For many years now, Epica has been riding the high waves of success, delivering stunning album after stunning album, embarking on massive tour endeavours covering the whole globe time and time again.
In 2019, however, after an impressive 17 years on the fast lane, the Dutch symphonic metal titans took a step back. To take a break and a deep breath, yes. But even more so to reflect on what got them to this point in the first place.
The answer to that is easy. Exactly ten years ago, Epica released what is today widely regarded as their breakthrough album. While being far from a newcomer back then – with three impressive albums, a soundtrack record and a live orchestra project under their belts – the release of Design Your Universe marked the watershed between a fairly well-known symphonic metal band with high ambitions and an international phenomenon of great prowess. With striking momentum and a carefully maintained balance between epic metal grandeur and monumental orchestral soundscapes, between pure cinematic bombast and teeth-clenching heaviness, between Mark Jansen’s abysmal grunts and Simone Simons’s vocal force of nature, Design Your Universe stormed the charts all over Europe and took the band onto an altogether different level.
To this day, Design Your Universe is an album cherished by band, fans and critics alike, making its tenth anniversary the perfect occasion for a lavish re-release. “I had the feeling that we were creating something special”, founder Mark Jansen remembers of the recording process. Today, it’s one of his favourite Epica records. “Plus, it had the best sound we ever accomplished to this day.” Courtesy of long-time producer and friend Sascha Paeth, Design Your Universe marked not only a new musical peak; it featured such a stunning production that Jansen was even sceptical of re-mixing it in the studio for this re-release. “The sound is brilliant, so why change it?”, he laughs. In the end, they agreed on staying very close to the original sound, carefully twisting some knobs here and there to introduce the seminal record to the digital era. “Back in 2009, albums still were compressed a lot due to the ongoing loudness war in metal”, he recalls. “Today, you have more room for the mixing process again, making the whole music sound more dynamic.”
New techniques or not: Boy, did these songs age well! Modern classics in their own right, “Martyr of the Free Word”, “Unleashed”, power ballad “Tides of Time” or the unforgettable epic “Design Your Universe” have long since earned their places in the throne room of symphonic metal. “It was really nice to somewhat re-live the making of the album”, Jansen says. “My favourite song was and still is ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. It has all the elements Epica stood for at the time, but even more so because it is dedicated to my grandmother who passed away while we were recording this album. It will always have a special meaning to me.” And not only to him. “Mark’s grandmother was a very important figure for the whole band”, Simone Simons says. “Her house was our rehearsal space from the beginning of Epica. She always greeted us with a smile and made sure we had everything we needed.” Simons dedicated “Tides of Time” to her, making it a very emotional album for Epica.
But Design Your Universe was even more than that. It is the record that laid the foundation for their future success: Their first album with Ariën van Weesenbeek as their new permanent drummer, Isaac Delahaye as their new guitarist and artwork alchemist Stefan Heilemann (Heilemania) as their visual sidekick, Epica for the first time had all the ingredients that were about to propel the trailblazers right to the top. “Isaac literally joined the band when we were on the brink of entering the studio”, Jansen recalls. “He had very little time to contribute to the album, and yet he did a massive job working on the guitars with me. He clearly lifted the songs to another level. So maybe it was even an advantage that time was that limited. We couldn’t overthink things. I have the feeling it had to be like that.”
Sometimes, it just all falls into place. Design Your Universe is one of those rare cases were everything simply seems to click, where everything happens just the way it is supposed to be. “A record is a success when it always triggers the same emotions – no matter how old it is. And these songs still pierce my heart through and through”, Simons states. Needless to say, it is also her stellar vocal performance on this one that left a permanent mark on the genre of symphonic metal. “I was more than happy with how my vocals turned out in the studio”, she nods. “I was able to do yet another step forward which is something I always try to accomplish. There’s just no guarantee if you will succeed.”
She did. The band did. And now, ten years after the birth of this new figurehead of symphonic metal, Mark Jansen (rhythm guitar, vocals), Simone Simons (vocals), Isaac Delahaye (guitar), Rob van der Loo (bass), Coen Janssen (keyboards, synthesizer, piano) and Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums) revisit the iconic album, additionally gracing the re-release with five sublime acoustic versions of some of the most beloved songs. “We were astonished by how well the tracks sounded and really enjoyed making them. They bring something new to the table”, Jansen beams. Simone adds: “I loved doing these acoustic versions. I really had the best time! I mean, turning a heavy monster like ‘Martyr of the Free Word’ into a ballad simply shows how strong the song really is.” This, of course, holds true for every tiny fraction of the 74 minutes and 50 seconds of Design Your Universe. Pure symphonic bliss, executed on the highest level. Or, to quote some Marvel Comics lore: Every hero has his origin story. This is theirs. A commanding game changer as epic and monumental as it was ten years ago.
– Björn Springorum