Latest Release: Ωmega  (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.epica.nl  

It has been five years since Dutch symphonic metal band Epica’s last album, The Holographic Principle. That album was released several months after the band toured Australia, providing fantastic live performances on the back of previous release The Quantum Enigma. Today, the pandemic has put all sorts of international touring plans into an ongoing state of delays. So, when they next return to Australia remains to be seen but if their recently released eighth album, Ωmega, is an indication of what to eventually expect, it will be even more bombastic than that last celebrated tour.  

 Following a well-deserved hiatus in 2018, the band reconvened in rural Holland in 2019, constructing a temporary studio and working collectively with renewed energy to write one of their finest albums to date. In early 2020, Epica narrowly dodged the bulk of upheaval to recording schedules that the pandemic has presented for many artists. The fortuitous timing for recordings meant disruptions were minimised with contributions from the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and children’s choir to bolster their signature choral elements, captured just before lockdowns were enforced.  

 The results are impeccable, with the band in splendid form, producing an inspiring and musically captivating album. Ωmega expands on earlier soundscapes with ambitious forays into even heavier material alongside more dramatic operatic sections, grand orchestrations, enhanced arrangements and an overall cinematic delivery. We spoke to the hugely talented and striking soprano vocalist Simone Simons to discuss the ever evolving musical adventure of the unique band that is Epica.  

Covid-19 has caused considerable disruption for international bands to record together. How did you cope with this situation?

We were largely lucky because we were able to record the whole record with the exception of the lead vocals. We live in four different countries. I live in Germany, Mark [Jansen, vocals/guitar] lives in Sicily then we have another member who lives in Belgium, and the rest live in the Netherlands. So, our studio, Sandlane Recording Facilities is in the Netherlands. It was the middle of March, everything was recorded and we were ready to do the lead vocals and then unfortunately, the pandemic hit. So, I recorded my vocals in a studio close by with, Joost [van den Broek], our producer on Zoom. So we’ve started the whole Zoom, conference call, he was on an iPad so I could see him and I could hear him, and it worked out well. Mark start in Sicily and he has a home studio where he recorded his vocals. We made it work.

Presumably when you are all together then there is a different song writing approach.

Yes, with this album we had a long touring break and got to recharge our batteries. In the past, we never had enough time or energy to meet up between tours for writing sessions because that would mean for us to travel again. We found that after our little sabbatical, we had energy and motivation again to meet up, and we thought, ‘Let’s do it old school and rent a house somewhere, we’ll have breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between, we’ll work on the songs’, then in the evening we had some glasses of wine. It was very, not life changing, but it is difficult for us to do it like this but we cleared our calendars from any other obligations, we didn’t book any shows, so we were completely focussed and dedicated to the writing process and it was a great decision.

Your voice sounds stronger this time too. On Twilight Reverie – The Hypnagogic State, your operatic vibrato has increased.

Oh, thank you. I try to improve with each record wherever I can and keep on learning to try to get the best possible result.

Joost van den Broek has been your producer for your last three albums and also mixed this latest one. Does he have more input these days?

Yeah, he does. We have worked with him since The Quantum Enigma and we’ve also released the EP, Epica vs Attack on Titan, which are cover tracks from Attack on Titan anime series and that is the first album that he also mixed. Then there is our Universe Gold Edition re-mix [tenth anniversary release for Design Your Universe] and for this album, he is also responsible for the mix. He has done a lot for the album, he has been there since the beginning and he is like the guardian of sound and making sure we all stay on track. He is very super motivated and a workaholic and a musical centrepiece and that is somebody that you need in the process of writing and recording. He is our babysitter and he does a good job with that.

The song Kingdom of Heaven, Part III – The Antediluvian Universe is diverse and at around thirteen minutes, quite long. What was the approach on successfully completing that track?

