Epica | The Phantom Agony

progressive metal with operatic vocals

album review and artist reflections







review, interview and HTML © Russell W. Elliot 2004
all images © Transmission Records 2003-2004
used with permission
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Last updated: 02 March 2004
Epica The Phantom Agony Title
image © Transmission Records 2003
click on image to visit artists' website

Musical Discoveries' readers will be familiar with the progressive metal sounds of Nightwish (reviews), Within Temptation (reviews), and After Forever (reviews) to name a few. These northern European bands rich orchestral arrangements, roaring guitar excursions, lush keyboards and the fabulous soprano vocals of Tarja Turunen, Sharon den Adel and Floor Jansen--all previously interviewed at Musical Discoveries--respectively.

Our colleagues at Transmission Records, the home of After Forever, recently introduced our editorial staff to a project called Aina, a rock opera featuring a broad array of artists. They also introduced us to Epica whose debut stunning album The Phantom Agony and two associated EPs are gathering tremendous momentum in Europe. Our visitors will be interested in reading our forthcoming review of the Aina project and an interview with lyricist and songwriter Amanda Sommerville soon. Epica's debut album shares production credits with Aina's Sascha Paeth. Epica's vocalist Simone Simons also provides a guest appearance on the Aina project.

Epica was formed by Mark Jansen after his departure of After Forever. Mark took some of the traditional After Forever feel and sound and built upon it with cinematic and choral textures and in lead vocalist Simone Simons, created a tremendous sound that some will find a cross between Nightwish and After Forever. Read more about the story and the foundations of Epica in our interview with Mark and Simone. Yves Huts (bass) also contributes to our interview.

We review the band's debut album The Phantom Agony and remark on the various bonus tracks from their first two EPs "The Phantom Agony" and "Feint." A third EP from the album entitled "Cry For The Moon" with further edits of the debut album's tracks "Cry For The Moon and "Run For A Fall" is due to dealers on 01 April 2004. The limited edition of Epica's album comes in a well-illustrated book, identical in construction to After Forever's limited editions of "Extortium" and the Aina album Days Of Rising Doom

Epica is fronted by the stunning Simone Simons (lead vocals, mezzo soprano) and the lineup is completed by Mark Jansen (guitars, grunts and screams), Ad Sluigter (guiars), Goen Janssen (snyths and piano), Yves Huts (bass) and Jeroen Simons (drums and percussion). The band features guest appearances from the Epica orchestra and Epica Choir (see website for details) with Amanda Sommerville (soprano). A complete band history is available at Epica's official website. There visitors can also find mp3 samples and a vast array of photographs as well as individual band member biographies. Those looking to make comparisons will find Simone's vocal textures to be closest in similarity to Tarja Turunen of Nightwish.

Reviews

Epica The Phantom Agony
image © Transmission Records 2003
click on image to visit artists' website
 

The Album. The limited edition of The Phantom Agony (Transmission (Netherlands) TME-035), 2003) is a beautifully bound full color book illustrating various themes to accompany the nine-track recording. An introduction by music journalist Robert Haagsma introduces the band immediately following a lovely photograph of Simone. The choir performs the brief Adyta ["The Neverending Embrace - Prelude] sung in latin. Simone takes over the lead in the fast-paced rocker "Sensorium" accompanied by rich keyboard, vast guitar riffs and powerful percussion. Jansen's occasional grunt reminds listeners despite the orchestral and choir passages that this is after all a metal album.

Simone's wistful vocalise opens the epic track "Cry For The Moon" [The Embrace that Smothers - Part IV] atop orchestral rich and cinematic arrangements. The lush harmonies of the choir join in the anthemic chorus between Simone's powerful vocals in the verses. Metal-edged instrumentation increases as the tension in the track develops further before Jansen's grunts take the lead atop heavy guitar riffs. The orchestral ballad "Feint" follows. Sung brilliantly by Simone, the choir provides lovely backing harmonies while keyboards provide a symphonic backdrop with guitars building tension as the track develops.

A theme that runs through the album is "The Embrace that Smothers" with Part IV being "Cry For The Moon," Part V being "Fašade of Reality" and Part VI being "Seif al Din." We were wondering what happened to Parts I, II and III. That said, "Illusive Consensus" is a rapid-paced Nightwish-style track with Simone's driving lead supported by dramatic alterations of arrangement and rich choir parts. Memorable not only for the melody but the metal guitar (in spots Edenbridge-style) and percussion riffs, the orchestral keyboards provide a perfect balance.

  Epica The Phantom Agony EP
image © Transmission Records 2003
click on image to visit artists' website

"Fašade Of Reality" blends the rapid pace of metal-edged percussion with lush choirs and orchestral keyboards in the choruses but gives Simone room to soar in the verses. Mark Jansen's occasional grunt atop the identical arrangement contrasts significantly--that the two vocalists duel between beauty and the beast makes for interesting listening to those new to the genre and brings back memoirs of early After Forever to longtime fans. Spoken word interludes by Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister) dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 contribute to the cinematic effect of the piece.

