RHAPSODY OF FIRE – Challenge The Wind (Album Review)

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New horizons face the mighty wind

Legends may never die, but they often are afforded an update every now and then; and even when subject to inevitable embellishment and revision depending on who is telling the tale, the best stories will continue to carry the same theme. Such is the example of Italian symphonic power metal trailblazers Rhapsody Of Fire, a band now more than 30 years into their career and spanning more than a dozen neo-classically charged LPs of high octane glory, blurring the lines between 80s metal and baroque opera to masterful results.

As with any hero embarking on a mighty quest, the road has come with its fair share of detours and setbacks, arguably the most consequential being the loss of co-founder, songwriter, and virtuoso guitarist Luca Turilli and the subsequent exodus of their highly distinctive original helmsman Fabio Lione. But following what might be dubbed the last hurrah of the original band in 2016’s “Into The Legend”, keyboardist and mastermind Alex Staropoli forged a new musical fellowship and embarked upon a new conceptual series dubbed The Nephilim’s Empire Saga, of which the newly minted 15th studio album “Challenge The Wind” is the third installment.

As with any entry involving this virtuosic quintet, the formula at play here will ring familiar for anyone that has been roped into the Rhapsody Of Fire mythos since 1997’s “Legendary Tales” helped usher in the 2nd wave of European power metal. Flanked by the same flock of musicians that made their previous LP “Glory For Salvation” a riveting ride, Staropoli offers up his usual blend of lofty Manowar-inspired heroism with a heavy edge, along with the frenetic speed metal stylings of Hellöween and the explosive technical wizardry of Malmsteen.

Alongside the colossal wall of symphonic bluster resounding from Alex’s keyboards, the musical master class put on by guitarist Roberto De Micheli, perfectly emulates the same magic that Luca Turilli brought to this project over its formative years with Limb Music Productions. The combined battery of bassist Alessandro Sala and relative newcomer/drummer Paolo Marchesich is no less palpable, blending seamlessly with the storm of sound that rains down at every point. And at the center of it all is current lead vocalist Giacomo Voli, who proves no less nimble and triumphant in his vocal delivery than his predecessor Lione, but brings a very different persona to the table, landing closer to a heroic everyman rather than an operatic impresario.

Though the prevailing musical formula remains intact, “Challenge The Wind” takes things in a decidedly more intense direction than the previous two studio entries. In what can be dubbed a rather strong shift towards the darker and more chaotic side of the symphonic coin, with an assortment of forbidding odes delivered at lightning speed that largely reminisce upon the towering final chapter of the Emerald Sword Saga, namely 2002’s “Power Of The Dragonflame.”

Hints of a blatant return to the glory days with Limb Music are all over the singles “Kreel’s Magic Staff” and title anthem “Challenge The Wind”, the former channeling the mid-paced folksy vibes of “March Of The Swordmaster” with more of a guitar-centric focus that sees Micheli lighting up the fretboard something fierce, while the latter kicks this album off on an ultra-catchy, afterburners blazing thrill ride that reminisces upon the title track of the aforementioned 2002 opus.

Similarly powerful yet compact offerings like “Whispers Of Doom” and “Diamond Claws” speed away with the best of them and dial the epic flavor back a bit further to a “Symphony Of Enchanted Lands” vibe, with Micheli once again lighting up the sky with his guitar while Voli’s gravity-defying performance and dense choral harmonies prove no less formidable.

“Challenge The Wind” Artwork

It generally follows that the darker Rhapsody Of Fire, goes, the more intricate their musical display becomes, and there is an impressive array of chapters in this particular tale set to metal that see this fold outdoing themselves. Otherwise a conventional speed anthem with plenty of orchestral pomp and flashy detailing, “Black Wizard” ups the aggression ante quite noticeably between the game of notes being played among the instrumentalists and the blackened shrieks and growls that often accompany Voli’s soaring tenor.

The quick-paced “The Bloody Pariah” tamps down a bit on the vocal aggression, but leans into the sonic darkness amid the accompanying instrumentation, with Marchesich’s drumming often flirting with the sound barrier and Micheli’s riff work showing some impressive progressive flourishes alongside the obligatory neo-classical shredding, ditto the more drawn out and tonally adventurous “Holy Downfall”, which might be the closest that this outfit has flirted with morphing into a prog band yet between the Jeff Loomis-inspired riffing segments and quirky employment of bagpipes.

But the coup de grace of stylistic experimentation on here, and also arguably the most gargantuan epic to be shelled out by this band since “Gargoyles, Angels Of Darkness” comes in the form of the 16-minute slough “Vanquished By Shadows”. Suffice it to say, the name betrays the dark and forbidding nature of this extended episode, and it throws virtually every trick in this band’s arsenal at the listener with zero apologies.

Arguably the only thing that could hold back an album of this caliber is the fact that it faces such stiff competition from the lion’s share of Rhapsody Of Fire,’s extensive back catalog. It is nothing short of presumptive to call this a superior album in relation to most of the majesty that this band poured upon the metal masses both during the Emerald Sword Saga, and at several points in what immediately followed up until this point, yet there is a sense of explosive revitalization and rebirth at play here that makes this album a veritable force unto itself.

Perhaps it is best to simply say that this band remains undaunted and unshaken by the winds of change that have blown upon them since the early 2010s. One might go so far as to say they took it as yet another challenge (pun intended), and have come out victorious on the other side. That’s been the basic theme for this band, a continual quest in search of a victory that seems to come about at every point a new album is unleashed.

For those who are particularly geared towards those occasional instances where this fold takes the darker road, “Challenge The Wind” will be the album to hear, not to mention an easy contender for the symphonic power metal album of 2024.

Released By: AFM Records
Release Date: May 31st, 2024
Genre: Symphonic Power Metal

Musicians:

  • Alex Staropoli / Keyboards, Piano, Harpsichord, Orchestrations, Vocals (choirs)
  • Roberto De Micheli / Guitars
  • Alessandro Sala / Bass
  • Giacomo Voli / Vocals
  • Paolo Marchesich / Drums

Challenge The Wind” Track List:

1. Challenge the Wind
2. Whispers of Doom
3. The Bloody Pariah
4. Vanquished by Shadows
5. Kreel’s Magic Staff
6. Diamond Claws
7. Black Wizard
8. A Brave New Hope
9. Holy Downfall
10. Mastered by the Dark

Order Challenge The WindHERE

9.5 Excellent

Now more than 30 years and 15 albums deep into a legacy with no end in sight, symphonic power metal pioneers Rhapsody Of Fire continue to blaze new fantastical trails, as keyboardist/mastermind Alex Staropoli and his current flock continuing their latest saga with a freshly minted, sharp-edged sonic storm of neo-classical fury dubbed "Challenge The Wind"

  • Songwriting 10
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9.5
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