Name changes, line up changes, legal disputes: Rhapsody Of Fire have been through and survived all these last couple of years. What is quite surprising, though, is the fact that they have emerged looking stronger and with a top quality studio album in the bag.
It was in the bar area of a central London hotel that I met with keyboard player Alessandro ‘Alex’ Staropoli to talk about not only all things related to “Dark Wings Of Steel”, Rhapsody Of Fire’s tenth studio effort, but also to clarify things relevant to the schism between him and guitarist Luca Turilli which resulted in the creation of two separate musical entities currently sharing the name and certain parts of the Rhapsody tradition. Alex, a polite and quite accommodating interviewee, seemed quite relaxed and very willing to clarify things for us as you will soon find out for yourselves.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Alex. It is very nice to finally meet you in person. I vividly remember the day that “Legendary Tales” came out back in 1997, because I am Greek and most Metal fans in my country went ballistic about it.
Alex: Really, you are Greek? Well, I actually remember seeing the cassette tapes issued in your country back then. This was really insane as, I am sure you will agree with me, Greek fans are really crazy for Metal.
- A South European phenomenon.
Alex: Yes, yes.
- Well, that was 1997 and many things have happened since then: name changes, personnel changes, legal issues with members of the music industry. Before we begin a more in depth discussion about the latest Rhapsody Of Fire album “Dark Wings Of Steel”, I want you to clarify something for me.
Depending on which Internet sources you choose to access with regards the band’s current status what you find are two different points of view. One which claims that there is a true separation between Rhapsody Of Fire, a band which you lead, and Luca Turilli’s version, while others claim that the two bands are somehow linked and should be treated as one unit. Which version of the two is accurate?
Alex: The reason why both bands use the name Rhapsody in their moniker is based on the fact that Luca (note: Turilli) and myself invested everything we had on the original version of Rhapsody, both in terms of time and money but also in terms of energy.
Now, considering the fact that I am the one that kept the original band name and the original singer Fabio (note: Leone) it felt right for Luca to continue using a version of the name Rhapsody as well and that’s why he calls his band Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody.
Legally, no one can use the simple name Rhapsody anymore – that’s the reason why we originally changed the band’s name from Rhapsody to Rhapsody of Fire. You see, there is a guy in the US who had the copyright of the name Rhapsody made fifteen years ago. Now, this guy became quite famous in the US and found out about us using the name too.
- Rhapsody had been together for almost ten years when this guy decided to make an issue out of this – I wonder why it took him so long!
Alex: He took the chance to earn some money out of this and we, on the other hand, had to change our name. So, I know that this sounds a little bit awkward, that both Luca and I use the name Rhapsody to describe our band but at least now you know the reason why that is: in respect of the effort both of us put in our music.
- As a fan of your music I both respect and understand the reasoning behind this decision as, in many ways, it shows that you are a group of musicians who are honouring your past while, at the same time, moving on towards new things. I can also see, though, that someone who is more cynical and less inclined to support what you do might ask why you didn’t start writing music under a new name altogether and avoid any unnecessary confusion.
Alex: I of course understand. However, Fabio and I are the owners of the name Rhapsody Of Fire and have to continue using it otherwise people will not know what happened to us. Probably the thing that created most confusion was the fact that Luca used not only the name but a logo quite similar to ours.
This was something that…may have created some confusion. I think that we need more time to establish the two bands separately so that people can hopefully hear that there is a difference in the musical approach that each band follows. Luca is working to further enhance his orchestral arrangements, as this was always what he wanted to do and couldn’t as I was in charge of that. So now he is going crazy with three hundred tracks, a full orchestra and everything while I prefer to have a more powerful band behind me.
- That is something I am pretty happy to hear as it is this approach which you have followed in the last couple of albums that has truly reignited my passion towards your music.
Now, this is perhaps a bit of an unfair question to make but I will go with it anyway. Your working relationship with Luca was like a marriage in the sense that you spent a very long time perfecting your craft together and working towards a common goal. When the decision for you two to follow different ways was finally made, was there any part of you thinking: “Ok, this is tough as I have to carry the whole burden of this band on my shoulders but I can finally do things exactly as I want them”?
