How should extremity in metal be defined? Decibel magazine uses the winking tagline “extremely extreme,” and devotes the majority of its coverage to a fairly narrow slice of the genre—basically, black metal, death metal, doom, and bands with noisier/artier takes on hardcore/punk. Similarly, when Pitchfork, which wisely never claims genre expertise, picks an album for review, it’s almost guaranteed to be black metal, or maybe death metal. Noisey, Vice’s music vertical, takes a similar approach. This version of extremity is mostly defined by various shades of theatrical ugliness. The vocals are a hoarse shriek, or a guttural roar. The guitars are downtuned and churn like gears chewing through dirt, or chainsaws burying themselves in trees. Additional sonic elements—synths, sculpted noise—are deployed in aggressive or ominous/creepy ways. Conventional notions of beauty are to be avoided at all costs.

But are these sounds truly extreme? Do they represent some limit of the acceptable against which the artists are pushing? The sheer volume of black and death metal bands (never mind the existence of subgenres called “orthodox” black, death and doom metal) would suggest that they are not. All these genres have rules, traditions, and self-imposed boundaries, and the sonic uglinesses they traffic in are all well inside the fence. Indeed, they are expected—virtually the opposite of extreme, they are comforting in their familiarity.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In 1986 (thirty years ago next year!), Slayer‘s Reign In Blood seemed like an impossible, inhuman feat of musical aggression. It was like raw noise, too fast and too angry to ever be appealing to normal human beings. But in 2015, Slayer headline massive festivals, cheered on by thousands of fans. Twenty-five years ago, black metal was shocking even to death metal fans, the vocalists’ shrieking and the guitarists’ fast tremolo picking finding new ways to torment the listener accustomed to the growls and rumbles of death metal. But now, black metal too is just one more style, and has lost all its power to shock. To find true extremity, a music capable of overpowering the listener in this way, it is necessary in 2015 to look on the far opposite side of the metal world, in the realm of symphonic power metal. If artistic ambition and listener surprise are the measuring sticks, Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody may be the most extreme band in metal today.

Turilli is the ex-guitarist of the Italian band Rhapsody of Fire (formerly Rhapsody). Formed in 1995, that group split amicably in two in 2011, with Turilli, bassist Patrice Guers, and live guitarist Dominique Leurquin leaving to form Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, and vocalist Fabio Lione, keyboardist Alex Staropoli, and drummer Alex Holzwarth retaining the Rhapsody of Fire name.

Both bands play symphonic power metal; their songs are fast and dizzyingly complex, featuring extended guitar and keyboard solos and soaring, operatic vocals, with an orchestra sawing away in the background more often than not. The lyrics are sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and never guttural or harsh—instead, they’re sung in a highly theatrical, even operatic style. Rhapsody of Fire record concept albums, with narration that carries the story along (Christopher Lee served as narrator on seven releases from 2004 to 2011). Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody take a more song-based approach, shifting moods repeatedly on their two albums to date, with the unifying factor being a kind of bonkers, everything-wilder-than-everything-else compositional exuberance.

Their first release, 2012’s Ascending to Infinity (get it from Amazon), set the tone quickly, beginning with a haunting Middle Eastern melody almost instantly overtaken by late ’90s style techno keyboards, over which an English-language narrator introduced…the album? with phrases straight out of a blockbuster movie trailer. This is succeeded by an operatic chorus, male and female, chanting in Italian, as horns blare behind them. All this blends together into a crescendo of madness, the perfect setup for the title track, which is an Yngwie Malmsteen-esque shred-fest, with almost castrati-esque vocals, half in Italian and half in English, atop truly baroque arrangements that surge, recede, and surge again. The album also includes a cover of “Luna,” a song by operatic pop singer Alessandro Safina, rearranged as a bilingual male-female duet (Sassy Bernert sings in English, Alessandro Conti in Italian) set to an almost jazzy rhythm. When the orchestra and chorus swells behind Conti, the whole thing is so overripe it flirts with hilarity, but the musicians’ total commitment make it register as awesome, rather than ludicrous. And that’s not even getting into the 16-minute final track, “Of Michael the Archangel and Lucifer’s Fall.”

The new LTR album, Prometheus—Symphonia Ignis Divinus (get it from Amazon), is if possible even more over-the-top than its predecessor. The symphonic element has been substantially upped, the strings surging and swooning at virtually every moment. The album’s intro track, “Nova Genesis (Ad Splendorem Angeli Triumphantis)” features a male and female chorus, which leads directly into the piano, orchestra, and shredtastic guitar of “Il Cigno Nero.” Turilli is a genuinely exciting guitarist, capable of wild fretboard stuntwork but never tipping all the way over into ridiculous Steve Vai-esque swoops and squeals. By the third track, “Rosenkreuz (The Rose and the Cross),” the techno synths (and English-language lyrics) have come back; the chorus has a chant-along feel reminiscent of Scandinavian folk metal acts, clearly intended to inspire the hoisting of many, many beers…except that the verses, on which Conti and another female vocalist shriek and gibber at each other, are so far out they literally sound pulled from Italian opera. “Prometheus” lets the orchestra go completely wild; the band is practically a background buzz until the first chorus, at which point metal, techno, and neoclassical pomp all swirl into a huge caramel-coated popcorn ball of creative indulgence. Prometheus is decidedly not a concept album, by the way: track titles pull from multiple mythologies (OK, fine, “faith traditions”) and popular fantasy series, and include “One Ring to Rule Them All,” “Yggdrasil,” “King Solomon and the 72 Names of God,” and “Of Michael the Archangel and Lucifer’s Fall Part II: Codex Nemesis,” which in the spirit of all sequels, is a full two minutes longer than the original. This is an album of head-spinning ambition, aiming to inspire wonder and awe in the listener, and it’s easily one of the most extreme pieces of music (if you define extremity as pushing artistic boundaries, rather than as a traditional palette of sounds) you’re likely to hear this year.

Phil Freeman

Stream Prometheus—Symphonia Ignis Divinus on Spotify:

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