Epica: Classical Conspirators

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By Adrien Begrand

Despite the fact that symphonic metal has become a very popular metal subgenre over the last decade or so, and although it’s become commonplace for metal bands to employ full orchestras on their studio albums, it’s not every day that a band is afforded the opportunity to perform live with a full orchestra behind them. So when Epica had a chance to stage a full-blown extravaganza in Miskolc, Hungary, of all places, needless to say the Dutch symphonic sextet jumped at the offer. Fully knowing that they couldn’t let their collaboration with the Remenyi Ede Chamber orchestra go unrecorded, either, the band captured the entire June 14, 2008 concert on CD, resulting in the newly-released double live album The Classical Conspiracy. For fans of Epica, it’s an absolute treat to hear the band and orchestra run through a ten-piece selection of classical favourites before launching into a full, 16-song set of original material, but for the band, it had to have required a ridiculous amount of advance preparation for a one-off show.

“It was a huge project,” says guitarist Mark Jansen. “[Kamelot keyboardist] Oliver Palotai arranged a big part of the Epica song orchestra parts for us. Of course, many melodies were composed already by us, but it needed to be rearranged for every single instrument in the orchestra. It took him about two months, 12 hours a day. The concert itself and the rehearsals went very smoothly, but to study all of the classical material was a hell of a job,” he laughs. “It took us half a year to prepare ourselves for this event.”

Singer Simone Simons echoes Jansen’s sentiments. “After [the rearrangements] starts a long period of rehearsing. We arrived 6 days earlier in Hungary to rehearse with the choir and orchestra.”

The classical set, which comprises the first 40 minutes of the two hour-plus performance, turns out to be surprisingly eclectic, the band offering selections of metal-infused classical pieces that range from Verdi, Handel, Vivaldi, and Grieg to well-known film scores by John Williams and Danny Elfman. And come on, who would ever pass up a chance to pull off a headbanging rendition of “The Imperial March” with a 42 piece orchestra behind them?

“In Hungary, they already had a concept of how the show had to be. First a part of classical music and after that, an Epica set list. That was part of the deal,” explains Jansen. “The opera festival in Miskolc is a reoccurring yearly event which takes place in one whole week. The show of orchestra with a band is one of the activities. We liked the concept so we decided to go for it. Fortunately the organization was also into adding some film scores, and we were totally free to choose classical pieces. Of course, we had to present them beforehand, but they liked all our choices.”

“We wanted to play some songs from The Score album that we made,” says Simons. “We all have our favorite composers and movie scores so we came up pretty fast with a setlist. The songs we’ve chosen all fit very well together with a metal band. I loved [Pergolesi’s] ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’, it is one of my all time favorite pieces. It gives me goosebumps! I also love to sing duets and the lovely lady I was singing with was also part of the choir that night. She has a hell of a voice!”

As for Jansen’s own personal highlight from the opening set, he says, “Vivaldi’s ‘Presto’, because I arranged that song myself and to hear the enthusiastic reactions was very good. The piece is very well known and since I was a kid, I liked this tune a lot already.”

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Of course, the big difference in such a performance is that the band is forced to follow the conductor as opposed to relying on the drummer for the cues, and although working with conductor Zsolt Regos was completely different from what Epica is normally used to in a live setting, things went relatively without a hitch. “From my side it all went pretty much perfect,” Simons states. “The two classical songs were a bit new for me to perform because it was only with the orchestra and not with the band and metronome. It is then a bit more difficult to keep up with the ‘beat’. There were probably little mistakes here and there but I was so focused on the show that they all passed me by…At first I thought that [the orchestra’s presence] would confuse me a bit. The sound is different and it is really live so there might be some mistakes here and there. Luckily I know the songs pretty well and have them in my mind, so I was trying to focus on that. It was a total new sound in my ears!”

“It would have been difficult without a conductor,” Jansen laughs. “The conductor communicates with the orchestra. The only disadvantage was that we had to wait until the conductor was ready to go on to the next song, so you don’t have it in your own hands when to start a song.”

In the meantime, with The Classical Conspiracy whetting fans’ appetites for now, the band has been hard at work on their fifth album, which is due out sometime this fall. So, kids, what can we expect this time around?

“We have a new member in the band, his name is Isaac [Delahaye] and he is a very talented guitar player!” enthuses Simons. “When the new songs were finished, he was given a chance to change the guitars where he thought was necessary. There are more guitar solos on the album and the guitars are in general more melodic.”

Jansen adds, “We always try to push our limits to a higher level – this time is no different…Arien [van Weesenbeek, drums] will do some growls as well. Isaac will do some solos. He’s brought some new influences in…I wrote most of the guitar lines but Isaac finalized them and worked on the details. It was very refreshing to work like this and I’m very happy with him in the band.

“The recordings also went very smoothly – no stress and a lot of inspiration. After the choirs, just some last guitars and bass need to be recorded. After that, we can work on the very final part, the string arrangements. They have been written already but we finalize them in the end when we have the overview of all recorded parts.”

“Lately I have been taking rock/pop singing lessons and was surprised with my own voice,” says Simons. “So far I thought that my strength was the classical singing but it turns out I have more in me than I thought. You’ll hear what I am talking about on the new album…We still maintained the true Epica sound but as usual put some new elements in here and there. You’ll love it!”

The Classical Consipracy is out now on Nuclear Blast.

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.