Alex: It is really like that, exactly what you described. This was not a decision that we made from one day to the other. Luca and I were aware of the kind of effort we need to put in order to compose music but things were sadly not as they were before between us. Actually I really believe that we could go on together but it would have been a struggle to find the same magic that we had in the very beginning. In the beginning we didn’t care about a thing. We used to compose thing in the living room or in the bathroom and everything would still sound great to us as…
- …you still had the passion for this.
Alex: Yes. Well, still we have the passion but the time came when it was almost impossible for us to work together. Having said that, we are still great friends, we still respect each other and we love the fact that the other is doing fine. I am very proud about all the albums that we did together, the work we put to make their production of the best possible quality. We never did something that we didn’t like just to get things finished and meet a deadline, you know? But, after “From Chaos To Eternity” (2011) we said to each other: “Ok, maybe this is enough. This is the end of this stage so there is no better moment to do that”.
- Well, I, for one, certainly feel that our collaboration ended on a high as “From Chaos To Eternity” is a very good album indeed. You can at least look at each other in the future and say: “You know what – the last album we did was one that people really liked”.
That very separation finds you also moving to a new record label, namely AFM Records, and you began your working relationship with them by releasing, earlier this year, a double live album entitled “Live – From Chaos To Eternity”. Now, this is unusual as most bands nowadays treat live albums and collections as a means of getting out of a bad contract. Care to elaborate?
Alex: I see what you mean (laughs). Actually, this is exactly what I wanted because while discussing our future plans with Luca I told him how I wanted to release a live album to show to the world what I am doing. It was the best moment to do that as we were getting ready to go on tour. So we went on tour, playing in Europe as well as the US and South America and, being in charge of the band I said “Ok, we are going to record ten shows” – something we did not have before. So, we booked some equipment and we recorded these shows.
When going through the material I decided to do go for the album as the material was good. I started separating the best sounding songs from these ten concerts, especially those we did in Milano, Paris and Switzerland, and collected them all together without making any re-recordings whatsoever but only some editing. 99% of what you hear is what we played on any given night.
It is, of course, not a clean and polished live album but this is what I wanted – a pure live performance. I was mixing this album already without having a label in mind, as my idea was really to offer this product to a label and AFM Records was the only label that was interested in releasing a live album. So, the plan was to do a tour and release a live album as a means of introducing this new band to the world and things started from there. That’s when most people started asking things like “What about a new album?” to which I would respond: “This is just a new beginning – a statement by the band saying that we are back”.
I also used this as an opportunity to introduce the world to our new guitar player Roberto De Micheli. To me this was a massive change as we ended up releasing a double live album to offer to our fans. I was not even thinking about the sales or anything – it was something I did as a statement. By that stage I had already made a statement that I was working on a new album but people are always very impatient.
- I think that the days where live albums like Deep Purple’s “Made In Japan”, The Who’s “Live At Leeds” or Thin Lizzy’s “Live And Dangerous” could surpass in importance studio records are long gone. People have, for better or worse, become more cynical towards such releases. At least this is my take on things.
Alex: I never thought in these terms. I always thought that a live album represents the peak of a success period in a band’s life.
- I get what you say – maybe it is because these last few years we have had the release of many live albums of suspect quality that forced people to think in such terms.
Alex: When we did our album “Live In Canada 2005: The Dark Secret”, a normal studio album at the time would have sold around 100,000 copies. This live album of ours sold 40,000 copies which was almost half of what a studio album was expected to do which was indeed a fantastic thing. I mean, nobody believed that a live album could sell so much.
- Ok, I believe it’s time to shift our focus onto “Dark Wings Of Steel”. It is quite an enjoyable album to listen to and what I like most about it is the dark feel which it seems to have embraced so tightly. In many ways I get a feeling similar to that which Symphony X have been aiming for in their last few releases. I love how this new raw energy mingles with Rhapsody’s traditional elements, as the contrast created is quite inspiring. On top of that: what a great decision to employ Roberto De Micheli as your new guitar player – the guy really shreds!
Alex: Well Roberto De Micheli was a school friend of Luca’s so we knew each other since we were sixteen years old. Luca, myself and Roberto recorded the first ever Rhapsody demo together so we were already playing together in the 90s, you know? Then he decided to leave and do other things and that’s when Luca and I took over. So Roberto has always been a friend of the band.
