Bombast, blastbeats and large quantities of Satan: symphonic black metal is one of heavy music’s most flamboyant and (knowingly) preposterous subgenres. With an aesthetic drawn from both grubby, underground metal and grandiose, gothic splendour, it emerged in the early ‘90s in a somewhat primitive form, before blossoming into the spectacular and vivid eruptions of pomp and power that we now take for granted. If you have a penchant for metal that sounds like a bomb going off in a cathedral, the following ten albums are all mandatory.
Emperor – In The Nightside Eclipse (1994)
An indisputable black metal benchmark in all sorts of ways, Emperor’s full-length debut sounded extraordinary upon its release and still exerts a strange, mystical power today. In purely musical terms, In The Nightside Eclipse refined and defined the symphonic black metal formula: a remarkable achievement for an incredibly young band. In truth, Emperor swiftly evolved beyond the subgenre’s stylistic limitations, but the overpowering bombast and orchestral rush of cherished classics like I Am The Black Wizards and Cosmic Keys To My Creation And Times still rate as the blackest symphonies of them all.
Bal-Sagoth – Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule (1996)
We might as well regard Bal-Sagoth as a symphonic black metal band, because their utterly insane music could hardly fit anywhere else. Over the course of six utterly singular concept albums, the band explored an intricate and hugely detailed fictional world of their own creation, while sounding like a crazed soundtrack to Star Wars aerial battles and exploding stars. Starfire… is the obvious pick of the bunch: a wildly imaginative but still raw and punishing exploration of black metal’s storytelling power.
Cradle Of Filth – Dusk & Her Embrace (1996)
As much as whiny folk like to bitch about Cradle Of Filth’s supposed failure to be legitimately necro enough, it is irrefutable that the band’s early records were hugely influential on all the symphonic black metal that followed. In particular, Dusk And Her Embrace outlined the band’s unique blend of thrashing, blackened savagery and gothic theatricality, with a suitably sumptuous but otherworldly production job and some truly memorable songs. Plus, of course, Dusk And Her Embrace features a cameo appearance from Venom’s Cronos, on the epic Haunted Shores. That’s +500 black metal points.
Limbonic Art – Moon In The Scorpio (1996)
Madder than a wolverine with a bulldog clip on its knackers, Limbonic Art’s debut album still sounds like the result of some drug-fuelled ‘Eureka!’ moment. It’s also magnificent and indulgently ornate, with countless detours into swivel-eyed prog territory, lashings of analogue synthesizer and orchestral flourishes galore. Occasionally reminiscent of Japanese loonbags Sigh, gargantuan sprawls like Beneath The Burial Surface and In Mourning Mystique blurred the lines between symphony and savagery with psychotic aplomb.
Obtained Enslavement – Witchcraft (1997)
When it comes to mildly obscure Norwegian black metal records with a symphonic bent, Witchcraft is hard to beat. Obtained Enslavement straddled the divide between their home-grown scene’s predominantly grim and primitive aesthetic and the opulence of Dimmu and Cradle, with plenty of synthesized strings, kettle drums and twinkling keyboard textures oozing from the malicious melee. All four of the band’s albums are a worth a full-volume listen, incidentally.
Hecate Enthroned – The Slaughter Of Innocence, A Requiem For The Mighty (1997)
Another gem from the UK’s somewhat tentative black metal explosion, the first Hecate Enthroned is a stone cold classic that encapsulates everything makes symphonic black metal so captivating. Although incredibly vicious and executed with vein-popping intensity, songs like Beneath A December Twilight and Within The Ruins Of Eden revelled in brooding grandeur and haunting atmospherics. Perennially unsung, Hecate Enthroned released an excellent new album, Embrace Of The Godless Aeon, in 2019. They’ve still got it.
Diabolical Masquerade – Nightwork (1998)
Better known as guitarist with dark proggers Katatonia, Anders ‘Blakkheim’ Nyström has also made a telling contribution to symphonic metal via his horror-themed Diabolical Masquerade alias. All four of the project’s albums are vivid exercises in malevolent mischief, but it’s Nightwork that stands out as the most cohesive and convincing among them. Strongly melodic and steeped in gothic flamboyance, it was also noticeably psychedelic and sonically inventive in a way that most symphonic black metal arguably isn’t.
Graveworm – As The Angels Reach The Beauty (1999)
An unsung belter from the arse-end of the ‘90s, Graveworm’s second album is full of stirring melodies and sumptuous arrangements, something of a trademark for the Italians. With two purely instrumental orchestral interludes, the band’s symphonic credentials were unquestionable, but it’s the overwhelming, ultra-gothic grandiloquence of songs like Nocturnal Hymns and Prophecies In Blood that make this essential listening for discerning pomp ‘n’ Satan connoisseurs. The artwork is bloody awful, mind you.
Dimmu Borgir – Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia (2001)
The early Dimmu Borgir albums undoubtedly contributed to symphonic black metal’s steady development, but it was their first album of the 21st century that blew the bloody doors off. With a gleaming, state-of-the-art production and levels of punch and precision that black metal had seldom even hinted at, Puritanical… sounded like a high resolution apocalypse, with pitiless blastbeats that made fillings fall out and more pomp than a Papal coronation. Proving that ambition and evil intent were not mutually exclusive, Dimmu Borgir never looked back after this immaculate milestone.
Carach Angren – Lammendam (2008)
Noble heirs to symphonic black metal’s gleefully preposterous theatrical wing, Carach Angren have become leading lights in the genre since their absurdly well-rounded debut. A concept album recounting a grim tale of duelling love rivals, death by burning and phantasmal visions, it owed a clear debt to the widescreen narratives of Cradle Of Filth and King Diamond, but Carach Angren had plenty of their own twisted ideas to explore, too. Their ongoing prominence proves that they weren’t bluffing here.