quite going over it.

4. Universal Death Squad
You’ve probably heard this one before, but I hadn’t. “Universal Death Squad” starts out with a beautiful, gentle string and piano intro that is extremely reminiscent to the Avatar: The Legend of Korra ending credits music (check it out here), but immediately picks up and gets heavy and twisted. There’s a definite Oriental influence in this song, which I like, but on this occasion I do think there’s a bit too much going on – it starts gentle and then kicks off just a bit too hard before finding its rhythm. I think the oldschool Epica fans will be okay with it though, because we’re also seeing the higher side of Simons’ vocals on this one. Someone is again harmonizing with Simons in this song, though on this occasion I’m fairly certain she’s doing her own backing vocals. Jansen again shows his strength as a vocalist – this is beauty and the beast singing at its finest. As well, nice soloing, whichever guitarist that was!

Lyric video here:

5. Divide and Conquer
“Divide and Conquer” as a nice build-up at the beginning, which sounds very movie/game score-y again, particularly with the shots fired and shouting voices in the beginning. I would love to see these guys contribute to a soundtrack someday, as they really know how to write this sort of adrenaline-rush instrumental music. It takes a totally different turn just after the 1 minute mark though, ceasing the score sound almost immediately and switching back to heavy metal, with Jansen and Simons trading vocals with ease. I might have kept the intro to this song separate as an interlude, because it feels quite different from the song itself. The mellow drum beat that accompanies the slower chorus might, in other scenarios, be considered dull, but in this setting it actually works well as a breather in yet another strong, dynamic, and energetic song. If there’s an eastern influence in this one, I’d associate it a bit with traditional Egyptian sounds, though I couldn’t say for sure. We also get one of those verbal collages of what sounds like news clips toward the end. With this one clocking in at over 7 minutes, it could be time for a breather any minute now…

6. Beyond the Matrix
Nope, not yet. “Beyond the Matrix” is certainly slower, but still very upbeat, again with the choirs opening the song. You know, when they do that, I think the reason it feels overwhelming to me is because every song feels like the climax of a dramatic arc. This song is no exception. Parts of it feel like the grand apex of a great story, or the epic finale of a stage show, and then blend fairly seamlessly into the rest of the song. This has a truly beautiful interlude nearly 4 minutes in, which is a welcome change of pace, and moves smoothly into a growling segment by Jansen and a very progressive bit of riffing. Very, very, very strong close to this one.

7. Once Upon a Nightmare
The violin parts and ominous without being creepy intro to “Once Upon a Nightmare” immediately appeal to me. The prolonged slow intro to this is perfect, giving me the break I needed. The gentle build up feels vaguely like it might have been written by Howard Shore and again gives the impression of score-writing mastery. The singing begins after 2 minutes and I’m again somewhat wishing the intro had been an instrumental interlude, though this one has far less of a stylistic change than “Divide and Conquer.” This track is the ballad that I had been waiting for, and ballads have always, in my opinion, been one of Epica’s strong suits. However, these guys can’t leave things simple, because this song too builds up to a grand and epic climax with choirs and guitars and I feel like I am seeing some heavenly light breaking through… something dark? Gloomy ruins, a devastating war… could be anything. Okay, this song is great, but these guys have had this entire album cranked up to full power for seven songs straight, and these are long songs, often well over 6 minutes in length. This song didn’t need to go power epic in the end, not that it suffers for it, but the album as a whole could’ve used a proper break at this point.

8. The Cosmic Algorithm
“The Cosmic Algorithm” has a bit of an oldschool Epica feel to me when it kicks off – heavy beat and operatic choirs, perhaps more so than any other song so far. It’s a good thing that Isaac Delahaye and Mark Jansen know their way around their instruments, because the guitars certainly keep things lively and from stagnating. Also, I’m not sure if it’s Coen Janssen or the whole group or who writes their orchestrations, but they held nothing back on this album. I’ll give some props to Ariën van Weesenbeek on drums for… well, I don’t know what the technical term is, but the fast runs. The drumming is immaculate. Fans of heavier or older Epica may like this one quite a lot.