I know that, back in the day, he used to study the guitar between four and six hours every day but over the years we did see each other but not very often. It was three years ago that I decided to call him and say: “Can we meet? I have a proposal to make”. I asked him: “Do you still study the guitar six to eight hours a day?” to which he said: “Oh, yes!”.
I was happy to find this enthusiasm in him because first time he told me this he was twenty years old but now he is forty, but he still is as enthusiastic about playing music as he was back then. It was eight months before we did the first tour together that he began practising our set list and I was both impressed and happy about this. Both as a musician and as a producer I pushed him to his limits and, even when the songs were in the demo stages, they sounded really incredible.
- Ok, so with Roberto now firmly on board when you started thinking about the new album, did you find yourself working in ways that you would not even have attempted three or four years ago? Did this enthusiasm and passion that you received from him awake certain dormant aspects of your music personality?
Alex: Well, I was not the only one working on ideas as the album was composed together with my brother. It’s…different as you find yourself the one who gets to ‘drive the car’ now, you know? It’s not two people driving it anymore.
Between Luca and myself we always reached a compromise when we didn’t agree with something. Sometimes I didn’t like something so he would change it and other times he would not like something which I would then change.
In the end we all worked for the benefit of the band and not just for ourselves, you know? This is what I do. As a composer I compose whatever I like but as a producer I work and serve the band, not myself.
Doing music was a very spontaneous thing: I did not have any precise plan of what I need to do. I knew that I wanted to write some songs, both fast and mid tempo, but I didn’t have an idea more precise than that. I only wanted for things to flow and this is something that you can only do if you have a few active years in the music business otherwise it will take years to finish an album like that. I am very happy with the end result.
- So you should be. What is the feedback that you’ve been getting so far?
Alex: The feedback is really good and, you know, it’s not that I feel unsure of what I am doing, I really like the album. If somebody says: “I don’t like the album”, I won’t really care that much because I happen to like it a lot. I am very proud of what we have created and even if we sell ten copies I will still be at least artistically very happy but economically desperate (laughs).
- I appreciate what you say but, as every artist, I am sure that you still want people to clap their hands after you finish performing a song on stage, right? I mean, this is how you guys recharge your batteries, right?
Alex: That’s true.
- I am sure that you’re going to be on the receiving end of something very special when you go on tour as the material is very good indeed. Now, on the press release that was handed over to me it is mentioned that the album was recorded in three different studios if I remember correctly.
Alex: Yes and I did mention to AFM Records that they got this thing wrong as the album was actually recorded in four different studios.
Alex: The first studio we used was in Munich which belongs to Sebastian Roeder (note: Backyard Studios) where I decided to record the drums. I did that also because our drummer Alex Holzwarth lives quite close by.
Then we did the bass, the guitars and the choirs at a studio which belongs to a friend of mine and which is located in Trieste, while the vocals were recorded at my home studio which is also in Trieste.
Finally, we recorded with a real orchestra from Macedonia called the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra. I met a guy who works for the national Italian TV as an orchestra director while he is also working on music soundtracks. He first approached me as a fan of my music and he said to me: “If you ever need an orchestra I have one in Macedonia and they are really good players”.
It was a year later that I called him and said: “Hey, are you still working with that orchestra you mentioned a year ago?” to which he replied: “Yes”. He went down there and recorded with the orchestra for us. I did not go there myself but I was on Skype watching the whole thing and talking to him while he was recording and listening to the sound while streaming which was of very high quality.
- Technology is not always a bad thing.
Alex: Not at all. This was a top quality sound, you know? It was a special website we used which delivers a full quality sound and where you can clearly see what each member of the orchestra is playing.
- Musicians of a classical musical education can be perceived as quite snobbish when it comes to appreciating other types of music. I can sympathise with that as there is a difference in how demanding it is to performing material from, let’s say, “La Traviata” to the average Rock composition.
These last few years, however, many Metal bands have been indulging in symphonic elements, thus bringing the two worlds closer together. Did you find that your personal experience, even under the circumstances described above, helped make these musicians perhaps understand a bit better what Rock music is all about?
Alex: Yes. Especially when you are working with musicians who already have previous experience of working with headphones. When you work with a big orchestra and everybody has their own headphone and microphone you know exactly what is going on. It’s nice to be able to see classical players enjoying what they are doing. Heavy Metal may not necessarily be their style but they do understand that there is something behind it.
