Friday, February 19, 2016

Better Late Than Never: My EPICA Experience On Their One & Only US Tour Stop in 2015

Standing side by side with the Gods of Symphonic Metal

The month was September, the year 2015. Months earlier I was fervently begging a relative to chip in for VIP Epica tickets as they had a US tour planned. Baltimore Soundstage was to be their first stop; right in my proverbial backyard.

It was a sign from the Gods, and no matter how poor I was, I remained determined to get those passes and meet the musicians and the vocalist that got me into metal in the first place, and moved me to study and practice classical operatic vocals.

Fortunately fate was kind then, with a generous donation from family that met with eternal gratitude from me. The following weeks were spent in excitement and anticipation for the day where I could finally exchange words with these people I had venerated for ages from afar and see them live fresh at the start of the tour.

Of course, I heard the off comments about putting too much stock in my heroes and to be ready for disappointment. Still, I knew in my heart that the experience would not end on a sour note.

Man, was my intuition ever right about that!

I scrambled to find a space to park and get to the venue early. As luck would have it, plenty of fans were already there. Had some great conversations with a bevy of folks, young and old, most of whom I had never met before yet instantly counted as friends. We did, after all, share one big common interest!

After a healthy period of waiting, it seemed the time had finally come. Out they came from their grey tour bus and met the applauding crowd with gracious smiles and waves. After they stepped inside, it was our turn to follow and the line of fans to meet them stretched through the venue to the front door.

The suspense was just about killing me at this point, but in a wonderful way. Person by person the line slowly advanced until it was my turn to step forth. As expected I was a little bit struck and fumbled over my words, not being able to express fully all that I had wanted to say. Despite that, I felt from them a genuine warmth and mutual gratitude. What words we did exchange put me instantly at ease and proved that they truly were not only some of the best musicians, but some of the best people as well.

It went something like this... with a slight shakiness I stumbled up to the table and let out an awkward "Hi, how are you!" that in truth was my way of saying, "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!"

They expressed thanks for my being there, at which point I found the courage to say, "I've loved your music for years! It was because of you that I got into metal and started learning the classical vocal style."

I received the warmest grins I've probably ever seen from them all, but Simone made my waking dream even better by first thanking me and asking whether I was in a band currently. The truth was that I had been in one up til that very week, when a band member's lady friend pulled a Yoko Ono and destroyed what would have been (in my opinion, anyway) a beautiful project. I kept it short by saying that I was, but it had recently ended. What she said next would instantly heal what little soreness I had over that lost effort and inspired me to continue trying.

She said with all sincerity, "I'm so sorry to hear that. Don't give up! It's hard to keep a band together sometimes, but I know you'll do well if you keep at it."

It was some sort of magic. Here I had been, having a rough several months filled with financial troubles, band troubles, and an ever-mounting list of obligations and responsibilities. With just a few words and an exchange of honest energies, my confidence had been restored. I beamed so brightly that you can even see it in the photo I took with them!

And it didn't stop there.

All throughout the night, I kept bumping into the guys of Epica. Sometimes in the pit, sometimes near the merch or the bar. The most memorable of these was when I was paying for my drink, Mark Jansen walked up and got a drink himself then proceeded to say "Cheers!" and clinked glasses with me.

Easily, Mark and the other gents are the most gracious & pleasant guys I've ever had the privilege to be around. Simone mirrors that ease and honesty they possess and is equally delightful. Not one of them has an arrogant or unkind bone in their body. They were all every bit as wonderful as I had led myself to believe; as their music led me to believe.

The excitement carried on throughout the night as the first act took the stage. It was Eluveitie, and they were incredible!

I had heard of them prior to this show but never really heard their music beforehand. Their set was long, but their talent limitless as the ensemble brilliantly presented a style of Pagan folk metal that was familiar yet so new and unpredictable. The vocalist, Shir-Ran Yinon, was compelling and had a voice that could soar over mountaintops. They incorporated in their sound the use of very traditional instruments such as fiddles, tin whistles, bagpipes, flutes and hurdy-gurdies. It was a beautiful performance, made all the more beautiful to me because of its Pagan nature (being a Pagan myself) and the artful expression of the songs/sounds of our polytheistic ancestors.

