The 25 best symphonic metal albums

10. Epica - The Holographic Principle (2016)

By Epica's seventh studio platter The Holographic Principle, the hardworking Dutch sextet were a well-oiled machine: muscular, confident and keen to ramp up just about every element of their multi-faceted signature sound. More heavenly choirs, more unorthodox ethnic instrumentation, more brutal metal riffs, more of everything – and everything better, from storming killer-robot headbanger Universal Death Squad to the sublime elegiac grace of Once Upon A Nightmare. “You can’t ever reach the ceiling,” notes frontwoman Simone Simons of the album’s densely textured, hyperactive opulence.

9.  Septicflesh - The Great Mass (2011)

While black metal and orchestras have long made perfect bedfellows, even the grandest of death metal is often too technical and impenetrable to follow suit. Enter Greek guitarist Christos Antoniou, who combines his two disciplines in Septicflesh’s sumptuous mix of savagery and splendour. The Great Mass is his magnum opus, with the appearance of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra bringing drama and magnitude to the gothic textures and rumbling percussion of Pyramid God and The Vampire From Nazareth.

8. Therion - Deggial (2000)

For these Swedish orchestral maestros – well, Christofer Johnsson and his hired guns – Deggial came during a career spell preceded by the insanely popular Theli and Vovin and followed by genre touchstones Secrets Of The Runes, Lemuria and Sirius B. Excellent company to be bookended by for sure, and Deggial was notable for being the first Therion album recorded with a full orchestra as opposed to a random group of handpicked musicians, and for never forgetting the role sinister darkness plays in metal, even metal this highbrow.

7. Dimmu Borgir - Enthrone Darkness Triumphant (1997)

Smarting from the poor production on their second album, Stormblåst, Dimmu Borgir opted to sign with metal behemoth Nuclear Blast and record their next at Peter Tägtgren’s The Abyss studio. The result was a huge evolutionary leap for the band and black metal as a whole. Redefining the genre’s symphonic wing on their own terms, its sweeping majesty and vaulting ambition catapulted Dimmu from underground also-rans to the best-selling BM band of all time, while making The Abyss the go-to for corpsepainted hordes seeking to up their game.

6. After Forever - Prison Of Desire (2000)

While many turn to Decipher as the jewel of these Dutch sensualists’ discography, its predecessor, debut Prison Of Desire, not only shined a brighter light on the possibilities for growing orchestration and sumptuousness in metal, it introduced soprano Floor Jansen (current Nightwish vocalist) to the world. Coloured by the wildness of youth, main composer Mark Jansen’s death metal past and the possibility their sound could have fallen flat with the denim’n’leather-clad hordes, Prison Of Desire teemed with rawness and no-holds-barred extravagance.

5. 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. 

4. Cradle Of Filth - Dusk… And Her Embrace (1996)

One of Cradle Of Filth’s crucial innovations was the refinement of black metal keyboards, escorting the instrument from its background role as wall of atmospheric noise to its own star in a lush erotic horror soundtrack. Suffolk’s finest had engaged a philharmonic orchestra for their 2003 stab at major label stardom, Damnation And A Day, but Damien Gregori’s humble organ was all they needed to nail the haunting bombast in 1996, his ‘orchestral manoeuvres in the dark’ providing classy respite from the surrounding cacophony.

3. Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015)

While the Finnish band were already among the elite of symphonic metal, Endless Forms Most Beautiful really raised the bar for the genre. The concept was based around the evolutionary theories of Richard Dawkins – who even guests on the record – and Charles Darwin, and the scope and expanse of the music matched the ideological ambition. It all came together in a brilliantly realised, fully formed album, with new vocalist Floor Jansen proving a fine addition to the band. Endless Forms Most Beautiful was the sound of Nightwish coming of age.

2. Celtic Frost - Into The Pandemonium (1987)

It’s a real toss-up between 1985’s To Mega Therion and Into The Pandemonium as to which Celtic Frost full-length put more orchestration on display – and that’s if either could even be considered full-on symphonic metal, given the left-field implementation of horns, woodwind and choral voices. But let’s tip our hat to the album that starts with a Wall Of Voodoo cover (Mexican Radio) before broadly jumping into ornate goth, doom thrash and operatic arias. Whatever the case, it’s arguable whether any of the albums on this list would even exist if it weren’t for Into The Pandemonium’s bravery.

Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.