Category Archives: Metal

Better Know a Sub-Genre – Symphonic Metal

Ever wished you could listen to a version of The Phantom of the Opera infused with Trans-Siberian Orchestra-like musical sensibilities? If yes, then congrats, you’re a fan of symphonic metal, the focus of this iteration of ‘Better Know a Sub-Genre’.

Symphonic metal is a heavy metal sub-genre featuring symphonic elements, such as acoustic guitars, keyboards, orchestral accompaniments, and operatic vocals. The genre is heavily influenced by gothic metal, power metal, and classical music, and frequently features important characteristics including:

–       Prevalent use of keyboards and/or piano

–       Classical influence in both guitar melody and song composition

–       Use of orchestral instruments (woodwinds, horns, and strings)

–       An operatic, bombastic sound

–       Thematic elements of fantasy and mythology, often with dark undertones

–       A female singer, usually in the mezzo-soprano range

Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation
Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation

While metal bands have used the occasional symphonic element in songs for decades, symphonic metal as a genre did not start to develop until the second half of the 1990s. In 1996, the band Therion, previously a death metal band, decided to step off the beaten path and experiment with a more symphonic sound on their album Theli, which featured two full choirs. The following year, symphonic metal frontrunners Nightwish and Within Temptation both released their first albums, each featuring female vocalists, in Tarja Turunen and Sharon den Adel respectively, and heavy use of classically-inspired keyboards. In the early 2000s, symphonic metal started to emerge as a mainstream genre, with numerous similar female-fronted bands emerging, including After Forever, Delain, Epica, Leaves’ Eyes, and Xandria.

Like many recently developed metal genres, symphonic metal emerged primarily in northern Europe, with the Netherlands being a particular hotbed of activity (Within Temptation, After Forever, Delain, and Epica are all Dutch). Several other symphonic metals bands hail from Germany and Austria, with some penetration of the genre into the traditional black/death metal countries of Finland and Sweden.

Simone Simons of Epica
Simone Simons of Epica

Given the influence of both power metal and goth metal on symphonic metal, it’s no surprise to find that some symphonic bands lean more heavily towards one base genre or the other. The two most famous symphonic metal bands, Nightwish and Within Temptation, are a perfect example of this dichotomy, with Nightwish initially featuring the heavier guitars, epic scope, and fantastic themes of power metal while Within Temptation featured darker themes and a more gloomy, atmospheric sound. More than 15 years since their inception, both bands have refined their sound, with Nightwish becoming more bombastic and Within Temptation becoming both more folksy and more pop-oriented.

Another common element in symphonic metal is the “beauty and the beast” style vocals, an import from goth metal that features vocal harmonies between a female, operatic singer and a male singer performing death growls. This style was pioneered by the Norwegian band Theater of Tragedy, and while Theater of Tragedy’s lead singer went on to found the symphonic metal band Leaves’ Eyes, Theater of Tragedy remains solidly a goth metal outfit.

My personal favorite symphonic metal bands include Nightwish and the quartet of Dutch bands previously mentioned, but some other notable bands include Rhapsody of Fire (another heavily power metal-inspired group), Sirenia (a heavily goth metal-inspired band), and Dimmu Borgir (a black metal band with substantial symphonic elements).

Given that I’m always on the lookout for more quality music, feel free to fill the comments section with suggestions of more bands in the vein of Nightwish, Within Temptation, Epica, etc. Also, let me know what sub-genre, if any, you’d like for me to tackle next.

Image credit: Featured image by cgo2 (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr. Post images by Fabrizio Zago (CC BY-SA 2.0) and rjforster (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr.

The 17 Best Heavy Metal Guitar Solos

Here is it, the definitive list of the 17 best guitar solos in all of heavy metal. Before we begin, a few notes of interest:

–       What makes a great guitar solo? Is it technical proficiency? Difficulty? Heaviness? Seamless cohesion into a song? I think all of those things are important. But to me, the most important aspect of a guitar solo is it’s lasting impact. Does it stick in your mind long after you’ve heard the song? Does it keep you up at night with its awesome, face-melting delivery? Does it spring to mind like a long-lost friend as soon as the song reaches the appropriate moment? If yes, then it’s a great solo.

