For all the attention Epica has gotten over the course of their careers are the most visible and consistent of the female fronted, symphonic metal bands, they are a mystery to me. I have somehow managed to go this long without sitting down and listening to a full Epica album, no matter how much praise has been heaped upon it. There's something about their stated mission, the blending of light and dark, soft and heavy, that feels to me like a band intentionally putting on handcuffs. It may be great for business, but I'm not sure the artistic statements Epica make couldn't be improved by paring down their focus. The question at hand is whether or not “The Quantum Enigma” can change my mind.
The album makes a solid opening statement, once the obligatory orchestral introduction is dispatched. At this point, they are so cliché that it feels like bands include them simply because they believe they must. Rarely do they make much of a musical statement, let alone serve to introduce any of the music the rest of the album will feature. “The Second Stone” leads off the proper album, and does everything I remember from my brief forays into Epica. The band plays bombastic metal that marries standard guitar work to an overload of symphonic flourishes, while Simone Simmons soars over the top with a classicly-tinged melody. It all works beautifully, until the song stops and turns into thirty seconds of third-rate death metal.
And therein lies my problem with this entire 'beauty and the beast' style of metal. Epica is so good at writing symphonic metal, and Simone is such a fabulous vocalist, that I have a hard time believing the band would ever think it's a good idea to put her aside in favor of the boring and mediocre death metal that ups their 'metal cred'. Bands often make decisions that I think are wrong, but are defensible, like picking the wrong song to be a bonus track. This is not one of those cases, as I can't see the explanation for a band intentionally burying their best asset, no matter how long they have been doing it, and how popular they might be.
As song after song passes, that feeling becomes stronger, because “The Quantum Enigma” is almost the perfect symphonic metal album. It's far heavier than almost anything that wears the label, their use of the symphonic elements are expertly integrated into the music, and Simone is as good as they come. There are great hooks in every song, and there's so much about the album I want to love.
But I can't say I love it, because the album doesn't play to those strengths. Instead, it throws more ingredients into the mix than are necessary, which only serves to muddle the brew. If I went through and excised the death metal sections from these songs, the album would be an amazing illustration of how this kind of music should be made. It still wouldn't completely convert me into a devotee, but it would go a long way to convincing me to put in the effort to embrace this kind of music.
As it stands, however, I can't do that. “The Quantum Enigma” is, like Epica's entire career, a disappointing reminder of how easily potential can be wasted. Epica could be a band I love, but they aren't, and “The Quantum Enigma” tells me they aren't going to change anytime soon.