In "Run For A Fall" the band combine Nightwish-style ballad textures with cinematic keyboard and string orchestration. Rich arrangements, thick guitar and choirs add to the tremendous sound of the piece. In total contrast "Seif al Din" is a rapid paced, percussive metal-edged track. Simone's crystalline vocals soar powerfully alongside Mark's beastly grunt while tempos shift between the cinematic texture of the orchestra and unadulterated metal punctuation. Simone's brief spoken-word part further develops the theme and further illustrates her range.

The album concludes with the epic-length and cinematic title track. One has to be drawn in by the whispery spoken part that opens over orchestral instrumentation. The rich choir introduces the main theme and supports Simone's soaring lead throughout. Our editorial staff especially enjoyed the blend of Simone's mezzo-soprano lead and the choir's harmonies. Jansen's occasional grunting and rapidfire metal percussion and heavy guitars adds texture to the masterpiece. But it is the symphonic texture of the choir and orchestra and vast dynamic excursions that contribute to the overall magnitude of the epic.

The Phantom Agony EP. The first four-track EP (Transmission (Netherlands) TMS-039, 2003) to support Epica's debut album is named after the title track of both. The EP sports a single version of the title track and "Fašade of Reality" from the album. The previously unreleased tracks are two versions--a single version and an orchestral version--of "Veniality".

Epica Feint EP
image © Transmission Records 2003
click on image to visit artists' website
 

The unreleased track "Veniality" features Simone atop orchestral arrangements and crisp percussion. Listeners will immediately notice that vocals are mixed way above the instrumentals. Heavy guitar and metal-style drums build as the track progresses yet never washing out the lead vocalist's power or the song's orchestral foundation.

The orchestral version runs the same time as the original unreleased version of the track but is more gently arranged with choirs dominating the arrangement beneath Simone's soaring lead and therefore may have wider appeal, especially to West End theatre enthusiasts. Heavy guitars and metal style percussion are absent from this mix.

Feint. The second four-track EP (Transmission (Netherlands) TMS-043, 2004) to support the album includes the album and a previously unreleased piano version of "Feint." "Seif al Din" from the album is included. The EP's previously unreleased bonus track is "Triumph of Defeat," a stunning instrumental. The EP comes in a two-CD case with the empty second slot ready to house "Cry For The Moon" which will include the single version and album version of the title track. The EP is also to comprise two versions of "Run For A Fall," one being the single edit of the track and the other being the album-length version.

The third track on the EP, "Triumph of Defeat," is the previously unreleased bonus number. The thickly arranged choirs on top of the piano and developing heavy guitar accompaniment are certain to draw substantial interest from existing and new Epica listeners. The fast-moving pace raises the pulse especially when Simone's vocalise delivers the melody over rich orchestra and guitar-based arrangements in the track's mid-section opposing a rip-roaring guitar solo. A stunning piano solo also graces the track. The song is among our editors' favourites with our only criticism being that the track is too short, running just under 4:00.

Interview

Musical Discoveries: Tell us about the development of The Phantom Agony album and the trajectory you have taken since your "Cry For The Moon" demo.

Mark Jansen: Since the demo we kept on working on the songs and lyrics. When we entered the studio almost all of the songs were finished but in the studio we kept on going developing the songs. The song "Run for a Fall" was finished completely in the studio.

How did Epica came together?

Mark: In the spring of 2002 I left After Forever. But I didn't want to stop making music, so I imediately started another band. The first one I contacted was Ad, who had already performed with AF and with whom I had already started a project during the AF period. It was actually this project that was later developed into a full band.

Transmission Records brought us in contact with our first female singer Helena Iren Michaelsen. And after a few months the lineup was complete and Sahara Dust was born. Unfortunately Helena left to Norway and she took our drummer with her. So we started looking for another drummer and singer. After a lot of auditions we found Jeroen as the best drummer and Simone. Because she is also my girlfriend, we initially thought it wasn't such a good idea to recruit her--I had some bad experiences with relationships in a band. But in the end she turned out to be just what we were looking for, so we took the chance. With the new lineup complete again, we decided to change our name into Epica.

Not to dwell on it, but tell us about the first vocalist?

Mark: As I said, the first vocalist, Helena, was from Trail of Tears. She went off with the drummer and started her own band Imperia a few months ago. This band has Dutch members, so I guess she moved back to the Netherlands.

Tell us about the writing, the arrangements and the vocal work on the album.

Mark: We add the vocals totally in the end. The melody has to make place for the vocals because in our view the vocal line has to be the main line in most cases. So when we have a good keyboard line, sometimes the vocals will take it over or Simone comes up with her own vocal line.

