Label: Nuclear Blast
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
The Dutch symphonic metal band EPICA has never shied away from high-minded subject matter.
The theme of 2014’s “The Quantum Enigma” was “finding out what is reality, what are illusions” based on the physics principle of the title, singer Simone Simons said in a past interview. In expanding on that idea, then, 2016’s “The Holographic Principle” examined a scenario where virtual reality has allowed people to create virtual worlds of their own, where again reality and illusion are hard to distinguish.
Their 8th album, “Omega,” their first in five years and the ending of the trilogy that began with “The Quantum Enigma,” appears at the outset to be just as abstract. Poke around on their website and they cite as a source the Emerald Tablet, an alchemic text dating from between the years 200 and 800. It’s famous for a quote by its supposed author, Hermes Trismegistus (a blending of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian deity Thoth), that’s cited in the bio section:
“That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracle of only one thing.”
Not stuff you read about every day, true. But they note that the songs of “Omega” are ones of “beginnings and endings, of life and death”, not just esoterically speaking, but personally as well (“personal relationships, struggles, battles with depression and anxiety”), that result in “a lesson in empathy and self-empowerment.” So it seems the band has gone from looking outward to looking within.
The album was conceived and written with the band members — Simone, guitarist Isaac Delahaye, guitarist (and harsh vocalist) Mark Jansen, keyboardist Coen Janssen, bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek — cloistered together at a villa in Holland and used pre-Covid recordings of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and children’s choir and ethnic instruments recorded around the world. Suites were written specifically for the orchestra and choir, again according to the website, and indeed their parts mesh perfectly — the choir even acts like a third singer because of the care taken in the placement and incorporating of their contributions.
The Latin words of the intro “Alpha – Anteludium” hint at the overall theme (“the seed of the land”, the beginning, and “the end of the universe”, the end) — it’s lush and sweeping and feels, well, introductory, like the start of a film.
“Abyss Of Time – Countdown To Singularity” (singularity being “a hypothetical moment in time when … technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change”) establishes a pattern used throughout the album to great effect. Mark and Simone alternate lines in the verses, which personify the darkness (him) and the light (her). Even the lines they each sing are in keeping with that (“Replace all thoughts from the abyss”, he growls, “With pure divinity”, she trills; and again later “Replace your darkest emotions” (him), “With pure divinity” (her). When they sing together, it melds those ideas perfectly in lines like “We are rooted deep in the darkness and keep growing towards the light.” The beautifully constructed chorus urges the bettering of oneself (“Search for stillness deep inside”) in the first part and adds the foreshadowing the beginning of the universe idea in the second (“One thought that grows in the abyss of time / Fills up the vast space with matter and life”). Simone’s crystalline voice reprises the final chorus, but with a twist — “Strive for harmony in duality / To revise the book of life” — the theme of the whole album in a single line.
Simone uses metaphor and symbolism to great effect in her lyrics for “The Skeleton Key” — that key unlocks all doors, but here, it’s needed to unlock the door of inner turmoil (“We are the night, we haunt your mind”). The verses are Simone in a hushed, frantic tremble depicting her emotional agony (“A thousand silent voices have been screaming in my mind this night again” and “I am suffocating in a world in which I have to die to feel alive”) undercut by vicious, unforgiving guitar chords. Her chorus is an agonizing plea for deliverance (“Can we find the lightning that shines inside our mind? / Can we fight the dark side we’ve all been trying to hide?”). The bridge uses the choir as dispassionate observer of her inner struggle, and the resolution features it with Mark and Simone in again establishing balance and finding strength within (“With peace of mind / Unlocking all the secrets in me / We harmonize / I carry my own skeleton key”).
“Seal Of Solomon” has a suitably Eastern feel throughout courtesy of an orchestral melody in that very distinctive key. The modulated guitar solo that leads into the final chorus is glorious; Ariën’s blast beats roots things firmly in metal. The seal of the title supposedly gave the legendary king the power to command demons, among other things; here it’s used as a metaphor and has a more personal context — “The key to reveal your Solomon Seal”, that is, to conquer your own demons, unlock the mysteries of yourself. And they really do their research — “The cryptic hexagram” refers to the shape of the ring — they miss nothing. Mark’s verses are urgings to personal responsibility — “Be the one to feel … Dissolve your fear” and so on. Simone serves as the voice of self-confidence, her voice clear and ringing on lines like “We tear membranes all apart”. The choir delivers the chorus and later adds to it by delving into Hindu and Buddhist spiritualism, the call to action at the heart of the song (“Align all your chakras / Converge to regeneration”).
