I know you’ve read or–for the unfortunate–listened to me go on about Symphonic Metal before, and I know my opinion on the lack of female-fronted bands of worth that recall the glory days of Nightwish is not a secret. This weekend, to open up 2017 with a gloriously dark, romantic bang, there is Dark Sarah.
Dark Sarah is at once original and elegiac, and you will be entranced from the start, so welcome new readers, Constant Followers, one and all to the wonderful world of Symphonic Metal.
What the Sam Hill is Symphonic Metal?
Let me start out by saying I have zero problem with Black Metal, Death Metal, Metalcore, and Goth Metal. I am accepting of all the metal, but my heart has always belong to the Power Metal gods and the grand fantasy they weave. I have blasted my ears with the best of them, and I’ve sank into the depths of balmy despair without regret. The splintering of subgenres in metal has never been a problem for me, and we’re probably the most inclusive music genre in the world.
So Before you tell me yer not into all that opera shit, sit down and let me learn you a thing.
Symphonic Metal is not just some froo-froo subgenre. Symphonic Metal has its roots in Power Metal (Ronnie James Dio, Scorpions, Accept, Manowar, and Iron Maiden–I could go on), borrowing the keyboards prevalent to that genre and incorporating classically trained female front-ladies, Yngwie Malmsteen’s guitar concertos, and male backing vocals with low ranges and growls–you know, metal.
Symphonic Metal was born in Finland, Sweden, and Holland, where the most metal parts of Western Civilization got their start. Here the Vikings wrought havoc and made their initial raids from Scandinavian ports, turning Britain into its own personal whipping boy from 793 to 1066, where Michiel de Ruyter successfully defended the Netherlands from ongoing attempts at colonization by France, the Danish, and England, revolutionizing the tactics of naval warfare and introducing the world to the original Marine Corps.
Power Metal, Goth Metal, and Symphonic Metal carry many of the same hallmarks of Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, drawing on material from artists like Michael Moorcock and J. R. R. Tolkien (like Blind Guardian–technically German).
Bands like Hammerfall were some of the first to incorporate orchestral composition into their metal. Then there was Nightwish, launching their debut in 1997 with Angels Fall First, giving rise to the reputation of Tarja Tarunen and the birth of Symphonic Metal, relying on story-telling, the masterful composition and rhythmic genius of Tuomos Halopanian on keyboard, and high romance instead of broiling anger, though if one wants broiling anger in their metal, the Northern European countries have plenty to offer on that score as well.
Symphonic Metal has yet to see a downfall. Though not popular in the United States, bands like Within Temptation, Epica, and Delain enjoy a wide audience throughout most of Northern and Eastern Europe. Other European bands that do not technically fall under Symphonic Metal that rely heavily on thematic content, album-wide concept, and vocal talent are male-fronted Swedish bands Ghost and Falconer (which has since disbanded). Symphonic Metal is, by virtue of the talent leading it, is a ladies’ genre.
The one band that always stands out as exemplary of the genre is Nightwish. The Finnish Symphonic/Power Metal band has always been a band of evolution, which began long before Mezzo Soprano Tarja Tarunen left the band on hiatus after the release and tour of Once. Though the band gained popularity with its orchestral composition lead by famed keyboardist, composer, and vocalist Tuomos Halopanian, it still remained far too literary for the contemporary metal critics leading the overarching genre, and was further crippled by the on-going stigma of a female front person, as metal is overrun with male-fronted bands like a playground sandbox, or the tech industry. Taking the edge off Tarja’s operatic vocals was original backup vocalist and bassist Sami Vänskä, providing the depth and darkness of “Pharaoh Sails to Orion” on Oceanborn and “Beauty and the Beast” on Wishmaster. Later in 2002, bassist and vocals Marco Hietala brought new depth and range as the counterpoint opposite all three Nightwish female fronts from Once (Tarunen) to End of Innocence (Annette Olzon), to Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Floor Jansen).
Though their content is deeply steeped in Tuomos Halopanien’s fantasy inspirations, Nightwish was also heavily influenced by Tarunen’s Christian faith, something that did not win the band any points among its detractors, but for its fans presented the band, and the Symphonic Metal genre, as a thing of beauty, a Romantic expression of eternal love and the journey through worldly perils to find the magic waiting just beyond the rising sun, an expression that came to a crescendo with Once in 2004.
It is this legacy of eternal love, danse macabre, magic, sacrifice, and the journey that is being lived in Dark Sarah.
Dark Sarah, like many Power/Symphonic Metal bands, is a concept band that is story-driven in its content and powerful in its delivery. Dark Sarah is fronted by Heidi Parviainen, whose wide eyes, innocent face, and powerful voice takes the listener through the band’s content on a journey that is both fantastic and spiritual.