The difference in textures between the songs is very dramatic. Some of the songs are soft ballads, others feature rip roaring guitar excursions and there are some fantastically cinematic choir structures.

Mark: Music is like life for me, you can feel all sensations in the music. High energetic parts and slow parts all fit Epica. I don't like to be stuck in one style. I love to use choirs and classical instruments in our music because we are also film music lovers.

So Simone, you've been singing with Epica for about a year now. How did you first get involved and how has your role evoloved over time?

Simone: I got involved as soon as the first singer left the band. The band was searching for a new singer and I helped them out in the mean time. We thought that it wasn't a good idea to let me be the singer because I was very young at that time and didn't have any experience. But after a long search for a singer, they wanted me to be the vocalist. So I officially joined the band in October 2002. The thing that has evolved a lot is my voice, I am two years older and I have a lot of experiences now.

Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

I was born on January the 17th in 1985. When I was little I danced on my bed to the music that was on the radio. As long as I can remember I have loved music. I played the flute for one year and I sang in a musical at primary school. When I was fourteen I had pop/jazz singing lessons for one year.

Simone Simons
Simone Simons
image © Transmission Records 2003
more photos at Epica's website

 

After that when I was sixteen I started to take classical singing lessons. The main reason for this was Nightwish. I knew some metal bands like Dimmu, Cradle, Tristania, Old Man's Child and others. But when I first heard the music of Nighwish I was addicted.

My parents are not very musical. My father listens to music, but like my mother, doesn't play. But my younger sister likes to sing as well, and she is getting better.

Are there any other recordings you've done?

Yes, one, with a friend of mine. That was before i joined Epica. It was for fun and it sounded good also. We didn't use it. And there is also Aina, I've sung a little part on this metal opera.

What are some of your favourite tracks?

I have my periods, somethimes I like "Sensorium," somethimes "Cry for the Moon." I esspecially like the songs that the crowd likes, when they are singing along with the songs.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role on the Aina project too?

Our record compagny asked me if I'd like to sing on the Aina album. When we were recording in Germany, Sascha was doing the final recordings for the Aina album, so I heard the music and I liked it very much, so I said yes. So Mark and I drove to Germany and within one hour we were finished.

How do you feel about the style of music you're doing?

I like the style music that we are doing. I don't think that our music always needs an operatic voice. There are some parts that need a strong or just a very soft and innocent voice. It is important that you have to vary the way that you can use your voice, to keep it interesting.

How do you like performing on stage?

I love to be on stage and like to communicate with the audience. In general we get positive reactions from the crowd.

So how have some of the big gigs been?

Yves: Most of our big concerts were in the Netherlands--like Fields of Rock--and they've always been great. But we also did some major shows in France. In fact we did Raismes Fest, in Disneyland and also played in Limoges. Because we don't perform that often in France I guess the audience is more excited to see us, because on all of these shows we got excellent responses. In Disneyland our album was sold out almost imediately after our show! We have also done some concerts in Germany with Doro and Blaze. That was a little harder, because we are not so well known there and because we were the only non-heavy-metal band on the bill. In Belgium we did another big concert called Aalst Rockt and also this one was fantastic. But, nevertheless we also got a positive response most of the time. In the future we're going to concentrate our shows more on other countries. We have plans to do shows in France, Germany, Spain, Poland, UK and Belgium. We've also got some offers for a tour through Europe and Mexico during the end of 2004.

If you could change anything on The Phantom Agony now that it's been out a while, even if you think it's perfect, what would you do differently?

Mark: Nothing is perfect, we gave ourselves 100% and got the maximum out of it for that moment. Of course we want to keep on developing ourselves and hopefully will the new album be even better. But I wouldn't chance a single thing.

  Simone Simons
Simone Simons
image © www.studiomystica.nl 2004
more photos at Epica's website

What are your plans for 2004 and beyond?

Yves: Right now were very busy writing new material. We still have to do a lot of shows before we enter the studio during the summer. After the recordings we have plans for tours through Europe and Mexico. Our new album will probably be released in early 2005.

We're particularly fascinated with the evolution in your use of female vocalists. What can you tell us about the experiences?

Mark: I started working with Floor Jansen. she's a very good singer and she developed herself into a high quality singer. On the album Prison of Desire by After Forever I also worked with Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) for one song. She has a smoother voice than Floor has. More warm, also a very good singer who sings with passion. After this I worked with Helena Michaelsen, probably one of the best singers but not easy to work with.

Now I work with Simone Simons, I adored her voice from the first moment I heard her sing. She has a great colour in her voice. You can't work on it, you have it or not. She's the singer I prefer working with. She's still very young and willing to learn. She keeps on developing herself very quickly and we have to be careful that she stays in Epica because also musicals are always looking for singers like her!


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