Your First Guide to Symphonic Metal

What’s a music lover to do when they long for opera and orchestra on one hand, but heavy metal riffs and fearsome growls on the other? And what if one wants these seemingly contradictory elements at the exact same time?

Allow me to welcome you to the genre known as Symphonic Metal. From heartrending ballads that leave a listener in tears to relentless masterpieces that will set your soul on fire, we can find a song or subgenre for almost everyone. 

Though there’s an unfortunate image of heavy metal fans or ‘metalheads’ being brash and unsophisticated concert-goers with criminal tendencies who enjoy spreading fear and worshipping anti-social ideologies, this is an oversimplified stereotype. Through their albums and discography, many Symphonic Metal bands explore themes such as nature, paganism, folklore, love (platonic and romantic), history, fairytales, conflict, religion, fantasy, and even science. It’s common to find German, Greek, Spanish, French, Russian, Finnish, and even Latin in the lyrics of these songs. And finally, defying the idea of heavy metal being exclusively performed for men and by men, there are many symphonic metal bands spearheaded by female vocalists, instrumentalists, songwriters (or all three).

Without further ado, here is a short list to acquaint the new listener with a little of the dizzying beauty and majesty that Symphonic Metal has to offer. When exploring a new song, it's recommended to listen to the official studio version rather than the live rendition, since the musicians are well-rested and the acoustics and mixing are at their best, with all the elements of the song getting to shine. In addition, I personally find that metal is best enjoyed with headphones on, due to multiple layers of accompanying instruments and intricate vocals that fuse to bring the whole song together. 

Warning: Some of the [very underfunded] official music videos did not age well through the digital revolution so compassion may be required in that department. However, the music more than makes up for it, I assure you.

1. WITHIN TEMPTATION

For the first-time reader who approaches metal with some apprehension, (perhaps having heard a lot about the screaming and growling that tend to put off others) it’s a good idea to start with a band such as Within Temptation, which strikes a flawless balance between metal and melody and often acts as the bridge over which fans cross over into the landscape of metal, from genres such as pop and rock. The Dutch band is headed by the talented and experimental Sharon den Adel whose voice switches effortlessly between girlish sweetness and pure strength. 

For a more traditional symphonic metal song, begin with, "The Howling" or "The Heart of Everything" from their album of the same name. For a more gentle introduction with a Gothic feel, try out an earlier work such as "Ice Queen".

2. NIGHTWISH

For those who appreciate a classically trained vocalist, it would be a sin not to listen to the music of formidable yet divine Tarja Turunen. As the first and former singer of Nightwish, a Finnish Symphonic Metal band, she collaborated with its band leader, the visionary composer and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen to create pieces that at times appear to defy the limits of the human voice. Nightwish’s cover of "The Phantom of the Opera" is enough send chills up anyone’s spine (Go to 3:44 to see her hit the higher notes) but others Nightwish masterpieces with Tarja include "Stargazers", "The Kinslayer", and "Planet Hell". There are times when the lyrics become nothing less than poetry. 

Via Nightwish.com

However, many fans agree that one of the band’s greatest pieces is the epic "Ghost Love Score", a ten-minute long composition where the instrumentals and vocals transport the listener to a story far away from their own, filled with soaring joy and bottomless despair and everything in-between. Nightwish's current singer is Floor Jansen, who brings her own brand of vocal energy, passion, and versatility to their latest album Endless Forms Most Beautiful

For a more gentle introduction to what Nightwish has to offer, "Sleeping Sun" is a serene and soothing piece filled with so much tender love and sweetness that it’s almost like a lullaby. 

3. EIHWAZ

Not much is known about Eihwaz, a Russian Symphonic Metal band that I recently fell in love with, as they’re undergoing major changes with members and direction. Yet, "Amadeus" is nothing less than an offering from the heavens itself, a powerfully distraught retelling of the alleged rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Anotonio Salieri…through metal. What more could you want?

4. EPICA

Epica is a Dutch band headed by Mark Jansen with a huge repertoire of songs across multiple subgenres and styles of metal. Simone Simons is the talented singer who seems to be able to accomplish anything the music demands, her voice swinging from austere control to heaving emotion in seconds. The way she carries the weight of a song’s emotion (to say nothing of the song itself) whilst outdoing the chaotic instrumentals never ceases to amaze. "Never Enough" is a good place for the new listener who enters metal from rock (listen to the way she holds and sustains the song’s climactic end note). "Unleash Utopia" and "Unleashed" is a good fit for listeners who have some prior experience with metal. Epica’s lyrics are renowned for being subversive, bold, or just plain enigmatic. 

My personal favorite: "Once Upon a Nightmare" is a metal ballad narrating the story of a mystical king who steals children’s souls. The song’s use of a choir that overlaps with the vocals and all of it enveloped by the unearthly instruments makes for a song that leaves a listener shaken when it ends, their body left in this world but their mind taken by another. For a more thrilling, heavy metal composition, I recommend "Architect of Light".

Via Wikipedia Commons​

5. XANDRIA

Xandria is a German Symphonic Metal band and though its lead singers have changed multiple times, my personal favorites are the albums they created with Dianne van Giersbergen and Manuela Kraller as lead singer. Manuela’s chilled, breathy voice and Dianne’s warmer, almost operatic vocals both really suit Xandria’s dramatic compositions and this band is perfect for those who enjoy fantasy storylines intertwining with their music with an unceasing assault of percussion and instruments and choirs. "Sacrificium" (Dianne van Giersbergen) is a whole hero’s journey contained within a song, one that leaves the listener physically exhausted by the time it ends and is more driven by its vocals, while "Prophecy of Worlds to Fall" (Manuela Kraller) showcases the sheer strength and unrestrained glory of the keyboards, drums, and guitars as the vocals swoop in and out to compete with them, before all finally uniting for the orgasmic conclusion. 

Here's an official music video for the song "Nightfall". 

This is just a short list to get you started and of course, I wasn’t able to list every symphonic metal band or singer who has ever touched my soul. But with this guide, perhaps the first of several future editions, I hope to welcome new metalheads and diversify our little community of music lovers who chase after stories, drama, power, darkness, complexity, and above all…life, in all its unforgiving intensity.