If you've been following this act since "The Phantom Agony" and "Consign to Oblivion", you'll attest to how greatly the band has matured. It's been a joy watching EPICA not merely stand toe-to-toe against anyone within its symphonic metal ranks, but prove to be a viable leader. The core team—Simone Simons, Mark Jansen and Coen Janssen (and drummer/vocalist Arien van Weesenbeek, who has been around since 2007)—remain from the band's formative years, and EPICA's graduating accomplishments are remarkable. The band has even hosted its own power prog gathering, 2015's "Epic Metal Fest". Suffice it to say EPICA has come into its own.
Since 2009, lead guitarist Isaac Delahaye has helped EPICA make majestic strides, and bassist Rob van der Loo appears to have his place cemented now, five years in. The band follows up last year's barnstormer, "The Holographic Principle", with a significant follow-up EP, "The Solace System", that is anything but a batch of throwaway cuts. If anything, "The Solace System" summons colossal energy into six songs, all deserving of live treatment. These are headstrong tracks that will merrily smother EPICA fans.
As with "The Holographic Principle", the emphasis is on more organic, live instruments despite the songs' intense layering. Thus "The Solace System" sounds as massive and accomplished as its predecessor. The title track opens like a gatefold with a rousing cavalcade of booming chorales, effectively raising the curtains, revealing EPICA's anthemic microcosm, which sounds bigger than ever. The details going into the group's music lately have grown so dense you're almost too busy deciphering it all to allow Simone Simons to whisk you in alongside the song's gust. What was largely Simons's theater to gape into—even with Mark Jansen's ralphs barging for attention, minutely so on this track—has evolved into an encapsulating metal drama spun by all players on deck: inclusive of the engulfing orchestral and choral supplements.
This increases the anticipation for track two, "Fight Your Demons", as even the veteran EPICA listener is bound to wonder how the band can top itself. The answer comes in the form of pulse-jacking speed for much of the song, where the band's theatricality takes this one beyond mere power metal, which, admittedly, has already been accomplished by everyone from THERION to BLIND GUARDIAN. EPICA itself has become expert at the for. The slowed-down progressions are dialed back tastefully, like the necessary pause in a relentless action film score, to give the audience a moment to catch its breath. This, with whispery keys, gently mirroring the opening chimes to John Williams's iconic "Harry Potter" theme, opening the otherwise rollicking "Architect of Light". This one's an undeniable contender for future EPICA live sets given the steady thump of the verses and galloping choruses. Here to Simone Simons and Mark Jansen do what they do instinctively within their angel-demon coupled framework. "Architect of Light"'s steamrolling choruses are gigantic already; you know they're bound for the stratosphere upon the final stanza.
"Wheel of Destiny" carries a nod to the mincing thrash of SAXON's "Wheels of Steel", but EPICA takes its track through one marveling turnstile after another in different signature maneuvers. Simone Simons drops a stellar performance on this track with ticklish high notes that tantalize and then subtly tranquilize within her mid-range. Layered together, Simons's tracks come off, dare we say, like ABBA hijacked by a guitar-heavy horde, just as they do on "Decoded Poetry". Hey, Anni-Frid Lyngstad had the keen instincts as Frida to toughen up on the ballsy "I Know There's Something Going On".
Proof is in the pudding once you sink into the exquisite "Immortal Melancholy", one of EPICA's most tender ballads, and the first written by Mark Jansen on guitar instead of piano. Needless to say, Simone raptures within this soothing milieu. Reportedly the rest of the band voted against its inclusion on prior LPs, thus "The Solace System" not only proves to be the perfect habitat for an experiment that works beautifully, and proves Jansen was right to follow this whim.
The effort EPICA puts into a six-song EP is not merely commendable, it's a mark of intractable stamina. It's been a long time since anyone referred to EPICA and NIGHTWISH as rivals. Instead, they usually get mentioned in the same sentence as masters of their mutual craft. Fittingly, "The Solace System" is much more than anyone could expect.