So you have read or are reading Heavy Metal Symphony (and if that’s you, yay! Thank you!) and since Handel’s Messiah is, sadly, not a real a band, you may find yourself wondering: what do they sound like, exactly? What is symphonic metal? What should I listen to in order to get a feel for Handel’s Messiah’s sound?
Well, you’re in luck, because I have aaaallll the recommendations for you! (Shout out to Piepie Baltz, who gave me the idea for this post!)
First of all, a definition: symphonic metal is one of the many subgenres of heavy metal (other subgenres include power metal, death metal, black metal, doom metal, progressive metal, and so on, and often bands can fit into more than one subgenre). Symphonic metal is when a metal band incorporates elements of classical music into their sound: choirs, strings, a full orchestra, classical singing styles, and so forth. Bands can use one or all of those elements to be considered “symphonic metal”, and different bands approach it differently: some bands use samples of choirs or strings on their songs, while others (usually bigger bands with the financial ability to do so, like Epica and Nightwish) will work with actual choirs and orchestras. For me, a classically trained musician and lover of classical music as well as someone who loves heavy music, this fusion of classical and metal is my absolute favorite thing. It appeals to all parts of my musical brain, and I just adore the drama and grandiosity of the sound. At the end of the day, there are more similarities than differences between classical and metal music (and indeed, a lot of metal musicians are classically trained, as are some of the band members in Heavy Metal Symphony), which is why they go together so well.
So, since you can’t actually listen to Handel’s Messiah, what are some symphonic metal bands you CAN listen to? Read on to find out!
Nightwish is one of the top bands in the symphonic metal genre (and they are my personal all-time favorite band). Formed in Finland, they’re a bit more international these days with members also from the U.K. and the Netherlands. They’ve been plagued by several lineup changes over the years, and have had three lead singers since their inception. Their current lead singer, Floor Jansen, is absolutely one of the best metal vocalists on the planet. She can do it all: belt, growl, and sing in a classical style. I drew a lot of inspiration for Ava and her singing style from Floor. Below are a few songs to get you started on Nightwish’s extensive catalogue.
“Dark Chest of Wonders”, off of Nightwish’s blockbuster 2004 album Once (and their final album with original lead singer Tarja Turunen), is one of the first songs I would recommend to someone looking to get a taste for what symphonic metal is. It’s got it all: orchestral elements, a choir, and the band going HARD throughout it all. This clip is from the band’s performance at the Wacken Open Air metal festival in 2013, shortly after Floor Jansen joined the band. This particular performance is immortalized on the band’s live album and DVD, Showtime, Storytime (which is honestly a favorite album of all time for me; this performance is flawless).
Nightwish is, in my opinion, notoriously bad at choosing singles from their albums, but this song, “Storytime” from 2011’s Imaginerum (the second and final album with the band’s second lead singer, Anette Olzon), was the exception. It’s a great song, upbeat and catchy but still with their signature epic sound. And as a writer, this song very much as a special place in my heart!
“Shudder Before the Beautiful” is the opening track from Nightwish’s 2015 album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, their first studio album with Jansen. This is one of my favorite songs of all time, and is a good encapsulation of their sound.
Another one from the Wacken Open Air show in 2013 – “Song of Myself”, another all-time favorite song of mine. This song is a bit bigger than the other two I’ve shared: longer, and divided into multiple movements.
Another all-time favorite song! This one is also epic but catchy (Nightwish is SO good at that) and, as the title suggests, is the song the band usually plays to close out their shows. And why so many live clips? Because this is a band that is truly exceptional live, and in the spirit of Heavy Metal Symphony being very much about live music and performance!
Okay, one more by Nightwish! This song is, you guessed it, another all-time favorite (hence why Nightwish is my favorite band!). “Shoemaker” is off of their most recent album, Human. :||: Nature., which was released in April 2020, just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (and BOY did I need a new Nightwish album just then). The end section of this song is, in my opinion, flawlessly beautiful and some of my favorite measures of music ever.
Dutch band Epica, fronted by classical mezzo-soprano Simone Simons, take all the grandeur and bombast of symphonic metal to the absolute top. Their songs tend to be longer and are quite elaborate. This is a band that is still on my list to see live someday!
“Unleashed” was the first single off of 2009’s Design Your Universe, and I was completely obsessed with it when it came out: once per commute to college or back, I was blasting this song and singing along. This song is a bit more accessible if you’re new to Epica or to symphonic metal, and I love the lyrics about reaching your full potential.
