Dutch guitarist/vocalist Mark Jansen unveiled his highly anticipated post-After Forever undertaking -- a new orchestral metal project named Epica -- via 2004's The Phantom Agony album. Clearly patterned on Jansen's former band, Epica fuses his deathly croaking with the angelic tones of a classically trained mezzo-soprano named Simone Simons, over a lush foundation of symphonic power metal. However, as compared to After Forever's pre-established blueprint (and unfortunately, continual comparisons are inevitable here) songs like "Sensorium," "Cry for the Moon," and "Illusive Consensus" tend to prioritize guitars over keyboards, while making greater use of full-on choir backdrops. And although she is a gifted operatic talent by any definition, lead vocalist Simons simply lacks the sheer vocal prowess and versatility of After Forever's Floor Jansen. Whether this is the case by nature or design, one feels her talents are being underutilized; but then, perhaps Jansen didn't want her monopolizing the proceedings like the aforementioned Floor (although they apparently have no problem objectifying her sensual image on the album's cover). Furthermore, additional embellishments such as spoken word recitals, lyrics decried in Latin and Arabic, and complicated religious and philosophical exhortations featured on the likes of "Façade of Reality," "Seif al Din," and the preposterously overwrought title track make the whole bloated work almost too pretentious to stomach. And for all of this grand conceptualizing (The Phantom Agony's intricately intertwined movements indeed amounting to a concept album), what you have here is a samey-sounding LP by symphonic metal standards: lyrically engaging and brave of vision, to be sure, but disturbingly short on songwriting chops, and ultimately devoid of the genre's dramatic and defining peaks and valleys of emotion. Having said all that, The Phantom Agony's daunting palette of colors is vast enough to probably convert a few disciples to the group's cause.
The Phantom Agony Review
by Eduardo Rivadavia