The next performance of the evening was The Agonist. It might have been more prudent to put them first, for in comparison to Eluveitie they weren't much to behold. The new vocalist, Vicky Psarakis gave an admirable effort, but the set - at least to me - lacked the heart and feeling that poured from the stage in the previous act. It could be that I'm biased to bands that attempt to continue on after losing their main vocalist for whatever reason.

I've always felt that since the voice of a band has such a big part in setting the tone that if they were to leave, the remaining members should re-name the project and start afresh. I've yet to hear a band pull off such a change successfully, especially when they had gained most of their success under a certain singer. Then again, vocals aren't as important to some so that could just be a matter of perspective.

At any rate, The Agonist turned out to be a bit of a let-down, though I'll certainly give them an "A" for effort.

It could have just been me getting restless, however, as the highlight of the night was just round the bend. At last, it was time for the mighty EPICA to take the stage!

The set began as a slow, mounting build - much like how the night had gone. Once they got going, though, they really got going! They jumped right in to a song from their newest EP, The Quantum Enigma, and covered practically every single one of my favorite tracks from their entire discography as if they had read my mind to write their setlist.

Their chemistry was radiant throughout, even despite the fact that one of their usual members was not with them. You would never have known it from the performance! They were phenomenal, from their stage presence to their delivery. Simone would sneak in a few secrets between songs, telling the crowd jokingly that their next album was "gestating" and not quite ready to be born yet.

At one point she dedicated a song to everyone in attendance that night, thanking them for providing such a warm welcome and such great energy... and I'm pretty sure I was one of the people she looked at in the midst of it! Whether I was just hallucinating from being in such bliss or actually seeing it, I may never know.

The pit crowd was every bit as awesome as the performance. They complimented one another and fed off each other, as if they were connected in some symbiotic relationship. The circle pits that formed were exactly as they should've been. Anyone who fell was helped up, nobody pulled any dick moves, and they all managed to pull off a collective windmill with arms linked in perfect unison - not once, not twice, but three times. The love coming from the stage and the crowd alike was palpable.

Simone's vocals stayed strong and beautiful until the very end, quite impressive considering we both had babies nearly two years prior and I was struggling a bit just trying to stand upright at that point. You wouldn't have been able to tell looking at her that she had become a mother fairly recently! I daresay the experience left her even more beautiful & talented if such a thing could be possible.

When it was all over, many left sharing the same satisfaction and fulfillment that I felt. Not only had each set been transcendent (save one), but I ran into several good friends including one of the best live reviewers in the region, Steve, a long-haired and copper-bearded member of Feritas, and a fellow cast member from the web series Shotgun Mythos. It was one of those experiences I will cherish for a lifetime.

Now I can safely tell others that my expectations of that day were not only met, but far exceeded their original bounds!

Only days after I attended, it was announced that Epica would have to cancel the rest of the US tour due to a family emergency that befell someone back home, or something like that. I remember being terribly worried, hoping it had nothing to do with little Vincent, but also being even more grateful for having the chance to meet them and see them play before they had to head back.

The only thing I regret is not saying more of what I had wanted to say to them, and that fortunately is something I can fix right here, right now.

So, Epica, this part is for you:

Dear Simone, Mark, Coen, Ariën, Issac, and Rob,

Thank you for all the work that you do to bring such incredible music into the world. It has gotten me through the darkest of times, inspired me to be better than I was once. Simone, not only did you introduce me to opera and showed me that it is possible to be taken seriously as a female vocalist in metal... you went a step further and helped me get through my pregnancy by proving that you can be a mother and a musician. We even had our babies within a few months of one another, and they are both boys! I hope you are enjoying your family as much as I've been enjoying mine. If a voice raised in song is an accurate picture of the soul, that confirms you are beautiful inside and out. If the music accurately conveys the soul of the musicians, they are equally as beautiful both above and below. You all set such a fine example that if everyone followed it, the world would indeed be a better place.

There aren't words to express the gratitude I feel towards you all so suffice it to say, thank you so much for everything. Please come back across the pond and see us again sometime soon. Thanks for giving me one of the best days of my life, and for enriching the days in between with your music.

Love Always,

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