Since the close of Rhapsody (Of Fire)’s famed Emerald Sword Saga, commemorated in a rather impressive collection of fanfare on their 2004 best of compilation, Limb Music has been starved for a suitable replacement that offers up the same kind of ingenious blend of flashy power metal with a strong symphonic edge. 6 years to the day they’ve succeeded in a new powerhouse of a band hailing from the same land of majestic, metallic, fantasy-based storytelling (Italy) going by the somewhat cliché name of Ancient Bards. But setting aside the obvious rehash of Tolkien imagery of gallant heroes and realms of magic, this is a band with a remarkably solid take on a very tried and true format, so much so that “The Alliance Of The Kings” rivals most of Rhapsody Of Fire’s work up until “Power Of The Dragonflame”, as well as a few other noteworthy acts from the early 2000s and Polish contemporary rivals Pathfinder. Nailing down the sound heard on here is not terribly difficult, though there are definitely a few unique elements that give an air of freshness to what is mostly a reassertion of a now somewhat scarce take on power metal. The instrumentation is an even distribution of powerful drumming, fancy bass work, virtuosic guitar and keyboard elements, straightforward chord progressions and a beautiful mezzo soprano performance that is mildly operatic and avoids the melodrama factor artfully. Sara Squadrani sounds somewhat similar to Ana Lara, albeit a bit more subtle and restrained in her presentation, and does a solid job of leading a very credible fold of musicians. But what is most charming about this band is that while there is a typical showcasing of individual talent, it is evenly distributed and comes forth as a collective effort rather than a guitarist or singer leading a group of supporters. As the album unfolds before the listener, familiar territory is revisited, but in a rather new and surprising way. One will remember many instrumental preludes kicking off many a concept album between 1997 and 2003, and even a few with somewhat eccentric narrators explaining the story thus far, but here the looming orchestral notes and rising tension is accompanied by a crooning feminine speaker, laying out an impending conflict like a mother to child telling of an epic bedtime story. At the onset of “The Birth Of Evil” the usual fancy guitar or keyboard themes are absent, but in its place is an unexpected and auspicious bass intro that rips from one note to the next as if it were standing in place of the guitar, bringing up memories of when Iron Savior and Mob Rules would trot out the bass at key points on their early material. When all the instruments fully kick in, there is a slight tinge of early 80s metal orthodoxy mixed in with a measured mixture of Dark Moor and Epica neo-classical elements.
For most of the album, the songs generally tend to be fast and furious, but also fairly long and involved. Apart from “The Birth Of Evil” and “Four Magic Elements”, which are themselves intricate and complex, most of the songwriting on here is bent towards an epic model in line with the longer songs put forth by Manowar, but a little less repetitious. “Only The Brave” marches out more of the 80s influences in the principle riff, while also conjuring up imagery of Markus Grosskopf with a fancy bass tapping solo that shows up the one heard on “Eagle Fly Free”. In fact, compared to a number of differing symphonic power metal albums from the late 90s and early 2000s, the contents on here gets closer to recapturing the magic of the “Keepers” albums in a more stylistically precise way. “Lode Al Padre” is another point of interest where a fairly straightforward piano ballad gives way to an assortment of folksy and heroic sounding sections that are somewhat reminiscent of Turisas, but with more guitar-oriented brilliance and no violins or accordions. There is a lot to be liked here, and even more to look forward to given the impressive precedent set here. Maybe a name like “The Black Crystal Sword Saga” is a bit derivative of another tale with a sword toting a green gemstone, and maybe a keyboardist writing all of the songs and lyrics reminds heavily of Fairyland, but anybody who loves this stuff will be too busy enjoying the stellar songwriting to care. That’s really the chief draw of this album, the wonderful blend of catchy chorus work, crooning vocals, fancy instrumental work, and grandiose atmospheres. For the symphonic addict who is hungry for another mountain of an album in the mold of “Symphony Of Enchanted Lands” and “Of Wars In Osyrhia”, this is yet another knight at a still growing roundtable.