Get past the sexist slant of the title and take a serious listen to Epica's new album, The Quantum Enigma; particularly if you're one of those people (like yours truly) that's fed up with the female-fronted symphonic metal trend. Coming down from the buzz of celebrating their 10th anniversary, the Dutch sextet abandoned the business-as-usual approach that made them famous - and an inspiration to far too many bands around the world - and coughed up an album that, if it doesn't win you over outright, will at least earn Epica some respect. Yes, their orchestral backbone is still very much intact, but it now belongs to a guitar-heavy drum pounding monster that tears the band free of those lingering comparisons to Nightwish and Lacuna Coil.
"There was one guy I did an interview with today and he said, 'Before, Epica was a band just for my girlfriend. This new album, I love it too...' laughs guitarist/founder Mark Jansen. "We wanted to refresh the sound of the band and judging by all the positive reactions, we've succeeded."
"After Retrospect (the concert) we decided that since we had celebrated our first 10 years as a band, we should do something to refresh the sound for the next 10 years," he explains. "The more we thought about it, the more we realized we had to make some drastic changes. The first one was looking for another producer. Sascha Paeth (Kamelot, Avantasia, Rhapsody Of Fire) has always done a great job in the 10 years we worked with him, but we needed someone to take us out of our comfort zone. We knew exactly what we were going to get from Sascha and he knew what he'd get from us, so we wanted someone who would make us see a different side of ourselves. We chose Joost van der Broek (ex-After Forever) because he's still quite new to the production world but he's done a lot. He's gained a lot of experience but he still has this youthful energy around him, which makes you happy to work with him. That was the kind of energy we were looking for."
The Quantum Enigma isn't nearly as musically dense as some of Epica's previous albums, which sometimes seemed to choke on the layered choir/symphonic bombast shoe-horned into the songs. There's a whole lot of space in the music this time out, making Epica seem almost naked but most definitely stronger.
"Exactly, and that's what we had in mind," says Jansen, crediting the change in sound to his bandmates as well as Van der Broek.
"It's always a matter of waiting to see how much people are going to contribute. On Requiem For The Indifferent it was mainly me and Isaac (Delahaye/guitars) that worked on the songs, and Coen (Janssen/keyboards) wrote a few as well but that was it. On this new album it seemed that everyone was as excited as Isaac and I were on the last album, so everyone was writing, which is what we were aiming for. It was a great feeling to have that chemistry. For example, our new bassist Rob van der Loo contributed three songs. Our goal was to have as many ideas as possible to work with, but the quality of the material was the most important thing. So, we had to wait a bit and see what people would deliver, but even in the first selection of songs we were very enthusiastic as a group about what we heard."
"We started working with Joost on the songs right from the beginning. Some we dropped, and then we rehearsed the songs we kept as a full band, and that's when we started getting into the details. We focused on getting the guitars, bass, drums and keyboards to match perfectly - we tried a lot of different drum heads, cabinets, amps - which is something we didn't really spend a lot of time on in the past. It definitely made a difference."
If you want to dig in and see just how much Epica has evolved, give their 2003 debut The Phantom Agony a spin followed by The Quantum Enigma. The difference in intensity is almost laughable even though the classical scoring on The Phantom Agony was intended to make Epica come off larger than life. As songwriters and musicians, Jansen and his bandmates have come a long way.
"That also has to do with Ariën (van Weesenbeek), of course," Jansen says." He's a real metal drummer and able to do things I couldn't imagine a human being doing back then. Basically, we can write whatever we want and he can play drums on it. It was a lot different when we started; Simons is also a really good drummer but he was by far not as fast as Ariën is."
As for dialling back the symphonics on the new album...
"It was a conscious decision. We wanted the album to have more of a balance because in the past we had some really great guiitar riffs, but Sascha put the emphasis on other parts of the mix which made the riffs sound less heavy. This time, when we wrote a heavy guitar riff we wanted it to sound heavy on the album. So yeah, the guitars were a big focus on the album. It was a relief to hear the songs this way, and it's cool to have a mix like this where you hear another aspect of what Epica has to offer."
Epica's 10th anniversary was also heralded by the birth of vocalist Simone Simons' first child. The pregnancy could have sidelined her and the band, but she approached the making of The Quantum Enigma as another busy day at the office, as many as required.
"It wasn't that big of a deal because we took things as they were. Simone joined in and added things where she could, and when she told us she had to focus on other things we understood and supported her. That was the best way to do things because there was no frustration; everyone knew what to expect of everyone else when we were making this album. We went to her place in Germany twice during the songwriting to work on vocal lines with her, and it was a fruitful experience. Even when Simone was in the final stages of her pregnancy she gave 100% to the work, and it was cool. She could barely walk because she was ready to have the baby, but she tried to do her very best. Once the baby was born and she was recording her parts, Simone said the birth really changed her, that she felt more mature somehow. Even her voice changed a little because of it."
Diehard Epica fans will notice the change in Simons' voice, which actually has more to do with her than the way the album was recorded and mixed. Her operatic lead vocal approach from years past has been phased out almost entirely, restricted now to the choirs, but folks expecting a car crash upon hearing this can rest easy; Simons' "new" natural singing voice comes with balls.
"That's exactly how she described it, and she says it's because of all the things that have happened in her life up until now," says Jansen. "It made her stronger and she felt energized because of that. I'm really happy she felt like that because otherwise she might not have been able to perform at the same level. I'm really proud of her because I think many people in her situation would have focused completely on other things. Simone always said she was going to do her very best for this album, and not everything about making it was easy, but we pulled through and are very happy with the end result."
Looking back on a decade past Jansen admits he's a bit surprised Epica is still around, but at the same time he figures the band was destined to prosper once it got off the ground and in people's faces.
"I'm not surprised because when I go for something, I really go at it 100%. I also look for people to put around me that have the same drive. On the other side, 10 years ago - or 12 since we started - I couldn't imagine what I'd be doing in the future. Who knows? Maybe I would have stopped liking making this music, so what would I be doing now? In that way I'm surprised that we're still around and even growing."
Bottom line: they've come along way since Jansen launched the band in 2002 under the name Sahara Dust.
"I was never happy about that name even though I came up with it," Jansen laughs. "I really started disliking it, and I think Epica represents our sound so much better. Especially now."