(Andy Synn is now lobbying the Oxford English Dictionary for recognition of a new word.)
In case you didn’t know, yesterday saw release of the brand new album by Symphonic Death Metal titans Septic Flesh (yes, I’m still spelling it as two words).
Now while I’m not planning on reviewing it here (that honour will, in all likelihood, fall to DGR), I will say that Codex Omega feels like a big step up from The Great Mass and Titan, the latter of which in particular suffered (in this author’s opinion at least) from a noticeable lack of balance between the “Symphonic” and the “Death Metal” aspects of the band’s sound, with the lion’s share of the effort put into the orchestration, while the drums and riffs (or lack thereof) were treated very much as an afterthought.
And as Codex Omega is such a big improvement on its predecessors in this regard, I felt it might be high time we all got together to discuss the costs/benefits inherent in “symphonisizing” (a word I’ve just invented) your sound.
Now let’s face it – Metal is a rather ridiculous genre of music (and I say this with all the love in the world), whose general ethos of bigger/louder/faster/heavier quite frankly borders on the absurd a lot of the time… and the “Symphonic” sub-genre is one of its most OTT and outrageous forms.
Whether it’s Power Metal, Black Metal, Death Metal… or even Deathcore… adding an orchestra (or, more often than not, a synthetic symphony) to your sound has often been considered (correctly or not) to be a mark of “class” and ambition, and a way of marking yourself out as more than “just” a Metal band.
Of course Metal isn’t the first, or only, style where this happens.
What with “Classical” music generally being held in the highest regard, as music made both for and by the “elite” among us, many genres have tried their best to incorporate elements of it, in the hope of siphoning off some of this critical acclaim to bolster their own credibility.
But seeing as Metal is one of those genres whose adherents often claim direct inspiration (if not a direct lineage) from the Classical composers, it’s not surprising to see the symphonic sickness spreading ever more widely with each passing year.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, however, really depends upon the bands themselves.
When it works it really works – my own trip to Oslo to see Dimmu Borgir with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra is evidence enough of that.
The problem is that too many bands end up seeing the symphonic side of their sound as the absolute be-all-and-end-all, and tend to neglect their metallic elements as a result.
After all, why would you bother spending time writing complex or interesting riffs when the stirring strings of the orchestra (whether organic or synthetic) are going to be doing all the real heavy lifting?
What’s more, I’m still seeing a lot of smaller bands (and some not so small bands) using symphonic embellishments either as a crutch to cover up weak songwriting or as a shortcut to mass appeal – using the same synthesized string sections and the same over-used orchestral patches to try and make themselves stand out (while, ironically, only managing to make themselves all sound completely interchangeable).
It doesn’t help of course that a lot of so-called “Symphonic” bands, regardless of genre/sub-genre, tend to play things remarkably safe.
Oh, they may talk a big game about how audacious and extravagant their sound is, but mostly you’ll find them sticking to the same predictable themes and crowd-pleasing melodies, time and time again, that owe more to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack than they do to the works of Bach, Brahms, or Beethoven…
And, of course, once you’re in this zone it’s hard to get back out again.
If your increasing success and popularity can largely be attributed to your incorporation of bland orchestral ornamentation, why would you ever stop?
I mean, is there really that much wrong with being all style, and no substance?
Well, of course there is.
That’s not why you, or I, or the majority of the readers of this site, listen to Metal.
Well, at least, I hope not.
Yes, we want it big and loud and capable of shaking the very mountains to their core. But we also want it to have some depth. We’re looking for something real. Something visceral. Something both mighty and meaningful.
And that, perhaps, is the major issue with a lot of self-proclaimed “Symphonic” Metal – it’s often very superficial, offering pseudo-epic thrills from the safety and comfort of your own home, without ever really engaging on any deeper emotional level.
But, thankfully, it’s not all like this.
Not only does it seem like Septic Flesh may have finally rediscovered their metallic mojo, but the new Limbonic Art is also an unexpected return to form, and I feel like last year’s King was a step in the right direction for Fleshgod Apocalypse (another band who have definitely been in danger of disappearing into their own ego in recent years).
