A beginner’s guide to symphonic metal in 5 albums

Symphonic metal singers Sharon den Adel, Simone Simons and Floor Jansen
(Image credit: Press)

Few genres do grandiose like symphonic metal. As the name suggests, it marries the scope and ambition of classical music to the power of metal. The result is orchestral, opulent and sometimes OTT, but it’s a hard heart that is completely resistant to it.

The seeds of the sound were sown in the 80s, when diverse trailblazers such as Celtic Frost and Savatage began incorporating orchestral instruments into their music. But it began to accelerate in the late 1990s, with bands such as Therion, Nightwish, Within Temptation and cult favourites Haggard began to properly fuse the two genres.

Today, symphonic metal has become an unlikely commercial force. Nightwish and Within Temptation are festival headliners, while a constant stream of newer bands have emerged in their wake. For anyone who is new to this grandest of genres, these are the five albums to start with.   

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Therion – Secret Of The Runes (2001)

Therion remain the original and – the purists would have you believe – the best of all the symphonic metal acts. Named in honour of Celtic Frost’s second album To Mega Therion, the Swedes have been led by multi-instrumentalist Christofer Johnsson since 1987. While others have prospered by ‘sexing-up’ the genre’s principles, the Therion experience remains a pure one – sackcloth and ashes, almost. Take our word, it’s a beautiful thing.

After Forever – Decipher (2001)

The second album from this pioneering and much-missed Dutch outfit, who ran from 1995 to 2009, Decipher employed live classical instruments and a full choir to complement the stirring soprano delivery of Floor Jansen (now, of course, with Nightwish). Soon afterwards Mark Jansen quit, taking his growled co-vocals along to the guitarist’s next band of note, Epica. The album’s grandiose arrangements still sound masterful today.

Within Temptation – The Silent Force (2004)

Although you’re likely to be distracted by the captivating strength of Sharon den Adel’s upfront vocal dynamism, Within Temptation’s symphonic aspirations reached their most querulously romantic apex on this goosebump-inducing masterwork of the form. Although the guitars were louder and crunchier than on 2000’s Mother Earth, and the open- hearted pop savvy was at full widescreen pelt, this 2004 follow-up confirmed the band’s special affinity for wizardly orchestral bombast, here performed by the Ego Works Session Orchestra, under the noted Russian conductor Felix Korobov.

Epica – The Quantum Enigma (2014)

Formed by former After Forever guitarist Mark Jansen, Epica played a crucial part in the development of symphonic metal via a string of consistently impressive releases, but with The Quantum Enigma – their sixth studio record – the Dutch band raised the bar to a whole different level, hiring a live chamber choir and a string orchestra to enhance a collection of tunes that is uniformly strong. Throw in the soaring vocals of flame-haired mezzo-soprano  Simone Simons and the results are seismic.

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015)

You could pick anything from 2000’s Wishmaster onwards, but the Finns’ first album with Floor Jansen represents Peak Nightwish in terms of a grandiosity. A high-concept exploration of evolutionary science, featuring narration from scientist Richard Dawkins, it’s an absolute triumph. From the full-pelt throttle of Shudder Before The Beautiful and cinematic bombast of Weak Fantasy to the  life affirming anthemia of Alpenglow, it’s a constant stream of brilliance. Then there’s The Greatest Show On Earth, a 25-minute show-stopper most bands could only dream of writing. It’s no surprise this was the record that turned Nightwish into festival and arena headliners.

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