In the early days of Progressive Rock the term Orchestra Rock or Symphonic Rock was used to describe rock music that had elements of Classical music, whether it be in form, theme or harmonic complexity. Some progressive rock artists use themes from classical pieces or compose original pieces using classical styles or structure. Often the use of orchestral instrumentation such as strings, woodwinds or percussion are used.
The use of orchestral or symphonic instruments is not a criteria to qualify as Orchestra Rock or Symphonic Rock. In fact the use of synthesizer, virtual instruments and mellotron to emulate orchestral instruments is more widely practice and the norm. Although the use of orchestral instruments is widely practiced in orchestral rock, adapting rock music to orchestral arrangements is not considered orchestral or symphonic rock.
The Moody Blues release of “Days of Future Past” in 1967 was their pivotal album that would set the tone for there career. For King Crimson it was their debut album “In The Court of the Crimson King”. Emerson Lake and Palmer contributed to the genre on albums such as “Emerson, Lake and Palmer”, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, “Trilogy” and “Brain Salad Surgery”. Genesis emerged in the 70’s with their second album “Trespass” falling into the symphonic progressive genre. This was followed by “Foxtrot”, “Selling England by the Pound” and “the Lamb lies down on Broadway”. Yes combined classical elements with several progressive sub styles to create their unique sound staring on their third album “The Yes Album”. They kept with this trend on “Fragile”, “Close to the Edge”, “topographic Oceans” and “going for the One”. Electric Light Orchestra was a rock band that featured strings and orchestral arrangements on their records. ELO’s defining moment was their release of “Eldorado” a concept album that falls into the genre of orchestra rock. Pink Floyd who are commonly referred to as Art Rock, Experimental Rock or Psychedelic Rock also clearly qualify as Orchestra Rock. On the track “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name there is extensive orchestral use. With their use of classical suite form on “Echoes” from “Meddle” on into “Wish You were here”, “Animals” and the concept album “The Wall”, Pink Floyd clearly had moved into a symphonic progressive genre.
The genre of Orchestra Rock clearly is not quite as prevalent today as it was in it’s hey day of the 70’s, but it is still alive and well. Like most genres that are constantly evolving so is Orchestra Rock or Symphonic Rock as it is commonly known. There are sub genres of Orchestra Rock, such as symphonic metal, neoclassical metal, and Art Rock with bands combining all these elements together.
There are other bands that combine the genres of Art Rock and Orchestra Rock. They use orchestral arrangements, classical form and complex harmony in the tradition of 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok. They also frequently use dissonance, dual tonalities, odd and multiple meters in conjunction with modern looping and sampling techniques. The band Radiohead clearly falls into this category as well as a new american Art Rock/Orchestral Rock group called The Sullied. Like Radiohead, The Sullied uses large composed string arrangements as well as dissonance and odd metered time signatures. This is all bundled in a flowing melodic manner much like Pink Floyd. Many of their compositions utilize a hard rocking power trio at it’s core.
This makes for an interesting blend of genres and styles but still falls into the broad term of Orchestra Rock.
Rock and roll has been changing its tune for decades. With rich beginnings it has seen the likes of James Brown, Elvis, The Beatles, Metallica, and U2, but the genre of Orchestra rock is yet another off-shoot of this incredible musical entity. Also known as Symphonic rock, or progressive rock, it utilizes a combination of rock instruments and feel with the compositional structures of traditional classical music like Beethovens 5th Symphony or Stravinsky’s Fire Bird Suite. A fusing of these seemingly disparate types of music actually makes for an incredible sound with its own unique flavor.
Art rock, another form of progressive rock and closely related to Orchestra Rock, is an appropriate name for such an expressive palate of sound. Artists like Frank Zappa definitely used music as art as early as the 1960s in order to create a backdrop of sound unlike any heard previously. This was in fact, one of the first albums that gave art rock or Symphonic Rock its beginnings. Others that contributed to the eventual genre are Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, and Days of Futures Past by the Moody Blues. Other artists later incorporated entire sections of symphonic music in their compositions of rock, referring to composers as diverse as Bach and Sibelius, and Beethoven.
When In the Court of King Crimson was released by King Crimson, progressive rock saw a whole new audience. The album made orchestra rock accessible to the masses with its more eclectic approach to the genre. Most people who think of this music genre cannot help but refer to Pink Floyds album, The Wall. Although early critics claimed it did not have enough of an orchestral lean to be considered a symphonic rock album, their Atom Heart Mother, released in 1970 is so full of orchestral sounds, it begs to be placed in this genre. Later bands like Yes, and Electric Light Orchestra brought attention to the musical type as well, but now there are literally hundreds of bands and orchestral groups that play art rock, or some form of it. Bands like Radiohead and the prevalence of Internet radio and easy access to music is now helping orchestral rock to gain popularity the world over.
Since this genre of music utilizes higher forms of both harmonics and melodic structures, classical instruments and elaborate themes and elements such as tone poems and even operas, it definitely changes the audience of traditional rock which often has very simple lyrics, less complex rhythmic patterns and sometimes as little as three chords in a song. What is wonderful about orchestra rock is that it blends the raw, primal sound of rock that we all responded to from the days of our youth to the more complex musical structures of high art in the form of symphonic music. It appeals to both the base and higher selves, and can both challenging and simple at the same time. It is an art form all its own, given to inspired genius.