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Holy Steel! - 90%

Frankingsteins, July 13th, 2007

The second album from Italian symphonic metal band Rhapsody (recently forced to legally re-name themselves ‘Rhapsody of Fire,’ quite ridiculously) continues the Emerald Sword saga of their debut, ‘Legendary Tales.’ This band, increasingly so in recent years, surely epitomises the nerdy and childish genre of fantasy metal, as their songs take the classic heavy metal form (which was often infused with slightly geeky lyrics to begin with) and introduce folk and classical Medieval influences to strive for what the band themselves deem a ‘Hollywood metal’ sound.

The intention is to create something like an epic fantasy film told in song, making use of spoken word and sound effects when necessary, while also concentrating on producing a high quality heavy metal album. With their early releases, particularly this second offering, Rhapsody achieve an impressive balance, nerdy enough to attract those who would usually be put off by metal, and powerful enough to persuade insecure metal fans that it’s an acceptable thing to be listening to.

The Emerald Sword saga itself is a fairly straightforward fantasy tale (I expect, only being slightly familiar with genre), which sees our hero questing for the fabled Emerald Sword to help the good guys defeat the bad guys who are intent on pillage and destruction of the land. Guitarist and songwriter Luca Turilli claims not to have read much fantasy, instead relying on Hollywood for his influence, perhaps the primary reason the band were so intent on signing up Christopher Lee to narrate their more recent albums after his appearances through the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Instead of Lee, we have here instead a far, far poorer narrator in the form of Sir Jay Lansford, whose emotive commentary on selected tracks, thankfully only three times in this particular album, is excruciating at worst and laughable at best.

The lyrics all concern the events of the plot, but are essentially secondary to the music, at least in terms of my own approach to the album. Nevertheless, the interior booklet of each Rhapsody album contains detailed notes on the evolving incidents and, most incredible of all, a detailed map of the fictional locale of Turilli’s saga. It’s tempting to really get into the story with this much material at hand, and when playing a Rhapsody album once in a while, I always debate whether to put aside a day to listen to the entire saga (five albums of this story, and a further two of the more recent and continuing second saga), but the task would simply be too excruciating, and probably become tedious half-way through the second album as they all sound very alike. Nevertheless, ‘Symphony of Enchanted Lands’ stands out a little above the competition, improving on the fusion style of its predecessor and achieving a greater balance between the classical and modern sounds than the later ‘Dawn of Victory.’

The first noticeable improvement over the debut is the production quality, which is now crystal clear and deep enough that the full extent of orchestration is audible even when the primary instruments are thrashing away at full volume. The first album always sounded quite tinny to me, despite the high quality of the songs the band had been working on and releasing in several demo forms for a number of years. Starting from scratch with ‘Symphony of Enchanted Lands,’ Rhapsody use the same formula as the first album, consisting mostly of fast power metal with sing-along choruses and guitar and keyboard solos, balanced out by the occasional non-metal song in the form of a piano ballad or symphonic interlude, with a couple of longer, more diverse songs towards the end. An excellent balance is struck between the vocals and individual instruments, as there are numerous and generous solos for the guitar and keyboard, ranging from typical Iron Maiden fare to a classical influence, but for the most part the instruments are content to chug along in the background while Fabio Lione sings the silly lyrics with operatic excellence.

Newcomers to extreme metal genres like power metal may be a little intimidated by the speed at first, but the focus is more on creating upbeat adrenaline than the aggression of death metal, and the high speed combo of drums and guitars racing in time with each other soon fades into the backdrop intended during the verses. The incorporation of orchestration can seem a little clichéd today, as pretty much every band has done it at some point in their career, but this album strikes, as stated earlier, a perfect balance, much like its predecessor. The symphony is used only when necessary, and never imposes on the simple enjoyment of the songs unless it is being particularly highlighted, in which case it is well worth paying attention to. The ‘Hollywood’ focus means that this is the typical orchestration found in all film soundtracks all the time, from blaring horns to sombre violins and male and female choirs. The arrangements aren’t going to impress any classical buffs, but the execution is flawless, and when given the chance to really perform at his peak, Fabio Lione proves himself to be a superb tenor, especially when pitted against Constanze Vaniyne in the finale. Despite the arguable delusions of grandeur, Rhapsody aims to be more accessible than intimidating, and it’s obvious on first listen which tracks were selected as singles.

The album begins, as usual, with a short introductory track of orchestra led by a male choir, sounding very much like Basil Poledouris’ excellent score for ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ but probably influenced more generically. ‘Emerald Sword’ is soon upon us, which along with ‘Wisdom of the Kings’ and the penultimate ‘Riding the Winds of Eternity’ is fairly standard power metal fare in the wake of Helloween and Blind Guardian; lightning-fast riffs dominating and a rip-roaring, highly memorable chorus which repeats twice later on, signalling the end. There’s nothing unexpected in these songs at all, and although the first two are perfectly positioned to inaugurate listeners into the fold by being accessible, they pale in comparison to the more complex offerings. On the other hand, metal fans looking for a quick fix will probably rate these more highly. ‘Emerald Sword’ particularly is the strongest of the lot, and has been a live favourite ever since, the perfection of this side of Rhapsody’s music.

