Symphonic metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal music which combines the heavy drums and guitars of metal with elements of orchestral classical music, such as symphonic instruments, choirs and sometimes a full orchestra. Keyboards reminiscent of power metal also feature prominently.
Symphonic metal bands often feature classically trained female vocalists, giving rise to the nickname 'opera metal' or 'operatic metal', and it is not uncommon to feature a second vocalist performing growls; a characteristic more often associated with the gothic and black metal genres. Perhaps the most typical and prominent examples of symphonic metal bands are Finnish band Nightwish, Dutch bands Within Temptation, and Epica, and Swedish band Therion, all four of which placed a large focus on elements prevalent in film scores on top of the more basic classical components utilized more widely in the genre.
Song structure is often highly atmospheric, though more upbeat than those of other heavy metal sub-genres, this includes songs with morbid themes. Particularly central to creating mood and atmosphere is the choice of keyboard sounds. Music workstation keyboards and orchestras are often the focal point of the music, which, in essence, distinguishes the sub-genre from other heavy metal sub-genres. Other instruments including guitars, bass and drums typically play relatively simple parts in contrast to the complex and nuanced keyboard and/or orchestral parts. Bands that do not use live orchestral instrumentation on their recordings or when playing live typically then use the provided programmed sounds found on the workstation keyboards (strings, choirs, pianos, pipe organs, etc.) to conjure up a "pseudo-orchestral" sound, where parts are played according to keyboard technique. Some symphonic metal bands use pre-recorded third party orchestral backing tracks, record a live symphony orchestra and/or choir during an album session, or record using virtual software instruments in a sequencer, rather than keyboards. This is particularly characteristic of bands that feature deeper and more complex arrangements that would be more difficult for one or even two keyboardists to reproduce in a live performance.
The main musical influences on symphonic metal were early gothic metal, power metal and NWOBHM.
The roots of symphonic metal can be found in early death metal and gothic metal bands, who made use of symphonic elements in their music, notably Swiss extreme heavy metal pioneers Celtic Frost on their 1987 album Into the Pandemonium, whose 1985 release To Mega Therion inspired the naming of symphonic metal pioneers Therion. One of the earliest symphonic metal tracks was Dies Irae by American thrash metal group Believer on their 1990 album Sanity Obscure.
The band Therion were influential in forming the genre through their use of a live orchestra and classical composition techniques. These elements would eventually became a more important part of Therion's music than their death metal roots. Another key early influence was Finnish progressive metal band Waltari's album Yeah! Yeah! Die! Die! Death Metal Symphony in Deep C. Following this, operatic female vocals, classical instrumentation, and progressive elements became a staple in Dark Tranquillity's sound. In mid-1996 Rage released Lingua Mortis, the band's first collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Many new symphonic metal bands appeared or came to wide attention in the early to mid 2000s, including Rain Fell Within, After Forever, Epica, Delain, Leaves' Eyes, Xandria, and Edenbridge, all featuring the characteristic keyboards and female vocals. The upbeat fantasy themes and stylized keyboard sounds of power metal was an important influence on these groups as well.
The term 'symphonic metal' has often been applied to individual songs or albums by bands that are primarily death metal, doom metal, gothic metal, power metal, or black metal, for example renowned black metal act Dimmu Borgir. The term has also been applied to other genres of heavy metal to create symphonic black metal, symphonic death metal, symphonic gothic metal and symphonic power metal - acts of those sub-genres who typically introduce symphonic elements into their music.
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