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5 stars I wanted to listen to this album a few more times before giving this review, but as it stands, I can't bear to see this fantastic album with such low ratings and not even a single review. This is undoubtedly the triumph of Epica's career to this point. And a strange triumph indeed it is. At the time of The Divine Conspiracy, I proclaimed that album to be just a bit short of what they were capable of. I thought that if they followed their trend, that this one would have to be even more overblown and epic, even more creative, yet also more tasteful. Well, instead Epica came right out and took a U-turn into death metal, sort of. This isn't any old death metal album you see, it is symphonic death metal in the truest sense. It has rough and tumble death metal riffs and vocals at an unrelenting pace, yet symphonic instruments hide in the background, suddenly popping in to give vital coloring to a song. The songs wind around themes, using variation and repetition in a classical aesthetic. At the first few listens, it seems like the orchestra got shanked, but in reality this is the most well-written symphonic parts on an Epica to date. It's just so carefully blended so that it seems hidden. In reality, if the orchestral elements were taken out, the album would fall flat on its face. This is why I call it true symphonic death metal.

This impression isn't given by the first song, Samadhi, which so many people hate as being more of the same. Yet, the first song is an overture, with nods and hints to the rest of the album without sounding like an overture. However, by the time Resign to Surrender comes up, all doubt is suddenly removed. It is strangely melancholy while furious at the same time. It kind of reminded me aesthetically of a death metal version of Tristania (them being the black metal version). When Simone finally enters the song, her vocals sound like older Floor Jansen. Anyone who follows After Forever knows that is a really strong compliment. As the CD progresses through more songs, Simone's signature is written in thick ink. She has finally become her complete own as a vocalist. I was never a big fan of hers, but she has suddenly become one of the great metal vocalists. Her range is fantastic, and her voice projects. She isn't quite like Floor, she sings a bit more restrained, a bit higher, a bit cleaner, a bit less soul and a bit more opera. She has the metal edge that I always accuse female vocalists of lacking in this genre. The drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek feels more at home in this style than the previous album, playing more complex lines that makes his ultra sterile playing on the previous album seem more appropriate (the more dynamic and complex music couldn't be be played less precisely like most death metal). He still doesn't sound as human as I would like, but his technical mastery and his creativity make this easily a top rate performance. Isaac Delahaye is the new guitarist on board here, and probably the reason that Epica pursued a death metal approach. Both him and Ariën are from the death metal band God Dethroned. His arrival in Epica heralded the arrival of guitar solos. Guitar solos hardly seemed needed, but as soon as they are put in, all of a sudden it is obvious that they were in fact one of the missing elements. The riffs are not the same riffs I loved in Epica, they are fasted, more chugging oriented, preferring flurries of notes and power chords to the more standard rock approach of using space between the necessary notes. It puts them more in line with modern death metal, makes them more atmospheric, more furious, and less accessible.

The melodies on this album are some of the most interesting and powerful in Epica's career, any sense of cheesiness found on Epica's first and third albums are completely gone, no melodies are generic, but all are really catchy and emotive. This album is also the first Epica album where the lyrics don't suck. There are only two or three moments where they make me wince, and many more moments where I am impressed.

Overall, this album is by far the best of Epica's career. It's one of those albums that invents a new style in metal not as an end but as a means. It is the first masterpiece Epica has produced, and hopefully not their last. It's not for everyone though, hopefully my review made it clear what sort of audience would like this album. A word of advice for those who listen to this album: it sounds best at levels that probably damage your hearing. My ecstatic review might only make sense if your ears are ringing afterwards.

Report this review (#270634)
Posted Tuesday, March 9, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars I was exceptionally stoked to hear EPICA was back and releasing their 4th album preceded by The Divine Conspiracy. I can't believe this album has only been rated by 5 other people as it is not only an excellent prog metal album but possibly the best for the band or at least on-par with their earlier albums.

I had high expectations with Design while at the same time finding myself being highly critical because I was very pleased with Divine and I don't see many bands these days releasing 2 highly laudable albums in succession unless its part of an on-going concept. My first thought going in during the obligatory "classical/choir intro followed by a full band song" motif is that it is a contender for the best album opener to date for the band--very memorable and creative, original use of the choir in places colliding with the "metal" near the beginning of "Resign to Surrender". "Samadhi" and "Resign to Surrender" will show the listener what the band is all about: Melodic sweeping orchestras, heavenly choirs, 7-string guitar sound, grunt & scream vocals from guitarist Mark Jansen juxtaposed with operatic vocals from Simone Simons.

