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!