EPICA — Design Your Universe

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EPICA - Design Your Universe cover
4.26 | 40 ratings | 3 reviews
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Album · 2009

Filed under Symphonic Metal


1. Samadhi (Prelude) (1:26)
2. Resign to Surrender (A New Age Dawns, Part IV) (6:18)
3. Unleashed (5:48)
4. Martyr of the Free Word (5:03)
5. Our Destiny (6:00)
6. Kingdom of Heaven (A New Age Dawns, Part V) (13:35)
7. The Price of Freedom (interlude) (1:14)
8. Burn to a Cinder (5:40)
9. Tides of Time (5:33)
10. Deconstruct (4:13)
11. Semblance of Liberty (5:42)
12. White Waters (4:44)
13. Design Your Universe (A New Age Dawns, Part VI) (9:28)

Total Time: 74:50

Bonus track:

14. Incentive (4:14)

Bonus Disc 2 - The Acoustic Universe
1. Burn to a Cinder (5:32)
2. Our Destiny (5:13)
3. Unleashed (5:06)
4. Martyr of the Free Word (3:56)
5. Design Your Universe (8:21)

Total time 28:08


- Simone Simons / vocals
- Mark Jansen / guitar, grunts
- Coen Janssen / synths, piano, additional Bariton & Bass Vocals (choir)
- Isaac Delahaye / guitar
- Yves Hunts / bass guitar
- Ariën van Weesenbeek / drums, grunts, spoken word

Guest musician

- Tony Kakko / clean male vocals on #12

Epica choir:

- Linda van Summeren / Soprano
- Bridget Fogle / Soprano
- Amanda Somerville / Alto
- Cloudy Yang / Alto
- Previn Moore / Tenor
- Melvin Edmondsen / Bass
- Simon Oberender / additional Bariton & Bass Vocals
- Olaf Reitmeier / additional Bariton & Bass Vocals

About this release

Release date: October 16th, 2009
Label: Nuclear Blast Records

Thanks to adg211288, diamondblack for the updates


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Specialists/collaborators reviews

Fact: Epica is progressive metal. Okay, so they’re more instantly recognisable for their symphonic elements and admittedly that is their primary genre, but there’s no denying that Epica are a class above the run-of-the-mill symphonic metal act, and this is why, and it especially shows on this, their 2009 album Design Your Universe.

This album gives me a bit of a dilemma however, and that’s because I was already a big fan of Epica before this album came out, and I consider its processor The Divine Conspiracy to be an album worth a perfect score, so what do I do when from every possible angle the band manages to better it with this follow up?

I guess the only thing to do is to explain why and settle for giving it an identical score seeing as it would be unfair to The Divine Conspiracy to lower my rating of it just for perspectives.

Continuing the trend that the Epica albums have always follows, Design Your Universe begins with an intro track, Samadhi, which like the band’s other intros before it is a classical piece. It’s good for what it is, which is a build up for the first proper song that the band’s going to give us, called Resign to Surrender, which is flows easily into and is an example of an intro track done right, since it doesn’t become integral listening for the song it leads into as some intros do. It doesn’t make the listen lose anything by not playing it, although it is very worth it.

Resign to Surrender is the first song from the album to be a continuation of Mark Jansen’s A New Age Dawns saga, which the band began on their 2005 album Consign to Oblivion, this being the fourth part of it overall. Jansen leads the song with his harsh vocals, backed by the Epica choir with female vocalist Simone Simons handling the chorus and bridge sections of the track, up until this point it follows a fairly basic structure but this is where Epica take it up a level with some nice lead guitar backed by symphony, it lulls the listener into thinking it’s going straight back to where it started by throwing the main riff out again but it doesn’t, allowing the song to continue to progress with some beautiful vocals from Simons. There are also some spoken words from drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek in this song, and unlike some songs I’ve heard they don’t sound out of place. This is a highlight of the album and it is the perfect choice for the first song (the intro doesn’t count) as it lets the listener know just what Epica are about, showcasing their key elements such as both vocalists (and both on very top form on this and throughout the album I might add), their well constructed songs, heavy guitars and lush symphonies.

