You don’t have to be a D&D dork to love symphonic power metal. There’s nothing that says that, in order to enjoy Rhapsody of Fire, you have to have memorized a monster manual or enjoyed The Silmarillion or to have even seen the big screen adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. Sure it helps if you already like those things and it might maximize enjoyment if you understand the difference between a Wizard and a Sorcerer or if your shower thoughts include the tactical advantages of a short sword versus a mace in tight spaces. But, no, all that’s really necessary to enjoying good symphonic power metal is the willingness to enjoy. Because good symphonic power metal is big and flowery and pompous and glorious and it’s a shame that too many very serious metal heads take their very serious metal too very seriously to really enjoy music made to make a person feel good. Like, honestly good. Happy, strong, confident, proud, and all in the name of Good and Right. Of course, these aren’t feelings we’re used to, generally, but especially in heavy metal. It’s true in heavy metal that War and Gore and Death tend to win out because they’re immediate and visceral, but notice, too, that Goodness and Righteousness and Love always seem to be right there. In fact, there are heavy metal bands the world over dedicated to keeping the flame of virtue pure and strong through their music and, among those stalwart lightbearers, Italy’s Rhapsody of Fire has been at the vanguard for more than 25 years.
The Eighth Mountain is Rhapsody of Fire’s 12th album, following a series of lineup changes that would have left most bands as withered as a sunbaked head on a pig pole in the village square. Alex Staropoli is the lone remaining original member of the band that began as Rhapsody in 1993. Not much was made of the departure of cofounder and lead guitarist, Luca Turilli, to make his own version of Rhapsody, even when he was followed by second guitarist, Dominique Leurquin, and bassist, Patrice Guers, because it wasn’t a big deal; it just sort of happened. Then a couple years later, drummer, Alex Holzwarth, left to join Turilli, and long-time vocalist, Fabio Lione, left to sing for Brazilian power metal powerhouse Angra. By virtually all accounts, these splits, though many, were amicable, and there doesn’t appear to be any bad blood, but wow… basically the whole band over the course of a couple albums. It’s kind of amazing, then, how quickly Staropoli managed to rebuild his team. He brought in Roby De Micheli on lead guitar, followed by Alessandro Sala on bass and, finally, Manu Lotter on drums and Giacomo Voli on vocals. And all of that change, all that general upheaval, of course, means that on this new album, you’d better be ready for some… more of the same.
Those words sound kind of bad, but they aren’t meant to be. The truth is, Rhapsody of Fire has just about epitomized consistency throughout the band’s career. It’s just that at this point it’s downright remarkable, given the turnover of players. Staropoli and his new crew have created an album that once again masterfully blends all the elements of their signature sound: speedy riffs, powerful bass and drums, gigantic choral and symphonic elements, bombastic lead vocals, fantastical stories, and virtuosic neoclassical lead guitar. The only real variance in the delivery of that sound has been the degree and depth to which the choir and symphony have been integrated, and how deeply those guitars and drums have been allowed to dip into Power Metal’s Potion of Speed, which has been not much on the last couple. On The Eighth Mountain, though, Staropoli has rediscovered the beauty of the blazing riff, hearkening to The Dark Secret saga of The Frozen Tears of Angels and even as far back as Power of the Dragonflame and The Emerald Sword saga. So, on one hand, they’ve found a welcome spark; on the other it’s a rekindling of an old flame.
As before, album structure follows a storyline and here the story begins already in the midst of a great battle. This newest saga centers on a new (well, returned) scourge on the Human race, The Nephilim Empire and its evil allies, the Constructs. After a brief, dark, atmospheric intro, “Seven Heroic Deeds” opens with De Micheli riffing at breakneck speed and Staropoli stabbing with keen key strikes, heavy drums sprinting beneath, big bombastic choir filling the air and crystal blue neoclassical lead coursing through it all. Taken individually, each of these pieces appears to be relatively simple but together paint a complex picture of furious and fiery conflict, a songwriting strategy familiar to Staropoli and Rhapsody fans and executed so well on The Eighth Mountain. When new vocalist Giacomo Voli comes in behind the choir, it’s clear how good he is for this band: strong, melodic, and emotive, he twists and contorts his voice to convey the story, running from gnarling growls to triumphant cries at the top of an impressive range.
