Of all the many subgenres of metal, the distinctly middle-European style known as ‘symphonic metal’ is one of the most curious. To its detractors, this style is bloated and overblown, trying to reconcile too many incompatible elements. True, you get your fair share of metallic riffing and blast beat drumming, but you also get flowery orchestral arrangements and female singers with operatic pretensions. If you’re really unlucky, you might even hear children’s choirs…
Even if you accept, as I do, that this genre can be a valid variant of metal, you’re then faced with the issue that the undisputed brand leader, Finnish band Nightwish, has pretty much nailed the genre definitively. As a result, too many symphonic metal bands sound like pale Nightwish facsimiles. However, Epica, from the Netherlands, is the one band following in their path who have managed to stamp their own identity on their genre, and their fifth album Requiem For The Indifferent is another confident and ambitious record.
One thing favoring Epica is that the band is distinctly heavier than most of their symphonic peers. Following an opening orchestral prelude, they launch into ‘Monopoly of Truth’, which neatly sums up all their strengths. It’s an eventful song with numerous twists and several elements. In particular, the meshing vocals of Simone Simons (pure, classically-trained mezzo-soprano) and Mark Jansen (gutteral death growls) create considerable drama, but swirling keyboards, orchestral arrangements and a full blown choir are all present and correct. Yet the song is so well-constructed that it never feels too cluttered. The melody lines remain strong, and Arien van Weesenbeek’s purposeful drumming keeps the track sounding tight. The result is an intricate and sure-footed song.
In truth, the album does lose a little momentum then. It follows this up with the single ‘Storm the Sorrow’ which is less spectacular and is trying too hard to be radio-friendly. Then the tender piano ballad ‘Delirium’ seems be offering a moment of respite which is not actually required. Neither track is exactly a disgrace (indeed ‘Delerium’ builds to an interesting orchestral flourish near the end) but both feel like the band is holding back somewhat.
Thankfully, ‘Internal Warfare’ then gets the album back on track. It’s a stripped back rocker with barbed guitar riffs and a more direct approach. The title track brings back the choir for a big chorus, and this feels like Epica in their comfort zone, but it offers overblown pomp in a way that few other bands can match. However, there are intriguing Middle Eastern touches in the intro and verses. This is appropriate, as the band has explained that the Arab Spring was an influence on this record’s mood, which has lyrical themes stressing defiance and opposition to apathy.
The record’s second half is very strong indeed. ‘Guilty Demeanor’ has a striking chorus hook. The band have a reputation for writing insidious hooklines that may not register initially but eventually leave an indelible mark. This followed by the satisfying but slow and overly smooth ‘Deep Water Horizon’, which finally perks up when Jansen starts growling. He also features significantly on the fiercely coiled ‘Stay the Course’, which eventually unfolds into an expansive orchestral chorus over which Simone soars.
Simone’s vocals are placed high in the mix, and this track highlights how her vocals have developed. She’s always sounded very pretty, and previous albums have played on the contrasts between her style and that of Mark Jansen – beauty and the beast, if you like. Now she sounds far more forceful and less stylised, having mostly played down her previous operatic tendencies. As a result the voices no longer sound like complete opposites, as both are now equally strident. There is a moment on the dramatic ‘Deter the Tyrant’ where their voices are juxtaposed in a way that is spine-tingling. This in fact is the one song that really could be described as too overblown. There’s a lot going on, and the hyperactive drumming would probably enough to deter the band’s detractors. But, for me, this sense of ‘more is more’ is what attracts me to music like this; bombast can be fun! However, it probably is a good idea that it’s followed by the gentler, statelier ‘Avalanche’. Finally, we get another example of the time-honored Epica Song That Goes On Too Long. ‘Serenade of Self-Destruction’ is presented as the big epic finale, and is again nimbly arranged and passes through several sections. Still, it’s hard to avoid thinking that, at a shade under ten minutes, there’s quite a bit of padding. At least it’s shorter than the 13-minute horror that concluded The Divine Conspiracy….
Like all Epica albums, its sheer length means this is an exhausting, if rewarding, experience. But those who want to stay the course can discover a real adventure in Requiem for the Indifferent.