Once upon a time, there was no such thing as death metal or even the electric guitar. While those were dark times, the music put out was still passionate and beautiful, driven instead by orchestras filled with bizarre instruments from around the world. In the modern world, we see far less of the classical elements, but there are bands out there that understand the power and potential of orchestras. Those are the bands I want to introduce you to today, the bands that have taken some of the most fundamental music of all time and smashed it together with not just metal, but the heaviest, and most brutally beautiful metal in the world today.
I have to start with one of my favorite bands in the world, SepticFlesh. This Greek orchestral death metal outfit sets the bar incredibly high with wildly complex and intricate orchestrations and good old fashioned quality song writing. These guys know their genre and they stick to it. No gimmicks or unnecessary flash, SepticFlesh is all business, all the time. What I like most about the band is their ability to build an atmosphere. Not many bands understand how to create an entire new world with their music in such a vivid way and watching bands like SepticFlesh play are a true sight to behold. ‘Titan’ was their latest release and was an absolutely incredible album, I still flip it on regularly. The band has continually improved since their rebirth with an orchestral backing on the ‘Communion’ release.
This brings me to our second contender, Fleshgod Apocalypse. The Italian symphonic masters bring a lot of the power of SepticFlesh, but with a twist. Instead of building a colossal atmosphere, Fleshgod Apocalypse chose to go with the balls to the wall method of utilizing a philharmonic. While different, they’re just as fantastic. The sheer amount of energy that comes gushing out of those speakers gives me chills everytime. I really latched onto ‘Labyrinth’ personally and thought it was an incredible album to start and leave on the whole way through.
Mayan is more of your classic death metal, but with added bonus accents of orchestra. I’ll come right out and say, I love the extended range fretless bass. It’s another unexpected element you rarely see in the genre and it makes for such an interesting sound I always get excited when I see one.
I wasn’t sold initially on Dimmu Borgir, but as I listened to them more and watched a few live performances, I became obsessed. Black metal accompanied by an orchestra is a very unique and original sound that not many bands can pull together. I’d recommend starting with their ‘97 release, ‘Enthrone Darkness Triumphant’ then check out a few of their newer live videos like ‘Forces of the Northern Night.’ These guys can really put on a performance. With most of the symphonic black metal bands, you’ll notice a sizeable presence from the keys, which really adds a creepy, haunting overtone to the music.
Carach Angren is another big favorite on this list. After seeing them live a few years back, I was sold. The music is intense and dark, all the while very unique in that each album tells a full story when you put it all together. Each song is like a chapter in the album. The string elements are explosive and powerful, adding a harsh edge to the music. I think these guys have gotten progressively better over the years as they’ve really refined their craft. Their latest release, ‘Dance And Laugh Amongst The Rotten’ was another big notch in their belt and is one of my favorite records from 2017. They’ve also gotten very creative and artistic in regards to the music videos they’ve been releasing that are well worth the watch.
Before his time with Behemoth, Orion was heading up the band Vesania. They released three power packed albums within 5 years that each had a distinct and different feel. Each album gradually grew more symphonic and atmospheric. ‘Frostfire Arcanum’ was closer to a classic black metal album while ‘Distractive Killusions’ feels much more akin to a true symphonic black metal record.
I fully understand that this list is not exhaustive and that there are plenty more bands out there that are doing amazing things. These bands serve as flagships to the sound of heavy symphonic metal and are a great jumping off point into the eternal quest to find new, awesome bands. I also know that I completely skipped power metal all together which has tons of bands with classical elements, but those don’t feel right on a list about the heaviest of the heavy. That might be another list for a new day. If you think I missed a band, leave a comment so others can check them out as well!