Balls of fire, ball gowns, cutting guitars, angelic singing… symphonic metal is the extravagant, brakeless sister of heavy metal. Sits her brother looking out the window on a birthday, sulkingly waiting for grandpa and grandma to leave; she is standing on the table singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in its entirety. It’s a subgenre where ‘over-the-top’, ‘bombastic’ and ‘nerdy’ are not dirty words, but compliments. The combination of hard metal with clean singers can fill the largest venues. This weekend there are no less than four evenings filled with them in the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam: twice Nightwish, and twice Within Temptation. And then later in January you can also go to Epica and Apocalyptica in the Afas Live. What exactly is it, what’s great about it and why is it so popular?
Symphonic metal is simply metal, so heavy rock music, with elements from classical music. Strings, horns, choral vocals and other additions that are not very common in metal are there for a lush or bombastic effect. Sometimes from a keyboard, sometimes with a whole orchestra. The best bands in the genre have a very good singer, who sometimes sings almost operatic, often (but certainly not always) next to a roaring singer, for contrast. The texts regularly come straight from the fantasy literature or science fiction world. That helps accessibility. Incidentally, it sometimes goes further behind the texts. For example, Epica wrote the song ‘Feint’ in response to the murder of Pim Fortuyn.
Musically, the barrier to entry is also low. Unlike much other heavy music, symphonic metal is hardly aggressive, the lyrics are fairly bloodshed and there is a pleasant lack of testosterone – or at least that is somewhat balanced by the female vocals and the catchy melodies.
Symphonic metal attracts a wide audience: at concerts of these kinds of bands you see many women and people of all ages. Metal is no longer the man’s sport it once was, and symphonic metal is partly responsible for that.
Also read an interview with Floor Jansen from Nightwish: ‘The Netherlands is just a shitty country in terms of music’
“I found the great attraction that there was more female vocals than in other metal,” says Charlotte Wessels, until recently the singer of the symphonic metal band Delain and now pursuing a solo career. “Not because I wouldn’t feel welcome as a girl in the metal scene, but because as a metal lover who loves to sing, I finally found music with vocals in my register.”
It is also sometimes referred to as fairytale metal or even Eftelingmetal, due to the lyrical tendency towards fantasy themes combined with the fairytale vocals and, at times, the elements of folk music. A bit condescending, that’s for sure, especially in the early days. Sharon den Adel, the singer of Within Temptation, recently said in NRC that they embraced those terms: “If something is extreme, and for many people we were quite extreme, then it is easy to caricature it. That also means that you have the attention.”
It kind of started with Therion, a Swedish band that combined blissful strings (from a keyboard) and reverberating choirs (really) with their death roar and raging guitars on the album in 1996 Theli. But in the meantime things were already brewing in Waddinxveen, where former band members of the death metal band The Circle were working on a cassette tape in a new formation with a singer like Within Temptation: Enter. The album hit the metal scene like a bomb in 1997. And then on second album Mother Earth the death rattle of Robert Westerholt disappeared and Sharon den Adel got all the focus, the band slowly broke through to a large audience.
“Promoters and other labels made a bit of a joke about it in the early days,” says Anthony van den Berg, who released the early albums of Within Temptation, Trail of Tears and Orphanage with his record label DSFA, among others. “But fans, and then female fans in the first instance, went along with it en masse. It was really something new, and even though the radio didn’t play it, I knew: if the general public hears this, the roof will go off. And it did, it worked with ‘Ice Queen’, Within Temptation’s first hit.”
Singer Sharon den Adel recently wrote about this in this newspaper: “What we did before that was almost a gimmick, at least it felt that way. It was done too many times.”
But it wasn’t done that often. The symphonic elements, the fantasy atmosphere, that mix of gothic and doom, the ripping guitars with heavenly vocals, that was really quite new. But before them there was a band that had popularized some of those ingredients: The Gathering had already made two albums full of dragging death metal when the very young singer Anneke van Giersbergen walked into the rehearsal room. On the first album with her, Mandylionher voice worked naturally on the heavy guitar music and became one of the absolute classics and an important source of inspiration.
All those Dutch people, what about that? “The magic word is Anneke,” says Arjen Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon and Star One, who has worked with dozens of singers from the symphonic world over the years. “Anneke van Giersbergen was the first and immediately the best to do it with The Gathering: combining that beautiful vibrato with nail-heavy metal. I still remember when I first heard it, holy shit, I was an instant fan. I think that also applies to many other well-known Dutch singers, they must have looked at her and thought: I want that too.
In 2017, the Dutch pop music sector broke through the 200 million mark in foreign income for the first time: money that was earned from rights, recordings and performances. Three-quarters of that was due to dance and a little bit to André Rieu, but symphonic metal is also a successful export product. Bands like Epica and Within Temptation play in sports stadiums and arenas all over the world, especially in South and Central America, but they also have a lot of fans in Germany and Japan. Epica already received the Buma Rocks Export award in 2015 for their foreign successes.
Brabant singer Floor Jansen sings in the Finnish band Nightwish (and lives in Sweden, to make it easy), but received the prestigious Pop Prize in 2019 for her contribution to Dutch pop music at home and abroad.
“It seems a somewhat hidden scene, because the music press in the Netherlands is less inclined to write about it,” says Anneke van Giersbergen, “but it draws full houses all over the world. I notice that Dutch bands in this genre quickly approach it professionally and I also think that the fact that you come from the Netherlands ensures that there is immediate attention in the international press, a bit comparable to Dutch DJs, or a grunge band from Seattle . And there are just a number of very good and talented female singers in the Netherlands, who also choose a career in heavy music.”
Also read an interview with Anneke van Giersbergen: Getting out of The Gathering was the hardest thing I’ve ever done
According to Johan van Stratum, team leader of the only metal training in the world, the Metal Factory in Eindhoven, and bass player in the bands Stream of Passion, Ayreon and Blind Guardian, it has to do with the business climate, but also with quality and technology. “A band like Epica is a seasoned metal machine, very high in terms of playing, production and technical. This also applies to the often female vocalists. Not for nothing that Floor brought the whole of the Netherlands to its knees Dear Singers.”
Isn’t it a little cheesy, and geeky? “Naturally! I am the chief nerd”, says Arjen Lucassen with a laugh. “Symphonic metal is absolutely nerdy, it’s pure escapism and that’s a dirty word for a lot of people. I also have that with Ayreon when I approach some guest musicians. Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree, for example, when I say it will be a science fiction album, he immediately drops out. I never get it very well: when there is a big Star Wars movie everyone flies to the cinema, but when it’s in music it’s the same cheesy.” But, yes, he admits: there is a lot of cheesiness in between. “The majority even, it often goes too far for me. But if it’s done really well, then it’s really great. The really good songs that have that little bit extra when it comes to melody and use of chords, you hear that in bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation and there aren’t many of them.”
Still, Lucassen, always looking for new blood, also has the name of new talent ready: „I can hear it from Blackbriar, who have just signed a contract with Nuclear Blast. That is a new tire that also has that little bit extra.”
Nightwish plays 27 and 28/11 in the Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam.
Within Temptation and Evanescence play 29 and 30/11 in the Ziggo Dome.
Epica and Apocalyptica play 27/1 in the Afas Live, Amsterdam.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 24, 2022