Rhapsody, later Rhapsody of Fire, are one of the best-known symphonic power metal bands in the world. Their epic, sweeping music that combines classic heavy metal music with the scope and grandeur of classical music has earned them plenty of fans across the world. The band's history has been filled with drama however, which has certainly held them back at times throughout their twenty-plus year career. Firstly there was the original name change - from Rhapsody to Rhapsody of Fire - which was never really explained apart from that there was some legal reasons for doing so. Secondly there was the long battle with their then-record company - headed by Manowar's Joey DeMaio - which kept them off the road and out of the studio for quite a while. Thirdly, and ultimately lastly, there was the big split that happened in 2011 which saw the band's core songwriting duo of guitarist Luca Turilli and keyboardist Alex Staropoli part ways. Staropoli kept the Rhapsody of Fire name, while Turilli formed his own version - called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody - which has essentially become a solo venture. Long-time Rhapsody (of Fire) members Fabio Lione (vocals) and Alex Holzwarth (drums) stuck with Staropoli for a few years, and released two solidly enjoyable albums. However, this all changed in 2016 when both left the band within a few months of each other. This came as a shock to fans of the band but, despite Staropoli essentially assembling a whole new band under the Rhapsody of Fire name, it seemed there was more going on behind the scenes that was initially obvious. Later that year, it was announced that 'Rhapsody' was going on a final world tour to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their debut album Legendary Tales before going their separate ways. Lione, Turilli, and Holzwarth - along with Dominique Leurquin (guitar) and Patrice Guers (bass guitar) who both left Rhapsody of Fire at the same as Turilli and who both now play in Luca Turilli's Rhapsody - had decided to reunite for a last run of tour dates, playing music exclusively from the Rhapsody years, before leaving Rhapsody behind for good and focusing on their other musical ventures. Interestingly Staropoli is not involved in this reunion, but this current Rhapsody incarnation is the closest thing to the classic Rhapsody (of Fire) line-up to be seen on stage since the big split in 2011. For someone like myself who had never seen Rhapsody (of Fire) live previously, this tour was met with plenty of excitement. The band have only visited the UK extremely rarely throughout the past twenty years, so a show at the O2 Academy in Islington, London was always going to be popular. I snapped up tickets after making plans to head back to Plymouth straight after the show so as not to miss any of my Masters lectures the next day, and it seemed that many others did similar as by the time the doors opened on the night the place was sold out.
Before Rhapsody's set however, the large crowd was treated to sets from two support bands. Up first were Scarlet Aura from Romania, who played for around half an hour but never seemed to really get going. The first song in their set was quite promising, with a strong chorus, but everything that came after fell somewhat flat. There was just very little in their music that jumped out. Very few of the guitar riffs were particularly interesting, with Mihai Danciulescu (guitar) mostly chugging out the rhythms while the keyboards on the backing tape provided the main musical melodies. Aura Danciulescu (vocals) was an engaging frontwoman however, and did help to get the crowd going at times, but with many of the songs being fairly one-dimensional she never really had anything to really sink her teeth into to show off her clearly strong voice. A cover of The Cranberries' Zombie did little to lift their set and I have to say I was quite pleased when they left the stage. Sadly it seems that Scarlet Aura are one of those many, many bands who are all competent musicians but lack that collective and indescribable spark that just allows some bands to shine.
Finland's Beast in Black were another story however, and as soon as they hit the stage it was clear that they really meant business. Formed by songwriter Anton Kabanen (guitar/vocals) after leaving Battle Beast in 2015, Beast in Black are sonically very similar to his previous outfit as they mix driving, upbeat heavy metal with catchy synths and melodies. Their debut album Berserker was released last year to strong reviews, so I was looking forward to seeing what this band had to offer. I was extremely impressed with their set, which was filled with songs from their only album, and in particular the performance of frontman Yannis Papadopoulos who probably has one of the broadest vocal ranges I have ever heard. At times he can sound like a woman, and the next minute he can unleash some Rob Halford-esque shrieks that fit perfectly within the band's heavy sound. The band's self-titled opening number really set the scene for the set, with songs like Blood of a Lion and The Fifth Angel also standing out. It was clear that there were many Beast in Black fans in attendance, as the response to their set was extremely strong throughout, with many fans singing along to all of the band's songs. The real highlight for me was their lead single Blind and Frozen, which I had heard prior to the show, which features an epic chorus that came over well live. Their set ended with huge cheers from the crowd, and it has persuaded me to try and pick up a copy of Berserker sometime soon. Copies were on sale at the show, but they wanted £20 for one which is extremely steep for a CD! This, sadly, sometimes happens on European tours when bands do not update the prices on their merchandise stalls to take into account that we use pounds in the UK and not euros.