After that, the album is song after song of creative and melodic symphonic Gothic metal each compacted with its own identity. Each song stands out on its own albeit it takes a few listens. Design follows up a similar formula to Divine which isn't a bad thing: Intro or prelude, a few heavy hitters, an interlude, a ballad, a couple more heavy hitters followed by another ballad and the title track closer. What puts the album out there in the stratosphere for me is the marked improvement of the production and the way the band (particularly drummer Ariën) sounds as a whole in the studio. Maybe it's just me but this album sounds magnificent in terms of production in comparison to Divine, Consign, and Phantom. I love those albums but in this kind of music with orchestras and choirs and the like, drums are extremely important because they make up the rhythm session and honestly is what makes it metal and the earlier releases IMO had such a weak rhythm section. Part of what I love about prog metal is the stark contrast between the keyboards/orchestra/piano and the "heavy metal" drums, guitars, and bass, and the old albums lacked that.

Another aspect worth noting is the inclusion of the traditional guitar solo on a few songs for which is something not known for Epica. They usually let the classical parts or the melodies of the choir or keyboards/piano take precedence of guitar solos. It is a welcome addition because of its sporadic nature.

The only reason I don't give 5 stars (which is a rating that gets thrown out too much on all website reviews) is simply that the mix of grunt/scream male vocals and clean female operatic vocals might be off-putting to some listeners not too mention the constant mix of distorted guitars, orchestras and choirs might stir people the wrong way, but I see no reason why fans of Epica won't adore this album. Progressive metal fans in general should find something they love in Design your Universe.

Report this review (#271142)
Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars Now as some of you know, im an Epica nut, i admit it, i love this band and indeed this genre, i feed of the power of those fantastic guitar/keyboard interplays, and just the whole epic scale of things, and of course ive been following Epica like a hawk after hearing there 2007 opus The Divine Conspiracy, so i had BIG expectations for this new release, 2009's Design Your Universe, now did it fill my expectations? well yes and no. One of the first flaws i kinda had with it was the title, meh something a little too picky i know, but i cant help it i just did not like the title although i have grown to think its not too bad now, another flaw i thought was some of (now not all of them, just some) were not as powerfull as the ones on the prevoius album, an example of some that were though is RESIGN TO SURRENDER, what a way to start this album, just fantastic the single UNLEASHED was one of the weaker ones in my opinion, now i have grown to love it since then, especially since i heard the song before i heard the album, putting this one song within the context of the album though really made me like it a lot more than before, the EPIC 13 minute KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is a big highlight as is the final song and the title track DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE. Now of course the production didnt let me down as usuall as did the musicmanship everything on that side is just first class

Samadhi (Prelude) - 7/10 Resign To Surrender (A New Age Dawns - Part IV) - 10/10 Unleashed - 9/10 Martyr Of The Free Word - 7/10 Our Destiny - 8/10 Kingdom Of Heaven (A New Age Dawns - Part V) - 10/10 The Price Of Freedom - 7/10 Burn To A Cinder - 7/10 Tides Of Time - 8/10 Deconstruct - 8/10 Semblance Of Liberty - 8/10 White Waters - 9/10 Design Your Universe - 10/10

MY CONCLUSION? not as strong as TDC but still worth your attention anyway, fantastic album, fantastic band.

Report this review (#287580)
Posted Sunday, June 20, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars The Ultimate Symphonic Goth Metal Ear Candy

There are plenty of albums that qualify as pure pleasure listening, without alot of depth. Few are quite as exceptionally crafted as Epica's "Design Your Universe." Of the many albums I've gotten on a whim, this is one I return to over and over. The combination of Carmina Burana vocals, heavy riffing, blast beats, and orchestration satisfies the same part of me the likes visually intense science fiction. It really is just entertainment folks.

I've been tempted to give this album 5 stars as it satisfies a certain taste so perfectly. However, two problems arise. First, the album shows all its cards early. The overall sounds that make it so good are heard in the opening overtures, and the best song "Martyr of the Free World," is song 5 out of 13. Unlike Pain of Salvation, whose classic albums all seem to climax at the conclusion appropriately, on this album Epica starts running out of gas. There are some great sounds and interesting ideas as the album progresses, but they get fewer and farther between. The second related is the lack of variability in the sound once it is established. Tempo remains much the same, the 5 or 6 sound types are used and reused.

