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“We all want to leave a mark on the planet”: the epic story of the birth of Symphonic Metal

Nightwish and Within Temptation
(Image credit: Press)

Tuomas Holopainen got the idea to form Nightwish while fulfilling his national service in the Finnish army. His plan was to create an acoustic band to make ‘campfire music’. Luckily for metal, he soon realised a life of singing Kumbaya was a terrible idea. Even more fortunately, his service was spent in the military band, playing clarinet and saxophone rather than undertaking intensive weapons training or going out on manoeuvres.

“I didn’t have to play around with guns or any of that nonsense,” he says. “There was a lot of free time during the evenings, so I got permission to go to the rehearsal room and play the piano and keyboard. During those months, I composed all the songs for the debut.”

Symphonic metal was barely a stirring of strings at the start of the 90s. Sure, metal had flirted with classical music – Black Sabbath had used strings and piano back in 1972 on Changes, while the likes of Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Celtic Frost had found ways to use orchestral instruments in extreme metal. But beyond bands such as Therion and Emperor, who had begun to incorporate symphonic sounds more directly, the relationship had not been formalised. 

Then came 1997, and the debut albums from Nightwish and Within Temptation. Separated by more than 2,600 miles, Nightwish and Within Temptation had no way of knowing what the other was doing. Nevertheless, they shared common traits. Both wrote fantastical lyrics that drew on a sense of escapism. Both had a flair for the dramatic, using symphonic elements to underpin their epic sound. And both had a core male/female songwriting duo that shared singing duties, with the operatic female vocals at the heart of their sound.

“It was clear from the start that [Nightwish] needed to have a female singer,” Tuomas says. “I was a big fan of bands like The Gathering and Theatre Of Tragedy, [as well as Norway’s] The Third And The Mortal and Therion. Their album [1994’s Lepaca Kliffoth] might be the first actual symphonic metal album, ever.”

Similarly, Within Temptation’s Robert Westerholt feels that Sharon den Adel was the key to transforming music he had initially written for his death metal band, The Circle, into WT’s debut album, Enter. “As rudimental as it was, doing demos for our first real songs and having Sharon on every song was like everything falling into place,” he says.

Both bands had a long way to go first. Although Tuomas had already written much of the material for their debut album, Angels Fall First, while in the army, he still needed a band to play it. He recruited childhood friend Emppu Vuorinen on guitar, and together the pair approached another friend, Tarja Turunen, to fill the vacant vocal spot. 

“We just walked to the house of our old high-school friend, Tarja, knocked on the door, and asked if she could sing for this little thing called Nightwish,” Tuomas recalls. “She was just a country girl, in the same way we were just country boys, really naïve and full of life.”

The boys had previously heard Tarja singing in school, where she often imitated her icon, Whitney Houston. But by the time she joined Nightwish she had undergone classical training, drastically transforming her voice. The first time they heard her, they were blown away. “We didn’t expect it to be so operatic, so… lyrical,” Tuomas says. “We thought, ‘This is something really unique.’”

Nightwish

(Image credit: Press)

Ditching the acoustic experiment after trying out three songs (“it was kind of boring”), they went into the studio to record a demo. “Everybody was just so high and so free,” recalls Tuomas. “[Although] Jukka [Nevalainen, drums] broke his leg coming down from the recording room, so all the bass drums in the last song are made with a keyboard!”

That demo ended up at the label Spinefarm, who responded enthusiastically and released it as Angels Fall First, without any re-recording. Thrilling as that was, Tuomas’s parents’ address from the demo copy had accidentally been printed on the sleeve, which led to some interesting fan encounters. “There was one girl from Russia who just came to my parents’ door with two massive suitcases and said, ‘I have sold everything in my life. I’m going to come here, marry your son and live with you now,’” he remembers. “It was so baffling, it wasn’t even scary! We got things sorted out, but poor girl!”

At the same time Tuomas was crafting Nightwish, fellow future symphonic stars Within Temptation were getting their start in the Netherlands, following Robert Westerholt’s split from The Circle. Formed in 1992 by Robert and some schoolfriends (including future Within Temptation keyboardist Martijn Spierenburg), The Circle began life as a death metal band but soon evolved.  

“The high days of death metal were just ending,” says Robert. “You could clearly see in the later days of that movement people were searching for more melody. With bands like Napalm Death and Carcass, the extremes had been explored, so people were looking at groove and melody. For myself, before I’d discovered metal I was really into symphonic music – Pink Floyd, Marillion, Sisters Of Mercy, The Cure…”

They also began taking cues from bands such as My Dying Bride, The Gathering and Therion, but issues with vocalist Carmen van der Ploeg caused rifts in the band. Luckily, Sharon den Adel was ready to swoop in and save the day.

