How often do you hear the words “symphonic metal band” and “quantum physics” in the same sentence? According to guitarist and lead screamer Mark Jensen, Epica’s musical goal in Design Your Universe is to bring this unlikely combination together in an attempt to show that every person is connected on a “subatomic level.” Ok, add “subatomic level” to the list of big phrases as well. Although their overall message sounds rather bombastic, the album manages to deliver the unique blend of dynamic choir and high-intensity sounds that Epica fans have grown to love.
For the unacquainted, Epica’s music straddles the lines of several different musical styles. As a symphonic metal band, the death grunts and indistinguishable shouts are more subdued than pure heavy metal. The high-intensity metallic sounds flirt with both progressive rock and show tunes, helmed by female lead singer Simone Simons. The result is best described as metal for people who don’t like metal. Those who like their music loud and fast-paced yet get scared away by death grunts and insane shouting.
Speaking of shouting, a constant nitpick by the metal outsiders who like Epica is the death grunts provided by Jensen. Although present in several tracks, the grunts never take central focus, and those critics must once again ask themselves: can any other band possibly hope to integrate such diverse styles as opera and metal as well as Epica? Consider the shouting level higher than the grunt-subdued album Cosign to Oblivion yet less than the grunt-heavy Divine Conspiracy.
In an attempt to further distance Epica from being pigeonholed into a single musical style, Design Your Universe includes lengthy rock & roll guitar solos, a first for the band. However a newcomer would not think this new. The solos blend in well so well with Epica’s music; one would think the rockin’ riffs have been a part of their melting pot of musical medley all along.
Despite her recent medical problems, Simone Simons’ voice continues to handle the pop and operatic vocals well, with several powerful songs like the back to back “Resign to Surrender” and “Unleashed” joining forces with slower tunes like “Tides of Time” and “White Waters.” Simons again proves capable of handling any tempo thrown at her.
As for the “human connection” theme, the connections Jensen promises are buried within the deep lyrics if one wishes to go searching for them. However it is far too easy to get lost in the fast music and harmonious sounds of Simon’s voice. The repeat listener will be highly rewarded with finding new meaning behind each song with each successive listen.
Sometimes the human connection angle becomes a moral statement instead. Is “Martyr of the Free Word” supposed to be about bringing people together through speech, or general support for the idea of free speech itself? Who cares? It’s far more entertaining to get lost in the sound of Simone Simon’s angelic voice, accompanied by a majestic choir.