Review Summary: Rhapsody of Fire constructs a good follow-up to "Symphony of Enchanted Lands II," but on the whole uses the orchestra as more of a crutch and displays less musical invention here in their power metal than before. 3.5.
Due to a copyright problem, the power metal band formerly known as "Rhapsody" is now called "Rhapsody of Fire." No worries, though, the name change reflects about as much "change" as, well, something unchanging. Really, the name just more fully encompasses the shameless and all-out bombast with which Rhapsody (as I will henceforth refer to them as) has staked their claim on the realm of symphonic power metal. In terms of orchestral resources and grandeur, no band save for latter-day Nightwish and Therion comes close, and even then, few manage to capture the Tolkein-esque majesty often apparent in Rhapsody's albums.
"Triumph or Agony," the second part in guitarist Luca Turilli's "Demon Knight" saga (the first being the acclaimed "Symphony of Enchanted Lands Part II"), is a perfect illustration of just how the unfortunate name change is also, seen from another point of view, as a mere solidification of the band's obstinate stance for powerful, pumping, battlecry music. It is "metal" only in the sense that Holst's "Mars: The Bringer of War" is "metal." We have relatively few stereotypical conventions of the genre aside from the occaisional descent into neo-classical meandering a-lá Yngwie, and in their place we get unique Latin-choir, hundred-piece orchestra dynamism, energy, and power that is rarely duplicated by most metal groups yet is married perfectly to the classic metal aesthetic of high drama and fantasy. While "Symphony of Enchanted Lands II" stands as a magnificently-constructed statement that is the bar by which all other symphonic power metal is measured for my part, "Triumph or Agony," if it never surpasses its older brother in quality, certainly stands as a fairly strong entry in the annals of "Howard Shore metal" of the likes propounded by Rhapsody of Fire.
The story, well, is hazy. There are obvious references, thefts, and fragments of Tolkein's "Silmarillion" littered throughout the convoluted plot, which essentially deals with a "demon knight's" destiny to resurrect his evil father demon, Kron, and the lengths to which our hero goes to prevent this act. In the end, it doesn't really matter what the story is: the lyrics are ridiculous with all their unironic mentions of dwarves, snow-elves, crystal realms and other such things, and reading the liner notes will inspire absurd glee in most listeners. The music is the serious part of this album and the band MOSTLY delivers. Opener "Dar Kunor" sounds lifted right out of "Gladiator" or "LOTR:" you can just see the Orcs toil away constructing war machines while listening to it. As always, especially as we listen to subsequent numbers "Triumph or Agony" and "Heart of the Darklands," what strikes me is the seamless integration between the band and the orchestra and choir. Most of the themes are reminiscient of "SoEL II" without being directly lifted from it, and the high drama is even more evident as the production is much more filled out, particularly with regard to the drums.
Ballad "Old Age of Wonders" makes quite nice use of the old harpsichord/flute combination and boasts some subdued vocals from vocalist Fabio Leone, and the Celtic minstrel/Renaissance angle is wonderfully present, especially during the uptempo sections. "The Myth of the Holy Sword" continues in the previous modes. If there's a criticism that could probably emerge by this point in the proceedings, it lies mostly in the guitar work of Luca Turilli. Far too often, the harmonic structures and especially the guitar leads descend into the worst sorts of shrill Yngwie-style neoclassical excess: Turilli's leads are substantially sloppier than on the previous album and do not fulfill the sort of cycling ensemble playing so apparant on the previous album. The orchestra is nearly always responsible for all harmonic and musical differentation.
"Il Canto del Vento" provides a nice diversion, as Rhapsody's Italian digressions tend to, in the form of another ballad (this time with a wonderful chorus with GREAT vocals), and "Silent Dreams" bears a slight Nightwish/Within Temptation influence in the natures of the orchestration and the rock band arrangement: poppier vocals and less bombast here. "Bloody Red Dungeons" features wonderful gang vocals and a brooding, slow-tempo march. Unfortunately, as with most other songs here, the tightness of each composition (not to mention relatively short length) leads to much less differentiation then SoEL II had (which often felt as though a soundtrack were playing). The concept, as a consequences, is not readily apparent as it typically is, a shame as in a sense Turilli's getting more ambitious with his storytelling. "Son of Pain" is another example: bearing a flute melody that is almost instantly familiar and taking, once again, ballad form, we get the sense that the band is having a tougher time getting their standard for musical coherence and ambition met this time around: the vocal melody here is particularly shrill and painful to hear, despite the fact that the register in which it takes place should make it very emotive.
"Mystic Prophecies of the Dragonknight," in part, turns this all around. We get a return to the extensive development of the Celtic instrumentation, all-out metal playing, and perfect marriage of the orchestral and band components. The english horn melody at the beginning, along with fabulous chorus and horn bellows, make the whole enterprise a wonderful progressive musical journey. The classical guitar flourishes are also quite nice. As a climax point for the album, Rhapsody is on top form here, sounding at various points like perfect mixtures of LOTR and Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks with metal band backing (not to mention quotations from Dar Kunor, bringing us some long-awaited connection to earlier music), and fabulously metal screaming and pseudo-growling from Leone. The whole thing is just bloody excellent. "Dark Reign of Fire" serves as another very fitting end, returning as MPOTDK did to the epic instrumentation and the drama of voiceovers (Christopher Lee makes a return here!!!!), and beautiful melodies.
Overall, the album is a 3.5, but mostly on the strengths of the fabulously over-the-top Dar Kunor, Mystic Prophecies of the Demonknight, and Dark Reign of Fire. The Italian import contains a bonus track called "Defenders of Gaia," along with a radio edit of "Mystic Prophecies" and an Italian version of "Son of Pain." "Defenders" is actually quite wonderful, but as it has nothing to do with the main concept I'm mostly disregarding it here. In general, the level of musical product is typically high-quality but not particularly moving and even somewhat boring: the band's creative musical element is not very apparent the way it's been on previous albums, and one gets the sense that the familiar-sounding movements of the orchestra is being relied upon as a crutch by the band, particularly Turilli, as though the "epicness" would somehow take care of itself with "just-add-violins" formulas. Gone is the coherence and unique level of mid-song invention in the previous album, and Turilli far too often descends into very dumb neo-classical clichés as on the main riff to "Heart of the Darklands" and most of the guitar solos. But still, a technically excellent offering by most standards, and "Mystic Prophecies" is quite simply essential to any power metal lover. 3.5