New Music Is Available!

So … when I’m not writing, it seems, I’m writing music. Whilst The Redemption of Erâth has been on pause for a few months, I’ve been revisiting some music I created between 2019 and 2021 – an album of symphonic metal called Despair.

Recently, I upgraded the orchestral sample libraries I use, and re-recorded all five tracks of the album using EastWest’s phenomenal samples and sound engine. Whilst the final result may not sound exactly like a live orchestra, it’s (in my mind, at least) pretty damn close.

So without further ado, I present to you: Despair, a suite of orchestral heavy metal in five parts, channeling the deepest, darkest emotions of human nature!

1: Depression

Depression is the first track from Despair, opening with quiet strings and horns, building to crescendo before the crushing heaviness of the metal band comes crashing in. Segueing to a softer, melodic verse section, things eventually take off with pounding guitars and drums, intertwining a full orchestra through rises and falls until a heavier recapitulation brings us to the outro – soft and quiet again, building into a sudden wall of orchestral noise and a thundering drum punctuation that leaves on a cliffhanger, waiting for the next track.

2: Anger

Bursting in with furious strings and brass, Anger ups the pace and energy tenfold, a full orchestra blasting away until dropping out suddenly to allow for the metal band to take over with churning, grinding riffs. Never giving in to a slower beat, the song carries forward in a kind of scherzo-and-trio format, building to a climax before a middle section that leads again with devastating riffs, before recapitulating to the opening. Finally drawing to close with every instrument at full tilt, Anger is a crushing ode to unbridled fury.

3: Fear

Opening with a rumbling, unsettled bass line, Fear is deliberately the most disjointed piece of the suite, wavering between numerous time and key signatures throughout. There are moments of melody interspersed between longer passages of chromatic atonality, but the overall mood is one of anxiety and unsettled, indescribable fearfulness.

4: Grief

Almost entirely orchestral (the band comes in only briefly at the very climax of the piece), Grief takes us through a journey of pathos and heartbreak, with sweeping strings and devastating horn lines drawing influence from the raw emotion of the greatest of classical composers – Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and more. From the soft, distant opening to the thundering timpani that bring the song to a heaving climax of sadness, Grief will tug at your heartstrings and (hopefully) give you chills at all the rights moments.

5: Despair

The epic conclusion and title track, Despair opens with a hammering timpani roll and huge, crashing chords from the band and full orchestra – nearly a full two minutes of opening to a 20-minute track that winds through many layers of instrumentation before coming to a quiet close halfway-through, only to burst back into life with grand horns and strings sustaining the melody over churning guitar riffs. Through a varied development we finally return to a grand reprise of the opening, announced with a huge gong crash, before moving on to the closing of the song, and the album, with a revisiting of the very opening of Depression, bringing the full album to a close.

Nightwish and the Advent of Symphonic Metal

Growing up as I did on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I’ve always had a love for classical music, and the power of the orchestra. From the modest chamber orchestras of Vivaldi’s era to the sprawling orchestrations of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, for a very long time I believed the most powerful sound on earth was that of a hundred instruments blasting out at full volume, tuba players red in the cheeks and sweat dripping down the conductor’s brow.

Then I discovered heavy metal.

At first glance, the two genres couldn’t be further from each other. Classical music is dominated by large dynamic ranges, often slow passages, and is usually seen as the intellectual’s music. Heavy metal is fast, loud, and – particularly in the 70s and 80s – somewhat ‘low-brow’. (This isn’t true at all, but there’s no accounting for some people’s judgements.) Classical music is sophisticated and charming; metal is brutish and off-putting. One is sipping sherry by a fire on winter’s night; the other is a college frat-party chugathon.

In truth, heavy metal owes an enormous amount to the classical eras of music, and is one of the most diverse genres to grace the music world, with everything from Black Sabbath to Behemoth bringing elements of classical music into the fray. In Van Halen’s virtuosic track Eruption, parts of the song are lifted directly from a Paganini piece for solo violin. In the middle eight of Stratovarius’s Will the Sun Rise, we are treated to a double-time rendition of a Bach violin concerto. Orchestras were used even before heavy metal to enhance, back and fill out big bands and crooners, and it was only a matter of time before the lush instrumentations bled over into rock and metal.