–       Despite the conviction of my intro, this is not actually a definitive list. There’s a near 100% chance that there exist solos deserving of acclaim that are not on this list due to a combination of writer ignorance, neglect, and creative differences. Like music reviews, ‘best of’ lists are subjective horse slobber, but they are both fun to read and to write, so I figured “Why not…”

–       Why 17? Because that’s all I felt like compiling.

Have I answered all your questions? No? Doesn’t matter! On to the list:

17. Under a Glass Moon – Dream Theater

Dream Theater burst onto the progressive metal scene with 1992’s Images and Words, which showcased both their amazing technical ability and creativity. “Under a Glass Moon” is a brilliant song that features not only a great guitar solo, but a fantastic keyboard solo as well.

16. Through the Fire and the Flames – Dragonforce

There’s a reason Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and the Flames” garnered worldwide fame as the hardest song in the hit video game Guitar Hero. It’s blisteringly fast, and the guitar work is so furious and intricate throughout that it’s almost hard to distinguish where the chorus stops and the solo starts (hint: right after the “whoah whoah whaooooh” part). When the solo does hit, strap yourself in for a two minute long, dual guitar sonic assault.

15. Paradise Lost – Symphony X

Sometimes, more is less, as Symphony X shows in “Paradise Lost.” While Symphony X at times showcases technical ability on par with Dream Theater, this solo is far simpler. However, its seamlessly perfect fit and soulful melody land it at number 15 in this list.

14. No More Tears – Ozzy Ozbourne

Zakk Wylde is now a well-known heavy metal guitarist in his own right, but he first rose to prominence as a member of Ozzy Ozbourne’s crew. In “No More Tears”, he produced a near perfect solo – short, sweet, melodic, and heavy. Having it follow a short, mellow musical interlude was a stroke of genius.

13. Rainbow in the Dark – Dio

“Rainbow in the Dark” is often regarded as Dio’s best song, and the solo is an important part of why. It’s fast, has structured layers, and is executed flawlessly. Traditional, early 80’s metal just doesn’t get any better than this.

12. Round and Round – RATT

People don’t often associate hair metal bands with amazing guitar solos, but Ratt’s “Round and Round” is a notable exception. What the solo lacks in technical proficiency, it more than makes up for in brilliant composition. It fits the song like a glove, and if you needed evidence of the band’s technical ability, you need look no further than the song’s second solo, which sadly fades out partway through.

11. Painkiller – Judas Priest

Judas Priest is one of the most influential bands in all of metal, but in the late 80s, a couple of sub-par releases forced the band to reconsider their sound and try something new. The result was 1990’s power/speed metal hybrid Painkiller. Enjoy.

10. Rock Bottom – UFO

Is it metal? Well, I’ll answer that another day, but you can probably guess what my feelings are. Regardless, it features an absolutely brilliant guitar solo by Michael Schenker that just goes on and on and on without losing anything in terms of intensity or precision.

9. Holy Wars…The Punishment Due – Megadeth

Megadeth has always been somewhat underrated in terms of their guitar work, or at least as underrated as one of the most important and successful metal bands of all time can be. In “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due,” lead guitarist Marty Friedman teases with a few short solo bursts before bringing the pain with a furious solo to finish out the song. Not only is the solo fantastic, but it’s one of Megadeth’s best songs overall.

8. Cemetery Gates – Pantera

Normally, it’s the top ten of any list that really shines, but in my opinion, it’s these top 8 that truly stand head and shoulders above the rest. The first of the best is Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates,” a hauntingly melodic song that I believe is one of the best ever in all of metal, bar none. The solo, which starts at around the five-minute mark, is so powerful and so memorable, that I can recall it’s every note and nuance, despite my complete ignorance of how to play guitar. Yes, really.

7. 2 Minutes to Midnight – Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden, apart from being one of the best metal bands of all time, is also notable for being one of the first bands to reject the idea of a band needing a “lead” guitarist and a “rhythm” guitarist, instead using two simultaneous leads in Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Their ability to weave notes together into layered melodies produced some spectacular results at times, “2 Minutes to Midnight” being one of the best.

