[4 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What a difference a couple of years make. The trajectory of self-described “extreme power metal” band DragonForce started innocently enough, through the usual means. With the release of a couple of energetic albums and an equally energetic live show to offer, the English shredders steadily made a name for themselves among the melodic metal set on the continent, where metal’s more bombastic side is adored. When third album Inhuman Rampage hit European stores in January of 2006, the groundswell reached downloaders in North America, word of mouth spreading exponentially, as more and more people told their friends, “You have to hear this.” The video for “Through the Fire and the Flames” was even more ludicrous in concept than the music therein, the band’s willingness to poke fun at themselves adding to the appeal, and the clip quickly became a YouTube sensation. The heavily hyped North American release of the album followed that summer, and as the band landed tour after plum tour, they were well on their way.
However, it wasn’t until the November, 2007 release of the Guitar Hero III videogame that DragonForce’s ascent went from a steady climb to skyrocketing. With “Through the Fire and the Flames” serving as the game’s final coup de grace, the band’s over-the-top style turned out to be absolutely perfect for the revolutionary game. In the end, while a mind-boggling display of fleet-fingered soloing courtesy of Herman Li and Sam Totman that was next to impossible to nail for gamers, what lingered in the minds of kids were those undeniable hooks, the anthemic melodies that rose and rose only to explode with a flourish of lyrics that were both ridiculous and fun at the same time. Consequently, within weeks the band was an iTunes smash, its online sales at one point jumping 183 percent. No band has ever benefited so hugely from a videogame tie-in like DragonForce, and as they headed on a triumphant victory lap tour this summer, they found themselves no longer a quaint cult favorite, but legitimate metal stars.
And so here they are, their popularity peaking at the right time, coinciding nicely with the release of album number four. The only question remains, where to go from here? The answer, without a moment’s hesitation: Give the kids more. More of everything! More hooks! More shredding by Li and Totman! More triggered blastbeats from Dave Mackintosh! More soaring lead vocals by singer ZP Theart! More flamboyant synth twiddling by Vadim Pruzhanov! And, uh, you just keep playing that bass, Frederic Leclercq.
In all seriousness, the sextet’s musical template was perfected on Inhuman Rampage, and looking back, it was a surprisingly innovative move in one of the metal subgenres most averse to change. By combining the influence of extreme metal with the technical skill of 1980s guitar gods and the classic power metal aesthetic created by the likes of Helloween and Running Wild, DragonForce walks that line between overkill and accessibility remarkably well. In fact, one can even argue that Inhuman Rampage was the most complete realization of power metal aesthetics ever put on record. And as it turns out, to the band’s credit, Ultra Beatdown holds up just as well.
Fans know exactly what they’re getting with DragonForce, and although the changes on the new album are subtle, they’re welcome, as the sound has become even more refined, more varied. Of course, that’s not exactly discernable on opening track “Heroes of Our Time”, which is essentially a section-by-section retread of “Through the Fire and the Flames”. But you know what? We couldn’t care less, because they sell it brilliantly, Theart’s Journey-esque melodies delivered with conviction. As the album goes on, though, neat little surprises are revealed. Pruzhanov especially emerges as a creative force on this record, his synth accents greatly adding depth to “The Fire Still Burns”, while “Reasons to Live” has him taking center stage with an inspired, inexplicable ornate solo turn midway through, part neoclassical, part progressive metal. The clean, undistorted solos by Li during “Heartbreak Armageddon” smack of Eric Clapton, while “The Last Journey Home” forgoes the full-throttle pace for a more comfortable cruise control, a clever prog metal epic that allows the song to breathe a bit more without betraying the band’s trademark sound.
Ultra Beatdown ultimately delivers what the band promises, which is all the fans can ask for. As technicians, they’re impeccable, but what often gets overlooked is just how good songwriters they all are. For all the dazzling displays of dexterity exhibited by the likes of ‘80s noodlers like Steve Vai and Michael Angelo Batio, or even many contemporary power metal bands for that matter, few have ever been able to match their chops with memorable songs, which makes DragonForce’s knack for great hooks all the more remarkable. And when listeners drop all inhibitions and embrace the music without a trace of irony, as thousands of new fans are learning, it becomes even more rewarding.