If you were a teen headbanger during the early to mid-1980s, you probably read the two best-selling metal rags at the time, Circus and Hit Parader. Inside the pages of those magazines, nestled in between slick concert photos of sweaty, mousse-abused bands and “articles” that did little more than reprint bands’ press releases, were plenty of mail order advertisements telling you that even the lowliest back patch-wearing smalltown dirtbag can be a metal god. The full-page Metal Method ad, featuring a photo of an Aqua Net assault victim named Doug Marks who dubiously claimed to be a rock star, bore a bold statement that drew the attention of pubescent wannabes: “IF YOU HAD STARTED TAKING THESE LESSONS WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD OF THEM, YOU WOULD BE ON STAGE INSTEAD OF IN THE CROWD.” Another ad promised its readers that if they sent away for lessons, not only would they be able to shred like the great Michael Angelo Batio (whoever the hell he was), but they’d be able to scream like the great Jim Gillette (whoever the hell he was), members of the quote-unquote famous Nitro (whoever the hell that was). Gullible kids must have spent their allowances on such offers, because those ads were always in the magazines, as ubiquitous as Neil Zlozower-shot band photos.
The trouble was, when we did eventually hear Nitro’s debut album in 1989 (four or five years after those ads appeared), to put it bluntly, it sucked royally. Sure, Batio could let loose notes faster than Yngwie Malmsteen, and yeah, Gillette could scream high enough to shatter glass, but the songwriting was laughable, their ostentatious glam image marking the nadir of LA pop metal, and in the minds of many, the grunge era couldn’t arrive soon enough. Today, the video for “Freight Train”, archived on YouTube, is the butt of jokes, an embarrassing snapshot of a musical style many considered long dead. Or so they thought.
Hair metal is obsolete, but power metal has thrived since the 90s, especially in Europe, as bands like Gamma Ray, Edguy, and Hammerfall have followed the example set by Helloween, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning a decade earlier, carrying on the tradition of melody, accessibility, and pure unadulterated bombast in modern metal. It was only a matter of time before a band took power metal in the same extreme direction as death metal and black metal have gone in, and not only has London’s DragonForce gone completely over the top just like Nitro did way back when (minus the hair spray), but they back it up with songwriting that, for all its goofiness, is often shockingly good.
And let me forewarn you out there, “goofy” is the operative word when describing DragonForce. Everything about Inhuman Rampage is over the top. The band’s name is ridiculous. The title makes no sense. The band photos, in which they’re photographed in mid-air, are tacky. The video for “Through the Fire and the Flames” is so beyond ludicrous, you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or cheer. The songs boast laughably Epic Titles like “Storming the Burning Fields” and “Revolution Deathsquad”, and carry on for seven or eight minutes. Hell, even the lyrics achieve absurd, Manowar-like levels of self-parody: “Rise over shadow mountains blazing with power / Crossing valleys endless tears in unity we stand / Far and wide across the land the victory is ours / On towards the gates of reason / Fight for the truth and the freedom / Gloria!” And that’s just a chorus, folks.
Then there’s the music itself, a sonic assault unmatched in conventional power metal, everyone going full-speed at the same time. Guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman display astonishing prowess, trading speedy riffs and leads with incredible precision (and like the Judas Priest records of old, the liner notes make sure to tell which guy’s going, “wheedly wheedly” on his axe…as if it matters). Drummer Dave Mackintosh combines the double-time drumming of Helloween with death and black metal blastbeats and plenty of triggered effects. Keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov twiddles away on keyboards like Mozart on crystal meth, while the brilliantly named, curly maned singer ZP Theart howls away like an early-80s Steve Perry. Pity bassist Adrian Lambert; as the other five guys are having so much fun with their collective circle jerk, the poor guy isn’t included in the self-indulgent hijinks, left like a dutiful designated driver, providing a sober bottom end for all the mayhem going on. It’s no wonder the poor sod left the band.
Inhuman Rampage is certainly a busy album, with so much going on at once, but when you strip the music of all it’s adornments, what’s left is a fairly respectable Helloween/Gamma Ray clone, songwriters Li and Totman showing an impressive knack for hooks to go along with the technical dexterity. The best songs build dramatically, culminating in the kind of grandiose, soaring choruses that ignite arena crowds, not to mention plenty of “whoa-oh” sing-alongs. “Through the Fire and the Flames”, video and all, is tremendously catchy, containing a phenomenal guitar duel midway through, but it’s “Operation Ground and Pound” that has everything coming together the best, from Mackintosh’s blasting, to the brilliant Helloween homage during the breakdown, to the rousing refrain, which sounds swiped from a lavish Broadway musical. Only does the maudlin ballad “Trail of Broken Hearts” falter; this album is at its best when everyone’s in high gear, and to have a slow, sappy ballad kill the momentum is distracting.
As metalcore acts like Avenged Sevenfold and Trivium continue to dip into melodic metal, and new bands like Omaha’s Cellador bring power metal to Middle America, it’s becoming clearer that the sound is ready to bust out in a big way among younger audiences, and Inhuman Rampage looks to win over both the young metal kids and the older folks who remember air guitaring to Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1. It’s not the best power metal album of the year (Edguy’s charismatic Rocket Ride is the clear winner of 2006), but it certainly will be the most influential. Doug Marks and Michael Angelo Batio had better bring those old ads back, because DragonForce is going to have a new crop of teens ready to shred like it’s 1985.
DragonForce – Through the Fire and the Flames