- I couldn’t help but overhear you mention in your previous interview that at the beginning of Rhapsody’s career there were people thinking it impossible for an Italian band to make a career out of playing Metal. I find that to be particularly interesting in light of the fact that “Custode Di Pace”, a song performed exclusively in your native language, is by far one of the most impressive compositions of the album.
This song gave me a feel similar to Crimson Glory’s all time classic “Dark Reflections” which is a great song. Now, if I, with my very limited knowledge in Italian, can feel like that then an Italian person must be really elated when listening to it.
Is it not fantastic that after almost twenty years since you guys formed, not only have you proven that an Italian band can actually enjoy a career playing Metal, but that you are also in the position to be able to record such an impressive song in your own language?
Alex: Oh yes! Especially when you think that when Luca proposed me to record something in Italian I was totally against the idea. I hated the idea – you simply cannot believe how much I did! I actually remember saying: “No fu*king way am I going to do that – it will be over my dead body”.
Why did I say such a thing? Because most of the Italian lyrics that are out there are, simply said, sh*t. They are so cheesy or they make no sense whatsoever, incorporating sentences that have nothing connecting them to the music they are supposed to accompany. It is very rare that I would hear some good lyrics in Italian.
Then, at some point I said: “Ok, let’s try and write something that we will then read together and see what we make of it”. That’s when we wrote “Lamento Eroico” (note: from 2002’s “Power Of The Dragonflame”) and then I said “Ok, it works” (laughs). The Italian language is fantastic – it really sounds like music to me – if the words are nice the end result is going to be great.
From that point onwards we kept doing it. Actually the Italian version is going to be on the main album. The digpack version will include a bonus track called “A Candle To Light (Extended version)” and that was the original version of the song. I actually decided that I wanted to shorten this version which I did and, in the process, I created this ballad. I like them both but the long version will be a bonus track. I did the short version as a ballad in Italian, English and French.
The Italian version…I actually wanted to put the English version in the album thinking that we could still do the Italian version but upload it on YouTube or something like that but it ended up being too fantastic. If you compare the English version to the Italian you will find that the English version is good but the Italian is exceptional. It is also because in the Italian version we have added a few melodies.
- Another song that stands out as far as I am personally concerned is “Fly To Crystal Skies” – a song which also features Italian lyrics in places. Tell us a few things about how this song came to life.
Alex: First of all, this is a song whose main riff was composed by my brother. You have to know, my brother is a baroque recorder and flute player and began studying music at the age of six. He is actually the one who game myself and Luca the first instrumental in Baroque music and that is why in “Legendary Tales” you have so many flute elements. It was my brother at the age of twelve or thirteen who gave us a CD with such music so my brother is no stranger to the music of Rhapsody. He witnessed everything, even the composition process as we were doing this in my house.
So, my brother is a concert player, he teaches music in conservatories and he is a professor of classical music, you know? In fact, he was playing bass guitar while he was in high school. I bought him a bass guitar and a system like a Big Mac system with audio speakers to help him compose music because I knew that he could do this.
Then, one day, he sent me this song which featured an amazing riff and I remember thinking to myself: “This is incredible, what’s going on here?” I decided that I wanted to do something with this idea so I arranged it and used it and it turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the album. I normally don’t like to say something like that but it is true.
- It’s like asking you to choose between one of your own children.
Alex: Exactly and that is impossible.
- I can sympathise with your predicament. “Dark Wings Of Steel” is a beautiful album with clever dynamics that can and should be enjoyed in its entirety. It sounds very solid as a unit – an album that you should listen to from start to finish without ever feeling the need to skip tracks. So, when are we going to see you guys performing material from the new album live?
Alex: Well, we are currently evaluating some offers and some ideas we have with our agency and we are going to start our tour from Europe but, as we are already in November, the tour will not start before the beginning of next year. We will hopefully include the UK in our touring schedule.
- Now, that’s what I want to hear!
Alex: It would be great to prepare the set list because we have so many great songs to hand, so maybe we will get to play two, three even four songs from the new album and that is very exciting indeed.
- Alex, much as I would love to continue talking to you I have been given the signal to wrap things up. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about the band and the new album – I wish you every success.
Alex: Thank you. It was very nice meeting you too!
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.
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