A Wikipedia article about Symphonic Metal
A Wikipedia article about Gothic Metal
Symphonic goth metal is basically unheard of in America. The closest thing we have is Evanescence (which I don't care for) and even then it's still not anything like its European cousin/predecessor. From the vast amount of symphonic goth/metal [sgm] bands, you'd think that's all they listened to over there. ;) It's definetly not like anything on the radio in the US, or possibly in the UK, either, seeing as how it's kind of hard to find even sgm stuff there (according to Trey, anyhow) and so for most Americans it seems to be an acquired taste.
The first I ever heard of it was when Trey showed me some songs by Dutch band Within Temptation. I knew one of their non-metal songs, "Neverending Story" from a Xena fan-vid that was made from the song. I was shocked to hear all this other music that they made. It was their not-so-metal stuff that pulled me in first. Songs like "Ice Queen" and "Dark Wings". Their older stuff contained "death growls" which are apparently typical of goth/dark metal and at first I didn't know what to make of them. The thing that got me beyond the death growls was the fact that the music was so intricately done and well performed. No two songs were alike and were all so very dynamic. The guitars weren't monotonous and were all very unique. The best part was the way that Sharon del Adel's voice (she's the female/main vocalist), despite its soprano, was piercingly strong and powerful, holding its ground with the heavy guitars and orchestra. Like a dove in the face of a storm. The immagery was fantastic and it just pulled me in.
I think the immagery is the main thing. SGM music is usually thematic. You could create an epic film using a single album from most of the bands. It's "musical" that way, almost sound trackish -- and generally I'm not big on musicals or soundtracks. I think because I saw that first Xena video I could see the power of the image within the songs. But strong immagery is part of SGM music, it seems -- usually medieval, fantasy, warriors, magic, ladies, vikings, stormy weather, lost love, romantisiced death, and all that is dark in that romantic way. This actually was not a selling point for me, but at least for Within Temptation, it did help pull the songs together. Listening to the albums like they are a story, like it's an aural film/story really helps the believeability for the American ear, I think. ;)
The next group I heard was Italian band Lacuna Coil. They're not really symphonic, just goth metal. All their albums could of been written in the same year for all the band evolves with their sound (or rather, doesn't -- it's more like they're slowly fine-tuning their stuff). They have two vocalists, one male, one female. The female sings on every song while the guy sings on about two thirds of them and sometimes does a harsher growlier voice, though genearlly never a "death growl" type of thing. With the dual dynamic, they can kind of do that stereotypical goth metal "soap operal" lyric thing, which isn't why I like Lacuna Coil. I like them because their guitars are so very unique and yet familiar. They don't sound like but they do remind me of Metallica - how you can tell a Metallica song anywhere, even if you've never heard it before, just because of the signature guitars and drums. Lacuna Coil has that same quality; the guitars and drums never get tired. Also, the female vocalist is more in the alto range and very powerful.
Some bands I've heard I really did not like at first- like Nightwish. Some SGM bands use a more operatic vocal that to me puts the music over the top into the realm of the absurd. (Wikipedia does, in fact, describe them as "opera metal"). Ugh.
In general, a lot of SGM bands I've heard seem to use soprano vocals in tandem with death growls. So far the only death growls I've ever been able to tolerate have been those in the first Within Temptation album (which, oddly, is my favorite of their albums - death growls and all). For me, the soprano vocals often tend to be too light and flighty; they don't hold their own with the power of the music.
Folk Metal: Leaves' Eyes
A Wikipedia article about Folk Metal
I recently discovered, quite by accident, the Norwegian folk metal band Leaves' Eyes when trying to find music by Lacuna Coil. They're once again interesting because of the folk element. Folk Metal tends to use native folk music elements. In the case of Leaves' Eyes their music hearkens back to the days of Vikings, and in fact their most recent album is about just that. (In fact, there is a sub genre called "Viking Metal", heh).
I made an offsite backup of their first album and for the most part it's pretty monotonous, actually. The vocalist sounds amazingly like Sarah Brightman, though not quite as strong and clear. They use some death growls here and there and they're quite badly done, unintelligible (you could actually mostly understand the death growls from Within Temptation) and just... un memorable. Leaves' Eyes' songs in general are not very strong - the songs all kind of run together and are not dynamic at all. Nothing pops out in most of them and it all sounds the same.
There are a couple jewels here and there, though, that I have become rather fond of. "For Amelie" is my very favorite, definetly more in the Folk Metal genre than in the symphonic/goth genre, and even then the guitars don't kick in til later. It's primarily a piano, fiddle, bass, and some kind of tinny folk stringed instrument - probably just an accoustic guitar. What makes it so great is the 3/4 time -- no one ever writes in 3/4 time. And 3/4 time with electric guitars (which, as I said, come in later) is even better. :D So the song overall has this almost lilting, wistful feel. I love it. If this genre sounds at ALL interesting to you, I reccomend this song.
I am working on making a backup of their more recent album, which seems a bit cleaner in terms of instrumentation, from what I can tell from four songs. So far, "For Amelie" is the lightest song by far on their first album. "Mourning Tree" is an even lighter song on their current album, mostly accoustic guitar with fiddle and flute, some keyboard strings, etc. - with no grinding guitars at all. I think they shine best when sticking closer to their folk element than to the goth/metal side of things.
I doubt anyone will find this particularly interesting; I just felt like writing. It's kind of a mini-rundown of my thoughts about European symphonic/goth metal and related bands that I've heard so far. Description of the music, what I like about it, what I don't like about it... We just simply don't have it here in America, and I wonder how many people are aware of it who might like it. Definetly an acquired taste for Far-Western ears but fun nonetheless.