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!

Rewind: What Makes a Movie Re-Watchable?

My son hates the fact that I never want to watch new movies or TV shows. He’s almost seventeen, and just beginning to learn about the incredibly wide world of music and film that exists out there – and relishing in the exploration of that world. From nu metal to jazz, and old classic films to brand new TV shows like The Witcher, he’s a devourer of entertainment (and a creator, too, inspired by what he hears and sees). I love to see that in him, but for myself … I feel like I’m too old to learn new tricks. I don’t actually believe that to be the case, but there’s something about the comfort of rewatching a beloved movie or TV show that deeply appeals to me.

My wife is more in line with my son – always on the lookout for new shows and movies to watch. But every once in a while, even she will want to rewatch something (this is rare), and it makes me wonder – outside of my own personal experience, what actually makes a movie or show worth rewatching? After all, the novelty of the first experience won’t be there, so why watch it a second – or third, or fourth – time at all?

I think there are a few elements to explore here, so I’ll lay them out below.

Emotional Connection

I think – for me, at least – one of the strongest reasons to re-watch something is if there’s a deep emotional connection between the content and the viewer. This could be an empathetic connection, of course – you understand innately what the characters are going through – or it could be a feeling that the movie inspires in you, but emotion is one of the core reasons to consume entertainment at all, and if the media triggers an emotional response in you, then you’re likely to want to re-experience that same emotion again (assuming it wasn’t a deeply negative or triggering emotion).

I remember the first time(s) I watched what is perhaps my favorite single film of all time: The Crow. It’s cheesy, full of bad lines and bad acting, but at the same time there’s a rawness to the characters and the story that connected with me deeply at that time of my life, being as I was severely depressed. Many moments within the movie made me literally cry, and the ability to feel anything, never mind the ability to feel a deep sadness that was inspired from deep within me, was incredible. I probably watched that movie once a day for a month.

Another movie that connected with me at an important developmental time in my life is Donnie Darko; also a movie I could re-watch any time, I felt very connected to the main character’s confusion, nihilistic depression, and deepening instability as the movie progresses. Never mind that the movie is also deeply confusing in and of itself (an element I’ll address momentarily).

Re-watching these movies today allows me to revisit and relive those emotions from when I first watched them, and for me, at least – being as I am typically very emotionally reserved – that’s a good thing.

Complexity & World-Building

Sometimes you come across a movie or TV show (often based on a book, being more capable of winding complexity than film in general) that is so deep in its lore, world-building and complexity, that you simply can’t take it all in in one viewing. This could be anything from tiny references to much larger elements through to seemingly-innocuous plot elements that turn out to be incredibly important later on, but movies like this typically require multiple viewings to truly appreciate the depth of storytelling that went into them.

Perhaps the best example of deep lore and world-building I can think of is my old staple, The Lord of the Rings. If The Crow is my favorite single movie, The Lord of the Rings is hands-down my favorite trilogy, ever. Much of this has to do with the epic grandeur of both the scenery, the story, and Howard Shore’s incredible score, but a larger part of it has to do with Peter Jackson’s intense attention to detail, and faithfulness to Tolkien’s original books. From moments such as Théoden crying “Forth Eorlingas!” – a phrase that, without context, is unintelligible and meaningless – to the importance of pipe-weed threaded through the entire trilogy, there are references, nods and entire points lifted straight from the book that, to the average viewer, make little to no sense without having read the books in the first place.

Then there are movies that are complex and intricate in their plot, to the point where it is almost impossible to know what to pay attention to during the first viewing. Time travel movies are often my favorite example of this, and a great example of this genre that to this day I struggle to grasp in its entirely (I’ve actually only seen it once) is Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke. An absolutely bonkers tale of pre-empting crimes through a time-traveling police agency, it slowly unravels a mystery that includes insane paradoxes, whilst still somehow at the end of it all seeming to make sense (can someone be their own mother and father?). I really want to watch this movie again, just to see the hints and details that I would have missed the first time around.

Nostalgia & Comfort

Lastly (for tonight), there are movies whose merits are in nothing more than the comfort of a well-worn sweater, or a favorite stuffed animal: simple nostalgia, and the comfort of the familiar. These movies are not always high art, nor revered as great bouts of acting or storytelling, but hold a special place in our hearts as individuals, either because of the associations we make with when we first came across them, or even just because, for some reason, we find them deeply relatable.

