27/09/2007 § Leave a comment
More than two years on from the second-rate curmudgeon of Consign To Oblivion, it seems that some re-evaluation has been the order of the day at the Epica camp. More than a few of us agreed that Consign To Oblivion was a slightly half-baked piece of work, an undercooked steak that promised succulence and fulfilment, but which ended up tasting flat and uninteresting. This time round, some serious work has been put in to make The Divine Conspiracy an improvement over its predecessor. Epica have had more time to concentrate and this means honing the finer details and sharpening their sound to something crisper, edgier and ultimately more successful. The gears have been cranked up on the Epica machine and it’s no doubt that The Divine Conspiracy is a good album as a result of it. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that Epica have come up with.
It’s no easy job being a cynic. I always become naturally dubious when a band at this end of the femme-metal ladder start to put out polished album after polished album. And when something slips, I wince at the possibility that the whole ensemble could crumble in a few years’ time. But my fears that The Divine Conspiracy could be nothing more than a pompous anti-religion rant were soon quenched with the first couple of songs. Yes, there is the standard intro track which is nowadays an unthinking commonality, but soon into The Obsessive Devotion something was very clear – Epica weren’t trying so hard anymore. What prevented CTO from being something better was the fact that too much force had been put into various areas – the vocals, the songwriting, the concept; and the whole thing seemed a little unconvincing. TDC is under far less of this strain and as a result the whole album is more natural and fluid.
Epica have no coyness about retaining their bombastic elements though. In fact, when they said that the album was darker and heavier, they weren’t lying. The vocals, the melodies and the themes all have a far darker thread running through them, and these rudiments befit the band well. The songwriting is really quite impressive in parts, utilising excellent understanding of key and melody, with Fools’ Paradise and Chasing the Dragon being good examples of this, the latter probably being the best song that Epica have done. Simone sings at her very best here and I can only guess this is because she’s not trying to sound like anyone but herself now, and her voice is something joyful to listen to. Mark’s vocals have changed too – no more does he do the higher-end chocolate-coated rasping: these days his vocals are far lower, gruffer, and suited to the heavier tone of the music.
The songs have a good amount of variety within them too – not only as separate entities within the album, but their components are quite varied. It’s not uncommon for a song to have many sections that work together well and that fit so flush that when you crack through their polished lacquer you can see some quite clever composition underneath. Not everything is complex though – Menace of Vanity and Never Enough are the most accessible songs with catchy verses and choruses, and the beautiful Sancta Terra is a shining showcase for Simone’s plush vocals.
There’s so much to commend TDC for that it seems slight unfair to pick out its blemishes, but fortunately there aren’t that many. There are a couple of slightly weak tracks with Death of a Dream being quite an unexciting Gothic rumbler, and the final track of the album being another example in how Epica really shouldn’t attempt an ‘epic’ song. While the thirteen-minute title track is a country mile off being an abject failure, it’s hardly an exciting journey and Epica have yet to disprove the theory that they’re only making these long numbers for the sake of it. If they could actually bear some interesting content rather than gesture melodies and instrumentations there might be some point to their inclusion on the album.
Still, none of this detracts from the fact that Epica have really done themselves proud here. The Divine Conspiracy takes what was good about The Phantom Agony, learns what was lacking with Consign To Oblivion and whizzes itself into the best thing in the Epica catalogue to date. The excellent vocals, varied songs and the welcome newer elements in the songwriting make it one of the best recent works in Gothic metal, and certainly one of the best albums of 2007. Even though not every track shares the same strength, when the band put out a good song here, they really do it with flair, skill and aplomb. Things may have been looking precarious a couple of years ago, but Epica have certainly righted the boat.
8 / 10