6. Lines in the Sand – Dream Theater

John Petrucci, Dream Theater’s lead guitarist, is one of the best guitarists ever in any genre, and he proves it here in 1997’s “Lines in the Sand.” This solo is so good, it makes me want to cry.

3. Fade to Black, Master of Puppets, Orion – Metallica

Forget songs 4 and 5, as the number 3 song is a three-way tie featuring Metallica’s best efforts. Metallica is generally considered the greatest metal band of all time, and part of the reason for that has always been Metallica’s fundamental understanding of the need for balance. Heaviness must be balanced by quiet, and aggression must be balanced by melody. This, in addition to fantastic composition, is what made solos on “Fade to Black”, “Master of Puppets”, and “Orion” so memorable. Enjoy them, as each is a shining beacon of the brilliance of metal.

2. Powerslave – Iron Maiden

As fantastic as Metallica’s solos are, their brilliance still couldn’t land them in the top two. Instead, the runner-up honor goes to Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave.” Though Iron Maiden, as one of the most important bands in the new wave of british heavy metal, is usually pigeonholed as traditional heavy metal, the fact is that in many ways, Iron Maiden was (and still is) a progressive metal band, and Powerslave was their first real progressive metal album.  Here, Murray and Smith again weave a radiant sonic tapestry together, rife with classical guitar influences but possessing all the full force of heavy metal. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

1. Tornado of Souls – Megadeth

Well, we’ve reached number one on my list of the 17 best heavy metal guitar solos, and though I believe Metallica and Iron Maiden to be the two greatest metal bands of all time, the honor of the best guitar solo in metal goes to Marty Friedman of Megadeth. This solo is perfectly crafted. It features everything you could possibly want from a solo: speed, difficulty, flawless composition, fantastic song integration, heaviness, power, and aggression without sacrificing melody, not to mention it features a minute long run-up to boost anticipation before the solo. Sheer perfection. So congrats Megadeth on being number 1. Enjoy!

One final note of interest: of the four bands that landed on my list more than once, three of the four had songs selected from the same album (Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, and Metallica’s Master of Puppets). I have listened to virtually the entire catalog of songs released by all three bands, and yet their best solos, in my opinion, came from singular albums. I guess it just goes to show that when a band is in a zone, it’s capable of masterful music.

Anyway, feel free to lambast me in the comments for omitting your favorite metal solos.

Image credit: Featured image by Lilly M pl.wiki: Lilly M real name: Małgorzata Miłaszewska (Own work) (CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Is it Metal? – “Hocus Pocus” by Focus

In ‘Is it Metal?’, I take an old rock song and ask the question, can it be considered metal or not?

This week, from 1972, the song “Hocus Pocus” by Focus:

Wikipedia says: It might be metal.

My take: This is a tough one. The song is just so completely off-the-wall bizarre and strange. I mean, what kind of metal song features an organ, an accordion, a flute, yodeling, whistling, and jazz-style scat singing? But you could ask the same thing of a rock song, could you not? It’s a harder question to answer because there’s a significant difference in the way the song was played live, as I’ve linked above, and the album version, which was considerably slower and more structured, if still just as eccentric.

If I had only the album version to judge, I would say it’s hard rock. But the sheer speed of the live version makes it feel a little bit more like metal. I mean, it’s just so brutally, unrelentingly fast.

Again, I’m torn here, but I think I’m going to give it a hard rock nod, purely based on the studio version of the song. However, there is no doubt that “Hocus Pocus” had a huge influence on heavy metal, based on the number of heavy metal covers of the song that can be found. My personal favorite is Helloween’s version, which, while not as fast as Focus’s own live version, gives it a heaviness and guitar-centric focus lacking in the original.

So, what are your thoughts? Is “Hocus Pocus” metal, hard rock, or just plain bizarre? While you consider it, enjoy Helloween’s cover below.

Image credits: Featured image by AVRO (Beeld En Geluid Wiki – Gallerie: Toppop 1974) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Awesome Tracks – Savatage – Hall of the Mountain King

Savatage’s “Hall of the Mountain King”, off of their album by the same name, is an awesome song, and given the song’s name, you might expect it to be based upon a contemporary fantasy tale featuring cavern-dwelling dwarves or some such. You would be wrong, however.