It is also a good move on their part to line-up the album’s lead single Unleashed next because it shows another side of Epica. If Resign to Surrender is to be taken as them at their most extreme (and believe me as far as band’s of their style go, Epica could actually be considered extreme symphonic metal), then Unleashed should be taken as their middle ground, still heavy, but lacking Jansen’s growl. This obviously makes the song more commercially appealing to the casual listener, but not in such as way as some of Epica’s other songs that were chosen for singles. Yes it’s a good choice for a single, but it should sit a bit better with those who will rate down single material as being too commercial. That would be unjust here, this is a prime example of symphonic metal at its finniest and Simone really shines when she takes her vocals up a notch near the end into those real operatic tones. She soon does this again a couple of tracks down the line with Our Destiny. Though this one does feature Jansen’s growl as well, it too could be consider part of the middle ground Epica sound due to its slower tempo and lyrically hooks in its chorus, though they take things up a notch just after its halfway point and things start to progress more into Epica’s more extreme side.

Another highlight for me is Martyr of the Free Word, the fourth track on the album. Aside from being a strong song for its writing Simone deliveries some truly mesmerising vocal melodies here which takes it a whole level above good into greatness. Later track Burn to a Cinder has a similar effect.

With Design Your Universe containing an interlude track (The Price of Freedom), it could be said that the album has two halves and it is the final track on the first half, Kingdom of Heaven that really holds the distinction of being both the best the album has to offer and also the band at their most progressive. At thirteen and a half minutes in length and not a second of it wasted, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it is Epica’s best song to date. From Jansen’s harsh growls to Simone’s operatic voice, the complex guitar riffs, the symphonies, everything here is perfect, especially the drawn out progressive instrumental section which should leave no doubts as to Epica’s status as a progressive metal band. From heavy to symphonic to some beautiful acoustics backed by more symphony, it has everything that I look for in these sort of instrumental sections. It doesn’t have to be all out lead guitar (though they give us some of that a bit later as well), if anything this is much more epic. This is also the next part of A New Age Dawns and like Resign to Surrender features some spoken words. The danger with a song of this sort of length is boredom yet it seems to pass very quickly, and that’s because it’s done right, very right in fact. Okay, so we do hear some parts several times during its duration but they never seem overdone. Perfect in every sense of the word.

After the interlude track the second half of the albums begins. I already mentioned first song Burn to a Cinder in passing above when talking about Martyr of the Free Word. Simone is excellent here and it’s another favourite of mine. While the interlude that precedes may seem a pointless exercise on paper it is actually very important given that the band pretty much just presented the album’s magnum opus, this interlude was needed so we could recover and appreciate one of those middle-ground Epica songs after that dose of progressive extremity.

What I haven’t mentioned in this review so far is the third side to Epica’s music and that is their really light side. Okay so we got some classical stuff on Samadhi and The Price of Freedom which can be considered light but what we’re talking about now is the light side of Epica in the actual context of a song. It’s not a side that the band delve into so often, after all they’re a metal band, but like many other symphonic metal bands they do tend to stray into this territory for a song or two per album and on Design Your Universe Epica have given us Tides of Time and White Waters. The former of this is led by the piano and Simone’s vocals which get really high and operatic in the song’s chorus. It’s beautiful but is admittedly not likely to everyone’s cup of tea, which is why it’s quite fortunate that the whole song is done in this style, as the metal instruments kick in after a couple of choruses. This isn’t exactly the most original formula to use for this sort of song but it is a good example of it. There’s some good lead guitar here as well as Simone’s operatic vocals sound even better after the guitars have started. White Waters is the other light offering on the album. This song features some guest vocals from Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica. More guitar driven than Tides of Time, it’s a nice little duet and like Tides gets heavier after a certain point. It’s not exactly a gem from the album when its standard is so high but is a nice addition nonetheless and Kakko’s clean vocals give a refreshing change from the usual grunts and accompany Simone and its particularly good when it gets heavier as Kakko is excellent here.

Deconstruct and Semblance of Liberty bring Mark Jansen’s growl back with a vengeance, and with the pair of them sitting between the two light songs they give a welcome break from them. While those light songs are very good what must be remembered is that this is a metal album and most people will be listening to this for the metal content, so following a light song with another light song would not really be a great idea. The flow of an album is very important as well as taking songs as stand-alone pieces and while it could be argued that with only two light songs in thirteen tracks maybe one should have been placed into the first half of the album, the positioning works pretty well as it is. Back to the songs at hand however Deconstruct isn’t actually the band at their heaviest but Semblance of Liberty is right up there with Resign to Surrender as part of the extreme side of Epica.

