Rhapsody of Fire are a profoundly goofy power metal band from Italy. Until 2004, they were known simply as Rhapsody, and they released six albums under that name, culminating in Symphony of Enchanted Lands II—The Dark Secret, which was simultaneously a sequel to their second album, 1998’s Symphony of Enchanted Lands, and the beginning of an epic, multi-album saga, “The Dark Secret,” which has continued on 2006’s Triumph Or Agony and The Frozen Tears of Angels, released earlier this year.
The Frozen Tears of Angels (buy it from Amazon) is a wildly over-the-top record. Power metal is fast, but very clean, with none of the grit or crudity of death metal or thrash. It’s a very European phenomenon, and it ignores rock ideas about sweatiness and grit in favor of music that wouldn’t be at all shocking coming from players in powdered wigs and satin breeches. The songs whip past in a flurry of complex guitar and keyboard riffs, epically shredtastic soloing, screaming vocals, and a general feeling that more is always, always better. Without a lyric sheet, it’s impossible to figure out what the songs are about, even when they’re not being sung in Italian, but they are very well sung—frontman Fabio Lione has a terrific, operatic voice. Sometimes the music becomes gentler and more dominated by acoustic instruments, as on “Danza di Fuoco e Ghiaccio,” but it’s still frantically paced and always building up to some crashing climax, with a full chorus, surging strings, etc., etc. Sometimes, when the band’s in full roar, as on “Raging Starfire” or “On the Way to Ainor,” it can stop being exhilarating and become exhausting. But their ambition is impossible to respond to with anything but admiration, especially on the 11-minutes-plus title track, which combines dramatic recitations, a genuinely epic chorus, and solos, solos, solos.
The Cold Embrace of Fear (buy it from Amazon) is a 35-minute EP, intended to serve as a bridge between The Frozen Tears of Angels and their next full-length album, From Chaos to Eternity, scheduled for release in a few months. Much of it is taken up not with songs, but with radio drama-esque dialogue and sound effects, telling the story of a group of wanderers on a heroic journey to find “The Book of Secrets.” The John Williams-esque music that underpins these dramatic enactments is decent, but generic, as is the dialogue. Even the presence of the actor Christopher Lee, who’s also narrated each of the three full-lengths preceding this disc, can’t quite make this stuff exciting.
The music, on the other hand, is frequently rip-roaring. The centerpiece of the disc is the third track, the 14-minute “The Ancient Fires of Har-Kuun.” This is literally symphonic, operatic heavy metal—the rock instruments (electric guitars, drums, synthesizers) are surrounded and bolstered by a full orchestra and choral vocals. Despite the degree of amplification, the ultra-clean, soaring guitar and synthesizer riffs owe more to Baroque music than to the blues. The strings soar, Alex Staropoli‘s keyboards zip and zoom, guitarist Luca Turilli shreds madly, and Lione sings the heroic saga, switching back and forth between English and Italian. It’s a terrific song, one that seems to fly past in 1/3 its actual running time.
The other two proper songs on the EP are very different. “Neve Rosso Sangue” is built around acoustic guitar, gentle washes of synth, and recorder (played by the keyboardist’s brother Manuel). Lione sings in Italian as a soprano female vocalist offers wordless commentary behind him. The lushness of the arrangement keeps the language from serving as a barrier. “Erian’s Lost Secrets,” by contrast, is a stomping, martial anthem, closer in spirit to Manowar (to whose label, Magic Circle Music, Rhapsody were signed from 2004 to 2006, a contract they were only able to break after protracted legal hassles, leading to the four-year gap between Triumph Or Agony and The Frozen Tears of Angels). The main vocal melody feels like an endless string of crescendos, as a female chorus amps up the drama and the band hammers the song home.
Ultimately, power metal is an acquired taste. Those who prefer their music simple and to-the-point, for whom grandiosity is always somewhat absurd and rarely justified, will likely scoff, or gape in horror. But metalheads with a flair for the theatrical will find much to enjoy in Rhapsody of Fire’s epic storytelling.