The best symphonic metal bands you’ve never heard of

If you’ve ever grooved to Evanescence but wanted something that fully committed to an operatic metal style, this is the genre for you.

Formed in 1996, Nightwish features a lead singer who is a classically-trained opera singer.Formed in 1996, Nightwish features a lead singer who is a classically-trained opera singer.Formed in 1996, Nightwish features a lead singer who is a classically-trained opera singer. (Photo: Spinefarm Records)

If your only exposure to metal music are the poppy power riffs of 1980s acts like Poison and Aerosmith, or the cookie monster vocals and harsh aggressive sounds that mark metal acts like Possessed and Deicide, symphonic metal may seem like a weird outlier, or even a total paradox.

Symphonic metal acts have some of the heavy drum and guitar sounds people associate with metal, but filtered through an epic prism that can include classically trained female vocalists, choirs and even entire symphonic orchestras at times.

Emerging from Scandinavia and the Netherlands in the mid-1990s, vintage symphonic acts like Nightwish are still going strong in 2015. But they're joined by some new acts as well. Below, we round up our current favorites.

Nightwish – 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful'

Finland’s Nightwish is one of the genre’s longest lasting legacy acts, first formed in 1996. Since their debut album, "Angels Fall First," the band has contributed prolifically to the genre with eight albums including its most recent – "Endless Forms Most Beautiful." Nightwish contains most of the genre’s traditional tropes including the gorgeous vocal stylings of Floor Jansen, a classically trained soprano who has made her rounds in the symphonic scene. Jansen first got her start with now-disbanded band After Forever, being brought into Nightwish in 2012 to replace departed lead vocalist Anette Olzon. Nightwish’s lyrical themes touch on fantastical and mythological stories – drawing from source material like "Dungeons and Dragons" and "The Lord of the Rings." In addition to traditional symphonic and operatic sounds, Nightwish also draws sounds from another oft-overlooked metal genre – folk metal. "Endless Forms" keeps the bombastic gothic streak going with songs like the slow-burner ode “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula,” and the twinkling fantasy of “Edema Ruh.”

Distorted Harmony – 'Chain Reaction'

Considering the genre's Scandinavian roots, you might be surprised to see Israel in the symphonic metal game, but the new release from scene newbies Distorted Harmony, based in Tel Aviv, rival many of its cousins to the north. Band vocalist Misha Soukhinin is a veteran of Israel's version of the reality singing competition "The Voice," and his singing has a rich, tone that shifts in and out of falsetto against a backdrop of crunchy guitar riffs and tricky rhythms. "Chain Reaction" takes many of its cues from prog-rock staples like Dream Theater, stocked with classical and jazz influences and mournful lyrics. On eight-and-a-half-minute epic album standout “Misguided,” Soukhinin sings, “Behind our soulful eyes we hide / Our deepest fears,” his voice sounding like a lit gothic candle in the dark. The newest album’s production were funded by fans through an Indiegogo campaign, and 2014 finally brought the band to the home of symphonic metal when it toured the Netherlands.

Kamelot – 'Haven'

Another staple of the symphonic scene, Kamelot got its start in 1991 in Tampa, Florida. Despite its U.S. base, Kamelot’s vocalists come from Scandinavia, including its original vocalist Roy Khan from Norway and its brand-new (as of 2012) Swedish singer Tommy Karevik. There is something about the dark, brooding climate of northern Europe that makes the sweeping sagas of symphonic metal feel particularly colossal, dark and legendary. The new album, "Haven," Kamelot’s 11th, is a veritable symphonic-fest, featuring guest artists from throughout the scene; Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, Troy Donockley from Nightwish and Charlotte Wessels from Delain all appear on the album. Instead of looking into a mystical past, Haven is thematically arranged around a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future. “Take my hand / My gutterchild adventure,” Karevik sings on “Beautiful Apocalypse.” On “Under Grey Skies,” Wessels trades lines with Karevik over soft strings, narrating a story of star-crossed lovers in an uncertain future: “In the darkness of sorrow / There’s a promise of grace.”

Ensiferum – 'One Man Army'

Ensiferum straddles the line between gothic symphonic metal and folk melodies. On its new album, "One Man Army," the Finnish band from Helsinki pairs harsh male metal vocals with theatrical choruses on refrains singing epic viking narratives. On “Heath Horde,” vocalist Petri Lindroos screams out to “Raise an army countless as stars in the sky,” answered by a Finnish crowd that sings, as if out of a Broadway production, “All heathen hearts / Answer the call.” Whereas many symphonic albums take a slow melodic approach, Ensiferum proceeds at breakneck speed, guitars roaring at a blazing pace. On “Two of Spades,” the band opens with a funky breakdown that pops in the midst of bombastic calls and response, and ultimately riffs compromised entirely of bar chants and whistles. The album breaks little new ground for the band, founded way back in 1995, but genre fans will find plenty to love.

Sensorium – 'The Art of Living'

How does Israel-based Sensorium know about snow? Is it from Jerusalem’s occasional snowfalls, or a deeper affinity with its Nordic genre-mates to the north? Its debut album "The Art of Living" is chockfull of gothic, melodic guitar riffs, intense drumming and operatic vocals from female vocalist Kesenia Glonty. Along with Distorted Harmony, Sensorium make up a renaissance of Israeli symphonic metal. Its music lies on the drastically more theatrical side of the genre, not just in the way Glonty completely embraces a vocal style you might expect to hear from a Rossini performance, but down to their moody album covers, sweeping lyrical scope and Michael Timoshko’s power-riffy fantastical guitar playing that could soundtrack a heavy metal movie. On tracks like “Winter Death,” it’s easy to forget that this album was written in warmer climes and not in the midst of a Nordic winter, snow trickling from the sky, dark clouds eclipsing the sun, and a voice bundled warm in white furs: “Cold spiny wind is blowing,” Glonty sings, “All the hopes away / While fading life is flowing / Into a snowy haze.” Like the best symphonic metal, Sensorium transports you to a dark winter of epic scope that makes their home in the Mediterranean an interesting counterpoint to your expectations. On single “Haunting Verity,” Glonty asks, “Did our desires lead us astray?” No, not astray. Just north, into the snowy haze.

Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.

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