“Robert was already in The Circle when I met him, but I told him about the school band and he joined that as well,” Sharon explains. “He really liked my singing and we ended up dating. One day he asked if I’d sing for The Circle because their singer hadn’t turned up a lot of times, and I was like, ‘Of course’ – I’d been practising already! I loved the music they were playing.”

The Circle split in 1995, and the following year Robert formed a new band with Sharon on lead vocals. Songs he had written for The Circle formed the basis for Within Temptation’s debut album, Enter, recorded in early 1997. It took its cues from Paradise Lost’s 1991 genre-defining release Gothic, as well as more esoteric influences such as Celtic folk group Clannad, combining elements of doom, goth and folk with pop and cinema. Sharon cites Tori Amos and Bram Stoker’s Dracula as inspirations, while Robert says there were “no rules”.

“It wasn’t like there was a scene to help build the genre at that point,” he explains. “In death metal people were exchanging demos and tapes, so there was some connection. [Symphonic metal] hadn’t evolved yet, so you were just doing your own thing.”

Within Temptation

(Image credit: Press)

Within Temptation’s Enter was released in April 1997, followed by Nightwish’s Angels Fall First in November. They didn’t immediately set the world on fire, although Angels Fall First would reach No.31 in the Finnish charts in 1998. First, people had to get accustomed to this new genre of music.

“When we first started playing with Within Temptation, nobody knew where to put us because we were melodic, but also had the growling voices and a doomy sound,” says Sharon. “We were strange for metal, but also very strange for the mainstream because we were so dark. It was something they’d never seen before, a girl in a dress playing with this kind of band. We loved it!”

They weren’t alone. They were soon playing to growing crowds in their native Netherlands, and for their fourth performance were invited to play Dynamo alongside similarly grandiose-minded acts including Therion and Dimmu Borgir. “It was the biggest metal festival in Europe,” Sharon says. “We were nowhere near as visual as we are now. I remember going to a wedding store and buying all these dresses that were on sale, but we didn’t even have a backdrop at that point. We did have moonflowers, though!” 

Nightwish were slower to make their live debut, playing on New Year’s Eve 1997, to 400 people. “I remember throwing up before the show because I was so scared,” remembers Tuomas. But within months they were playing with fellow Finns Children Of Bodom. “There were a few Finnish bands emerging at the same time, for the first time ever,” he says. “Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica, Children Of Bodom, HIM… There was nothing going on for decades and then suddenly, within two years, all these bands broke big time abroad. It was good riding that wave.”

In a genre dominated by men, Sharon and Tarja became role models for women and girls who aspired to sing in a band. “I wouldn’t play music were it not for them,” says Svalbard vocalist Serena Cherry. “Tarja was one of the first women I ever saw performing onstage, at [German festival] Wacken. You can never underestimate that power of representation. I’d spent all day watching guys performing onstage, then suddenly you have this incredible presence and this soaring voice; seeing that as a woman in the crowd, it made me think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this too.’ The whole symphonic metal movement – Nightwish, Within Temptation, After Forever, Epica… all those bands were absolutely pivotal in putting women at the front of the stage as singers and valid artists in metal.” 

“That’s truly heartwarming. It really is, to hear these kinds of comments,” Tuomas says in response. “We all want to leave a mark on this planet, to achieve something with our lives and what we have done, so to actually hear people say something like that brings tears to my eyes.”

Nightwish and Within Temptation may not have invented symphonic metal, but they certainly defined it, the imagery of corsets forever intertwined with keys and strings thanks to their influence. Twenty-five years since their debuts, both bands are going stronger than ever. They’ve each achieved a string of chart-topping releases, played to arena-sized crowds, and continued to push the genre forwards. Yet today, Tuomas still has a soft spot for Angels Fall First’s opener, Elvenpath, with its lyric: ‘Home gnome told me to keep the sauna warm for him.’ “I was just a massive fantasy nerd back then and still am,” he smiles. “But in those days, it was on a different level and it shows! There’s nothing that I’m ashamed of on that album. When I listen to the songs, they just put a big smile on my face.”

Meanwhile, Sharon is proud to have influenced a new generation of bands. “I find it so cool, especially hearing that so many girls have been inspired,” she says. “I find it beautiful that there was a new wave of females coming to the table and taking their place. I like development, and I think if we can help other bands get a seat, that’s very cool.”

Published in Metal Hammer #361

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.