The symphonic urge that ultimately birthed symphonic metal has existed in heavy music since its earliest rumblings. Deep Purple unveiled their extraordinary Concerto For Group And Orchestra in 1969, a gleefully pretentious benchmark for future orchestrally inclined headbangers, while the classical flourishes on Black Sabbath’s Spiral Architect and choral arrangements on Supertzar (from 1975's experimental opus Sabotage) blew mid-70s minds.
Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore engaged the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra for Rainbow’s majestic 1976 epic Stargazer, planting seeds that started blossoming in the 80s with neoclassical guitar heroes Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads and Marty Friedman. Each metallic subgenre has since developed its own symphonic strain, reaching new heights of drama, emotion and virtuosity.
Here are the 25 best symphonic metal albums.
25. X Japan - Art Of Life (1993)
In the early 90s, X Japan (née X) were at their height of popularity. With fame and fawning came limitless self-indulgence. Band leader Yoshiki purchased a Hollywood recording complex and dug into his Scrooge McDuck-ian vault to hire London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to join him on Art Of Life’s two-year-long recording journey. Rife with everything from an eight-minute piano solo, melodic thrash and enough synths to entomb Vangelis in spandex, it was 29 minutes of gloriously off-kilter, high-forehead glitz and classicaly-inspired speed metal precision.
24. Sirenia - Riddles, Ruins & Revelations (2021)
Pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a symphonic metal band, Sirenia’s 10th studio album Riddles, Ruins & Revelations embraced the darker side of the human psyche, as themes of addiction and declining mental health took centre stage in this sprawling epic. The Norwegians welcomed huge, melodic death metal elements to an already bustling pallet of gothic synths, infectious grooves and seductive melodies, Sirenia’s duality of melding beautiful music to harrowing subject matter making for a sympho-industrial masterpiece.
23. Haggard - Eppur Si Muove (2004)
Asis Nasseri has overseen Haggard’s development from early 90s prog-death hopefuls to an extraordinary chamber orchestral metal collective, employing oboe, clarinet, flute, kettledrum and crumhorn. With an impressive 28 credited musicians, their third album Eppur Si Muove – based around the life of Italian astronomer Galileo – was an undertaking as ambitious as it was eccentric, but the balance was perfected. Refined melodies that could have accompanied an 18th-century country house tea party were regularly brutalised by Asis Nasseri’s fierce, crunching guitar, cosmic death-doom riffs and guttural ejaculations.
22. The Young Gods - L’eau Rouge (1989)
No one has ever made symphonic metal quite like Geneva’s The Young Gods. If their self-titled debut album’s looped samples of classical music and barbed riffs instigated a cataclysmic new dawn for heavy music, the follow-up was stealthier yet no less devastating. From La Fille De La Mort’s invoking of molten new landscapes from the most pastoral of starts, through Charlotte’s subterranean barrel-organ whirl, to the string-stirred threnodies of Les Enfants sounding like a prelude to Metallica's The Four Horsemen, L’Eau Rouge was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.
21. Aesma Daeva - The Eros Of Frigid Beauty (2002)
A collective masterminded by obsessive leader/boundary-pusher John Prassas, this Minnesota-based ensemble were unique for a number of reasons, their combination of avant-garde metal with gilded chamber music and modern classical being one of them. Aesma Daeva pushed additional buttons with The Eros Of Frigid Beauty’s use of drum programming, and flirted with what we now recognise as synthwave and darkwave. That this trailblazing mix emerged 20 years ago during the rise of metalcore meant they were virtually ignored and unfortunately never got due respect.
20. Delain - Lucidity (2006)
Former Within Temptation keyboardist Martijn Westerholt intended Delain to be a studio project, but his ambitious vision melded cinematic orchestration and bombastic metal into an extravagant gothic symphony too good to be kept locked away. Appearances from previous bandmate Sharon den Adel and then-Nightwish bassist Marko Hietala helped Delain’s credibility, however it was the angelic vocals of (now former) frontwoman Charlotte Wessels that brought the band’s debut album to life. Majestic and heart-sweepingly melodramatic, Lucidity is an essential chef’s kiss of a record. Mwah!
19. The Devin Townsend Project - Deconstruction (2011)
Devin Townsend is no stranger to the kitchen sink approach. Such was the scope of the third album of his eclectic Devin Townsend Project venture, and the sheer volume of ideas crammed in, that the symphonic elements weren’t actually the headline act. But even with the Canadian’s eccentricity and humour doing their best to hog the limelight on Deconstruction, the opulence of the strings and choirs on Juular, Stand and the tumultuous title track were impossible to ignore.
