No great story can be told without drama. Uncomfortable though it may be, conflict is what keeps us engaged in the narrative, what makes us connect with the characters as they soldier on through their journeys. The life of a band is one of those stories, so many of them littered with lineup changes and shifts in direction, always searching for resolution. It is befitting that a band trafficking in epic sounds would have an equally grand story to tell, and such is the case for Rhapsody. After a career-long series of albums telling a single story, Rhapsody saved the best plot twists for themselves. First came the name change, as the band so many knew and loved were forced to become Rhapsody Of Fire. Nothing about the music changed as a result, but change was now stitched into the fabric of the band. With the storyline complete, the shocking twist came; Rhapsody would now be two bands. One would continue on as before, while guitarist/songwriter Luca Turilli would leave the band he was synonymous with to form his own version, reverting to the original Rhapsody moniker.
Turilli has long been revered in power metal circles, a composer more than a songwriter, a musician able to conjure some of the most sweeping music to ever boast metal roots. Striking out with his own version of Rhapsody, Turilli doesn't unexpected on “Ascending To Infinity”, preferring to re-establish himself as the man who made the sound. The album is a glorious celebration of all things over-the-top, an unabashed love letter to excess. The narration in the introduction warns you this isn't going to be a simple ride, it is as much a journey as anything the band has been on in recent years.
The title track follows with a flurry of intricate musicianship, layers upon layers of classical instrumentation, and a structure that isn't going to cater to the impatient. The song unfolds at its own pace, adding new elements before the previous ones can be fully digested. New singer Alessandro Conti follows in the Italian power metal mold, a blend of established legends Michael Kiske and Michele Luppi. His delivery is suitably theatrical, his notes following the title's directive, reaching for the heavens with a few striking feats of range. He does an admirable job, but is markedly more comfortable and powerful on the passages sung in his native Italian, especially “Tormento E Passione”, the most immediately gratifying song on the album.
“Dante's Inferno” takes not only inspiration from the Renaissance poem, but the music of the time. String-laden, the song bears more resemblance to classical works than anything popular with the metal community. From the neo-classical licks Turilli throws into his solo, to the essential orchestral elements, to the structure of the vocal melodies, the song is ripped from the past, updated enough to not sound archaic. “Excalibur” wastes no time flipping the page, boasting a more metallic heart upon which the body of the song relies.
It's in the more metallic moments that the truth about Rhapsody is most apparent; they aren't really a metal band. Turilli plays enough riffs throughout the album to make the argument, but the are never the core of the sound, usually serving to thicken the bottom end, providing the heft necessary to anchor the songs. This shouldn't be seen as a criticism, as Rhapsody is far more effective when they are more than a simple metal band. Power metal guitar is often a trite affair, and despite Turilli's prowess, he does not change this reality. Taken on their own, the guitars throughout the album do little that is obviously impressive or memorable.
That state of affairs is because Turilli is above all else a composer, and it is the songs that are of the utmost importance. Each instrument impresses only so far as its contribution to the whole is concerned. On that level, “Ascending To Infinity” is a masterful success. These compositions are executed with skill, grace, and even taste. For being as wildly flamboyant and extravagant as the music is, there is a degree of restraint shown in keeping the songs from becoming unwieldy.
To take “Ascending To Infinity” as only a metal album would be to view it through the wrong lens. It is something larger and more ambitious, and for the most part does a commendable job of following through on those lofty goals. Well-crafted though it may be, most of the songs fail to connect on an emotional level, and the onslaught of musical ideas can become fatiguing by the end of the sixteen minute grand finale, but that doesn't discount the positive elements. “Ascending To Infinity” is both a harrowing listen and a dizzying statement from Luca Turilli about his future. It is too much, but sometimes you need to shout to be heard.