Not everyone is familiar with the musical genre known as symphonic metal.
Certainly it is far less known in the US than in Europe or even South America. I can’t vouch for South America, but in Europe the tradition of classical music survives far more widely and is far more deeply ingrained in the young than it is in the US. Children are raised with it and taught to enjoy it. Not here in the States, where classical music courses in schools are usually something to endure rather than appreciate, even where such courses are optimistically called “music appreciation.”
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1930s and ‘40s radio brought great music into the homes of people who had never been to a classical music concert and likely never would. Conductors like Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini were household names. Only Leonard Bernstein, much later, managed to achieve similar broad popular acclaim.
Symphony + Metal = Symphonic Metal
by Alan Dean Foster
Meanwhile in Europe, largely beginning in the ‘90s, some bands looking for a new direction strove to merge the classical tradition with heavy metal. The advancement of re- cording electronics allowed bands to incorporate not just performances by live orchestras but more importantly recordings of same into their work. This was critical because bands could neither afford to take entire orchestras on tour with them nor afford the extra musicians. Decades ago the band Procol Harum recorded an album with the Edmonton Sym- phony Orchestra, and could hardly take the entire orchestra on tour. But recorded orchestral components like choirs, instrumentalists, etc., could easily be employed via mod- ern recording and mixing techniques, even in small venues.
Within Temptation was one of the first bands to popularize this new musical hybrid. Bands like Apocalyptica, Haggard and others soon followed. Perhaps the two most notable practitioners of symphonic metal these days are Nightwish and Epica, both featuring dy- namic female lead singers. In contrast to other variants of metal (thrash, garage, grunge, etc.), symphonic metal has welcomed women not only as performers but as lead singers.
Of these, Floor Jansen of Nightwish is unquestionably the most re- cognized. Dutch, 6’1” and usually performing in four-inch heels, Jansen is a Valkyriesque presence on the stage. Having been in other bands long enough to learn what works for her and what does not, she is fully aware ofthe effect she has on an audience and uses it to great advantage. Her astounding and astoundingly versatile voice completes the picture. The best description I’ve read of her singing names her the Swiss Army Knife ofvocalists, able to render anything from an operatic soprano to heavy- metal growling.
Most Night wish members have performed together for more than 20 years. This kind of continuity leads to a perfection of performance in which everyone knows what everyone else can do, when they are expected to do it, and how it should be done. This isn’t some kids’ band trying to slap songs together in a garage. Their work, like that of Epica, is as pol- ished as any classical composition. It's also a lot more exciting and listen- able, and of recognizable lineage dating back to the great composers of yore, than is the bulk of what passes for classical music today (the work of Jennifer Higdon and Philip Glass being personal exceptions). Now com- posers of similar bent write for film, not orchestral performance. In recent years think of the sweeping yet intricate film scores of John Williams, James Horner, Basil Poledoris, Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino.
Much symphonic metal is cinematic in scope. Close your eyes, listen to the music, and you can easily visual izeepics of fantasy and science fiction. Of course if you close your eyes you miss the spectacular perform- ances of Floor Jansen of Nightwish and Simone Simons of Epica. That is indubitably one area where symphonic metal has it all over traditional symphonic music. I don’t expect to see Philip Glass dancing on stage during the performance of one of his pieces, nor would I especially want to, pace Mr. Glass.
Nightwish has recorded over 100 songs, many of which are viewable in performance on Youtube and elsewhere. Epica is similarly represented, and as mentioned, there are other bands happily and grandly crashing and slamming their way through the genre. I don’t know about Bach and
Brahms, but I think Beethoven and Mozart would’ve loved the stuff.
Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of more than 120 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.com.