I think “Once Upon a Nightmare”, from 2016’s The Holographic Principle, is just gorgeous. Epica does EXCELLENT ballads and power ballads, and this one really showcases the range of what symphonic metal can be. (Also, is “Once Upon a Nightmare” not the greatest title??).
“The Skeleton Key” is from Epica’s most recent album, 2021’s Omega. Again in the spirit of live music, the clip above is from the band’s livestream concert from earlier this year, which they’ll be releasing in DVD form. I love the instrumentation in this and the eerie vibe of it.
“Rivers” is another gorgeous Epica ballad, also off of Omega, and is one of my favorite songs that has been released in 2021. It’s just beautiful!
Kamelot is technically an American band, founded by Floridian and guitarist Thomas Youngblood, but, like Nightwish, now has members from different countries: lead singer Tommy Karevik is Swedish (but now lives in Canada with his wife, Kobra Paige of Kobra and the Lotus fame) and keyboardist Oliver Palotai is from Germany (and is also the husband of Simone Simons from Epica). Kamelot has also been through a few lineup changes, the biggest being the departure of lead singer Roy Khan in 2012, after which he was replaced by Karevik. Kamelot falls more onto the power metal end of the spectrum, but they do make use of symphonic elements as well. (Fun fact: Kamelot’s music features HEAVILY on the playlist for The Borgia Confessions).
“Falling Like the Fahrenheit” is from 2012’s Silverthorn, the first album with Tommy Karevik as lead singer. This mid-tempo song has an absolutely gorgeous melody that suits Karevik’s voice extremely well.
Oh, look, it’s an all-time favorite song of Alyssa’s that isn’t by Nightwish! This is likely my very favorite Kamelot song, from 2015’s Haven, and hey, we get a little choir action on the bridge (which is my VERY FAVORITE part).
Time for another live clip! “Phantom Divine” is off the band’s most recent album, 2018’s The Shadow Theory, and is absolute banger. This clip is from their live DVD, I Am the Empire – Live from the 013, which was released in 2020 and was recorded at their show at the 013 in Tilburg, the Netherlands, in 2018.
Dutch metal band Within Temptation has been around for a long time, and they are excellent. Sometimes referred to as “gothic metal”, their sound has evolved and changed quite a bit over the years as they’ve added new elements in, from 80s synth-pop to techno and hip-hop. The constants, though, are always their big sound, chugging guitars, and lead singer Sharon den Adel’s voice.
“Stand My Ground”, from 2004’s The Silent Force, is one of Within Temptation’s most popular songs. This version is from their Black Symphony show, a concert they did with The Metropole Orchestra and a choir in the Netherlands in 2008, and which they recorded and released a live DVD and CD of. (Epica has done similar performances as well). Talk about the ultimate symphonic metal experience!
“The Howling”, like Nightwish’s “Dark Chest of Wonders”, would be one of the first songs I’d recommend to someone looking to get a feel for symphonic metal. It has it all: the choir and orchestra, the bombast of the full band, and a killer lead vocal. This song is from 2007’s The Heart of Everything, which remains my favorite Within Temptation album
Another Black Symphony live clip, this one of another favorite song of mine, “What Have You Done”, which features guest vocalist Keith Caputo. I love the interplay between the two singers in this song, and the story that takes place within it. (Fun fact: this song maaaayy have helped inspire an entire book I wrote? That I hope you all get to read someday?). This song is also from 2007’s The Heart of Everything.
“Iron” is an absolute banger of a song, good for driving with the windows down. This song is from the band’s 2011 album The Unforgiving, which had an accompanying comic book.
“Shed My Skin” is the band’s newest song. While they haven’t announced a new album, they have released a few new songs since the COVID-19 pandemic started, so hopefully a new album is on the way soon.
While Italy’s Lacuna Coil is more straight heavy metal than symphonic metal, but as they were the first metal band I really got into, I felt I had to include them here. With two lead singers, Cristina Scabbia and Andrea Ferro, the band has a lot of versatility in their sound and has been going strong since the 90s.
“Spellbound” is off Lacuna Coil’s 2009 album Shallow Life, and one of my favorite albums of theirs. This song is hard rocking but catchy at the same time (which is no doubt why it was the first single off this album).
“Swamped”, off the 2004 album Comalies (the album that got me into Lacuna Coil), was one of the first songs of theirs that I fell in love with. This live version is from their 1.19 anniversary show in London in 2018.
I hope you enjoyed this (brief) guide to symphonic metal, and found some songs you liked! Hopefully you’ll explore some of these bands’ catalogues in more depth. There’s nothing I love more than introducing someone to their new favorite band.
Heavy Metal Symphony is out now! Get your copy today!