If you were among those disappointed by BLIND GUARDIAN's streamlining of their sound this year, your luxury liner has come in. RHAPSODY OF FIRE have, if anything, gone even further off the deep end into operatic, cinematic, utterly bombastic and gaudy symphonic metal. Choirs swell, drums thunder, strings soar, and prophecies are fulfilled, to the sonorous narration of octogenarian actor and unlikely fan Christopher Lee.All of this isn't unusual for the band (forced to add the "of fire" to their name after a trademark dispute). They've been plying the same trade for years now, to the delight of hundreds of thousands of fans, and the bemusement of a greater metal scene which finds the whole thing overdone and ridiculous. With each album, they lose a little more of their galloping power metal influence, and they slip more into high-camp opera, creating ponderous film scores for overlong epics full of medieval intrigue and triumphant battles against darkness. The sixteen-minute, five-part "The Mystic Prophecy of the Demon Knights" may be too much even for diehards to swallow — multiple actors, entire guitar-less passages of orchestral bloat, and plenty of scenery-chewing narration from Lee. After an album already a bit ballad-heavy (the fey "Old Age of Wonders", the corny "Il Canto Del Vento") and concentrated toward the mid-tempo, it might be said that RHAPSODY OF FIRE has gone too far away from its metal side, and is in danger of becoming an operatic troupe which happens to use an electric guitar. But there's a passion to what these guys do, a sincerity that drives them still further from commercial accessibility with each album, and into this uncharted realm of "soundtrack metal." It's hard not to want more Luca Turilli — his masterful soloing isn't as prevalent, and his riffing seems buried in the endless waves of horns and strings, just another piece in the orchestra. Singer Fabio Lione is the real standout here, his strong and confident voice cutting through the bombast and delivering memorable hooks and heartfelt choruses about faraway lands and the creatures who dwell there. The record, weighed down already by a uniform midpaced tempo, undeniably plods a bit in the middle — "The Myth of the Holy Sword" really seems to drag, especially coming right off "Old Age of Wonders". And "Silent Dream" is curious, a stripped-down four-minute song with "hit single" written all over it, its verse-chorus-verse simplicity sticking out even more so on this otherwise overwhelming album. All of this seems like mere preamble, though, to "The Mystic Prophecy of the Demon Knight". At one point, the music stops entirely to allow Lee and several other actors to pontificate, after crossing "invisible steps" over an abyss, revealed to them by "black geometry". The song starts again in grand style, among the heaviest moments on the album, with other guest vocalists providing surprisingly harsh character voices amid the choirs and Lione's epic grandeur. There's a lot going on, although this piece too begins to sink under its own weight eventually. Writing less than an encyclopedia about an album this ambitious and painstaking seems like a crime, but there's really not a lot left to say about RHAPSODY OF FIRE. You either buy into the whole Lord of the Rings-meets-Wagnerian-bombast thing, or you don't. Though "Triumph or Agony" has its flaws, there's more then enough magic here to please the band's faithful fanbase. You just have to wonder how much larger-than-life RHAPSODY can get, or if someone's ever finally going to let them score an epic fantasy movie and fulfill their true destiny.
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