Well, Kingdom of Heaven, the basis of the song was by Mark, and then [Isaac Delahaye – lead guitarist] and the rest of the band helped finalise the song. Yep, Mark loves his long songs and we are known to create long songs. I love it as well because it is like a musical journey. I do like fast, catchy songs that are like earworms, so to speak, but I enjoy longer, complex songs. for the writing process, I cannot say much about it because I am not taking a big part of it, only at the end, when we start working on the vocals, they tell me where they want to have vocals and of course, yeah, the structure of verse and the chorus but there are some atmospheric parts in between, and that is how I come into play at the end of the writing of the song.

Looking at the vocal side of it, there’s parts which are doubled or layered, is that something you regularly pursue?

Yes, sometimes, in order to give it a little bit more of a three dimensional vibe, you might double the vocals but do them an octave lower and of course, there are vocal backups by myself and Marcela [Bovio – backing vocals] to just dress it up a little bit, I guess.

How does it sit in the mix versus the unclean vocals as well as choirs and everything else?

Yeah the choir has been a big part of Epica for sound since the beginning and I sometimes say that it is like our seventh band member. When I record my vocals, the lead vocals come first and then at the end, we do the choir parts. So, sometimes I will have a lead vocal over the choir and sometimes we will have me recording all the choir parts so that Joost can mix in my vocals to add the sound of my voice to the choir but not necessarily have my vocals be the lead.

For the entirety of the album, it clocks in at seventy minutes, how do you encourage people, in this digital age, to listen to it in one sitting? That is the best way to experience the album.

By keeping it interesting from the beginning until the end. Of course there are going to be favourite songs on the album where people push replay and it is also great to hear even from journalists as to which favourite songs they have and it is very diverse. But yeah, with the track list of the album, much like a set list, you try to keep it interesting and you want to have a good flow to keep the listener interested from the beginning to the end. Of course the song Ωmega – Sovereign of the Sun Spheres was the end, Alpha – Anteludium was the beginning and our third and final part of Kingdom of Heaven is placed on number eight and that was kind of the base of the track list and then you fill it in, according to some personal taste but you put the songs in a strategic order to have a good flow. You wouldn’t put two songs together that both have a long introduction, and stuff like that.

Do you ever look back at the finalised project and think you wish you could change one little note?

Yeah maybe, there’s one or two things where in the end I thought, ‘Ah, I could have done it like this as well,’ but that is the musical process and is also about letting go when a song is truly finished. When you work with six people, or seven people when Joost is included, and you’ve all got different opinions, Joost tries to stay as objective as possible but of course, he also has his preferences and musical taste. It is kind of a recording of a moment in time and normally when we have played the songs live a couple of times, those songs evolve a bit as well and then you figure out, ‘Ah, I could have done it like this or that,’ but that is the beauty of when you sing the songs live because you can change it a little bit. Not too much of course but yeah, you have to let go and let the songs live and yeah, there are maybe one or two things where I think, ‘Damn, I wish I could have done it this way’ but that’s it, you cannot change it. It’s just one of those things where sometimes another melody comes to you at a later time. But, you only have a limited time to come up with melodies before you record it and then it set in stone.

Epica has some death metal and black metal influences in the music. Is that something everyone enjoys, including yourself?

Yes, and we have two band members, our drummer Ariën van Weesenbeek, and Isaac, who used to play in a death metal band [God Dethroned] and they are also songwriters so of course they incorporate their style to our music and I think it fits well. Epica is a band of extremes and you know, on one side we can play at a more mainstream festival but on the other, we can totally keep up with all the other metal bands because we have so many elements in our music and I think it fits really well and I love it. I love, for example, with Kingdom of Heaven, it has such a beautiful and serene start to the song but in the middle part, it just goes completely crazy and I like that. I am looking forward to playing that song live.

Are the death metal aspects challenging because of the intensity or contrast to soprano vocals?

Not, not really but of course the more brutal parts of our music are backed up with grunts and not always my vocals, you know, that is something that we think about. I also don’t have any ambition to start grunting one day.

The blast beats in the track Synergize – Manic Manifest, which then goes into half time segments is impressive. I gather that there was a fair amount of rehearsal involved.

Yeah, the song Synergize – Manic Manifest is also written by Isaac and he is the death metal guy. Even though his songs have a more happy touch and I like to call him Mr. Major, because he writes everything in a major key, ha-ha. Our drummer is also a huge death metal fan and he has got the blast beats in his legs.

