Rhapsody’s history has all the operatic drama required of its Italian heritage. Rhapsody, one of the ‘90s and early-aughts’ finest power metal bands, rose to prominence on the back of outstanding material (Dawn of Victory, Power of the Dragonflame), before suffering a string of setbacks in the mid-2000s. After some legal drama and a triumphant return with two brilliant albums in two years, the band’s primary composers—Luca Turilli and Alex Staropoli—split the world in two. Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody stayed on Nuclear Blast Records, while Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire signed with AFM Records. Vocalist Fabio Lione continued in Staropoli’s version before he left the band following 2016’s Into the Legend to join Angra full time1 and to participate in Turilli/Lione’s Rhapsody [of Fire]’s cover of Ozzy Osborne’s No More Tours. Staropoli, left without Lione and longtime drummer Alex Holzwarth (and that bald guitarist whose name no one knows) simply picked up and moved on. He brought on a new drummer (Manuel Lotter) and a new singer (Giacomo Voli), and Rhapsody of Fire promptly re-recorded a bunch of classic Rhapsody tracks.2 Twenty-nineteen, then, witnesses the beginning of a new phase in Rhapsody of Fire’s career kicking off with The Eighth Mountain.
Rhapsody of Fire’s sound on The Eighth Mountain evokes these Italians’ “legendary years.” At its base, Rhapsody of Fire is a Europower band in a post-Stratovarius world. This means that the band’s new drummer, Manuel Lotter, spends most of his time dropping machine-gun double kick and snare hits on beats two and four, while bassist Alessandro Sala rumbles along, anchoring compositions and throwing in the occasionally impressive lick. Over the rhythm section is a layer of guitars courtesy of Roberto De Micheli and keyboards from Alex Staropoli. Unsurprisingly, the keys are a stronger influence on this material, featuring heavily and even sometimes seeming to drive the riffing more than the guitars (“The Courage to Forgive”). Like its predecessor, The Eighth Mountain features a backbone of orchestrations provided by the Bulgarian National Symphony Orchestra, while floating above it all is Giacomo Voli’s metal-operatic tenor. Unlike his predecessor, Voli has a relatively contained vibrato and his accent doesn’t aggressively skew the words he’s singing. He also has a bright vocal timbre and an impressive upper range; landing close in range to Michael Romeo’s standout vocal star Rick Castellano. When he goes high (“Seven Heroic Deeds” or “Clash of Times”), Voli exudes power and confidence and his voice carries The Eighth Mountain in a way that Fabio didn’t on Dark Wings of Steel and Into the Legend.
The Eighth Mountain is an intentional return to classic Rhapsody [of Fire] material and this is the album’s strength. The band’s classic neo-baroque sound is clear throughout, with De Micheli’s guitar gymnastics evoking Malmsteen à la Turilli (“Clash of Times” or “Master of Peace”). Many songs kick off with strong, trem-picked guitar licks before giving way to rhythm guitar chugs. But in some ways, the core of the traditional Rhapsody of Fire sound is the anthemic chorus in a major key and The Eighth Mountain is replete with such signature choruses (see: “Rain of Fury,” “Warrior Heart,” and “March against the Tyrant” for the best examples). These glorious choruses always risk seeming out of place, but fortunately the band doesn’t fall victim to self-parody à la Ancient Bards, whose choruses often feel detached from the songs they have written. All of these classic traits—the virtuoso, neoclassical guitars, the huge choruses, and the majesty these songs evoke—make for an album that is just fun to listen to. It might drag a little when the band slows things down on songs like “Warriors Heart,” but such lulls never kill the record’s momentum. The “return to the classics” feel of The Eighth Mountain is key to delivering Rhapsody of Fire‘s best post-Turilli material by far.
The “return to the classics” feel is, however, also The Eighth Mountain’s weakness. Throughout the record, a listener is struck by an almost persistent feeling of déjà vu. The most obvious example of this is “Master of Peace,” which I swear has a classic Rhapsody riff, but I can’t figure out what song it’s lifted from. “Warrior’s Heart” has a “Village of the Dwarves” vibe, “White Wizard”—another favorite and a song with a stellar bass performance from Sala—also feels extremely familiar. This is weird, in part, because Rhapsody of Fire’s formula is inspired by classical music. Classical inspiration makes available to a composer immense variations from which to draw. Aside from “Tales of a Hero’s Fate,” which features some of the album’s most inventive writing, The Eighth Mountain writes in a neo-baroque—or even medieval—idiom. As I have written before, the creative differences that rend some bands apart may also be the reason that they produced such interesting music to begin with. In looking back at The Frozen Tears of Angels and From Chaos to Eternity, I think it’s clear that the Staropoli’s conservatism was offset by Turilli’s openness to new ideas. The tension between the two composers resulted in something unique. But by dedicating themselves to recreating Rhapsody’s classic, sword-swinging elf metal feel on The Eighth Mountain, the possibilities for something transcendent and innovative evaporate.
Finally, though, even with the occasional bit of déjà vu, The Eighth Mountain is an exciting start of a new era for Rhapsody of Fire. The compositions are strong, if not innovative, De Micheli is coming into his own as a player within the bounds of Rhapsody of Fire’s music and I think that Giacomo Voli is the vocalist Rhapsody of Fire has always deserved. While definitely too loud and dense, Seeb Levermann’s production is well-balanced and eschews the modern sounds that make a lot of prog/power unlistenable. All of that taken together and with a new saga afoot—narrated by what I can only assume is one of Christopher Lee’s final recordings—these Italians are telling the world that the institution of Rhapsody of Fire hasn’t seen its final days. And in the light of The Eighth Mountain, that is encouraging news, indeed.
- Wait, who does this make Spain in this obscure historical analogy? ↩
- Which really pissed off their fansbase. ↩
- Edit: February 23rd, 13:45 CET — I didn’t follow my own rule about grading, which is when in doubt grade down. In order to be consistent with my review of Into the Legend, I gave this the same score. But the reality is that Into the Legend was a low 3.0 and more likely a 2.5. A really good, enjoyable 2.5, but a not much better than a “good” album. The Eighth Mountain is a “Good!” start, but it isn’t more than that. ↩