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Music Under the Radar: European Symphonic Metal

Stephanie DePrez | Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who has name-dropped a band and you’ve nodded emphatically, agreeing that said band is so good/cool/innovative, only to completely forget its name the minute you walk away?
Fear no more, because here is a list of some of the most note-worthy music out there today, with a focus on bands that are successful but that you may not have listened to yet. Did I unforgivably ignore your favorite? E-mail me and maybe I’ll include it in the next list. Thanks to all the feedback I’ve received so far. Look for your suggestions when I write up their appropriate genres.
Under the tutelage of acts like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, heavy metal made its way to the mainstream in the late 70s and early 80s. Bands got louder and the music got, well, heavier. This hasn’t stopped, though it has fractioned a bit. Nowadays there are so many genres of metal and so many bands that cross labels that it’s often hard to find exactly what you’re looking for. Most bands get thrown into the pot of “progressive metal,” which doesn’t really indicate anything.  From thrash/speed metal to doom metal to Christian metal (oh yeah, it exists) there are literally thousands of bands screaming for your attention.
This column focuses on prominent European metal bands. Europe has become particularly well known for its symphonic metal, which refers to metal that employs classical orchestra instruments, whether they be backing up electric guitars and drums or plugged in to create a new sound. If you have any suggestions for the next installment in the metal genre, e-mail the names in.
Apocalyptica
From Finland with love. If Beethoven were alive today, he would be playing with these guys. This electric-cello-centric Metallica cover band from the 90s has morphed into the premier collaborator for anyone with metal street cred. Nowadays they release all original content, often with guest vocals by lead singers from other bands (such as those listed below). They pioneered the format of “let’s plug an amp to the cello and see what happens.”
Tracks to tap: “Grace,” “I Don’t Care”
Lacuna Coil
Italian grace meets spurned lover — and I’m not talking Puccini. Male-female vocals arch over the most “rock” sounding group on this list. These guys are what Evanescence failed to be — a musically relevant metal catharsis. Hooks are prominent in their radio-ready songs, and indeed, much of their success has been alongside such mainstream American acts as Slayer, and the cross-pollination can be heard. (It helps that the lead female singer Cristina Scabbia is dating a member of Slipknot). Lacuna Coil survives not so much on interesting orchestration as it does providing basic metal music that is inventive enough to keep the ear of a connoisseur.
Tracks to tap: “Spellbound,” “Our Truth,” “Senzafine”
Nightwish
This is the great-granddaddy group of symphonic metal. Direct from Finland, this five-part, female-fronted metal royalty manage to marry pumping guitars and heavy bass lines with full orchestration (we’re talking horns and violins) and soprano vocals. With lyrics that are as ethereal as they are operatic, this band has earned its spot as the golden standard of successful European metal. Dashing fearlessly from an orchestral interlude into a speedy guitar solo (often layered on top of the classical instruments), this is the most “epic” music you will find on iTunes. If the Fellowship of the Ring were a band, they would be Nightwish.
Tracks to tap: “Amaranth,” “Nemo,” “Ghost Love Score,” “Bye Bye Beautiful”
Within Temptation
Another European super-group, this female-fronted band from the Netherlands has a massive world following. These guys don’t just do metal and orchestra, but often like to throw a choir in the background (just check out their 2008 live album “Black Symphony,” which features electric guitar, bass, drums, and … a choir and 60-piece orchestra). The usual themes of lost love and unrequited passion are present in nearly every song, but Within Temptation maintains a sound that is so accessible one might even call them the “pop group” of the symphonic metal scene. If you fear the word “metal” for thoughts of silver spikes and over-extended tongues, let the corset-wearing soprano of Sharon den Adel change your mind. Plebes, start here.
Tracks to tap: “Angels,” “Stand My Ground,” “The Howling”