18. Avantasia - The Metal Opera (2001)
The brainchild of Tobias Sammet, this debut album from Avantasia featured a raft of top vocalists, including Michael Kiske of Helloween and Sharon den Adel from Within Temptation, on a concept album based around the witch trials in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. The album lived up to the title, having a massive, almost Wagnerian approach that was expansive yet also offered subtle moments. There was genuine joy and cohesion in the way it was presented, and the quality was undeniable.
17. Labyrinth - Return To Heaven Denied (1998)
This Tuscany sextet lean more towards power metal than full-on symphonic metal, but their strength lies in how huge they make the traditional guitar/bass/drums/keys line-up sound. The speed and fluidity of Return To Heaven Denied nudged ahead of early Dragonforce and Sonata Arctica on the timeline, but their incorporation of classical guitars, keyboard layers and Roberto ‘Rob Tyrant’ Tiranti’s vocal skyscraping made this an underrated gem that reeked of flair, hoity-toity panache, studious prog nerd stuff and tons of great songs.
16. Bal-Sagoth - Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule (1996)
The Yorkshire black metallers suffered from horrendous technical issues on this second album, but it forced them to be inventive, and the result is one of the finest symphonic black metal albums ever released. Not only was it inevitably brutal, they took inspiration from movie composers such as John Williams, turning towards the wildly imaginative and melodic.
15. Symphony X - The Divine Wings Of Tragedy (1996)
Pinging off references to Bach, Mozart, Holst, Milton and Dante, Symphony X were never exactly your average gang of New Jersey metalheads. The Divine Wings Of Tragedy was their third album in three years, the young band reaching a precociously astonishing high watermark of neo-classical progressive power metal, with the virtuoso solos of founding guitarist Michael Romeo, the high-class, Dio-esque attack of singer Russell Allen and the sophisticated symphonic urges of keyboardist Michael Pinnella each adding incalculably to the record’s sense of dizzying momentum.
14. Theatre of Tragedy - Velvet Darkness They Fear (1996)
Arguably the most important of the European bands springing up in reaction to the romantic gothic doom innovations of My Dying Bride, this Norwegian septet’s seductive second album was steeped in the spirit of grandiloquent overdrive. Not only one of the first doom bands to employ full-time keyboards, Theatre Of Tragedy pioneered metal’s ‘beauty and the beast’ aesthetic, with duetting angelic/demonic vocals giving fulsome voice to a mournful soundtrack enhanced by the strings of the Streicherensemble Nedeltcho Boiadjiev, under German pianist Klaus Wagenleiter.
13. Rhapsody Of Fire - The Frozen Tears Of Angels (2010)
Originally called Rhapsody, before being forced to change their name in 2006, the Italians reached their apogee of mixing power metal and orchestration with the third chapter of their Dark Secret Saga. Gloriously overblown and with a distinct cinematic hue, it also featured movie icon Sir Christopher Lee as one of several narrators. Nothing about this album was formulaic, and its intertwining of delicacy and thunder is among the most compelling in symphonic metal.
12. Arcturus - La Masquerade Infernale (1997)
Of all the genre-mutilating variations birthed by black metal’s second wave during the late 90s, Arcturus’s second album, La Masquerade Infernale, was surely the most baffling. Like a vaudevillian orchestra of Mad Hatters performing at Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Hop-Frog’ pageant, the Norwegian ensemble’s staggering idiomatic aerobics danced capriciously between blockbuster strings, drum’n’bass and en-sorcerising choirs of cyborg mages, while The Chaos Path found guest vocalist Simen Hestnæs (aka I.C.S. Vortex) hamming it up perfectly in the role of ringmaster to an absurdist Grand Guignol.
11. Fleshgod Apocalypse - Veleno (2019)
They may dress like decomposing 18th-century composers, but these Italians’ definitive factor is their connection to light-speed tech-death. Unlike their atmospheric and mid-paced, classically inspired contemporaries and influences, Fleshgod Apocalypse manage the inclusion of hyperactive, baroque keyboards and operatic caterwauling into metal that nudges shoulders with Nile, Origin and Archspire at its heart. Their 2019 album Veleno was the culmination of a decade’s worth of caustically heavy, super-speedy death metal reeking of Paganini’s putrefaction colliding with improved songwriting smarts and cogent, yet no less challenging, arrangements.