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Symphonic metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music which 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 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 of which place a large focus on elements prevalent in film scores on top of 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.
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. Following this, operatic female vocals, classical instrumentation, and progressive elements became a staple in Dark Tranquillity's sound. 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, doom metal, gothic metal, power metal, or black metal, for example renowned black metal act Dimmu Borgir, who Simone Simons of Epica personally referenced as an inspiration. While this article has mainly discussed symphonic metal as a distinct subgenre, it is worth noting that the term is sometimes used to describe stylistic elements that can be found in nearly any heavy metal subgenre.
The term "symphonic metal" is used to denote any metal band that makes use of symphonic or orchestral elements; "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.
Symphonic black metal has similar components as melodic black metal, but uses keyboarding or instruments normally found in symphonic or classical music. It can also include black metal bands that make heavy usage of atmospheric keyboarding in the music, akin to symphonic metal or gothic metal. The symphonic aspects of this genre are normally integral parts of a band, and as such are commonly used throughout the whole duration of a song. The prototypical symphonic black metal bands are Dimmu Borgir, Emperor and Carach Angren.
Symphonic power metal refers to power metal bands that make extensive usage of keyboards, or instruments normally found in classical music, similar to symphonic metal. These additional elements are often used as key elements of the music when compared to normal power metal, contributing not only an extra layer to the music, but a greater variety of sound. Bands in this genre often feature clean vocals, with some bands adding relatively small quantities of screams or growls.
The first prototypical symphonic power metal song was "Art of Life", a twenty-nine-minute song performed by Japanese heavy metal band X Japan in 1993. Finnish band Nightwish was another band that performed early symphonic power metal songs. Songs by Nightwish that illustrate the genre well are "Wishmaster" from the album Wishmaster, "Ghost Love Score" from the album Once, "The Poet and the Pendulum" on the album Dark Passion Play and "The Greatest Show on Earth", a 24-minutes song from the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful. These songs follow the epic scope and extended formal structures characteristic of power metal while making extensive use of orchestral elements.
Another band fitting this description is Rhapsody of Fire, a band different from most typical symphonic metal bands in that it is not fronted by a female vocalist. With a blend of guitars, drums and extremely large soundscapes including, in their later years, a full choir and a symphonic orchestra, they take heavy influence from early classical music and in particular baroque music. Most of their albums are a part of an epic high fantasy saga. Songs by Rhapsody of Fire that illustrate the genre well are "The Mystic Prophecy of the Demonknight" on the album Triumph or Agony and "Emerald Sword" from the album Symphony of Enchanted Lands. Other examples of bands fitting this description are Angra, Avantasia, Dark Moor, Derdian, Dragonland, Epica, Kamelot, Pathfinder, Phoenix Rising, Sonata Arctica, Solar Crown Serenity, Theocracy, Twilight Force, and Versailles.
One of the first gothic metal bands to release a full album featuring "Beauty and the Beast" vocals, where death metal vocals are contrasted with clean female vocals, was the Norwegian Theatre of Tragedy in 1995. From then on after the departure of lead singer, Liv Kristine, in 2003, she and her future husband, Alexander Krull went on to form the Symphonic Metal band, Leaves' Eyes. The band is one of the pioneers of the "Beauty and the Beast" vocal style scene. Other bands, such as the Dutch Within Temptation in 1996, expanded on this approach. A debut album Enter was unveiled in the following year, followed shortly by an EP The Dance. Both releases made use of the beauty and beast approach delivered by vocalists Sharon den Adel and Robert Westerholt. Their second full length Mother Earth was released in 2000 and dispensed entirely with the death metal vocals, instead "relying solely on den Adel's majestic vocal ability," apart from one b-side track that did not make the final album release. The album was a commercial success with their lead single "Ice Queen" topping the charts in Belgium and their native Netherlands. Their third album The Silent Force arrived in 2004 as an "ambitious project featuring a full orchestra and 80-voice choir accompanying the band". The result was another commercial success across Europe and introduced "the world of heavy guitars and female vocals" to "a mainstream audience".
Within Temptation's brand of gothic metal combines "the guitar-driven force of hard rock with the sweep and grandeur of symphonic music". The critic Chad Bowar of About.com describes their style as "the optimum balance" between "the melody and hooks of mainstream rock, the depth and complexity of classical music and the dark edge of gothic metal". The commercial success of Within Temptation has since resulted in the emergence of a large number of other female-fronted gothic metal bands, particularly in the Netherlands.
Another Dutch band in the symphonic gothic metal strain is After Forever. Their debut album Prison of Desire in 2000 was "a courageous, albeit flawed first study into an admittedly daunting undertaking: to wed heavy metal with progressive rock arrangements and classical music orchestration - then top it all of with equal parts gruesome cookie-monster vocals and a fully qualified opera singer". Founding member, guitarist and vocalist Mark Jansen departed After Forever only a few months after the release of this album. Jansen would go on to form Epica, another Dutch band that performs a blend of gothic and symphonic metal. A debut album The Phantom Agony emerged in 2003 with music that combines Jansen's death grunts with the "angelic tones of a classically trained soprano, Simone Simons, over a lush foundation of symphonic power metal". The music of Epica has been described as combination of "a dark, haunting gothic atmosphere with bombastic and symphonic music". Like Within Temptation and After Forever, Epica has been known to make use of an orchestra. Their 2007 album The Divine Conspiracy was a chart success in their home country.
This blend of symphonic and gothic metal has also been arrived at from the opposite direction. The band Nightwish from Finland began as a symphonic power metal act and introduced gothic elements on their 2004 album Once, particularly on the single "Nemo". They continued to mix their style of "bombastic, symphonic and cinematic" metal with a gothic atmosphere on their next album Dark Passion Play in 2007. The Swedish group Therion also introduced gothic elements to their brand of symphonic metal on their 2007 album Gothic Kabbalah.
Bands described as symphonic death metal include Ex Deo, Necronomicon,Septicflesh,Children of Bodom,Epica, and Fleshgod Apocalypse.Haggard's 2000 album, Awaking the Centuries, has been described as death metal-styled symphonic metal. Much of Make Them Suffer's earlier material was considered symphonic death metal by Metal Injection. "The Fool" by Fleshgod Apocalypse and "Clockworks" by Meshuggah have been classified as symphonic death metal by Loudwire.