Originally formed as Thundercross over twenty-five years ago, Rhapsody of Fire is commonly viewed not only as the eminent Italian symphonic/power metal act but also as a pioneer of the genre in general. With a catalog full of adored and impactful releases, it’s not hard to see or hear why, and fortunately, their latest outing, The Eighth Mountain, further justifies that reverence. Although its histrionic presentation can be taxing and tedious at times—as is true for the style in general unless you’re a diehard devotee—it nonetheless lives up to the wildly impressive technique, scope, and magnetism that fans of the quintet crave.
The band—vocalist Giacomo Voli, guitarist, Roby De Micheli, bassist Alessandro Sala, keyboardist Alex Staropoli, and drummer Manu Lottner—aptly describe The Eighth Mountain as showcasing “spirited songs and epic chorus parts with lavish orchestral arrangements.” The record is also meant as “the beginning of a new, exciting saga” due to Voli and Lottner replacing longtime members Fabio Lione and Alex Holzwarth, respectively. Staropoli calls Voli’s addition “a breath of fresh air” that helped make The Eighth Mountain a more positive collection overall (as did continuous contributions from the Bulgarian National Symphony Orchestra and nearly two dozen outside choir vocalists).
Narratively, the album is the first entry in the “Nephlins Empire Saga” (developed by Staropoli and De Micheli), which relates to “lost, corrupted souls” and choosing the right path in life. Expectedly, Rhapsody of Fire present this introductory chapter with gratifying, if also ultimately overbearing, blends of ferocity and fragility via spiraling vocals, instrumentation both bitingly grandiose and somberly modest, and perpetually epic lyricism.
For sure, The Eighth Mountain is full of exemplary metal touches. For instance, instrumental preface “Abyss of Pain” sets up the larger-than-life framework with an increasingly intense mixture of angelic female chants and panicked orchestration (horns and strings, specifically). From there, “Seven Heroic Deeds” explodes with classical aggression as blistering rhythms and riffs ornament Voli’s soaring decrees. It’s relentlessly intense, with lightning-fast keyboard trickery near the end (plus bellowing choral call-and-response moments in the middle that evoke a Greek tragedy). Of course, subsequent tracks—such as “Master of Peace,” “Rain of Fury,” “The Courage to Forgive,” and “The Legend Goes On,” to name a few and to varying degrees of melodic and structural success—continue that hyperactive turmoil.
Luckily, other pieces reveal Rhapsody of Fire’s knack for softer and more poignant passages. In particular, “Warrior Heart” periodically complements Voli’s pensive monologue with woodwinds, harpsichord, and other blissful timbres. The penultimate “The Wind, the Rain and the Moon” doubles down on this magnificence by consistently almost solely of strong-willed yet wounded confessions (“Tears on your cheeks / I’ll come back again, I promise / This night, my love, I’m yours”) and gorgeous strings. The group could’ve included more compositions like these to offset the abundance of in-your-face virtuosity, but the few provided definitely have an impact.
Those highlights aside, only the most ardent fans of the group and genre will be able to get past some of the monotonously overwhelming forcefulness of The Eighth Mountain. In other words, yes, it’s a staple of the style to be so obstinately lavish and potent, but it gets to be too much after a while nonetheless. Again, some more heartrending breathing room would make the LP feel more balanced and enjoyable, especially since a couple entries (namely, “Clash of Times”) rely a bit too much on ceaseless hostility that leads to exhaustive repetition.
Occupational hazards notwithstanding, The Eighth Mountain is a very strong addition to both Rhapsody of Fire’s canon and the world of symphonic/power metal globally. Newcomers Voli and Lottner give their all and fit in well from beginning to end, and the inclusion of so many orchestral and choral personas gives extra incentive to appreciate every detail and diversion. All in all, The Eighth Mountain may work best in small doses, but what’s here is undeniably impressive and entertaining.