One of my favorite movies to watch over and over again, to the point where I can probably reiterate almost every line in the film, is Wayne’s World. This Mike Myers vehicle is a virtually plot-less comedy romp through 90s alternative rock culture, and whilst the film has virtually no artistic merit whatsoever, I simply adore it. It no longer makes me laugh out loud (the comedy is too expected after the thousandth viewing), but still manages to draw a smile and Wayne and Garth’s overgrown childish antics. The appearance of an in-his-heyday Alice Cooper is merely an added bonus.

What are your favorite movies to watch again and again? Are you the kind of person who doesn’t like to watch something twice, or are there films or TV shows that you could watch endlessly without getting bored? Let me know in the comments!

What Should I Do With My Life?

Although my presence here, online, and in the writing community is that of an author and writer, I know I can’t pretend that it isn’t much more than a side hobby (at least at the moment) – as much as I enjoy writing books, it isn’t a career (and isn’t likely to be one). At the end of the day, the books I write, and the time it takes me to write them, are somewhat prohibitive from allowing me to make a full-time living on that income alone. (Who am I kidding? I haven’t actually sold a copy of a book in months!)

The truth is, my everyday life is much more ordinary and mundane, and although I try to keep up the writing in my spare time, I have a job, career, and life outside of words on paper. In real life, I work for a large retail/tech company, and have done so for over fifteen years. I have a wife, a cat, and a teenage son, who will soon be leaving home to embark on his own journey into life, and whether it’s this realization, or just the compounding of fifteen years of retail, I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m starting to question what I do, and am able to do, with my time on this earth.

You see, despite forging a career in this retail environment, it actually started out as a part-time gig to help me through college, and simply blossomed from there. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company where personal development and career progression is highly valued, and after so long, I’ve come to realize that the satisfaction I get in my day-to-day work isn’t necessarily from delighting customers, or working with technology, but rather helping and seeing the personal growth and development of my peers. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several career experiences wherein I was able to teach, train and develop others, and I’ve learned that what truly gives me a sense of purpose, of raison-d-être, is that moment of epiphany in other soul – the knowledge that I helped someone realize something about themselves that they never knew before.

Alongside this, mental health has obviously been a huge part of my personal life, what with my own struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, and there have been times – fewer, perhaps, but still there nonetheless – when I’ve been able to connect with other person on a truly personal level, and help them through a very difficult time in their lives. And those moments … they make me feel like I have a reason to be here. A reason to exist.

And so when I think back on my life so far, I wonder if I’ve – if not wasted, then perhaps misused – my entire existence. At the moment, at work, I’ve recently been given the opportunity to enter into a leadership experience, where I can flex a little more of those development muscles with others, and I’m grateful for that, but … I can’t help wondering if my calling is elsewhere. And I can’t help wondering, also – I’ve been doing this for fifteen years; will I still get the same sense of satisfaction if I’m basically doing the same thing still in another fifteen years? Will I still want to do my job? Or will I be bored beyond tears, and at a point in my life where it’s really too late to turn back?

The more I think about it, the more I get the sense that there is something else I could be doing with my life, and although it’s perhaps too late to start fresh, it’s maybe just the right time to think about a change in careers entirely. And the only other thing that, at least at the moment, calls to me is the ability to help others, truly help them, with their personal and emotional problems. To be able to help others self-reflect, and get the self-awareness and self-realization they need to improve their own lives.

I think I want to become a therapist.

But this would require additional schooling, learning, training … a lot of stuff that I worry would take either too long to master at this stage in my life, or would become overwhelming to me to the point where I would just abandon it after leaving everything else behind.

And more than anything, I worry that, if I leave behind a good, known thing in my retail career for something I’ve never done before … would I regret it?

I suppose this is a question to those of you who know me best, of course, but also to anyone who’s had a drastic career change in the middle of their lives – what would you do? Should I play it safe and stay where I am, possibly for the rest of my life? Should I take the risk of something that seems fulfilling now, even if it turns out to be a mistake?

What should I do with my life?

Any help would be greatly appreciated!