Also in the mix, there is sometimes a scooped guitar sound that is something you might hear in black metal.

Yep, but I love it. I mean the first metal band that I got in touch with when I made the transition from rock music to metal where black metal bands because my first boyfriend was a metal head and his favourite bands were the classics. You know, Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth, Old Man’s Child and Mystic Circle. Those were the first black metal bands that I listened to and so that’s how I got into it.

As a contrast, Rivers has just yourself and piano, and is quite sparse. The atmospherics start to build up but it really works on the album, in context of the previous song.

Yes, it is one of those rare moments of peace on the record and we always have ballads on our records and we love doing them. I love singing ballads, and I think that Rivers is no exception and it is also one of my favourite songs of the album. It is probably going to be a great live song too.

Do you perform songs like in front of a metal audience at a festival, where invariably there are other bands blaring away in the background?

Well, for festivals we tend to stay away from ballads and we adapt our set list to the kind of festival we are playing at, metal or otherwise. But, with festivals you just don’t know if the audience is into you at all. When you play a headline show, you know that the audience is there for you and you can be a little bit more creative with the set list. But on the festival circuit, you have to make sure that you keep the attention so you play the short, powerful, catchy songs, the heavy ones and you know, we could play the three parts to Kingdom of Heaven and our show would be over. We could just play three songs but you have to keep the attention of the listener. So, we come up a powerful set list and for the ballads, we leave them out.

What would you say are your major influences musically?

One of my all-time favourite bands would be Opeth and I also love Rammstein. My favourite records of 2020 would be Amaranthe and Delain, I really like them too and of course, I want to support the women in my industry. But I also like to listen to jazz and I have a wide array of musical tastes and I don’t always stay within the metal scene. I can fall in love with a voice; it doesn’t have to be a metal band.

The reason I ask was from the story in the trilogy, linking the omega point theory and Emerald Tablets, and wondering if progressive music was in there such as Pink Floyd or King Crimson?

Mark does, I think his father is also a huge Pink Floyd fan so he kind of grew up with that as well. I can understand or imagine that he took some of that into the song writing and especially into Kingdom of Heaven and all the three songs. But I myself am not really familiar with Pink Floyd with the exception of the classics that we all know.

The album artwork is great, yet again. Can you elaborate on how that came about?

The artwork is created by Stefan Heilemann [Heilemania] and we have been working with them since The Classical Conspiracy . He is a good friend of mine and also lives in Germany, close to where I live, and with each record, we tell him the lyrics and we give him some description, per song and then he starts creating. Each record is different, sometimes we’ve got to give more directions but with Ωmega, it went pretty quickly. He took the concept that we all have a labyrinth within ourselves that we try to navigate through and he added in little symbols. Such as, the number eight, which is because it is our eighth studio album and eight is also the infinity symbol if you put it to the side. You also have the ankh symbol which stands for the breath of life. Colour wise, you have a huge contrast between light and dark, which is also a recurring topic in the lyrics. So, I am very happy with the artwork. We put a lot of thought into it. For the photo shoots, it may be funny to mention, due to the pandemic it was not possible to get the whole band together to create the photos for the artwork. So, Stefan Heilemann came to my house and we did some photos in my little photo studio, and we travelled together to the Netherlands in the summer because we also have an acoustic CD of Ωmega. So I recorded my vocals and he took photos of the other band members that travelled to the studio and then Mark, who lives in Sicily, had to take photos with another photographer. Stefan Heilemann had to make it all look like one cohesive band photo but I think he did great job and he is a great digital artist.

I am sure there is plenty of that which goes on but we are generally all just none the wiser.

Yes, and then one month later we had the video recording for Abyss of Time – Countdown to Singularity and also the photo shoot with Tim Tronckoe from Belgium, we have worked with him for many years as well. But that was when we got the real band photo shoot where we all could travel and get together. I haven’t seen the band members after that, unfortunately.

Hopefully we might see you back in Australia eventually.

That would be lovely. I cannot wait to be back onstage.