As the battle rages through the next couple of songs, the listener could be forgiven for a cynical expectation that the epic rush will run dry, that bright ideas will go gray in a deluge of too much, but it never happens. “Master of Peace” threatens it with a simple guitar pattern serving to hook, but it hooks nonetheless, showing that it’s not so much about intricacy here but the synergy between notes and rhythm and the flow between them. The approach is reinforced later with De Michele’s lead work; not quite a solo as much as a lightning quick, shredding riff sequence that sets up a simple, beautiful lead melody. Surrounded by lush keys and choir, the package speaks the story, vivid and so happily dramatic, thick with drama and emotion. And then “Rain of Fury” does almost the exact same thing but somehow keeps it fresh with more emphasis on the keys, punctuated rhythm, and the album’s most gloriously anthemic chorus, Voli in amazing form.
After the initial barrage, the listener is given a chance to breathe with a series of songs that slow the pace to ponder the human aspect, the emotional experience, of the virtuous crusader. “White Wizard” is a mid-paced paean to the warrior’s mystic protector, lamenting the wizard’s death and imploring his supernal guidance in the fight against new evils in the name of Righteousness. The overall feel is softer, but the sentiment is powerful, underscored by urgency in simple riffs and pulsing bassline and an especially ascendant chorus. “Warrior Heart” recalls very early days with old timey, slowly bouncing melody from flute and recorder within sparse verses that explode with the full complement in the chorus. It’s poignant and big and beautiful and remarkable for its empathetic insight: “Under the steel of my enemy’s armor is beating the same warrior heart.” Then, as if in response to the apparent moral injury, “The Courage to Forgive” bursts forth with a punchy, emphatic opening and a question, an accusation really, of a father by his son, of corrupting the boy’s heart with the drive to kill, whatever the cause. In this song, the choir plays conscience, punctuating Voli’s voice to add extra drama, and the existential depth of the boy’s moral struggle is driven home by a lone, wonderfully angelic voice gliding through the ether with an almost Theramin-like quality. As a prechorus, chorus and bridge build successively to a triumphant solo, the listener can almost see the young champion thrust his sword to the sky, light splitting the darkness from its point.
The moral dilemma resolved, the music turns once more to the battle. “March Against the Tyrant” is a rousing nine minute call to arms, while “Clash of Times” and “The Legend Goes On” describe various aspects, real and magical, that unfold through the fight. The riffs heading into this final turn of the album are a bit sharper and the rhythms more propulsive, the general feel more forward-oriented. Most notably, De Michele is let loose to fly. Where most of his work on the earlier songs felt relatively restrained, though strong, his leads and solos on the last few tracks add flash to the channeled energy and, together with Staropoli’s keys, the orchestra and choir, generate the exultant air that The Eighth Mountain had been promising all along. “The Wind, the Rain, and the Moon” risks miring the momentum in sap, being a very light and sweet love song. Depending on the mindset of the listener, its placement (maybe its mere inclusion) will either kill momentum or welcome the closing epic, finding strength in vulnerability.
Finally, “Tales of a Hero’s Fate” pulls it all together. The ten minute closer is big and fast and features the album’s best and bravest use of all its many pieces. Guitar riffs and vocal melody tend a little more traditional, and the orchestra and choir play their most prominent roles, together creating a more epic feel. In the bridges between chorus and verses, there’s a rumbling rhythm backed by blaring heavy brass that conjures images of a shifting sea of blood-spattered helms and tattered guidons, a fitting build to its epic denouement, woven through with swirling and spiraling progressive riffs that signal chaos, uncertainty, even in victory. The question is confirmed as Christopher Lee’s (RIP) narrative role is reprised to set the stage for the next chapter of The Nephilim’s Empire Saga.
To call The Eighth Mountain a great album may be a stretch, given the greatness of some of the albums to which it will be compared, even just within Rhapsody of Fire’s catalog. It’s simpler than much of what has come before it, the riffs less technically impressive, the leads and solos less elaborate. Staropoli’s arrangements aren’t as sophisticated as they’ve been before, at least not obviously. There’s nothing so grand and sweeping as “Heroes of the Waterfalls’ Kingdom” or “Gargoyles, Angels of Darkness.” On paper, The Eighth Mountain is dwarfed by the best albums Rhapsody made with Turilli and Lione. And yet the songs shine nonetheless on an album that seems, at least to this listener’s ears, to have that intangible something through which it transcends those comparisons to stand strong in its own right. The Eighth Mountain ushers in an exciting new chapter in the ongoing saga of Rhapsody of Fire and it seems resolute in its prediction of greatness ahead, as well.