“Gaia” might be the most metal track so far, with a staccato syncopated guitar riff serving as underpinning, the orchestra as spitting punctuation. Simone holds her own with practiced ease; the muscle never overwhelms her nor she it, either. Her lyrics point out our ills in each verse (“We are the devil in disguise / Running away from obligations”) and urge us to change (“Don’t look the other way, fight to live on” and “Don’t tear the world apart / Fight to prolong”). The rich legato chorus admits we’ve lost that personification of Earth (“Gaia, your spirit has left forever”), but still hopes that “It’s never too late / Save our souls /Arise and create”. The bridge has Mark reminding us how much we’ve destroyed, and even as Simone asserts “In the light the darkness cannot hide / Forever in denial”, he persists that we are “Careless ‘till the end”.
“Code Of Life” starts with a purely Eastern/world music instrumental, touches of strings adding propulsion and tension, then barreling into the main orchestral melody, which is really sublime — when the guitars and drums pick that melody up, it becomes one of the best symphonic metal melodies I’ve ever heard. The bridge is a variation of it, adding blast beats; the end breaks down to almost a skeleton of it, with recognizable familiar bits. It’s bonkers good. Simone’s verse lyrics again note our human flaws (“We are all lost in a power maze … “We are the victims of our destination / The drive within is an endless race”) and mourns our rush towards progress, asking “Why are we changing what’s there by creation?” and ”Will we abandon the arms of our dear Mother Nature?”. One could interpret the title as referring to DNA, the “code of life,” so the chorus is asking, “Can we defy the code of life / We try to be divine / It’s the origin of human lies” — we cannot possibly be divine since we are, of course, human. The chorus, however, is definitely divine, sweeping in after the verses like a mighty wave. Simone is firmly in control of her higher register, never strident or harsh; in the final chorus, she transforms to ringingly operatic, her vowels rounded, her sound warming.
The choir firmly establishes itself as that third vocalist in “Freedom – The Wolves Within”, providing not really verses but thematic touchstones, reminders that this is a constant battle, to “Choose / Between hungry wolves / Between lies and truth / Only one of two will be strong and rule” and “Choose … between light and gloom / Only one of two has to starve and lose”. Simone is sort of the cheerleader here (“Abandon fear and ease all your pain” ; “Restore your balance and you’ll be free” and “You can find the truth in you”). Mark in the prechorus is again the dark to her light and again, they play off that, with him saying “Darkness drags you down” and her countering “Step in the light” and again “Sadness drags you down”, he says, but “Retrieve your spark” she replies. The optimistic chorus says that the solution is learning about ourselves (“We’re the gateway to our mystery”), that “The wisdom we gain will abate all the pain so we can rise / To greater heights” and that eventually “Wisdom leads to freedom”.
The 13-plus-minute centerpiece of the album is “Kingdom Of Heaven, Part 3 – The Antediluvian Universe”, a multi-part epic and an extraordinary musical journey through the band’s stylistic repertoire, from the loftiest of orchestration to almost chamber music, to the most brutal of death metal, to completely prog tempo shifts and time signatures that whiz dizzyingly by (as in “Duality”, in which Ariën seriously flexes his muscles in an array of blast beats and other wizardry). It’s also a master class in how to mix tons of moving parts and massive walls of sound so that nothing gets lost or drowned out. Mark says he wrote the first part of “Kingdom” in memory of his late grandmother; “Part II” appeared as the title track on “The Quantum Enigma”. He and Isaac wrote this part together after both of their grandmothers died within a week, he says on the band’s website, and indeed that tragedy informs everything about this track.
They might make a host of enigmatic, arcane references (like a section titled “Halls Of Amenti”, defined as “the realm of the great illusion that is only passable by knowledge, wisdom and complete lack of Karma”, whew!) and ponder big existential questions, but they distill all of it down to sentiments and ideas that are personal and relatable, reassuring and encouraging: “This bright light does shine within you” and “In time we learn to heal the cells / We can cure ourselves” and Simone’s wonderful section “Wise do search as fools emerge / Don’t fear the ones that judge you / All you find they will deny… Look inside, you are divine”. Mark too has changed from cautionary to optimistic: “We all are divided by space / Time / Our duality / We all fall apart in this lifetime” and later, in complete mastery of parallel lyrics “We are all united by nature /Our coherency / We all are a part of each other”. He also points out, perhaps in reference to the track’s origin, “Embrace your final breath / Navigate beyond your death”, that death isn’t an end, just another part of existence.
