Quarterpast is the debut album from Dutch metal band MaYaN. The band is a new project from Epica’s guitarist/growler Mark Jansen. The style of the album is branded right on the album’s artwork as ‘Symphonic Death Metal Opera’. That’s pretty accurate besides the fact that there should be a ‘progressive’ in there as well, with Jansen combining his harsh growls with his trademark symphonic elements from Epica (the lineup also features other Epica members Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums, vocals) and Isaac Delahaye (guitar)) and technical and progressive guitar work, additionally including a host of guest clean vocalists.
Rather unsurprisingly those clean vocals include Epica singer Simone Simons, former After Forever (Mark Jansen’s former band for those unaware) singer Floor Jansen and Henning Basse (singer in Simone’s partner Oliver Palotai’s band Sons of Seasons). The only surprise inclusion is one Laura Macrì, who is, according to the MaYaN biography, one of Italy’s biggest opera talents. So that’s established that there are a lot of vocalists on Quarterpast, but I haven’t even mentioned them all yet as aside from Mark Jansen himself there are also harsh vocals from drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek and keyboardist Jack Driessen (also ex-After Forever). To be honest although I can distinguish Jansen’s growls on the album since I’m used to his deep grunting from Epica, I can’t tell the other two growlers apart, although one of them has a more high-pitched scream that doesn’t sound far off the sort of vocals Dimmu Borgir’s Shagrath does.
On paper Quarterpast sounds like a very interesting package. And it is, but with my early listens to it I just couldn't escape the feeling that it was something of a disappointment. Now don't get me wrong, it would be very unfair to say that Quarterpast isn’t a good album, because it certainly is, in fact it’s an exceptionally good album of the masterpiece standard, something which is plain after many listens to allow it to properly sink in, but my early problems with this one was that I was expecting something different from MaYaN on their debut as they are essentially a super-group of seasoned musicians from several different bands and to be completely honest here this album doesn’t sound that far off from something Epica would have done and that’s the problem that I had early on (note the past tense, any disappointments that I did have wore off), it seems to lack any notable influence from the other members, which aside from the Epica members include Frank Schiphorst of the progressive metal band Symmetry on guitar, and bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling (Obscura, Pestilence) to complete the line-up (though the latter has now been replaced with Rob van der Loo prior to the release but not the recording of Quarterpast). A particular disappointment is Thesseling's involvement in something that lacks any really spectacular bass work.
I expect to most death metal fans Epica comes across as just another symphonic metal band with a female singer, but anyone who has actually delved into Epica (especially their most recent two albums) will know that the Epica sound is actually a combination of symphonic and progressive metal for the most part, but they heavy it up a lot in comparison to say Nightwish or Within Temptation, to the point that much of their music has death metal leanings as well, and anyone who knows that will quickly realise when coming to MaYaN that things aren’t that different. Jansen’s growls naturally just take on a larger role than in Epica and there’s more than one clean singer, including some clean male vocals from Henning Basse, but in short Quarterpast is like the extreme side of Epica come to fruition, retaining many recognisable elements from Mark Jansen’s other band.
To further elaborate on the problem I found with Quarterpast what I’d really have liked to have heard was something that was more of a departure from what Jansen has already been doing Epica, and ultimately this really isn’t. Regardless of that quibble from me, Quarterpast is an extremely enjoyable affair that as a metal album comes closer to technical/progressive death metal with symphonic metal influences rather than full on symphonic death metal like, for example, the music of Septicflesh or Hollenthon. The symphonic element here creates not so much an atmosphere (though the short title track interlude sounds very eerie) or a grandiose and epic sound but used to add to the progressive side of the band. In this, things work really well for MaYaN. To be honest these subtle differences are the only thing, vocal delivery aside, that set Jansen’s two bands apart. There are other similarities in the writing, with a trio of songs on the album appearing to belong to a suite (In the Eyes of the Law), which is similar to Epica’s A New Age Dawns. I guess that sort of thing is typical Jansen though; he’s done stuff like this since After Forever.
One of the major troubles is that I find that for something branded as death metal, there is too much emphasis on the clean vocals. To be fair when the clean vocals fit, they fit really well (example: Drown the Demon), but when they don’t...well you get the picture (example: Bite The Bullet). Fortunately that isn’t often, but they do cause one track, Essenza Di Te, to be something of a pointless interlude, which seems to exist for no other reason than to showcase the operatic talents of Laura Macrì, stunning as they are. It’s hardly unbearable, but it does seem somewhat out of place within the bigger picture. Perhaps ironically I find myself wishing for more time for Macrì's vocals on the album, as she actually only appears in three songs, including this interlude. Her parts in Celibate Aphrodite are stunning. If MaYaN is going to stick with using so much clean vocal in a death metal album, then this is the way to do it, and hopefully when they do a follow-up to Quarterpast they'll invite Laura Macrì back and give her much more time to shine. As for the other singers on the album, they all do an excellent job, although I can't shake off the feeling that Henning Basse is used way too much, but that may just be a reactionary thing to the lack of Laura Macrì vocals.
But really other than those vocal quibbles I can’t find anything to really complain about, and I must stress the fact that what quibbles I had early on have worn off in a really big way to the point that I'd actually consider Quarterpast to be one of the year's strongest releases. The members of MaYaN are all clearly talented and competent musicians and the songs are structured pretty well and once I was into it the album makes for quite addictive listening. For all my early disappointment that Jansen hasn’t given Quarterpast much of its own edge, that isn’t necessarily a reason to ultimately dislike the album and I must admit that once I got into the album and knew what to expect, it’s very solid material with some really amazing tracks such as Symphony of Aggression (which certainly lives up to its name), Mainstray of Society, Drown the Demon and Celibate Aphrodite.
So to draw some conclusions here not unexpectedly with an album such as this I feel that it’s going to find more of a market in those already listening to Epica and similar bands than anywhere else (guess I didn’t really need to repeat that). However to have this branded as a death metal album leaves me with some mixed feelings. It’s certainly much more death metal than Epica due to more focus on growls, but I’m concerned by that aforementioned focus on the clean vocals and how well the actual death metal crowd will receive Quarterpast, since this is in no way leaning towards melodeath where clean vocals are more common. The progressive metal crowd however, not to mention those with wide tastes, should find Quarterpast a rewarding listen. Overall I find this album to be rooted more within the progressive metal genre than death metal despite its strong death metal moments. And for all the negative air this review took on, I find Quarterpast to be a very positive experience. It’s just half the time I think I’m listening to Epica. But then, who said that was a bad thing? On that note the most recent Epica full-length Design Your Universe just about gets one up on Quarterpast for being the superior album.
One final note is one I have mentioned a few times, but must do so again because it's very important; I had many disappointments with this album when I first heard it. It has required more than a couple of listens to truly recognise this one for what it is, which is an absolute gem of an album. What points I made about there not being much to separate this from Epica stand, but when the results sound this good, what does that really matter? I know it's strange that in one way the album remains a disappointment, yet I still find it worth such a high score, but maybe that will tell you how powerful this thing is. It's certainly a unique take on 'death metal' though, and I highly recommend giving it a try regardless of your feelings towards Epica or the like.
(Originally written for Heavy Metal Haven, scoring 9.6/10)