Not to be confused with European symphonic metal outfit Epica, Epic are a multi-national hard rock band comprising members from the US, Canada and The Lebanon. Their debut album, ‘Like a Phoenix’ released on Escape Music – home of Saracen, Impera, Chris Ousey (often the label’s only true saving grace) and many more – is a somewhat patchy affair, but three melodic belters make it worth hearing. In many ways, the inspirations behind those songs and the styles are very well worn, but looking chiefly at their target audience – a bunch of middle-aged, stuck in a rut men who’ll blindly purchase everything the label puts out – Epic work hard at giving those listeners exactly what they want. Early comparisons to Heart and Saraya might just be a bit of a stretch, though. It’s a brave or hugely optimistic person who even thinks comparing frontwoman Tanya Rizkala to the almost peerless Ann Wilson is a sensible idea. Tanya has a big voice, it’s true enough, but in terms of range, it is a far cry from Wilson’s impressive style.
In ‘All I Need’, the album begins with its heaviest number, providing somewhat of a red herring. Guitarist Mario Agostine cranks out a pleasing riff, heavy on the arpeggios, making his love of Zeppelin very clear. This is complimented quite well by an equally heavy drum part, occasionally dropping in a couple of stops to keep things from becoming too stale. Rizkala attacks each line with vocal force and while the chorus isn’t very good, her performance on the verses is strong enough to draw comparisons with Kingdom Come. Actually, during this track, her voice comes far closer to Lenny Wolf than Ann Wilson…and for fans of the aggressive and shamelessly retro style on show this should pass muster. Best efforts still don’t make her a match for Agostine: his featured guitar solo has so much fretboard manipulation, it’s hard not to be impressed. From this early stage, it’s obvious that he deserves to be in a much better band!
Introducing keyboards to provide an almost musical box sound, ‘Love Will Find Away’ presents Epic in a manner that’s closer to their natural environment, as twin lead guitars provide the basis for a more melodic tune. The muted chords on the verses recall many a great number from 1989 and Agostine peppers these with the odd squeal and other musical fills to reasonable effect. During the rockier pre-chorus Tanya ups the volume but doesn’t do too much damage and, as expected, there’s a decent guitar solo. If you’re not too demanding with regard to your listening, this is fine – it has all the basis of some good melodic rock, even if it’s never going to be a classic. Tapping into something similar and keeping a happy, buoyant pace, ‘Angels’ is also decent melodic fare, with a couple of blatantly 80s key changes along the way, as well as a short but impressive guitar solo and a simple chorus that quickly asserts itself as one of the album’s best. Occupying a slightly uncomfortable stylistic space between Sandi Saraya on a bad day and Sharleen Spiteri with a cold, Tanya seems confident throughout and everything makes for an enjoyable listen, regardless of the lack of originality. Better yet, ‘Save a Little Love’ has a chorus that screams second tier Cher material and brings back fond memories of the Dante Fox debut. Although the tune is fairly by numbers, it rises to a position of being one of the album’s best offerings thanks to some more fluid and very melodic soloing. A funky interlude – so obviously written with a different song in mind – derails everything unexpectedly, but thankfully, this is soon forgotten when the band wheels out that chorus one last time. Having studied the melodic rock rule book thoroughly, Agostine plays over the fade with an effortless charm.
When going for a more ballad-oriented style, though, the band really fall flat. The album’s first slow outing, ‘I Can Take You’ is overwrought and lumpen, a fault very much in the hands of drummer Sous, a man whom appears to spend the duration merely thumping at his kit. The music is uninspired as hell – all chugging bar chords and a weak approximation of a hundred other hard rock “lighters in the air” numbers. The only bright spot is a passing resemblance to Melissa Etheridge in the vocals during the opening verse. Repeated listens only confirm gut instincts: this one’s a genuine dud. The acoustic ‘My Everything’, meanwhile, doesn’t sum up much more enthusiasm, sounding like a cross between something Paula Cole would have abandoned at the demo stage and something the producers of Dawson’s Creek brought in to fill their soundtrack without shelling out too much cash. It’s not terrible by any stretch, but the acoustic strums are pedestrian and there’s a needless amount of repetition at the track’s end. Shaving it down by a good minute or so would have certainly helped. ‘Sleepless Angel’ brings more acoustic filler saved only by a shamelessly old-school guitar solo nearing the end. As part of the same album as ‘My Everything’, there’s a strong feeling of repetition – here is an album that would definitely have been improved by losing one of these tracks in favour of just one more genuine rocker.
Shifting back into big rock mode, ‘Nah Nah Nah’ allows Agostino to indulge in more Zeppelinisms and, obviously, that’s a huge improvement over any pedestrian balladry, but the track, too, has a major flaw. The title might suggest a big, dumb AOR chorus, but on all of the nahs, Tanya has been subjected to so much studio trickery, it’s hard to even pick out a voice at all. On the spacious verses, though, she puts in one of her most unrestrained performances as she belts with a huge volume, sometimes coming across with a similar huskiness to Headpins’ Darby Mills. While some might find this voluminous approach hugely appealing, it’s still not the best thing about this number. Unsurprisingly, it’s Agostino to the rescue as he fills plenty of space with some well played lead, while the rhythm section power through everything in a really solid manner. In terms of big rockers, it ticks a lot of the right boxes, thus making those filtered vocals even more of a bizarre choice. To finish, the title track is perhaps the album’s crowning glory, pairing a melodic chorus with a world of twin lead work. The drum sound is a touch flat in places but it doesn’t harm the number overall, especially since there are some very pleasing bass lines alongside a couple of classy key changes. This shows that Epic always had potential and when they hit the mark, they can do so absolutely bang on. This is the kind of thing that the sadly missed Now & Then Records would have championed two decades earlier and with Tanya finally discovering a good balance between power and melody, Epic truly find their feet.
‘Like a Phoenix’ doesn’t really rise gloriously from the ashes of the past…since it’s a past that Epic seem more than happy to be stuck in. If you like things fairly safe and enjoy rehashed rock chops from the 80s, there are a handful of great tracks here. The album doesn’t really work as a whole, though (even with best intentions and some impressive guitar work) since there are one too many ballads, for sure. With someone as clearly talented as Mario Agostine handling guitar duties, it should have turned out much better. That said, of course, even with their obvious faults, Epic are still a million times better than their label-mate Erika…