The understated ”Rivers” (with lyrics by Simone) is a marvel of music and lyrics and singing working in complete harmony, if you will. The music is restrained, beginning and ending with a hushed take on the main piano melody. It builds slightly in each chorus, adding a slight orchestral swell, until the massive solo where the guitar chords command the piano melody. It’s exactly what you want in a composition, that completeness and roundness; it’s so satisfying, so fully realized. The chorus is yet again about that duality (“Fighting in the darkness / Dancing in the light”) and about resisting what threatens to pull you under (“Drowning in the river / Swim against the tide of life”). But what makes the simple sentiment extraordinary is Simone’s voice each time through the chorus — tentative at first, not sure if she can achieve what she has set out for herself. The second time through, you can actually hear her growing in confidence, even though she’s singing the exact same words. The final time, in the prechorus and the chorus, she is triumphant, her voice resonant and joyous. She does the same thing in the verses — her voice is cool at first, almost hopeless, gaining warmth and power and hope (“Holding tight to the ever after / Living for a sign”) and later even a bit of defiance and anger (“The coil in which we’re living / Is no more than a prison / The scheme of life became deranged”). It’s just masterfully constructed.
“Synergize – Manic Manifest” (again with lyrics by Simone) has an idea similar to that of “Rivers”, but with much more authority and insistence, like we need to do these things (“Rise up from the fire, take back all authority / Let go of all that holds you down”) and do them now (“This is the day we begin to break away”). The chorus too is along the same lines, with Mark and the choir stressing “Your time has come / Synergize now”). The verses have an irresistibly metal crunch; the prechorus is erratic — a bit of a 6/8 but not quite — before it settles into the more conventional tempo of the chorus. Their solos are so well thought-out — here, the guitar takes the same groove as the verses before it brightens beautifully; the orchestra then has its own solo that builds on the same melody. Nothing is ever too long or self-indulgent. The end is a fascinating twist, when all quiets to a single flute melody and Simone at her dulcet best. It belies the optimism/confidence of what’s gone before and it’s an intriguing mix of the good (“Light as a feather / All worries gone”) and the not-so (“Lost in mourning / My heart is longing / Living in a paradox of synergy”). Maybe this, too, is that sense of loss after death, having had a connection, a synergy, with someone and now they’re gone.
“Twilight Reverie – The Hypnagogic State” (hypnagogic being the transition from being awake to being asleep) is hinting at those metaphysical revelations that come about just before and after sleep. It hints at the sense of loss in the previous track with lines like “As you beam your rays of light / I feel your presence” and the prechorus “Without seeing you / I will listen for the sound / Without any clue / I’ll have you all around. And again there’s that idea of duality that permeates the album: “Justify the demons in your mind / When they will show no mercy / Justify the angels by their side”, like you have to acknowledge both. As per usual, the orchestra never softens things — the melodies they establish are spectacular (because they are again written specifically for them), but it’s clear everything is rooted in Mark and Isaac’s guitars and Ariën’s drums. Simone uses her operatic range throughout as emphasis on certain pivotal lines only; here, it’s “When you free yourself from darkness”, which is kind of the point of the song. Her spoken section in the bridge is like that moment when you awake, when you remember everything (“The answers emerged”) but forget it just as quickly (“With the pace that they rose, so too did they fade”). Mark’s purpose then is to remind us to hold on to that feeling (“Rest, inhale, recharge yourself with pure rapture”).
The sound of the finale, “Omega – Sovereign Of The Sun Spheres”, conveys as much a sense of finality, of concluding, as the first piece did of introduction — again, songwriting doesn’t get better than this. The first section, “The Omega Point”, is in reference to a theory in which after the Big Bang, “everything swirls together towards one point … where all consciousness comes together into one point of unification.” The lyrics echo that — “We will find out that all roads lead to om .. Life is a labyrinth, find your way home”. The lovely, wide-open chorus, reprised in the final section, “The Apocalypse Of The Illuminated Soul”, in again referencing “day and night”, “dark and light” and “black and white” — “the ends we can’t unite” — is making the point that we should accept both, that they will “Free the way for us to see / That we are dancing in duality”. In fact, the final chorus asserts that it’s those very opposites that will “Reveal the path we can ascend / And spiral towards oneness in the end”. The glorious ending, with the choir and Simone leading the way like a crusading angel, is an optimistic sendoff, a final hopeful message to listeners, a burst of pure joy: “We will last forever / As our essence never dies / Find the deep buried wisdom / As you go on your way/ Open your senses / Reach out and you shall receive”.
What we’ve received with “Omega” is a masterpiece, an album by a band at the height of its power and creativity, fearless and bold, challenging and demanding, but ultimately deeply personal and intimate at its heart. It’s very careful, plotted songwriting, but it never sounds stilted or artificial. It’s so massive, but it’s so moving, and that is a rare balance to achieve.