That all said, those sounds are extremely well put togther. The female vocals are superb, the choral vocals even better. The male growls are average. The drumming and guitars are very well done, though there's not alot of suprises. The defining characteristic is the goth orchestal elements and the composition, which is very well done.

This would be the perfect soundtrack to a fantasy film. Pure pleasure. 8.5 / 10

Report this review (#327583)
Posted Saturday, November 20, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Epica breaks orbit

The latest Epica release "Design Your Universe" is another expansive feast in the vein of the previous "The Devine Conspiracy." With this album Epica moves to the top of their game in the "female-fronted" power/goth/death symphonic-metal category, if I've got the classification right. They would seem to have created the ultimate album for people who want an all-of-the-above bombastic experience. "Design Your Universe" is more than a title or a call to fans to take control of their lives, it may well be the mantra of the band's approach to the creation of the album. They absolutely have created their own sound universe within these walls.

"Design Your Universe deals with new breakthroughs in quantum physics. It proves that we are all connected to each other on subatomic level. Also, it shows that we can create or at least influence matter with our thoughts...a very interesting fact. Because it changes everything for us, our whole worldview collapses once you accept these facts and integrate them in your lives. So this had to become the new album title." -Mark Jansen

The band packs so much information on this disc that it becomes the only conceivable complaint I have, that sometimes, the album is just too much. Maybe my advancing age explains why I have to be "in the mood" for this album or it simply wears me out, but if stimuli overload is not an issue for you, by all means dig in. Everything about DYU is amazingly crafted, as well done as can be, and delivered with the stunning talents this group possesses. The musicians and vocalists are just incredible. The songs are way to the heavy side, heavier than TDC with a more prominent guitar sound, the structures again tight as hell with the frequent blast drumming. From there the basic songs are pumped to overload with tons of orchestrations, choir vocals, sound effects, even acoustic guitars. Yet with the pot so full of ingredients and the speed moving so fast, they are still able to tame this sound into something extraordinary. Glorious harmonies of voices and strings punctuated by relentless and brutal metal, all of it as convincing as can be. The contrasts of sounds and the enormity of the whole package are both striking in their success.

"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"...." -Metal As F*ck review

While Epica butter their bread with these theatrical bone-crunching anthems, it is the change-ups here which win me over and give me the chance to take a breath. "Tides of Time" is a gorgeous ballad which slows things down and even shows off an emotional guitar solo, and some less constrictive drumming. "White Waters" is another "mellow" track with acoustic guitars and an ethereal feel that allows us old guys a chance to get our blood pressure under control. The big epic tracks like "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Design Your Universe" are where the full scope of Epica is realized; they are like mini plays, or film soundtracks, taking you into a world of fantasy sound but also grandiose imagery. The whole 75 minute album is literally exhausting the first few times you play it, over time your brain begins to break it down and the subtleties that first seem bludgeoned to death by the volume emerge. It is then when the album begins to convince and charm you.

The cynics will say that Epica is a band of contrivance, from their airbrushed sexy photos in their cd booklet to the formula of fantasy "beauty and the beast" bands which do seem to mimic one another on the surface. At times I feel that way myself. But to do so is to deny Epica the fruits of their labor and ambition. The simple fact is that this band is not just good at what they do, they have become great at it, and DYU is a testament that proves the naysayer wrong. If you like "this kind" of symphonic metal you will love DYU.

Report this review (#368839)
Posted Friday, December 31, 2010 | Review Permalink
Prog Leviathan
3 stars It's often written that Epica mixes the best of death, gothic, power, and symphonic metal into one melodic package, a fair description for Design Your Universe, and while there is a ton of excellent stuff happening on this album, it seems to happen vacuum.

"Resign to Surrender" kicks in the door with the chugging crunch of guitar and an energetic momentum, as we're treated to Epica's signature sound of diverse vocals (growls, female leads, and choral backgrounds), bad-ass guitar licks, and a morass of symphonic sound effects. One's appreciation of the power-metal genre will probably make or break Design Your Universe, since you'll pretty much be inundated with if from start to finish. While it doesn't suffer from the bombastic excess of some of the more operatic bands, it still fits snugly within the conventions of the genre. Overall though, I'd say that Epica's instrumental work is a little more thrash than their peers, though the intensity doesn't hit as hard as, say, Pagan's Mind.