I’m also looking forward to the release of the new Dimmu Borgir album very soon, and hoping for new releases by both Vesania and Sidious (who just announced the addition of a new drummer) before the end of 2018.
Plus there’s yet another slab of Supreme Avant-Garde Death Metal from those riotous reprobates in The Monolith Deathcult to look forward to at some point as well!
So to be clear… the situation isn’t all bad.
But it’s not all good either.
And it’s worth remembering that bigger doesn’t always mean better, and that “symphonic” doesn’t always mean good.
As much as the words “all style, and no substance” can be adhered to a good portion of symphonic metal, lots of metal in general can unfortunately be labeled with the same phrase.
Some orchestral stuff can be more like “classical music with a touch of metal” than the other way around, or preferably, a sort of “meet halfway” that doesn’t compromise too much on either aspect. As someone that can listen to Vivaldi, I don’t mind the former too much, though.
Also, you left out the word “sophisticated”. Either you’re trying to avoid the most predictable clichés, or you’re simply going to the dogs, mate.
I suppose “class and sophistication” would possibly have worked better but… hindsight is 20/20 and all that.
Most Metal plus orchestra is pure shit. 99% of it. You can use keyboards to great effect to broaden Metal tunes but actual acoustic orchestra just sounds dumb. I AM a huge Classical/Modern Music fan of orchestral music and when i see Metallica playing with the band, it’s so lame. And the accomplished musicians are hardcore Pros and snicker at playing these events. It’s a payday for them and an easy one at that. It’ isn’t Shostakovich or Stravinsky for sure. A small dose of the best, maybe Septicflesh is somewhat acceptable. Small dose.
An orchestra is a continuation of using keyboards for these bands. In lieu of the cheap and clumsy midi-sounds of the 90’s, they can utilize the real thing. I don’t think many of these bands are truly even trying to emulate classical music as such. Classical music often moves like a play or story, not repeating parts over the course of a composition, whereas metal usually has somewhat modern western structures in terms of verses and choruses. It would be interesting to hear a band that does not use basic structure like that and how that would sound with an orchestra accompanying them.
Just because the symphonic orchestra musicians are professionals doesn’t mean they’re snickering elitists. Some of them seem to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to do something different, be it metal or film or gaming music. Also, for a lot of orchestras it is a way to engage a larger audience and thus keep playing for a living. Sticking to traditional classical composers would mean the end for many, unfortunately.
Yeah, I don’t agree about the “snickering” part at all.
The orchestra and choir involved in the Dimmu show (and album) were clearly having one hell of a time (several of them were also clearly fans of the band) and have gone on record in interviews stating how much they loved the experience since it was so different to what they usually do.
I agree. Most bands approach the symphonic aspects in more of a film score manner, than attempting to craft classical compositions, and the members of the philharmonics don’t seem to mind the diversity, whether they consider it challenging or not.
Have you tried Abyssic, Gromth or Images at Twilight on for size? They all use artificial orchestras, composed by Norwegian André Aaslie (former reviewer in Scream Magazine), but with modern tools that sounds genuine enough.
While the midi-keyboard sound of the ’90s might have its charm, an orchestra does sound better. With modern software, there are bands who manage to to imitate the sound of a full-blown orchestra, although it’s not authentic.
I never liked Metallica’s S&M. It just sounded like adding something that didn’t belong to material that wasn’t written for that ingredient. But 99 %? Now that’s strict!
S&M was great, unpretentious and fitting! “For Whom..”, “wherever..”, “Torn” and “The Thing That Should Not Be” performed that night with the orchestra are my favorites
Heya Glenn, how’s tricks…seems you’re still as pretentious as ever
As an aside, does anyone know where i can buy a digital version of the dimmu borgir live dvd? I am really interested in the interviews, but the online versions don’t have english subtitles. I don’t own a dvd player (because it’s 2017) so purchasing that isn’t an option.