9. Ascension – Dream State Armageddon
The next track has a rather creepy intro, reminding me of some sort of sci-fi horror music, interrupted by heavy drums and guitars. When the song officially blasts off, it becomes one of the heaviest and darkest things from Epica that has ever registered on my radar. Some of Jansen’s most brutal vocals on the album are heard in this track, reaching nearly into black metal sounds. Some three quarters of the way through it almost gets a hint of a haunted house vibe. Pretty diverse overall.

10. Dancing in a Hurricane
We get another all-new folk influence here, with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor. This song feels quite different to the rest of the album so far, as there’s still a lot going on, but it’s taking its time and not going overboard in the beginning. I actually really enjoy the music (I won’t try to label it for fear of sounding culturally ignorant), but this is definitely the wild card on the album and easily one of my immediate favorites. Of course, it is still an Epica song, so it continues building up and begins its apex nearly halfway through. I don’t have the lyrics, but I’m suspecting some form of political commentary in here. I don’t know if this song needs the full metal symphonics and operatics that it eventually turns into, as they all do, because I was appreciating this song for its originality and authentic eastern feel. This was one of the most original and folky things I’ve heard Epica do, but it ultimately becomes just like every other Epica song in the end. I’m undecided on how I feel about it, because it’s still probably one of my favorites on the album, and sounding like every other Epica song isn’t exactly an insult.

11. Tear Down Your Walls
“Tear Down Your Walls” at track eleven brings us near to the end, and this song immediately gets my attention by quickly heading into a marching beat, which I am notorious for loving. Yet another song that has a ton going on, we hear many different levels of Simons’ vocals. At this point, I’m running out of things to say without repeating myself. Nice track – very powerful. Let’s move on.

12. The Holographic Principle – A Profound Understanding of Reality
Monk chants or gospel choirs? Tough to be sure which the opening vocals to the title track are leaning towards. This is the album’s epic, in spite of the fact that you could call nearly every song on this album an epic. However, I suspect we’re going to get a more drawn out piece of art here, and the piano and strings do not disappoint. I might have stronger positive feelings for Epica if they didn’t use choirs so much. I mean, 4.5 minutes through this song, we already reach a point that musically feels like the finale and closing scene, but then we just move on to some solos and the song continues. More awesome score-type music, more hard-hitting heavy metal, more awesome symphonics… a straight-up prog part that goes full-on Dream Theater toward the end that I’m totally into, and then eventually closes out rather abruptly with zero fade-out. Epic indeed.

 

And so, like many Epica albums in the past, I enjoyed this album thoroughly on listening to it, but it’s so epic and vast and grand that I find myself, once again, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it. I actually had a mild physical sense of anxiety throughout, though not in a bad way. It’s a crazy bombastic album and really strong on all fronts – vocally, instrumentally, everything. Truly, for a band called ‘Epica’, they are living up to the promises their name implies.

However, while every song manages to be extremely dynamic in its own way, with every song turned up to 11 or higher, the album as a whole doesn’t feel dynamic – it is consistently and unchangingly at 11. I’d love to see these guys turn it down to 8 or 9 sometime and instead of pumping everything into every song (“Martyr of the Free Word” from Design Your Universe is a good example of what I mean), put some things into one song and other things into another song. It seems like they have a formula with which they write their music – one that is tried and true. I would have been interested to know what themes the album covers lyrically, and as well, I’m curious which tracks they’ll pick for the live shows, though unfortunately I won’t be able to catch their upcoming Helsinki gig.

Overall, for the people who are into this sort of massive powerful super-music, I think you’ll likely be very happy with the album, and I would be doing the band a disservice if I awarded this anything lower than a 9/10, because the construction of every song is incredible. I mean, come on, I wrote that much after listening to it once? If I had reviewed this properly it would’ve been so long no one would have wanted to read it. That said, don’t put too much thought into my score because I only listened through once.

Tracklist:
1. Eidola
2. Edge of the Blade
3. A Phantasmic Parade
4. Universal Death Squad
5. Divide and Conquer
6. Beyond the Matrix
7. Once Upon a Nightmare
8. The Cosmic Algorithm
9. Ascension – Dream State Armageddon
10. Dancing in a Hurricane
11. Tear Down Your Walls
12. The Holographic Principle – A Profound Understanding of Reality

Text: Amy Wiseman | Photos: Epica The Holographic Principle promotional photos, 2016, by Tim Tronckoe

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