However, Design Your Universe has a lot of songwriting panache to make it stand slightly above the heap. This is thanks mostly to the variety at their disposal; there's a lot of stuff going on here. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that more is better. Simons' vocals-- probably the most unique thing about the band-- are good but not as great as I had hoped; her voice is pure and powerful but lacks much in the way of inflection or emotion. Fortunately there is a wall of chugging guitar and machine-gun drum blasts to support her soaring melodies. Solos are solid, but similar to Simons' vocals in that they are powerful but don't make an impression; beautiful but bland at the same time.

There is enough variety to keep most of the album interesting, and the extended pieces, like "Kingdom of Heaven" and Design Your Universe work quite well. Still, the tone of the album didn't grab me. There's clearly a lot of good stuff going on here that will probably appeal to power-metal fans-- of which I am one-- but this one needs to be a little less of a one-trick-pony and bring more gusto to the table for me to jump on the Epica bandwagon. Still great for an occasional listen though.

Songwriting: 4 Instrumental Performances: 3 Lyrics/Vocals: 3 Style/Emotion/Replay: 3

Report this review (#458244)
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars One of my step-daughter's favorite groups (she's a fem-fronted Goth and classical music/opera geek), this album was not as well received by her as their previous releases, 2007's The Divine Conspiracy and 2009's full orchestra- and choir-accompanied live album, The Classical Conspiracy. Epica's music is a bit over-the-top drama metal for me, but I must admit that the compositions are quite clever and performed at quite a high level of musicianship. Plus, Simone Simons has quite an amazing voice. Were I young and needing to expell a lot of teen angst, Goth metal would be a great outlet, and there are none better of that sub-sub-genre than Epica.

Favorite songs: "Unleashed" (5:48) (9/10) and "Martyr of the Free World" (5:03) (8/10)/

Four stars for highly accomplished, complex compositions and performances.

Report this review (#459427)
Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 | Review Permalink
kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
5 stars There is no doubt that Epica's fifth album, 2009's 'Design Your Universe' was a breakthrough both for them and for the symphonic metal genre in general. Although the band had already built a strong reputation and released some great albums since being formed by Mark Jansen following his departure from After Forever, this album marked the watershed between a fairly well-known symphonic metal band with high ambitions and an international phenomenon of great prowess. With striking momentum and a carefully maintained balance between epic metal and orchestral soundscapes, between cinematic bombast and teeth-clenching heaviness, between Mark Jansen's grunts and Simone Simons's vocals, everything just worked. Looking back at it now it is easy with hindsight to point out the importance of this album in their canon, as it was the first to feature Ari'n van Weesenbeek as their new permanent drummer, Isaac Delahaye as their new guitarist and cover artist Stefan Heilemann (Heilemania), all of whom are still involved to this day. To celebrate the tenth anniversary the decision was made to revisit the album, re-mix it, and then provide some additional acoustic versions from the current line-up, making for a double disc release which is roughly 110 minutes long.

The band has been incredibly stable in turns of line-up over the length of their career, and the only new boy since the original is bassist Rob van der Loo who joined in 2012, so it was easy for the whole band to be involved with going over the original tapes. What can one say about an album which is either the best, or second best (2016's 'The Holographic Principle' is in very close contention for that title) of their whole career? The sound has been kept true to the original, although some of the compression has been released, and any album which contains 'Martyr of the Free Word', 'Unleashed', power ballad 'Tides of Time' or the epic 'Design Your Universe' is always going to be well received. Jansen says. 'My favourite song was and still is 'Kingdom of Heaven'. It has all the elements EPICA stood for at the time, but even more so because it is dedicated to my grandmother who passed away while we were recording this album. It will always have a special meaning to me.' And not only to him. 'Mark's grandmother was a very important figure for the whole band', Simone Simons says. 'Her house was our rehearsal space from the beginning of EPICA. She always greeted us with a smile and made sure we had everything we needed.'

Fans will play the first disc with real joy, but will turn to the second disc with interest, as here the band take on five songs from the album in an acoustic, orchestral and choral setting. I love hearing Simone's voice in this setting as she is letting it flow without having to provide the force and presence it requires when she is fronting a metal band at full force, with 'Burn To A Cinder' being a fine example of her range and style. There will be many fans who think the band may never better 'Design Your Universe' but they may not have heard the Gold Edition yet.

Report this review (#2352499)
Posted Saturday, April 18, 2020 | Review Permalink

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