Apparently, 'Design Your Universe' is the most played album on my iPod, and 'Unleashed' the most played track. That's a good indication of how much I liked Epica's previous effort, so I had high expectations for this album.
IMPORTANT: the first thing to be aware of is that there was an error in the mastering of the CD which means that, on this initial batch at least, the final 'proper' track (i.e. excluding the bonus track), 'Serenade of Self-Destruction' has made it onto the album without the vocals. It doesn't appear, at present, that Nuclear Blast are offering a disc replacement scheme, which is poor. However, a download of the full track is available via the band's website, so the first thing you should do is head over there and grab it. It comes in two formats, one of which is .WAV, so it sounds great, but the whole situation is unfortunate. I suppose I might have / should have deducted a point from the score for this, but ...
Onto the album itself. On first listen I wasn't sure about it. There is so much going on that it's hard to take in at first, and it's definitely not as listener-friendly initially. On second listen I used my headphones and sat with the lyrics in front of me, and the whole album opened up into a world of wonders. Third, fourth and fifth listens have only emphasised how good it is. The production is fantastic, bringing through all the minor details. Simone's vocals are outstanding. I believe she's really been pushed on this album, and it works. There is a lot more grunting on this album, and it really serves to accentuate the light and shade of the songs. The musicianship is, as you would expect, first class. Isaac Delahaye's solos have an excellent clarity and power. The whole thing has a sense of collaboration about it, which is impressive.
The songs themselves: time will tell, but at the moment 'Storm the Sorrow', 'Requiem for the Indifferent', 'Deep Water Horizon', 'Deter the Tyrant', 'Avalanche' and 'Serenade of Self-Destruction' rank among my favourites that the band has yet recorded. And the rest of the tracks aren't far behind. It also has to be said that, even in its pseudo-instrumental form on the CD, 'Serenade ...' is simply awesome, conveying bags of atmosphere, and the full version has a marvellous, soaring chorus. I have to say that 'Delirium' is probably my favourite on the album at the moment: it's a showcase for Simone's voice and builds up slowly but steadily to a brilliant finish.
So, in short, it is another marvellous effort from the band and, for me at least, they seem to be building and improving upon what has gone before with each successive release.
Hoping for a UK date on the tour.
ETA: I notice that the Amazon page for the digibook edition is now showing 'Twin Flames' included as a bonus track. Please note that this was not on the version I received, and isn't shown on the image of the digibook's back cover either. It is, however, available to download from the usual outlets.