By the time Rhapsody started their set, the place was rammed and everyone in attendance had come to sing. Rhapsody's epic music is made to be sung, and the crowd often helped Lione out throughout the night - especially during the big choruses. The set started in fine fashion with the hard-hitting Dawn of Victory, with Lione showing why he is one of the most in-demand singers in the melodic metal world with his highly-controlled display. The song is a favourite of mine, so it was great to belt out the chorus along with the band and see Turilli launch into the first of many neo-classical solos of the night. The vast majority of the set came from 1998's Symphony of Enchanted Lands, with Wisdom of the Kings representing that seminal album early on. Another early highlight for me was the bouncy The Village of Dwarves, which has more a classic rock strut than most of their material, which saw plenty of noise from the crowd. It was not just Turilli who impressed on the guitar front however, as Leurquin also shined with plenty of excellent solos of his own. He was always the 'other' man in Rhapsody (of Fire), never being made an official member of the band despite playing on stage with the band for many years and contributing to many of their studio albums, so it was great to see that he was an integral part of this reunion. By the time the band reached Knightrider of Doom, it was clear that this was well and truly their night. The song is one of the band's catchiest, with a chorus to die for, and it felt like a triumphant celebration of their respective careers while it was played. An emotional moment came later on, as Lione dedicated Riding the Winds of Eternity to their late collaborator Sir Christopher Lee. Lione told the story of how Lee had wanted to perform live with the band, but had never had the opportunity due to the band's infrequent visits to the UK. The song was a great tribute however, before they moved right into the epic title track from Symphony of Enchanted Lands. The song has lots of operatic parts, which really showcased Lione's incredible vocal talents. While most of the songs they played were their shorter, catchier numbers it was great to hear one of their long progressive numbers played also. Lione stole the show, but both guitarists shredded throughout to make for a powerful 13 minutes or so of music. The flow of the show was disrupted a little towards the end with drum and bass solos that felt a little superfluous, but plenty of epic music was still to come including a powerful rendition of Land of Immortals from the band's debut album. A surprise came in the form of Lione performing a version of Andrea Bocelli's Time to Say Goodbye (Con te Partirò). He sounded wonderful singing the short operatic piece, showing he is certainly more than your average metal frontman. The main set came to an end with Holy Thunderforce, one of the band's most ferocious pieces and a personal favourite, which was a perfect way to end the evening with everyone singing along. Sadly this is when I had to leave, as I had to make it back to Paddington in time to catch the sleeper train back to Plymouth. Setlist.fm details that the band played a three-song encore, including the fan-favourite Emerald Sword, so I have no doubt that it would have been as good as the rest of the set. The setlist was (thanks to Setlist.fm for the encore):
Dawn of Victory
Wisdom of the Kings
The Village of Dwarves
Power of the Dragonflame
Beyond the Gates of Infinity
Knightrider of Doom
Wings of Destiny
Riding the Winds of Eternity
Symophony of Enchanted Lands
Land of Immortals
The Wizard's Last Rhymes
Time to Say Goodbye (Con te Partirò) [Andrea Bocelli cover]
Rain of a Thousand Flames
Overall, despite having to miss the encore, this was a fantastic evening. With this current version of Rhapsody just a temporary touring entity, and Staropoli's new Rhapsody of Fire interesting me very little, this is probably the only time I will ever get to hear these songs live. I am so glad they included a rare UK show as part of this greater European tour, and I am so glad I managed to make the show tie in with the previous night in Camden seeing Freedom Call and with Uni the next day!