Finally at the end we come to the title track and the final part of the A New Age Dawns saga that the album is going to offer us. If the saga follows the standard of Jansen’s previous saga of songs, The Embrace That Smothers, there’ll be a further three parts still to come as of this album. This is another long track at nine and a half minutes and like Kingdom of Heaven shows Epica is their extreme and progressive styles. The opening acoustics are atmospheric, the riffs heavy and all in all a great way to close this amazing album. Simone’s vocals are so high here that she pretty much sounds like a choir on her own.

So now that I’ve talked about the songs what can be said it summary of Design Your Universe? Only really that this is an extremely varied album and as good as symphonic metal (or perhaps metal in general) gets. It’s a showcase of how Epica as a band are no one trick pony and that they are very far from being a copycat Nightwish. This is a whole level above what most other bands of this genre are doing and I wouldn’t actually hesitate to recommend Epica, this album especially, to people who may otherwise not like symphonic metal.

So there we have it, Design Your Universe. An album that tops what I already considered a perfect album by this band. This is easily the best that Epica have offered to date and if this last experience is anything to go by I may end up having to eat these words, but I really don’t see how the band can top this one. I already feel that I’m somehow doing this one an injustice by giving it the same score than I did The Divine Conspiracy.

(Review originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)

Members reviews

[review originally published on http://thecennsor.wordpress.com/]

Being to the premiere concert Epica put out in Amsterdam a few days prior to the release of their new full-lenght Design Your Universe was probably the worst idea I could come up with – in order to keep this review objective. Too late, I guess. And besides being witness to hell of an output (the show, even choreographically speaking, was great), I had the chance to hear how the (almost) whole new album sounds like on stage. And that falls nowhere short from its studio value: magnificent.

For those who might be wondering: the addition of Ariën van Weesenbeek on drums did bring a whole new approach to the songwriting. So did the add-on of guitarist Isaac Delahaye (to be held responsible for the unexpected appearance of several solos here and there). As a result, Epica‘s sound has (finally?) become much heavier and aggressive, yet of course still awesomely balanced by their trademark penchant for symphonic melody.

This whole new attitude also carried an impact to vocals. Fear not: our beloved operatic Simone can still hit quite some high notes. But you’ll have to appreciate the variety to her singing style, to be heard (I’m picking my own favourite example, but many more are possible) on Martyr of the Free Word, which moreover features a gregorian-like choir of exquisite quality. Mark‘s grunts are also still there, as well as Ariën‘s. We might as well mention Tony Kakko‘s contribution on the duet-ballad White Waters — again, a good effort, even in the ear of a non-fan of Sonata Arctica‘s like me.

But the force of this album lies in the way a couple of elements have fallen into place, even more than before. Epica have been building on a very unique style in the direction of a more and more mature symphonic sound, rising out of a rib of the now dead After Forever to develop into a yardstick in their genre. Whoever would’ve looked up at Nightwish, some years ago, as the quintessence of symphonic metal, has now a younger act to reckon with — and that does say something.

Design Your Universe is a testament to Epica‘s well-deserved leading role in the sub-genre of symphonic metal. Slashy guitar riffs, majestic arrangements, far crunchier rhythms and more varied vocal lines, all merged into a very mature songwriting, couldn’t but lead to very worthy nominee for “album of the year”. Yeah, you’ve heard me. Here’s more than enough to earn the Cennsor‘s greatest honor for 2009. Coming out straight after one of my favourite bands’ most recent output (see previous review), that again means quite something.

Let me stress on but one of the elements leading to a perfect album that I’ve credited Design Your Universe to possess. It’s the positioning of the songs throughout the record. Not to overrate it, but it can certainly help an album gain a steady spot on your playlist. The scheme short intro+bursting opener with the long title track as a closer still finds its place here. Resign to Surrender in fact already sets the tone for the rest of the album: one definitely gets the impression (the hope?) a new, higher level of heaviness is what we’re going to deal with here. Which is definitely the case, as shown by the couplet Martyr of the Free Word – Our Destiny and again, later on, by yet another pair of pretty heavy pieces, Deconstruct and Semblance of Liberty, the latter being sort of Epica‘s own reprocessing of Fear Factory‘s Replica they had covered on their previous album.

