Featured Story : Where Symphonic Metal finds its epicenter

If I ask you which country is the land of metalcore your answer would be obviously the USA or maybe the UK, right? And what about black metal? Norway has to be the first option in your mind. But what about symphonic metal? Right now, one of the biggest bands in this landscape is Finnish and called Nightwish; one of the few metal bands capable of headlining and even selling out european arenas, including in Paris.

However, what I believe is the land of symphonic metal is…The Netherlands! This country of roughly 17 million inhabitants has become the most symphonic metal countries I know, over the last twenty years. A genre where women run the show –almost- all the time. Sharon Den Adel (Within Temptation), Simone Simmons (Epica), Anneke Van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, The Gentle Storm) and Charlotte Wessels (Delain, Phantasma), to name a few, are iconic vocalists and frontwomen. They are the greatest voices of their country.

Epica in Milan by Luca Agostini
Epica in Milan by Luca Agostini

Compared to any other metal “subgenre”, symphonic metal is almost always led by a feminine voice. Most of the time, it is a way to create a “Beauty vs Beast” type of songs, where women’s singing would contrast with a masculine growl. Epica, for instance, works with Simone Simons’ mezzo-soprano voice while guitarist Mark Jansen growls like a freaking monster. Male vocalists also appear with bands such as Within Temptation and Delain, but as guests. Marco Hietala from Nightwish sings on almost every Delain album, while Howard Jones (Devil You Know, ex-Killswitch Engage) and US rapper Xzibit both appear on Within Temptation’s latest album, ‘Hydra’.

History of symphonic metal in the Netherlands started in 1994 when the band The Gathering – which was founded with by brothers Hans and René Rutten – welcomed a new voice behind the microphone with the mighty Anneke Van Giersbergen. From 1994 to 2007, The Gathering has released awesome records and performed hundreds of shows enhanced by the powerful and crystalline voice of Anneke.
The next year, After Forever was born, formed by Mark Jansen, featuring Floor Jansen vocal duty. In 1996, Sharon Den Adel and her husband Robert Westerholt gave birth to Within Temptation. They started as a strictly symphonic metal band but you can argue now that they’ve crossed the line of a more symphonic rock sound. And the it goes on with every band existing as of today (Epica, Delain, Stream Of Passion, Nemesea, etc).

What’s funny in this scene’s history is the way bands were created. Get ready to have your mind twisted a little bit.
After being diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Martijn Westerholt left Within Temptation and created Delain a few years later. Mark Jansen formed After Forever but left the band to start Epica, while Floor Jansen left the band to launch ReVamp and is now the lead singer of Nightwish. After leaving The Gathering, Anneke Van Giersbergen founded her solo project called Agua de Annique. Then in 2014, she paired with the creator of Ayreon (Arjen Lucassen) and The Gentle Storm was born. The latter consists of members from another band, called Stream Of Passion. Are you still following?

I think you got it. Symphonic metal, especially in the Netherlands, is a tiny community, where artists spend a lot of time together on tour or in the studio, which gives room to new ideas and new opportunities. News bands see the light really fast. As for us, listeners, we can consider ourselves spoilt.

But how can we explain this phenomenon? Well first, it might be interesting to go back to where it started.
Symphonic Metal was –supposedly- born in 1991 with one song Dies Irae by an American thrash band called Believer, but the opera approach only appeared with a Swedish band called Therion. The band started as a typical Death Metal outfit from Sweden and later on, their maestro Christofer Johnsson started to implement classical composition techniques and orchestras into their sound. It probably made Therion the first band you can label as Symphonic Metal. Other than that, it’s really difficult explain why so many artists in the genre come from the same country and are so successful, internationally at the same time. There are only very few successful symphonic metal bands outside of the Netherlands,  Sweden, Norway,  Finland – the magical four. And that is quite fascinating.

Metal in general is one of the few music genres, that is extremely geographically located. You can easily find gangsta rap or synth-pop anywhere in the world, while with it’s quite the opposite, for metal. As I previously underlined, “hardcore scene” in general is centered in the USA, the UK and Australia, while Death Metal is dense in the USA and in Sweden; Black Metal in Norway, Thrash Metal in America, and so on. So it’s only fitting that Symphonic Metal shines bright in one country after all.

Often criticized by a lot of metalheads for being too soft, or too poppy, I think of Symphonic Metal as an open door to heavier stuff. I started listening to Metal with Evanescence but a lot of friends of mine got started with Nightwish or Within Temptation. Now, they still listen to those bands but are open to many other trends. And that’s how you win. Besides, symphonic metal sells records and tickets. As an example, Nightwish recently headlined 3 arena shows in France, while Within Temptation often play Zenith venues (6,000+ capacity rooms), which says a lot.
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5 Dutch records you absolutely need to listen to:

  • After Forever > After Forever (2007)
  • Epica > The Phantom Agony (2003)
  • Within Temptation > Mother Earth (2000)
  • The Gentle Storm > The Diary (2015)
  • The Gathering > Mandylion (1995)

 

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Words : Max H. 

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