Epica - Design Your Universe (Nuclear Blast/Riot)

Imagine if there was a power metal version of Dave Mustaine, except he was a she and that she wasn't ugly. Well, it's worth thinking about as the beautiful, flame-haired Simone Simons voice takes flight on what will be considered Epica's breakthrough album.

I’m always torn about Epica; in their early days I considered them to be an ego-driven After Forever rip-off, treading the line between gothic and power metal with more emphasis on “beating” After Forever at their own game, ever since the acrimonious departure of Epica founder Mark Jansen. Featuring the delicate voice of mezzo-soprano Simone Simons who trades vibratos with Jansen’s growls, Epica has regrettably seemed a bit run-of-the-mill in lieu of their potential. But as unlikely as it seems, the Megadeth of gothic power metal has driven its Metallica into oblivion with Design Your Universe.

They are definitely ramping up their craft on this record; much like Kamelot or Vanden Plas have done in recent times, they take everything - orchestral instruments, riffs, melodies, rhythms - to grandiose heights. Martyr of the Free Word pummels through with machine-gun like riffs, flailing double blasts and exotic, Middle Eastern-inspired melodies. Likewise, Epica aren’t averse to flirting with progressive mellotron tones and timbres that are reminiscent of Opeth, or slow, mysterious passages that are heard in the sprawling opus Kingdom of Heaven - clocking in at thirteen epic minutes.

There’s nothing small or self-contained about this disc; the instruments fill out their sound; it’s just huge in every facet of its conception and execution thanks to Sacha Paeth's (Edguy, Kamelot, Angra) resplendent production effort. They no longer sound like the cheap soundtrack to a Japanese RPG; they sound like a fully-fledged metal band that demands attention.

Cuts like the immaculately presented headbanger Burn to a Cinder storm through some of the disc's obligatory acoustic-driven cheese moments - as is any power metal fan’s wont; Tony Kakko  even makes a duet appearance on sopfest White Waters. Everything about this album seems meticulous and purposeful; their talents adroitly impart an extravagant, Andrew Lloyd Webber opera-like quality to the string-lined ballad Tides of Time, flaunting Simon’s appreciable range and tenor.

The closer acts as a summary for the entire disc; it’s a condensed slab of contrast; heavy and light; plugged and acoustic; Western and Eastern; clean and growled; all in one tightly bound package. Epica have really proved their worth as a premier symphonic power metal act while others have seemingly declined – Design Your Universe is a definite triumph.

Epica's Design Your Universe is out now on Nuclear Blast/Riot. Get your copy here, on CD, digipack, or vinyl.