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Monday 22 February 2021

Reviews: Epica, Bonfire, SKAM, Marco Garau’s Magic Opera (Reviews By Simon Black)

Epica – Omega (Nuclear Blast)

The Dutch (predominantly) Symphonic Metal outfit are back after a lengthy gap, as despite the presence of a few cupboard-clearing stopgap releases it has been a full five years since The Holographic Principle, the protracted touring of which led to the band taking a much needed break. I use the word ‘predominantly’ deliberately, as there is such a melting pot of styles in their mix from Symphonic, to Death, to Power, to Gothic, via assorted snorts of Groove, Thrash, Folk, Djent and anything else that takes their fancy along the way that they can be difficult to pin down. This release feels like a ‘back to basics’ approach has been used, meaning the Symphonic and Deathy Gothic elements are definitely the loudest voices in the stylistic mix, and it feels like a distillation of the kind of tracks they are most well-known for. The usual counterpoint between founder guitarist/grunter Mark Jansen and Simone Simon’s powerful evocative clean voice are a constant back bone of the band’s sound. In this case this is wonderfully accentuated in this instance by the use of full choral vocals and an orchestra, which can’t have been easy to put together with the world in lockdown. 

The fact that it sounds more fluid, complete and well-executed is a testament to the abilities of this band. It’s a rich, flowing beast of a record, and I’m struggling to find a weak point for the core part of the package. The full on Symphonic delivery starts from the get go, and does not let up for the whole of the first disk, although the ballad Rivers is the first point when the tone and pace change and the more Gothic elements step to the fore. With its haunting piano melody and Simone Simon’s voice given full reign this is top notch stuff. Most of the heavier tracks are very much clearly of a theme, but after five years Epica are clearly trying to focus on a core sound and leaving some of the experimentation for the more light-hearted section of the release.

The version that fell across our desk is a two disk one, whose second disk has a smaller number of more acoustic and experimental tracks and comprises of some reworked versions of tracks on disk one plus some other oddities and not a death grunt to be heard. Not all of this works, although I defy anyone to not be blown away by the choral arrangements on the Acapella version of Rivers. Abyss O’Time and Omegacoustic do fall a bit flat, and feel more like something left over from the Travelling Willbury’s covers session, but the aforementioned Rivers is probably the best thing on the whole release. I’m not sure how the full on South American dance class music of the final track El Codiga Vital helps move things along, but it’s an unusual coda to a quite eclectic second disk. If you can ignore the second bonus disk, this is an album whose material is crying out for arena size spaces and production to be delivered in, and like Nightwish before them this feels like a band about to explode to the next level. 8/10

Bonfire – Roots (AFM Records)

OK, this is a little different. With their most recent album only getting released last March and getting a reasonable 7/10 thumbs up from me it seems remarkably soon for another release. The lockdown boredom must be getting to these guys and the energy brought by bringing Alex Stahl in so recently still needs an outlet. As always I approached this record with a little trepidation but find myself pleasantly surprised once again. Maybe they just want to crank the handle whilst this line up is stable, either way it’s a breath of fresh air.

So how is it different? Where this album plays with the audience is that although the tracks are all original, musically they very much display the band’s influences (hence the title) to the point of plagiarism. Well, if thousands of dance and electronic tracks can make a living sampling riffs from elsewhere, then I guess Bonfire can play homage to those influences by including their riffs in their. This often does not come in the main melody line, but in some of the instrumental breaks and riffs, and within the first few tracks of this double CD I’ve already spotted Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog, Eric Clapton's Layla, Aerosmith’s Walk This Way, Great White’s Angel Song and on it goes for twenty-two tracks. Add to this all the songs are semi-acoustic and nearly all ballads, which meant I had been putting off actually starting reviewing this one, until I actually listened to it. Once again Bonfire have surprised me though, so maybe I should just shut up and admit that this incarnation of the band are doing it right.

Musically this hangs together as well as you would expect for an act with their experience, but it’s got a really fresh sound, feel and energy to it and a crisp production that accentuates that effect. The added advantage of choosing this style is that it’s easy to write and record remotely, but this does not sound like a record made by people unable to get into a room together either, and the fact that they can carry this so consistently through a double record of this size is a tribute to their skills. Well, it’s a brave band that decides to releases a double CD of semi-acoustic original ballads based on riffs from famous rock tracks in the middle of a pandemic, but bizarrely this works well. The homage riffage becomes fun to try and spot throughout, and I can’t fault the song-writing on any of the songs here. Once again a well-deserved 7/10

SKAM – Intra E.P. (X Ray Records)

The beauty of this reviewing lark, is that occasionally you get to be really pleasantly surprised. Although the last year seems to have been a truly strong one for the Hard and Melodic Rock genres, this feels like it’s a field currently being dominated by the Swedes. So when a British act comes along and blows you away it’s a cause for a celebratory drinky-poos or five. This is the first of two sister EP releases on a similar thematic vein, although often one assumes that there may be contractual reasons for this sort of thing, it does feel like it’s the first half of a proper album. 

There’s a strong 90’s ethos to this album, with its distinctive riffage and sharp beats and with its dark mood but up-tempo pace this is strong, emotive stuff that feels like it’s going to tear the roof of any live venue it gets aired at. And at six quiet beefy tracks, it’s pretty good value for money for an EP – a format more often than not which is effectively about over-bloating a single. Not so here – the six tracks all stand on their own two feet and I would be hard pressed to pick an obvious single from this batch of belters. 

Don’t underestimate the power of this Leicester three piece – they punch well about their weight and I am reminded of Therapy? at their peak for sheer sharp snared heaviness and the feeling that there were way more musicians involved than these three Midlands lads. Strong, distinct and thoroughly likeable, this feels like the beginning of a really interesting year for these chaps. 8/10

Marco Garau’s Magic Opera – The Golden Pentacle (Self Released)

Now normally I am a bit of a sucker for Symphonic and Operatic Metal, but for some reason this record is not doing it for me. I’m struggling to put my finger on the reason for this, because it’s very much cast from the same mould as the examples of the genre that sit on the top of that particular musical tree. Side project from a successful musician in the genre – check (that’s Marco Garau from Italian act Derdian); the rest of the band pretty much a supergroup assembled from other well respected acts in the field variously from Wings Of Destiny, Seven Thorns, and Shadowstrike- check; well-crafted and complex original story – check; strong mix – and production – check … so why isn’t this rattling my cage in the way, say an Avantasia release might? I guess part of the problem is that whereas Tobias Sammet is a master at crafting songs for his guests that distil their essence and looping these disparate styles into a flowing story and stylistic mix, this unfortunately sounds like it could have come from any one of the extended Rhapsody family of bands and therefore although distinctly from that Italian tradition, not sufficiently different enough to stand above this. 

This is frustrating because all of the constituent parts should be right, but somehow the final mix lacks that magic essence despite some fantastic performances and writing. Now don’t get me wrong, musically this is top notch stuff – the challenge is it’s fairly samey throughout and clearly a bit too close to some of its country cousins. You listen to this and the various incarnations of Rhapsody are the most immediate influence. When you have a top notch keyboard player as your song-writer you always expect the keyboard parts to be high in the mix, but they also dominate the melody lines and Anton Darusso’s vocal lines follow them a bit too closely. The same thing happens on the instrumental breaks, as although there is some great Neo-Classical material here, again the keyboards very much log the limelight and there is precious little of that musical sparring when musicians who are more than capable step back and leave Garau to dominate. Well, it’s his project so fair enough but for me this falls a little short of what it could have been with a slightly tighter focus on creating a more varied and original style of their own. 6/10

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