"We have five guys in the band that are writing songs," says Epica singer Simone Simons, the day before a festival show in the Czech Republic. "And some are extremely productive, like songwriting machines: They keep on pooping out songs."
Despite the singer's colorful verb choice, Epica fans are all the happier for the band members' high-volume output. Since its formation in 2002, the Dutch symphonic-metal group has been refining its sound — an expansive meld of gnarled guitars, Simon's melodic lead vocals, larynx-shredding rasps from guitarist Mark Jansen, choral backing harmonies and orchestral arrangements — with noticeable results: Epica cracked the Billboard 200 Albums Chart for the first time in 2012 and have repeated the feat with each of their subsequent LPs. Last year's The Holographic Principle reached No. 20 on the Rock Albums Chart, their highest ever position there.
The band is building on this success with The Solace System, a new EP featuring extra tracks from The Holographic Principle sessions. When recording that album, the sextet ended up with an unusually large number of songs to choose from; though the band's name implies grandiosity, their discography betrays an allegiance to succinct album-length statements, and six finished tunes were left off The Holographic Principle in the service of concision. "We all loved [the surplus tracks] too much and thought they were too good to be treated as B-sides," Simons explains. Instead, the band decided, "Let's save these songs until we plan the perfect moment." That moment will occur on September 1st, when the band releases The Solace System in conjunction with their return to the U.S. for a series of tour dates accompanied by Lacuna Coil, Insomnium and Elantris.
The Solace System is Epica's third consecutive collaboration with the producer Joost van den Broek, who has a knack for pushing band members individually. "He's very meticulous," Simons says. "He always goes to the last drop of energy and squeezes the last sounds out of me." The producer has also done much to improve the quality of Epica's live orchestral accompaniment. "He had a lot of experience working with an orchestra that can work with a click track," Simons notes. "Normally an orchestra has a conductor, but our music is also recorded on a click track, so the orchestra needs to know how to use that and be as tight as possible. It's incredible the instruments we have apart from the six band members."
Epica's maximalist approach means that mixing songs is always a grueling, complex task. "We put more work on your shoulders," Simons acknowledges, "but that's our choice. There's like 1,000 instrument and vocal tracks a song sometimes — a lot of layers, a lot of information."
The orchestral embellishments and the uncompromising, thousand-track compositions of The Holographic Principle are still be there on The Solace System: What sets the EP apart from its predecessor is thematic, rather than sonic. While the full-length focused on the possibility that humans live in a computer-generated virtual reality, its spin-off EP is concerned with what Simons calls "more spiritual" affairs — rather than confront existential questions, several of the new songs are meditations on pain that feels immediate, virtual reality or no. "The ballad 'Immortal Melancholy' is a true love story of a couple that was terminally ill," Simons says. "One was going to have a long road of suffering ahead and the other wasn't going to live much longer, so they both ended their lives at the same time because they loved each other. The Solace System, in a nutshell, is about how everybody seeks different forms of therapy to console themselves when they feel down."
The release of the EP coincides with the band's arrival in the U.S. for their second run of dates in less than a year. Epica will play 23 shows in a month, including gigs in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. "We've been touring actively in America," Simons enthuses. "America has a very wide love for metal. Symphonic metal is, I think, becoming more popular, but the offer in music is gigantic in America. For European bands, you have to invest many years before you can reap what you sow. It's not an easy market."
Epica's efforts are beginning to yield rewards. "We've seen an increase of audience and fanbase — the tour we're going to do now, we have the biggest pre-sales ever," Simons declares. "We're busting our asses. I guess that's paying off."