Sunday, November 24, 2013

album review: 'dark wings of steel' by rhapsody of fire

Let's talk about fantasy and heavy metal. These two genres within art have often had a pretty stable link that's persisted for decades: both were unfairly branded 'outsider' or 'low art' genres for a long time by the mainstream, both had been persecuted by alarmists trying to link them to allegations of Satanism or paganism, and both occasionally toed the line between the 'epic' and the 'epically ridiculous'. It's also the connection of how I jumped into heavy metal in my teens, pretty much bypassing nu metal and the rest of angry white boy music to settle in with power and symphonic metal acts like Blind Guardian and Nightwish. And really, fantastical subject matter is often a great fit for power and symphonic metal: they're looking to tell epic tales on the fringes of imagination, with grand scope and power, often calling to mind titanic battles and feats of heroism - and what better way to tell such stories than with grand, multi-part arrangements and blistering guitar riffs? 

But with the mainstream success of material like The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones, I began wondering whether it wouldn't be long before the heavy metal genres I liked began to reap the rewards of that link. Of course I was being realistic about this - there's always a certain pulpy cheesiness to some metal acts that would prevent most people from taking them seriously, but some could stand to do well, and metal has occasionally been successful during the numerous fantasy booms throughout the past few decades. 

Yet even with that, Rhapsody of Fire would probably not reap many rewards of that association, because of the metal acts I've covered, they're one of the tough ones to get into in the middle. Started in 1997, the band steadily pumped out album after album throughout the late 90s and 2000s that all tied together to the same ongoing fantasy story, confined to two five-album sagas, with a pretty dense mythology by the end. That 'end', incidentally, occurred in 2011, where the band decided to amicably split into two distinctive bands, one with the same title and the other called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody of Fire (if only to additionally confuse things), with the eponymous name coming from the guitarist and primary songwriter. They released an album titled Ascending Into Infinity in 2012 that was pretty solid, but today we're going to be looking at the original Rhapsody of Fire, who have decided to dispense with the ongoing mythos and try something new, with all the lyrics written by lead singer Fabio Lione, along with a new guitarist and bassist. If anything, it feels like I'm approaching an entirely new incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire... which could be a good thing for new fans. And really, a fresh start might just be what this band needs, so I checked out Dark Wings of Steel. How did it go?

Ugh, not well. Let me make this clear, Dark Wings Of Steel is by no means 'bad', but it sure as hell is bland and lacks a lot of the character that made earlier Rhapsody of Fire albums memorable, even if they were completely ridiculous. And while I get the band was probably trying to find a new identity for itself in the absence of its primary songwriter, this album still feels like a step backwards for me. 

So okay, let's explain this. Some of you are probably wondering what this album sounds like, and it's a good place to start by answering that question: it sounds like a Rhapsody album. Not a Rhapsody of Fire album, but one that harkens back to their 90s album years, particularly those first two albums and their Thundercross work. Now on the surface, this isn't a bad thing: to reorient yourself, sometimes you have to go back to your roots, and I can tolerate a step away from the occasionally overly-grandiose orchestral sounds of the most recent Rhapsody of Fire albums towards something a little more stripped down and raw.

And that didn't materialize, because the production on this album is disastrous. If I'm going to lay anything at the feet of this band for why this album doesn't work, it's the production, because barely of it works. I'm not the biggest fan of Fabio Lione's vocals, but it'd be nice if they were well-situated in the mix instead of shoved midway towards the back and quieter than the choral arrangements. And on the topic of those, none of them have significant swell, mostly due to a serious lack of baritone power or any sort of consistent overdubbing for Lione. It doesn't help matters that the orchestral arrangements are rather bare-bones, and lack any significant instrumental diversity that might have added some flavour to this record. And while I don't mind the keyboard tone for the most part, the chugging rhythm guitar tone is so flat and devoid of texture or force that it completely undercuts any dramatic force of the album. In fact, you can say that about the entire mix - none of it really managed to hit me with any sort of weight or emotional resonance, just sounding like generic, meat & potatoes power metal. It doesn't help matters that the riffs are simplified and lacking in real dynamic diversity, and it really hurts that the band doesn't manage to construct a single solidly memorable hook on the entire album. The closest they come is on 'A Tale Of Magic', and they hammer it into the ground within the first two minutes of the track! And don't even get me started on the drumming - at best, it's passable and not all that special, while at worst, it's barely there or triggered as all hell (you didn't think I wasn't going to notice, did you?)! The one big saving grace for the instrumentation and production on this album is the guitar solos, because at least they have a bit of texture and Roby De Micheli is a good guitarist. I wouldn't say they're anything close to great, but they at least lend the tracks some unique character (if not anything close to a distinctive hook).

Most of this could have been tolerated if the songwriting or lyrics were anything close to good or memorable, but here's where we run into the second major problem with this album - none of the lyrics stood out to me or really captured my interest. This is partially a problem with Lione's delivery (I'm sorrry, I don't think I'll ever be a fan of the guy), but the larger issue is that the lyrics lack a coherent purpose or theme. To be blunt, they sound like generic fantasy-inspired power metal lyrics with no connective tissue or narrative throughline. Now, this isn't normally a problem - lyrics have never been the most important element of power metal - but when the hooks are as lacking as they are, the formulaic and cliche lyrics do even less to inspire me. At least on previous Rhapsody of Fire albums, questionable lyrics could be tied to the overarching narrative the band was trying to pursue, but now they don't have that and I can't help but feel the band suffers for it. As ridiculous and occasionally hard-to-follow as Rhapsody of Fire's various sagas were, they at least lent the lyrics the feel of a grand, epic, multi-part story that might have excused some of the clumsiness in the technical songwriting - but without that? Honestly, the songwriting is less bad and more just bland, lacking the dramatic weight to really click with me.

In short, Dark Wings of Steel by Rhapsody of Fire did not impress me in the slightest, and this album was a chore to get through. Are there a few tracks where the guitar work is solid enough to elevate them? Well, sure, but not enough, because I didn't find a single track on this album remotely epic or emotionally impacting. On that scale alone - a scale to which most power metal albums are weighted - I can't call this album a success and it gets a 5/10 from me. If you're a diehard fan, especially of their earlier material, go out and get Dark Wings Of Steel by Rhapsody of Fire, I guess, but if you're not, I'd advise you skip this album. Rhapsody of Fire has made better records than this, and while it's admirable to go back to basics, this was a step in the wrong direction.

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