On last month’s column, I discussed some of the genres to look forward to as I descended forwards and ascended backwards into my timeline as a metalhead. I also mentioned going into some deep cuts, but have decided to forgo that completely as I want to continue exploring genres and their gateway albums. With that in mind, it’s time we move forward into a hybrid genre that fully led me down a rabbit hole.
Back in my peak symphonic metal days – that would be early 2009 to late 2012 – I didn’t dabble into any other genre except when someone recommended me an album or a song to listen to. Of course, I did, but didn’t move forward with those recommendations, hoping that, once I got comfortable with my metal listening habits, I would take the time find out what I really liked and pursue that. However, Pandora would throw a wrench in my routine by slowly introducing a dose of death into the music.
It’s time we explore my foray into symphonic death metal.
Now, I have a confession to make: traditional death metal is not my thing. You can ask me to leave the hall, but hear me out: I actually tried getting into it, with low rates of success. It just didn’t appeal to me as someone who was interested in melodic yet harsh music. Granted, I do dive into some death metal waters from time to time, but I can count the amount of traditional death metal albums I have enjoyed in one hand. I also had a negative opinion of death metal as a whole, preferring the groovier aspects of the genre because it just didn’t appeal to me. Thus, imagine my surprise when I heard a song that sounded like symphonic metal, but had something else attached to it. It was harsher than usual, the mood was darker, and the orchestration was kept to a minimum. There were also no prominent female vocals – which, at this point, my naivety had begun to associate with symphonic metal – which struck me as odd. That song was Eternal Tears of Sorrow’s “Autumn Grief” and I became fascinated by it and made it one of my goals in 2010 to get my hands on the album the song belonged to so I could listen to it as much as I wanted.
During those peak years, I had grown complacent into my listening habits, which I tend to do when I find something I like. I like routine and being able to listen to what I want until I get sick of it. Because Epica tends to fall under the symphonic death metal label from time to time – labeling is a subjective process – I had no need to move anywhere into the harsher territories a genre could take you. So, when EToS showed up and fucked up my listening routine, the itch needed to be scratched so I could understand why this song struck me so strongly. So I did what only a broke kid with an internet connection could do: I started downloading albums on Limewire and began to cross-reference them using their Wikipedia entries, official track listings, and YouTube to see whether the tracks I downloaded were correct.
Mind you, this was before I learned to torrent, so Limewire was technically the Russian roulette of downloading stuff – you never knew if you were going to get what you wanted.
The following weekend after “Autumn’s Grief” came to my life, I probably spent a good few hours locating the files necessary for a complete album (I have bad internet connection because of where I live). After searching, downloading, and cross-referencing, I managed to get a copy of Chaotic Beauty. Later that evening, after finishing homework, I made the edits to the file properties, added it to iTunes, synced it to my iPod, and the rest was history.
Symphonic Death Metal Gateway Albums
Eternal Tears of Sorrow – Chaotic Beauty (2000): Listening to this album is a throwback for me, as I hadn’t listened to it a very long time – so much so that I didn’t remember how it sounded. All I remembered was “Autumn’s Grief” and “Bride of the Crimson Sea”, which, if you think about, makes complete sense to have as an introduction to symphonic death metal. On the “dramatic” scale, Chaotic Beauty keeps things on the digestible scale, forgoing the dramatics and the orchestral flairs for tight instrumentation, harsh vocals, and layered music. Of course, in an album that emphasizes the harsher aspects of the genre, “Bride of the Crimson Sea” is definitely a standout track in that it doesn’t sound anything like the rest of it. After all, this is the one song to feature a female vocalist, and it sounds both passionate and regal. It also made me want to learn the female section because it was catchy, eventually learning to mimic the sound of Kimberly Gloss’s voice. As an introduction to symphonic death metal, Chaotic Beauty is a good album to start with, as it has the trappings and the tropes of symphonic metal while combining the harsher aspects of death metal. It may not sound like it at first, but then, in 2000, they were just getting started with their sound. In comparison to their latest release, 2013’s Saivon Lapsi, Chaotic Beauty sounds barren – they definitely added more symphonic elements to this album. It’s a good improvement and one I will eventually look into.
MaYaN (Mayan) – Antagonise (2014): Oh, Mark Jansen, you and your extensive resume in the realm of Dutch metal. As one of the better-known musicians due to his creation and roles in both Epica and the defunct After Forever, it would make sense that he would want to expand his repertoire by creating a band where he could pursue his own fascination for the Mayan empire and his interest in world politics while also providing commentary (there is a reason I am heavily invested in current politics). Although I did get started with MaYaN’s debut Quarterpast, I chose Antagonise because it is definitely the stronger and the cleaner of the two. You can tell that, at this point, Mark and company were quite comfortable with the idea of pursuing ideas and to feature a prominent male vocalist. Quarterpast was vocally messy, as there was a lot going on musically – especially when Floor Jansen and Simone Simons were both on the album providing both lead and choir vocals. Having Henning Basse become the lead male vocalist and Laura Macri assume lead female vocals was a huge improvement, and it showed in how streamlined Antagonise is. The album continues to hold up despite its initial release date and it makes me excited to see what else MaYaN has in store. After all, with a new album being released this year, there are a lot of expectations to look forward to.
Chthonic – Bú-Tik (2013): This album was certainly a late find. How this album was introduced to me was through the single “Defenders of Bú-Tik Palace” in 2013, but I actually didn’t get to the album until 2014/2015 (it wasn’t archived until 2016). Although I had enjoyed the singles that came out, I wasn’t keen on the album itself. However, because my interest in symphonic metal was waning, I decided to turn to one of my trusted friends on his opinion on the album (at the time, he was one of the few people who had listened to the album in full) and he told to shut up and listen to it. The thing about Bú-Tik is that it straddles the line between three genres – melodeath, symphonic metal, and black metal – so labeling this album as a strict “symphonic death metal” album doesn’t fit. It is definitely one of the heavier and harsher albums on this list, and while it is symphonic in nature, it’s not symphonic because it uses a standard orchestra or your standard female vocals (that “Beauty and the Beast” dynamic is starting to get stale); it’s symphonic because the band incorporates traditional Asian instruments like the erhu, the shamisen, and the pgaki flutes into their music. They may also have backing singers and choir vocals, but their focus is placed on the music and what they are trying to convey to Western audiences: bring history and mythology to the forefront while bringing awareness to the trials and tribulations of Taiwan as a country. Bú-Tik continues to hold up despite time passing, and it’s a good segue into what next month will bring.
I wanted to add Fleshgod Apocalypse’s King to this list, but unfortunately, due to time constraints, I have decided to forgo that and add it to what I like to call the cutting room floor – deep cuts of albums that are also good gateways, but are not on this list. That will something to look forward to. I also await for crucifixion because I mentioned that traditional death metal is not my thing.
Tune in next time as we go over another subgenre within death metal that I also really enjoy, and I introduce another character in my continued metal education.
Hasta la proxima!