In the history of heavy metal, Italy is often considered the birthplace of symphonic power metal: a genre that combined the speed of early German power metal with the neo-classical guitar playing of Yngwie Malmsteen, all in the service of telling elaborate (read: over the top) pulp fantasy stories. To some, it’s a subgenre synonymous with self-parody; power metal is second only to black metal in terms of the potential for unintentional comedy. It’s an easy target, as power metal trades the transgressive nature of even early heavy metal for earnest nerdery, in increasingly baroque arrangements. However, that narrative ignores the pivotal roles Italian heavy metal played in the global scene throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s—not to mention the renaissance happening in the genre right now.
This overview of the best of Italian heavy metal starts with an early compilation and ends with a selection of the best of the current crop. These artists’ topics and sounds may vary, but their overarching gifts—stylistic adventurousness, dynamic exuberance, high-fantasy humor—unites them in excellence.
Heavy Metal Eruption: The Italian Way of Heavy Metal
Compact Disc (CD)
Released in 1983 by Metal Eye Records (a sub-label of noted Italian journalist/producer Claudio Sorge’s Electric Eye Records), Heavy Metal Eruption marked one of the first compilations devoted specifically to the craft of Italian heavy metal. More significantly, it gave many fans their first taste of Death SS (the SS stands for Steve Sylvester, their lead vocalist), the self-described “horror music” group that would go on to influence not only the second wave of black metal, but the current wave of ’70s metal revival writ large. (A bit of trivia: Death SS is also where noted doom metal weirdo Paul Chain got his start.) Another highlight is Crying Steel’s “Thundergods,” a NWOBHM-style (or is it NWOIHM?) ripper with more than enough passion and urgency to cover up that they have more ambition than ability.
Symphony of Enchanted Lands
Compact Disc (CD)
When the conversation turns to Italian power metal, Rhapsody’s name always comes up; aside from being one of the most prominent bands in the scene, they’re the living embodiment of the best (their ability to capture epic heroism is unparalleled) and worst (how many songs about dragons and swords can you write?) aspects of the genre. The Emerald Sword Saga (of which Symphony of Enchanted Lands is the second installment) is thrilling—or turgid, depending on your tolerance for orchestral swells, fanfare-mimicking guitar riffs, and spoken word interludes. However, even the most stalwart power metal critic can’t deny the stellar chemistry between guitarist Luca Turilli and keyboardist Alex Staropoli across Symphony of Enchanted Lands. Their combined songwriting leavens Robert E. Howard-style sword and sorcery fantasy with neo-classical guitar playing and ornate orchestral arrangements, making every song a victorious rallying cry. Fabio Lione’s lionhearted vocals provide the perfect finishing touch to the melee.
Prophet of The Last Eclipse
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP
With lyrics like “It will come from the bloody dimension, where death is a present from god” on standout track “Rider of the Astral Fire,” it’s not a surprise to learn that Luca Turilli cites the film Event Horizon as one of his inspirations for his second solo album. Turilli mostly abandons the symphonic trappings of the Eurocentric fantasy worlds he was building with Rhapsody for whole host of futuristic electronic flourishes, fitting as his setting is the dying world of Zaephyr. He quadruples-down on the vocals though, assembling not one, not two, but four choirs for the recording—further bolstered by a kingly vocal performance from Olaf Hayer of Dionysus, natch. The end result is an opulent record that shows Turilli at his absolute prime.
When Lightning Strikes
Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Apparel
Though Rhapsody’s legacy as Italian power metal overlords has gone mostly unchallenged over the years, many of their contemporaries hold sway for carving out (and then dominating) their own niches. Exhibit A are Drakkar (not to be confused with the very good Cambodian band), who formed in 1995, and imbued an increasingly self-serious scene with some refreshing, self-aware humor. Corrado Solarino’s keyboards on When Lightning Strikes wouldn’t be out of place on Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9,” and vocalist Davide Dell’Orto has no problem leaning into exaggerated vocal deliveries, especially for narrative proclamations like “From the farthest reaches of the Universe, the Space Gods have come!” from “The Armageddon Machine.” Drakkar manage to weld B-movie camp and power metal majesty together in their story of a fighter pilot lost in time, and accordingly, the resultant songs prove nothing short of captivating.
Of Jupiter and Moons
Compact Disc (CD)
For a power metal band, Temperance are pretty grounded and chill, at least thematically. Their most recent record (their first with vocalists Alessia Scolletti and Michele Guaitoli) expands on their populist approach to symphonic metal, eschewing complicated narratives for easily inhabitable anthems about the siren call of smartphones, self-doubt, and pushing through adversity. As Scoletti and Guaitoli trade increasingly theatrical vocal flights of fancy, mixing the operatics of early goth metal into the sheer obliterating joy of power metal, one can’t help but get caught up in the fray—and love it.
Age of Supremacy
Compact Disc (CD)
Roberto “Drake” Borrelli, the vocalist for Gunfire, has a bit of a Geoff Tate quality to his voice that gives Age of Supremacy a retro tinge. That nostalgic inclination makes sense, given how Borrelli and bassist Michele Mengoni are the only original members from the original incarnation of Gunfire, active from 1981 to 1986. Age of Supremacy is their second album since their return, and finds the band telling a story about two future civilizations divided by communication failures. Gunfire bring in enough of an ’80s workmanlike attitude to keep their music grounded, even when they traffic in longer songs.
The Alliance of the Kings
Compact Disc (CD)
While Ancient Bards are currently in the middle of creating a multi-album symphonic metal epic about a magic sword, they’re not just a Rhapsody tribute act. Keyboardist/composer Daniele Mazza started crafting the The Black Crystal Sword Saga when he was quite young, pulling from two pillars of 20th century fantasy: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Final Fantasy video game series. Ancient Bards retains that youthful exuberance throughout every blistering guitar solo and keyboard run. Even when vocalist Sara Squadrani is singing about the evil Sendor, and his plot to use the Black Crystal Sword for evil, there’s a tangible sense of infectious joy coursing through songs like “The Birth of Evil” and “Daltor the Dragonhunter,” the trappings of a saga for the ages.
Crowned in Frost
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Milan’s Frozen Crown are Power Metal Concentrate, trading the flourish and pomp of their comrades for sheer speed and power. They’re fairly new on the scene, only forming in 2017, but already have racked up two albums of memorable battlefield anthems. Lead guitarist Thalia Bellazecca is only 19, but a shredder beyond her years. Vocalist Giada “Jade” Etro and songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Federico Mondelli belt out the kind of impossibly triumphant choruses you’d find in Heaven and Hell-era Black Sabbath, but with the galloping on-rush of European steel underneath.