After Our Destiny, the 13 minute long epic Kingdom of Heaven pinpoints the album’s coordinates (heaviness on a symphonic note, with very proggish syncopated riffs in between), to give way to an interlude followed in its turn by the TDC-styled Burn to a Cinder. Time for a tender piano ballad (Tides of Time), then back to some heaviness, and finally the aforementioned White Waters and the title track.

The owners of the album’s limited edition will be further pleased with Incentive, a great combination of grunt vocals, hammering drumming and very epic cues.

THUS SPAKE THE CENNSOR: To try and go into even further details couldn’t however replace the great experience, filled with what is really an epic feeling, you’ll undergo if you actually listen to Design Your Universe. The Cennsor advices to go have a listen, for if you already liked Epica, you’ll now stick with them much tighter. 9/10
I wanted to listen to this album a few more times before giving this review, but as it stands, I can't bear to see this fantastic album with such low ratings and not even a single review. This is undoubtedly the triumph of Epica's career to this point. And a strange triumph indeed it is. At the time of The Divine Conspiracy, I proclaimed that album to be just a bit short of what they were capable of. I thought that if they followed their trend, that this one would have to be even more overblown and epic, even more creative, yet also more tasteful. Well, instead Epica came right out and took a U-turn into death metal, sort of. This isn't any old death metal album you see, it is symphonic death metal in the truest sense. It has rough and tumble death metal riffs and vocals at an unrelenting pace, yet symphonic instruments hide in the background, suddenly popping in to give vital coloring to a song. The songs wind around themes, using variation and repetition in a classical aesthetic. At the first few listens, it seems like the orchestra got shanked, but in reality this is the most well-written symphonic parts on an Epica to date. It's just so carefully blended so that it seems hidden. In reality, if the orchestral elements were taken out, the album would fall flat on its face. This is why I call it true symphonic death metal.

This impression isn't given by the first song, Samadhi, which so many people hate as being more of the same. Yet, the first song is an overture, with nods and hints to the rest of the album without sounding like an overture. However, by the time Resign to Surrender comes up, all doubt is suddenly removed. It is strangely melancholy while furious at the same time. It kind of reminded me aesthetically of a death metal version of Tristania (them being the black metal version). When Simone finally enters the song, her vocals sound like older Floor Jansen. Anyone who follows After Forever knows that is a really strong compliment. As the CD progresses through more songs, Simone's signature is written in thick ink. She has finally become her complete own as a vocalist. I was never a big fan of hers, but she has suddenly become one of the great metal vocalists. Her range is fantastic, and her voice projects. She isn't quite like Floor, she sings a bit more restrained, a bit higher, a bit cleaner, a bit less soul and a bit more opera. She has the metal edge that I always accuse female vocalists of lacking in this genre. The drummer Ariën Van Weesenbeek feels more at home in this style than the previous album, playing more complex lines that makes his ultra sterile playing on the previous album seem more appropriate (the more dynamic and complex music couldn't be be played less precisely like most death metal). He still doesn't sound as human as I would like, but his technical mastery and his creativity make this easily a top rate performance. Isaac Delahaye is the new guitarist on board here, and probably the reason that Epica pursued a death metal approach. Both him and Ariën are from the death metal band God Dethroned. His arrival in Epica heralded the arrival of guitar solos. Guitar solos hardly seemed needed, but as soon as they are put in, all of a sudden it is obvious that they were in fact one of the missing elements. The riffs are not the same riffs I loved in Epica, they are fasted, more chugging oriented, preferring flurries of notes and power chords to the more standard rock approach of using space between the necessary notes. It puts them more in line with modern death metal, makes them more atmospheric, more furious, and less accessible.

The melodies on this album are some of the most interesting and powerful in Epica's career, any sense of cheesiness found on Epica's first and third albums are completely gone, no melodies are generic, but all are really catchy and emotive. This album is also the first Epica album where the lyrics don't suck. There are only two or three moments where they make me wince, and many more moments where I am impressed.

Overall, this album is by far the best of Epica's career. It's one of those albums that invents a new style in metal not as an end but as a means. It is the first masterpiece Epica has produced, and hopefully not their last. It's not for everyone though, hopefully my review made it clear what sort of audience would like this album. A word of advice for those who listen to this album: it sounds best at levels that probably damage your hearing. My ecstatic review might only make sense if your ears are ringing afterwards.

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