My first few listens of The Divine Conspiracy, Epica’s fourth full-length, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Subsequent listens yielded better results, but it wasn’t until maybe the seventh or eighth spin that I sat back and said to myself, “Damn, this is good.” I’m not sure whether it’s a knee-jerk reaction that I have against symphonic metal’s excess or the fact that this album takes some time to click, but either way I’m glad I gave it the time it needed to grow on me.
A short intro sets the mood, drawing the curtains and lighting a fire for the epic story to follow. An orchestra and choir crescendo, tension builds, and we crash into “The Obsessive Devotion.” It charges forward over the band’s personal string orchestra and before a minute’s up we’re caught between two extremes, death grunts and brutality on one side, airy female melodiousness on the other. This is a trademark of many symphonic and gothic metal bands, but Epica does it exceptionally well because they blur the line between the two without watering either side down. Guitarist Mark Jansen’s harsh vocals complement Simone’s lovely pipes well. His grunts are always serviceable, and sometimes good enough to make you forget why Epica needs Simone in the first place. Listen to “Menace of Vanity” for example. Epica stands out from the rest of their symphonic metal neighbors for being the most metal of the bunch, and Jansen’s vocals, good as they are, aren’t half of the reason for Epica’s heaviness. Musically, there are some genuinely heavy, horn-raising moments here.
The Divine Conspiracy works because it performs an excellent and moving balancing act. Being heavier than, say, Nightwish while composing grandiose, symphonic melodies and arrangements is hard to do without sounding corny or forced; or worse, using the symphonic aspect as a ruse to mask poppy gothic metal à la Visions of Atlantis. And yet Epica really manages to credibly embody both parts of their genre tag, symphonic and metal. Simone’s stunning voice is just the icing on the cake.
What’s more, they sometimes color outside of the lines, spicing up the formula, as in the excellent “Sancta Terra,” which plays with Eastern melodies - a theme that runs throughout the album - and showcases an almost groovy, rock rhythm section. Equally appreciated but unconventional are the vocal and blast-beat black metal strokes in “Death Of A Dream - The Embrace That Smothers Part VII.” Jansen’s higher pitch screams deepen the dark side of Epica’s yin and yang interplay, and in varying the harsh vocals, the band keeps them from becoming a stale gimmick, a vibe I often get from gothic metal bands whose death grunt guy seems to have been hired just to “metal up” their band.
I consider “La‘Petach Chatat Rovetz - The Last Embrace” as the album’s second intro, functioning as a pretty segue between the radio-made “Never Enough” to the album’s real meat, and far-and-away best part, the latter half. The three installments of the “The Embrace that Smothers” are too orchestral and atmospheric for the pop sensibilities and forced hooks of “Never Enough” (which, for an obvious radio-friendly track, isn’t grating at all, and in fact I find enjoyable). Here, I think Epica is at their best, especially on “Living A Lie - The Embrace That Smothers Part VIII.” An EP of just these tracks would be ideal. The fusion of earth and wind, which is to say heavy riffs and grunts with strings, choirs and Simone, is executed to good effect and it evokes mixed feelings that are mournful, metal, majestic, and personal all at once. Great stuff.
There is a downside to this show, and that’s that it’s too long. A long album is welcome when you don’t want it to end, but there’s a decent amount of fat that could have been trimmed around the edges. “Safeguard to Paradise” and “Chasing the Dragon” are both ballads - maybe get rid of one of ‘em? Symphonic metal demands length, though, so the excess is no grave offense. After all, excess defines the genre; a curt symphonic metal album would be a power metal album performed by an orchestra and that wouldn’t be half as weepy, or nearly as fun.
The climax of the album is the final, 13:57 minute title track. Pomp and brooding gothic sentimentality reign supreme but the song is good enough for me to buy into the emotional tugging for a quarter of an hour. After all of the album’s influences surface for attention, and a nice chorus, the song ends as the album began, a dark violin fades out and the curtain is lowered.
It’s an experience that feels less polished than it is. And more importantly, it’s an experience that I’ve been revisiting when I’ve been in the mood for symphonic stuff. At 75 minutes, there’s a lot to absorb here, too much in fact, and not all of it is as effective as it could be (i.e. the few spoken word passages and parts of “The Obsessive Devotion”). But the majority of it is, and the parts that work work wonders. I haven’t heard all of 2007’s symphonic metal records, but this is my favorite of those that I have heard. Recommended.