The concert as a grand spectacle and the sub-genre of symphonic metal are companions almost to the point of necessity, and have been since the latter’s inception during the late 1990s. While the specific tale of Epica only began in 2003, a good while after the likes of Kamelot (whom inspired the band’s name), Nightwish and Rhapsody Of Fire had done much to pioneer the mixture of lofty orchestral arrangements with a driving and technically ambitious metallic style set, their more melodic death metal tinged niche with a penchant for Middle Eastern musical influences has set them apart from the crowd ever since and arguably ingratiated them a bit more to the arena-friendly crowd within metal circles. With nearly 20 years now in the rear view (or longer if counting mastermind Mark Jansen’s time with After Forever, of which Epica could be considered a continuation of sorts) and the still ongoing pandemic lockdowns hindering the prospect of an immediate tour in support of their 8th studio album “Omega,” this elite merger of classicism and modernity has now become the latest to endeavor upon the popular medium of online streaming to reach the masses.
In keeping with the cinematic tendencies of their signature sound, Epica has opted to present their first concert of 2021 in Omega: Alive Universal in a matter befitting the big screen, complete with elaborate scene transitions in between their massive anthems set on a colossal stage with numerous visual accents to entice the eyes. The mysticism that permeates the game of notes beneath front woman Simone Simons’ angelic mezzo soprano would be accented by an elaborate array of stage ornaments, most notably a pair of cobra statues at each side, towering above a collection of metal sculptures. Each object present on the stage would serve to accent the orderly placement of the band, as well as give the entire space itself the sense of being a world unto itself, particularly in how the pyrotechnics would seem to animate each segment of the whole. Combined with an ensemble cast of ballet dancers and acrobats, the performance often took on the appearance of a circus event within a piece of musical theater, yet also carried with it a darker, Gothic-tinged demeanor that set it apart from even the most artsy of carnival endeavors.
Despite the extremely visual character of Epica’s presentation, in most other respects this concert checked all of the boxes of a typical touring event. Having come about just under 4 months since the release of their latest studio album “Omega,” the setlist tended to favor said album with a strong showing of brand new material to the live setting. The opening trifecta of the grand symphonic prelude “Alpha – Anteludium”, the fast-paced crusher “Abyss Of Time – Countdown To Singularity” and the more nuanced and mid-paced yet highly catchy banger “The Skeleton Key” come off as fairly similar to what Nightwish has been doing in recent years, though here the guitar work carries a greater role in shaping the arrangement and the dueling vocal personas of Simons’ consonant beauty to Mark Jansen’s guttural beast largely steal the show. Later entries from the “Omega” arsenal would prove even more involved, with two towering epic length compositions in “Kingdom Of Heaven – Part 3 – The Antediluvian Universe” and “Omega – Sovereign Of The Sun Spheres” being flawlessly realized relative to their studio incarnations, along with a brilliant A Capella performance in “River” to allow a short respite from the pomp and bombast.
As a veteran act with an extensive body of work at their backs, Epica would also take care to include a solid selection of classic offerings from their past. Up tempo riff monsters such as “Unchain Utopia” off 2014’s “The Quantum Enigma” and the heavy thrashing classic “The Obsessive Devotion” off 2007’s “The Divine Conspiracy” would up the aggression factor significantly and stand among the more metallic moments of the event, with Mark Jansen’s forbidding vocal presence matching and occasionally surpassing Simons’ share of attention. The hyper-thrashing death metal tendencies of “Victims Of Contingency” takes the aforementioned shift in focus to its logical conclusion and serves as the apex point of aggression for the performance, and fittingly concludes with it raining on the stage. But for those who wanted the whole package, from the bestial heaviness to the serene consonance, the standout moment would be “Kingdom Of Heaven” off 2009’s “Design Your Universe,” which also stood as the most musically elaborate offering of the bunch, freewheeling through a wide variety of metallic expressions in Dream Theater-like fashion and saw lead guitarist Issac Delahaye rivaling Petrucci during his solo section.
The sheer scope of what was witnessed on June 12th of 2021 courtesy of The Netherlands’ hottest symphonic export is difficult to quantify in words, but suffice it to say, it was an event for the ages. The songs included in the show are each a testament as to how far metal has evolved as an art form over the past five decades, to the point where it is approaching the level of intrigue that was usually reserved to the classics of the 18th and 19th centuries. There were no slouches to speak of in this finely tuned symphonic metal machine, as the blinding speed and fury of the riff work was matched at every turn by a precision-based rhythm section courtesy of drummer Arien Weesenbeek and bassist Rob van der Looh that held the glue together, while keyboardist Coen Janssen proved to be almost as dynamic of a stage presence as the two vocalists in congress as he frequently cycled back and forth from a spinning stationary keyboard setup to a number of different handheld equivalents. For those fans of Epica or metal with a symphonic edge of any stripe, if this event has yet eluded you, it’s absolutely more than worth the price of admission and will only be available until just before midnight on June 15th.
Alpha – Anteludium (Song played from tape) / Abyss of Time – Countdown to Singularity (Live debut) / The Skeleton Key (Live debut) / Unchain Utopia / The Obsessive Devotion / In All Conscience / Victims of Contingency / Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of Heaven ~ Part III – The Antediluvian Universe (Live debut) / Rivers (Live debut; A Capella) / Once Upon a Nightmare / Freedom – The Wolves Within (Live debut) / Cry for the Moon / Beyond the Matrix / Omega – Sovereign of the Sun Spheres (Live debut)