Things become more interesting, though not necessarily better, with the slower pace of the fourth track, which acts as more of a short introduction (despite the extended title) to the excellent second section of the album. ‘Heroes of the Lost Valley’ begins with a very pleasant flute and harpsichord (or at least, keyboard made to sound like a harpsichord) section, before galloping sound effects reminiscent of Bathory lead into the first inadvisable piece of narration. Such things are inevitable, and thankfully it’s brief and to the point, but the narration is my major gripe with this album, intruding on the listening experience of those like me who are content to enjoy the music with only the vaguest notion that there’s some kind of plot occurring between the notes. ‘Eternal Glory’ is the start of the album’s bolder direction, beginning with happy 80s keyboards in the style of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ and succumbing to a more solemn drum march that is slowly joined by the other instruments, culminating in an excellent main guitar riff. There’s a section allotted towards the end of this lengthy track for orchestration, as will become the norm for most that come after, and the song ends much as it began.

Despite its unfortunate position in the overlooked middle of this ‘epic’ section of the album, ‘Beyond the Gates of Infinity’ does an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and manages to exceed even its illustrious predecessor (and its disappointing follow-up. The metaphor breaks down soon after this however). It begins very eerily, in contrast to the usual optimism that can get a little tiresome, with horror film keyboards leading into some fantastic verses and riffs that possess all the force of ‘Emerald Sword’ and all the symphonic grandeur of ‘Eternal Glory.’ The guitars are at their most impressive in an instrumental section towards the end, as Luca Turilli wisely opts to show off his skill as a musician over that of a writer. ‘Wings of Destiny’ is the first song in some time to approach a more standard four and a half minute length, which will be relieving to some, and is a necessary soft breather between the more energetic offerings, in some ways letting off the pressure of the tightly restricted ‘quiet’ sections fitted between verses in the previous two songs. This is where Fabio Lione gets his first chance to really shine as a tenor, as the piano (or at least, keyboard made to sound like a piano this time), drums and guitar all play more softly in the background. The fade at the end indicates something of a climax for this second, most impressive phase of the album.

Things threaten to become repetitive with ‘The Dark Tower of Abyss,’ but thankfully Rhapsody still have some tricks up their billowing sleeves and offer a harpsichord introduction (or at least,... etc.) that competes with the guitar in a very Stratovarius-like way, sounding more like Finnish metal in general than Italian here. Some male choral vocals can be heard behind the main riffs, but this song essentially reverts to the usual formula thereafter, with another excellent instrumental section. Unfortunately, the narrator makes an unwelcome second appearance at the end over the music, making the song seem to last a lot longer than it does. The afore-mentioned ‘Riding the Winds of Eternity’ is perhaps the least remarkable song on here, simply for offering nothing new aside from some relaxing wave sound effects before the song goes all fast and spoils it, but this is partly due to impatience at the approach of the epic titular finale, ‘Symphony of Enchanted Lands.’

It was inevitable that the most ambitious song would feature heavy use of narration, and he really does spoil things, wasting no time in hamming his way through the first minute and returning at the very end. Fortunately, all the stuff in-between is pretty excellent, although essentially a re-tread of all the most successful elements from previous songs. Fabio reaches for the high notes again as he did in ‘Wings of Destiny,’ this time against a solitary church organ (or at least – yes), and the more customary instruments take their time getting off to a nice slow start. The keyboard handles lead duties in a self-consciously epic introduction, before an ominous pause returns things to normal, Rhapsody playing in their safety zone, and playing less dangerously fast than usual. The guitar remains in the lead for a while, until the whole thing reverts back to the organ and Fabio gets to sing along with Constanze Vaniyne in one of the album’s most successful classical experimentations. There are some nice violins that tackle the main riff, unfortunately not quite as memorable as others on the album which acts against the song slightly, and the song ends as you hit the eject button before the narrator can fill you in on the tense cliff-hanger finale that I’ve never paid enough attention to to remember. It can’t be too promising, as the next two albums are dominated by violence and bloodshed rather than waterfalls and dragons.

Rhapsody have a deserved reputation of being one of the more over-the-top bands out there, but this mockery is beaten by a greater admiration of their music. Although the narration makes it impossible to ignore the fantasy theme, should that prove a problem, the whole notion is intriguing enough that no amount of cheese is going to put me off. The fusion of metal and classical elements has been done more impressively elsewhere, but not for such a sustained period as an entire discography, which has only started to collapse in on itself with the most recent release. Here, the balance is perfect, and while it’s unsurprising Hollywood metal all the way, the heavy metal skill of the guitars, drums, keyboards and vocals is what holds it all together. The follow-ups ‘Dawn of Victory’ and ‘Rain of a Thousand Flames’ will perhaps be more suited to metal fans whose experience with fantasy-themed metal is limited, as these releases are more geared towards guitar riffs and a more rasping vocal delivery, although those in such a situation would be much better off getting used to more approachable and enjoyable power metal acts such as Blind Guardian (though not Dragonforce, have some respect for yourself).

Despite the imitations, Rhapsody still stand out in the combined realm of power, symphonic and folk metal, occupying their own well-earned position on its far-too-detailed map. Thankfully, although later releases would be increasingly less impressive, the quality of the cover art would steadily improve after this pitiful effort.