Dark Sarah’s debut album in 2015 was Behind the Black Veil, the story of Sarah, a girl left at the alter by her fiance, who fleas in tears, and who finds within herself a darkness that is at once herself and someone else. Dark Sarah and Behind the Black Veil is a journey of self-discovery and reclamation, but it is also a story of loss and betrayal.
Spoiler Alert: It is a story after all.
The Puzzle is Dark Sarah’s second concept album released in November of 2016, telling the story of Dark Sarah in limbo as she traverses a fantastic island between Life and Death. Sarah must traverse the Misty Island to redeem her second chance at life, and only by unlocking the puzzle can she gain the keys that will grant her not only freedom, but the answers to the questions of her Fate.
The music videos are pieces of art all their own, though the content is not stand-alone. If pursued out of order, the story might not sound like a puzzle needing to be solved, but rather a story purely of escape, which it is, but it is also so much more than that.
The song “Little Men” is a danse macabre of Dia de los Muertos style that is lively and engrossing, a fantasy that dares the listener and Dark Sarah, to follow (sort of like the Fieries in Labyrinth only…whoa).
“Dance With The Dragon” features the earth-shattering vocals of JP Leppäluoto, front-man of the Finnish band formerly known as Charon, and one of the five members of Northern Kings (which also included Nightwish’s Marco Hietala). The song is an eye-to-eye showdown with Dark Sarah brought before The Dragon, who poses the second question Dark Sarah must answer to receive a key. Sarah does not know the answer, and so begs the dragon to let her have the key anyway. The dragon invites her in a number of ways to answer the question, but each time is rebuffed. The song is replete with unfulfilled promises, and though handsome Leppäluoto seems to feel for Sarah in her plight, despite being her antagonizer (much like Jareth in the crystal dance scene) the dance is also a challenge, a test of wills, a “coupling” that has Dark Sarah and the Dragon vying for dominance, something I sort of wish Sarah had done in Labyrinth instead of letting Jareth lead her around by the nose.
Though similarly staged to another well-known dance scene, Dark Sarah does not let us forget that her misfortunes in life have made her strong and resilient. However, even at her strongest in the darkness she has cloaked herself in, she is no match for the Dragon. There is very heavy influence from Labyrinth here, but unlike the Sarah of Jim Henson’s film, Dark Sarah is not seduced by her dance partner, but confronted. She is not a listless wanderer, and the dragon demands her answer to his question, “What is stronger than death?”
In the song, Dark Sarah cannot answer the question, and begs for the key. She is tossed back to the beginning, another very similar throwback to Henson’s film.
I begin to feel as if The Puzzle is a much, much darker and existential version of Labyrinth–the similarity in title is notwithstanding. Like many of my generation, Labyrinth became an everywoman-tale about finding one’s self, forgiving one’s self, renouncing the blindness of Romance, and remembering that living in the past is dark, toxic, and deprives you of the joy of the present and the love that may surround you even if you don’t see it.
The Puzzle is Dark Sarah’s reconciliation, her struggle to find the meaning of the events that have stamped out the light side of her. It is a story of bravely facing mortality. Like the Labyrinth from which it draws so very, very heavily, Dark Sarah comes to grips with the darkness that shaped her and rediscovers her light, the light that never left her. Like the journey of Sarah, The Puzzle is also a story of forgiveness. Dark Sarah learns that life is short, and that she must not squander the light that is within her and waste her days in darkness.
Musically, The Puzzle is a masterpiece that weaves a delicate story that unites Gothic Romance with heavy metal and orchestral composition, an opera in every sense of the word. If you all thought Symphonic Metal died with Once in 2004, you were sadly mistaken. Sorry Black Metal, Metalcore, and Death Metal, but Symphonic Metal is here to stay, and their fearless leader is young, beautiful Heidi Parviainen, who should be inducted into the ranks of front-ladies who are destined to inherit metal after all the men have broken their vocal chords.
As we say goodbye to 2016 and welcome the refreshing rebirth of good fortune and hope that is 2017, we reflect on what we have learned in the past year. We’ve all grown in some way. We’ve taken the good with the bad, and if we have fallen on hard times, let us remember that we are allowed to grieve our mistakes, grieve our losses, and move on. We are not bound to the past. We can change, and yet remain true to ourselves and our purpose. In each of us, there is darkness and light, and though the light may reveal harsh realities that cause us pain, the life lived in darkness is no real sanctuary, but a prison we have built ourselves.
You can buy The Puzzle on iTunes and read the full story of Dark Sarah’s journey through the Misty Island on the Dark Sarah official site. I strongly encourage you to do this, as it will give the songs and videos that accompany it a little more context. I did this with all of Trans Siberian Orchestra’s albums, and so was very glad to see Dark Sarah provide this as well.
Keep dreaming, Constant Followers, and follow the light.