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|Cultural origins||Early 1990s, Scandinavia and the Netherlands|
Symphonic metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music that combines the heavy drums and guitars of metal with different elements of orchestral classical music, such as symphonic instruments, choirs and sometimes a full orchestra. Keyboards reminiscent of power metal are also sometimes featured.
Symphonic metal bands often feature classically trained female vocalists, giving rise to the nickname opera metal or operatic metal, and it is not uncommon for them to feature a second vocalist performing growls, a more common characteristic of gothic metal. Perhaps the most typical and prominent examples of symphonic metal bands are Dutch bands Epica and Within Temptation, Finnish band Nightwish, and Swedish band Therion. All four bands place a large focus on elements prevalent in film scores in addition to the more basic classical components utilized more widely in the genre.
Music workstation keyboards and orchestras are often the focal point of the music, which, in essence, distinguishes the subgenre from other metal subgenres. Other instruments including guitars, bass and drums typically play relatively simple parts in contrast to the complex and nuanced keyboard and/or orchestral parts. Bands that do not use live orchestral instrumentation on their recordings or when playing live typically utilize factory presets on workstation keyboards (i. e., strings, choirs, pianos, pipe organs etc.) to conjure up a "pseudo-orchestral" sound, where parts are played idiomatically according to keyboard technique. This is particularly characteristic of less-known bands on tighter budgets. Some symphonic metal bands abstain from using keyboards entirely, choosing to use orchestral backing tracks, either recorded by a live symphony orchestra and/or choir during an album session, or recorded using virtual software instruments in a sequencer. This is particularly characteristic of bands that feature deeper and more complex arrangements that would be more difficult for one or even two keyboardists to reproduce in a live performance.
It is more difficult to generalise about the guitar and bass work found in this style. As with gothic metal, this can often be described as a synthesis of other rock and metal styles, with black metal, death metal, power metal, and progressive metal elements being the most common; but unlike in gothic metal, elements of classical music are frequently present as well. With varying frequency, the majority of bands in this subgenre employ these instruments (as well as the lead vocals) to play more simple, catchy melodies which arguably makes symphonic metal (along with power metal, which shares this characteristic) one of the more accessible metal subgenres.
Songs are often highly atmospheric, though more upbeat than those of other metal subgenres; even songs with morbid themes routinely feature prominent major-key fanfares. Particularly central to creating mood and atmosphere is the choice of keyboard sounds.
Lyrics cover a broad range of topics. As with two of symphonic metal's otherwise most dissimilar influences, power metal and opera (but also symphonic progressive rock), fantasy and mythological themes are common. Concept albums styled after operas or epic poems are not uncommon.
Bands in this genre often feature a female lead vocalist, most commonly a soprano. There is sometimes a second, male vocalist, as is also common in gothic metal. Growling, death-metal-style vocals are not unknown, but tend to be used less frequently than in other metal genres that make use of this vocal style (however, a notable example of its usage is by Mark Jansen in Epica). Further backup up to and including a full choir is sometimes employed.
It is very common for bands, almost exclusively female-fronted bands, to feature operatic lead vocals. Such bands can be referred to as operatic symphonic metal and include the likes of Epica, Nightwish (Tarja Turunen, then Floor Jansen), Haggard, Therion, Operatika, Dremora, Dol Ammad, Visions of Atlantis, Aesma Daeva, Almora and countless others. The operatic style is not exclusively tied to symphonic metal, and also appears in avant-garde metal, progressive metal, gothic metal and melodic metal.
Origins and evolution
The roots of symphonic metal are found in early death metal and gothic metal bands, who made some use of symphonic elements in their music, notably Swiss extreme metal pioneers Celtic Frost on their 1987 album Into the Pandemonium, whose 1985 release To Mega Therion inspired the naming of symphonic metal pioneers Therion.
One of the earliest symphonic metal songs was "Dies Irae" by American thrash metal group Believer. Appearing on their 1990 album Sanity Obscure foreshadowed the operatic approach used by the bands Therion and Nightwish. According to Jeff Wagner in his book Mean Deviation, the song was a creative watershed in metal, and except for Mekong Delta, no other extreme metal band at the time had merged the genre with classical music so seamlessly.
The band Therion were influential in forming the genre through their use of a live orchestra and classical compositional techniques; gradually these elements became a more important part of Therion's music than their death metal roots. Another key early influence was Finnish progressive metal band Waltari's album Yeah! Yeah! Die! Die! Death Metal Symphony in Deep C. In mid-1996 Rage released Lingua Mortis, the band's first collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Nightwish and Within Temptation released their first albums in 1997, which were heavily inspired by Therion's symphonic turn. Within Temptation was more influenced by gothic metal, and therefore musically simpler than the more power metal-influenced Nightwish, but both bands shared two key symphonic metal elements - powerful female lead vocals from Tarja Turunen and Sharon den Adel respectively, and the heavy use of classically influenced keyboard playing. Haggard, which started as a progressive death metal band, had released some demos and EPs some years ago using only their death metal style, but, in 1997, they went a step forward. They chose to change their style and to turn it into a mix of classical music with real classical and medieval instruments such as, violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, crumhorn, keyboards and death metal, releasing their first symphonic metal studio album.
Many new symphonic metal bands appeared or came to wide attention in the early to mid 2000s, including Rain Fell Within, After Forever, Epica, Delain, Leaves' Eyes, Xandria, and Edenbridge, all featuring the characteristic keyboards and female vocals. Power metal, with its relatively upbeat fantasy themes and stylized keyboard sounds, tended to be an important influence on these groups.
The term "symphonic metal" has sometimes been applied to individual songs or albums by bands that are primarily death metal, deathcore, gothic metal, power metal, or black metal, and is used to describe stylistic elements that can be found in nearly any heavy metal subgenre and any metal band that makes use of symphonic or orchestral elements. However, "symphonic metal" then is not so much a genre as a cross-generic designation. A few bands refer to themselves as "symphonic metal," particularly Aesma Daeva, and the term could probably be applied to generically ambiguous metal bands like Epica and Nightwish. Common fusion genres include:
- Symphonic black metal
- Symphonic power metal
- Symphonic gothic metal
- Symphonic death metal
- symphonic deathcore
- Avant-garde metal
- List of symphonic metal bands
- Melodic death metal
- Neoclassical metal
- Neoclassical dark wave
- Power metal
- Progressive metal
- Bowar, Chad. "Highest Hopes review". About.com. Archived from the original on 2007-12-09. Retrieved 2008-07-14.
- "Nightwish – Dark Passion Play Review". Heavymetal.about.com. 2010-06-14. Archived from the original on 2013-07-07. Retrieved 2011-10-23.
- The Manitoban (PDF-file, page 25): “Opera Metal for the Masses” stored at webcitation.org
- Treppel, Jeff (November 9, 2012). "The Lazarus Pit: Believer's Sanity Obscure". Decibel. Alex Mulcahy. Archived from the original on 2016-01-19. Retrieved June 4, 2015.
- Jeff Wagner, Steven Wilson (2010). Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal. Bazillion Points Books. pp. 154–157. ISBN 0-9796163-3-6.
- Media related to Symphonic metal music groups at Wikimedia Commons