The song was actually inspired by a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer, for part of Henrik Ibsen’s 1876 play Peer Gynt, which is apparently loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale by the name of Per Gynt. In Grieg’s musical piece, main character Peer Gynt enters the royal hall of the old Mountain King, who is surrounded by trolls, gnomes, and goblins, as well as his own family members, and the crowd erupts in anger, accusing him of bewitching the Mountain King’s daughter.

So, not a contemporary fantasy story, but close enough.

Anyway, basing a metal song on an old Norwegian play kind of makes sense for a Norwegian metal band – apparently Peer Gynt is Norway’s most famous play.

However, Savatage is an American heavy metal band, which makes the whole situation even weirder. Nonetheless, they wrote the song, and even featured the creepy old mountain king on the cover of their album.

He looks pretty good for…however old he is, I guess. He must work out.

But enough with my yammering. On to the song. As an extra bonus, I’m including running commentary of their bizarre music video. Trust me, you’ll need it.

0:15: Creepy goblin in a forest. OK.

0:50: Lead singer John Oliva sporting a nice ascot, one of the most metal of all neck accessories.

1:08: Now he decides to scare the crap out of that poor goblin. Doesn’t seem very nice.

1:47: Now he’s attacking the thing with a battle-axe? What?

2:38: Smoke, steam, or the earthly remains of spirits trapped within the lead singer?

2:46-3:01: Shit gets crazy. Lead guitarist gets seriously concerned, John Oliva totally loses his sanity, and the goblin starts doing the see no evil, etc. moves.

3:18: John Oliva is now attacking his own guitarist. This can’t end well.

3:35: Awesome guitar solo metal face!

3:51: Is it just me, or did they hire Miracle Max from The Princess Bride to step in for the Mountain King?

All kidding aside though, it’s a great song. A true metal classic.

Image credit: By glenn . (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.

Albums that Rock – In This Moment’s The Dream

In This Moment is a band that’s not afraid to embark upon experimental stylistic voyages. To date, they’ve released four albums, and each has featured a distinct musical approach. Their first album burst upon the scene solidly within the genre of metalcore, a mix of metal and hardcore punk that features frequent screamed vocals. In This Moment’s second album dropped the majority of the screaming, emphasizing melodic elements instead. Their third album retained the melody of the second but added more aggression and melded clean vocals with screamed ones, and the fourth took a completely different turn, venturing into the realm of industrial metal.

The Dream is In This Moment’s second album and my favorite.

Similar to melodic death metal, metalcore turns off many a listener due to the vocal styling (ie. the screaming). Personally, I can only handle so much of it myself. On In This Moment’s first album, Beautiful Tragedy, lead singer Maria Brink only hinted at her vocal potential, choosing to spend most of her time rending the air with sharp shrieks rather than testing her ability to serenade.

Thankfully, on The Dream, Maria challenged herself vocally to focus on harmonization over screaming, and the results are fantastic. Brink’s vocals are simultaneously soaring and soulful, and they complement the musical aggression of the album, which evokes elements of melodic metal mixed with 80’s hard rock, perfectly.

In addition, the album’s lyrics deal with some interesting themes, such as the battle between dreams and reality. It’s also quite plain that the band was inspired by Alice in Wonderland, a novel I’ve already expressed great admiration for, as everything from the first song, titled ‘The Rabbit Hole’, to the presence of a white rabbit on the album cover to lead singer Maria Brink’s distinctive blue garb in live performances during tour oozes influence from the classic Lewis Carroll tale.

Virtually every track on the album is solid, including the above single ‘Forever’, but I’m also particularly fond of the tracks ‘Lost at Sea’ and ‘Mechanical Love’. If you can get your hands on the Ultra Violet edition of the album, you can also listen to a pretty fun rendition of Blondie’s ‘Call Me’, which further shows the influence 80’s rock imbued upon the record.

As I’ve mentioned, the band has recently taken a pretty dramatic turn from the musical style they exhibited on this album. Though part of me wishes they had retained their melodic, harmony heavy sound in their most recent release, without stylistic evolution, they wouldn’t have released this album at all. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this album, and I highly recommend it.

Image credit: By Century Media/In This Moment [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.