The Golden Age of Symphonic Metal – Review of Epica's Design Your Universe (2009)

I was born in 1992, and if I could choose I wouldn’t change it for a second. Sure, I was only four when Therion released Theli, considered one of the earliest symphonic metal albums, and I was only six when Nightwish released Oceanborn in 1998, but I have lived to witness the release of many great albums since the mid-2000’s.

This is what I concider the golden age of symphonic metal. Right here, right now. It is a genre that develop well on its own as well as into other genres – Leaves’ Eyes blend it perfectly with folk music (Njord of 2009 for example) and Sonata Arctica earlier this fall released The Days of Grays which was the first album that really showed a mixture of power, prog and symphonic metal without one taking the overly control.

A certain cliff in the history of symphonic metal was released only a month ago… Epica‘s Design Your Universe is the album I will speak of today.

This phenomenal, epic, melodic, bombastic album kicks of with their best instrumental yet, the intro song Samadhi ~ Prelude ~, before entering Resign to Surrender ~ A New Age Dawns – part IV ~. DYU is the first album to continue the A New Age Dawns saga, first started on the 2005 album Consign to Oblivion. The first three parts told of the collapse of the Mayan civilization, and this 2009 release show the next three parts. To me, Resign to Surrender sounds like an amazing intro song, the perfect way to reawaken the saga in. It builds up perfectly, before finishing and leaving the scene for the next song (and the first video for the album), Unleashed. Unleashed is far from the best song of the album, but I understand they used it as a video. It is a real catchy song, and Simone sounds amazing in it. I can’t see why it’s their most popular on Last.fm, but still a great track.

The fourth song on the album is Martyr of the Free Word, and here I must speak my mind. Why, oh why, couldn’t this be the third song? I would much prefer it to be ahead of Unleashed, simply because Unleashed is a bit too grande and bombastic, whilst Martyr is more of a metal song. Resign to Surrender followed by Unleashed just doesn’t sound as good as followed by Martyr of the Free Word. This aside, it’s a really cool track, one of the more special on the album, with influences from oriental music in the vocal lines. Mark Jansen’s grunts right after the chorus really is an amazing part that does the song.

The next song is another more bombastic one – Our Destiny. I’m sad to say this is one of the weaker songs on the album, if I have to choose one. It is a great song, but compared to the rest of the album it’s kind of dull. The thing is that it’s too long… it’s only 6 minutes, not much to Epica standards, but I feel it’s a little too much. If it were to be cut down into at least 4:40, 5, it would be much higher in my ratings.

Kingdom of Heaven ~ A New Age Dawns – part V ~ is the fifth chapter of the A New Age Dawns saga, and the longest song on the album at 13:35. It is an awesome track, especially the first eight minutes, but it’s still a disappointment to me. Maybe I had too high hopes – before I heard it I saw an interview with Mark Jansen explaining how he had worked on the song for three years, and how he considered it their best by far. To me it’s pretty low on the list of top tracks on DYU, after the title track, Martyr of the Free Word, Burn to a Cinder, and Resign to Surrender. As with Our Destiny, maybe this song would be much better if it were to be cut down, maybe with as much as three or four minutes. Another remark is the spoken parts in the second half of the song… I don’t mind cheese, in fact I order a triple cheese sandwich listening to Stratovarius and Rhapsody of Fire, but these spoken parts really shift the song from epic to humorous, not a completely reparable damage I’m afraid.

After an epic song like Kingdom of Heaven, it’s often tough to hear another song right away. Many bands solve this problem with either putting an easier rock song right after (Nightwish‘s The Poet and the Pendulum was followed by Bye Bye Beautiful), or the epic song is the final track on the album. The dilemma here is how there are two epic songs, Kingdom of Heaven as well as the title track, which is put as the final song (a perfect choice, more of that later). So the choice was to have an interlude as the seventh track, entitled The Price of Freedom ~ Interlude ~, a clip of people speaking of the price of freedom being death and orchestral music in the background resembling of many horror pictures from the 1920’s.

The interlude leads elegantly into Burn to a Cinder, one of my favorites on the album. It is one of the more melodic songs, going back to the power metal territories of Consign to Oblivion and The Phantom Agony. The song ends with an epic moment leading into deep sorrow (”Why can’t I bleed with you?”) followed by the album’s first ballad, the moving Tides of Time.

To me, both Deconstruct and Semblance of Liberty are pretty standard symph metal songs – no big surprises, catchy choruses, nothing really special except for the speaking part in Semblance of Liberty (”Read… my… lips”).

The second ballad of the album is also the weakest song Epica has ever made. I was glad when they announced that Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica would guest feature on the song White Waters, but this doesn’t feel like Tony at all. All Tony touches turns to gold, but this is as far from gold as you could get. White Waters is not beautiful, it is boring and weird, and the only thing that saves it is that Semblance of Liberty leading into the final track of the album would be very weird. And the final track is gold.

Design Your Universe ~ A New Age Dawns – part VI ~ is the best song Epica has ever written, and that’s final. It is just perfect, from it’s epic chorus (”We can’t undo what we have done, so show us now what we’ve become”) to its final, heartbreaking, whispering verse that always makes me weep.

This is Epica’s best release to date, and I’m really excited if they will ever top it, because let’s face it…. this is the latest chapter in the history of awesome music.

Bookmark the permalink.
  • ben miller

    Hi Aki,I stumbled across your blog while googling epica,I love your reviews and info,i just recently got into gothmetal and nordic metal,you know how to make awesome music over there!I wish here in America we would have more great metal like that,anyways keep up the good work,Ben…

  • Hi Ben! Thanks for liking my blog. 🙂 I’ve never been in America, but from what I understand the music scene (especially heavy metal) is completely different over there. I’m proud to come from the Northern Europe, with so many great acts like Sonata Arctica, Nightwish, Tiamat, Therion, Tristania and the list goes on, and from Europe overall with so many more bands. Let’s just hope for a change – some European acts get more and more American shows and hopefully more and more recognition.

    –Aki

  • thanks !! very helpful post!