Now of course, not all attempts to marry rock and classical music have worked to great success; Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for example, is just awful. But in the late 80s and early 90s, the arrival of synthesizers and sampled instruments allowed heavy metal bands to incorporate orchestral sounds without the need of an actual live, expensive orchestra. Many underground and some mainstream bands started using strings, bells, and even horn sounds in their music to emphasize certain passages, or compliment the rawness of the distorted guitars, leading to a new sub genre: symphonic metal.

And in the late 90s, one band arose above many others as the true champion of this style, and that was Finland’s Nightwish. Incorporating strings and flutes as early as their first album, and combined with their original vocalist’s operatic training, nothing said ‘symphonic’ like their blend of synthetic orchestras and power metal. In fact, unlike many other bands at the time, the orchestral elements (keyboards and synths to start with) would often take center stage, putting the guitars and even drums in the background.

Then, in 2002, Nightwish released their fourth album, Century Child, and this time, they replaced the synths and samples with a real live orchestra. From the massive string chords of the opening Bless the Child to the massive 10-minute closer, Beauty of the Beast, the orchestra is prominent throughout, and there’s something about the authenticity of the real instruments that stands head and shoulders above anything they’d done before.

Whilst it wasn’t clear at the time if this was a one-time thing for Nightwish or a new direction, it soon became evident that working with a live orchestra was a strong suit for the band with the release of 2004’s Once, and even when they changed vocalists for 2007’s Dark Passion Play, the massive orchestras were clearly here to stay. And their most recent release, Human :II: Nature, includes a second disc which is quite literally a 30-minute orchestral symphony, with no guitars or metal in it at all.

There are many other bands working in this area now, of course, from Dimmu Borgir to Cradle of Filth, but there is no band that does it better than Nightwish.

Long live symphonic metal!

Listening to Old Favorites in a New Way

I am absolutely terrible at finding gifts for people. I never really know what they’re going to like, and half the time I end up getting them something they don’t really like, or never end up using. So it was to my great surprise that this year’s big gift to my sixteen-year-old son turned out to be a great gift for the whole family, and one we’ve enjoyed almost daily ever since Christmas Day itself.

My son has, in the past few years, been getting seriously into music, to the extent of teaching himself guitar, writing his own music on the computer, and exploring worlds of sound that are far outside of my own experience – everything from brutal death metal to prog rock and avant-garde jazz. With all this interest in music, I felt it was finally time to get him – and by proxy, myself – into the theoretical best possible sound there is to hear – vinyl records.

So I splurged and ended up getting a decent record player and some serious speakers (within budget and reason), and it’s played at least one record a day ever since we first set it up in the living room (it was originally going to go in the loft). Along with it came Opeth’s In Cauda Venenum, Polygondwanaland by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and a whole bunch of old records we got second-hand from someone on Facebook.

And I have to say, both myself, my son and my wife believe it sounds better than anything we’ve ever heard – and I have both studio headphones for music production as well as some very nice consumer-grade headphones for general enjoyment. There’s an almost undefinable richness to the sound, a warmth and detail to the signal that just isn’t there in digital recreations – whether it be CDs or digital streaming.

The biggest problem with having a record player – aside from keeping it clean and dust-free – is that there just aren’t enough records to listen to! In these days of on-demand streaming and the commoditization of music, it’s hard to get used to the idea that you may only have a handful of records to listen to – and you’re going to end up listening to them over and over again. Vinyl’s expensive, too – most places sell records for $20-$25 each, which makes building a library a slow, long-term prospect.

Nonetheless, I’m really glad we have the record player now, even if to some it might seem like a step backwards; the pure audio quality of straight analog audio is incredible, and the whole setup itself is just somehow enjoyable. We sit together and listen to music, which is something we don’t even do with TV shows (everyone’s off in their own rooms binging Netflix and Hulu). It’s almost – I hesitate to say – brought us closer as a family, and that’s something I appreciate to no end.

So as listen to Beethoven and Blackwater Park on vinyl, I’ll continue to appreciate music as a beautiful art form, and as a tool for bringing people closer to each other, and enjoy every single moment of it.

Do you have a record player? If so, what are your favorite albums to listen to? Let me know in the comments!