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A Beginner's Guide To Heavy Metal #13 - Symphonic metal

Updated on December 27, 2013

The Curtain Rises

A word few people would ever try to use to describe heavy metal music in the past would have to be orchestral. Heavy metal is about speed, aggression, loud noises and and a f**k you attitude, not pretty violins and horns and orchestral arrangements. Well in the early 90s, some very ambitious and incredibly talented musicians decided there was a way they could have both. Inspired by the symphonic touches on a few tracks of bands like Celtic Frost and Believer, these innovators took the symphonic approach and, via either keyboards or an actual full orchestra, or both, incorporated it into their sound entirely. The result being and incredibly epic wall of sound that despite the absolute beauty of some of the compositions managed to not sacrifice any of the heaviness.



Emperor - In The Nightside Eclipse

When I started doing these, I promised myself that unless it was absolutely necessary, I would not put the same album on more than one list. This is one that is absolutely necessary, because it may be the first ever symphonic metal album. Other bands like Believer and Celtic Frost had had songs with symphonic touches, but Emperor as far as I can find was the first band to put it through the entire album. The influence they had on both black metal and symphonic metal has truly made them one of the legends of metal, and this should be all the incentive you need to get a copy of this album immediately.



Christopher Lee - Charlemagne: By The Sword And The Cross

When I head that celebrated actor and legendary voice Christopher Lee was making his own entry into the world of heavy metal, I was pretty excited. He had already dabbled in it, making appearances on albums by Manowar and Rhapsody Of Fire, both with epically awesome results, so this seemed like a no brainer. Even if it turned out being something of a novelty metal recording, I was going to get it either way. What I got was so much more than what I could've hoped for, that I listened to no less than five times in a row within a week of purchasing it. It is an absolutely incredible symphonic metal masterpiece detailing the life of the first king of the Holy Roman Empire Charlemagne, who was friends with members of Lee's bloodline, that is played out as the most perfect example of a heavy metal opera I have ever heard. It is an absolute must.



Apocalyptica - Worlds Collide

What could be more symphonic than heavy metal music played on cellos? Initially started as a Metallica tribute band in Finland by four classically trained cellists, Apocalyptica have shed their cover band roots, replaced one of the four spots with a drummer, and started releasing their own original albums with incredible results. Featuring a slew of guests including Dave Lombardo, Corey Taylor, and TIll Lindemann, this album plays like a soundtrack to the most epic movie ever produced.



Symphony X - The Divine Wings of Tragedy

I could write an entire article about how unbelievably frustrating it is to see founding member and lightning shredder guitarist Michael Romeo left off of so many top guitarist lists. His incredible use of sweep picking and tapping create a mind blowing cacophony of sound that manages to remain melodic and catchy against the symphonic background laid behind him, and nowhere is it better highlighted than on this album, although Paradise Lost was a close contender as well.

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Rhapsody - Symphony Of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret

Remember when I mentioned Christopher Lee's earlier ventures into heavy metal? This was his most famous. Providing narration and guest vocals on the single version of "Magic of the Wizard's Dream", the fact is that as amazing as it is to hear Sir Lee on this album, it only serves to accentuate how great the album is. Absolutely beautiful and melodic music with full orchestral arrangements, and a concept album set in a mystical world of their own creation, it is an incredible listening experience.



Dimmu Borgir - In Sorte Diaboli

After showing the full scale of what symphonic black metal was capable of with Stormblast, Dimmu Borgir elevated themselves to even more epic heights with the addition of bassist and powerhouse singer ICS Vortex, who lends his haunting and powerful voice to provide a contrast to the demonic screams of Shagrath, backed by the symphonic brilliance we already know and love from Dimmu Borgir, the story of a priest turned evil is told to incredible effect in this masterpiece.



Lacuna Coil - Karma Code

I love Christina Scabbia. She has the most beautiful voice in heavy metal as far as I'm concerned (she is a stunning beauty herself too) and I cannot do justice to the joy it brings that such a lovely voice is accompanied by such talented musicians and songwriters, who have managed to craft the most orchestral and haunting entry to goth metal I have ever heard. So much so, that I think goth metal is too light of a term to be applied to them.



Nightwish - Dark Passion Play

Finland just seems to have what it takes to put out fantastic symphonic metal. One of the most perfect combinations of heavy headbanging riffs with orchestral brilliance, it is truly a shame that co-lead singer Anette Olzon chose to depart after one more album, but this one will always stand as testament to the beautiful and heavy atmosphere that is delivered through every note.

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Blind Guardian - At The Edge Of Time

This one took me by surprise. Blind Guardian started out as a straight forward thrash metal band before making the move to symphonic power metal, and I picked this album up without hearing anything of what they sounded like. One listen was all it took to sway me. Every song transports you to another world, with tales of Viking folklore, corrupt kings, lands beyond our own dimensions and fallen warriors all contained within this incredible offering that I would dearly love to see performed with a full orchestral arrangement someday.

Want To Check It Out?



Kamelot - The Black Halo

One of the saddest pieces of news I heard in the last few years was of long time Kamelot vocalist Roy Khan's decision to depart the music world. The Norwegian singer's opera trained vocals, combined with Thomas Youngblood's inventive solos and instantly catchy riffs and the beautiful orchestral arrangements, all mixed with a concept album about legendary German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play "Faust", create what to me will always be the epitome of symphonic metal. The balance between the headbanging metal and symphonic operatic elements is so perfect, the album could serve as the definition of the sub-genre all on it's own, and if you haven't heard it yet, I can only tell you that there are few albums I will ever write about that I could ever recommend more than this one.

The Curtain Falls

Few sub-genres have helped to lend more credibility in the eyes of those who have criticized the musical ability of heavy metal performers, and while it has still not achieved nearly the level of widespread recognition I wish it had, if you have that friend who swears that there is nothing in heavy metal they will ever like, I would recommend starting them on something off of this list.


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