Dragonforce Turn Back the Clock
A little over a decade now, back in the middle of 2004, a relatively upstart British based power metal band released an album called Sonic Firestorm, an eight song masterpiece of flawlessly written and recorded power metal that I still believe merits inclusion in any list of the top ten power metal albums of all time. It was a breathless, invigorating, joyful, life-affirming listen, with all the best qualities of positive-leaning power metal rolled into enthralling songwriting. It was even rather groundbreaking at the time —- people may forget, but ex-Dragonforce drummer Dave Mackintosh employed a battery of blast beats in his percussive attack that was the perfect complement to those thousand miles an hour guitar riffs and solos. It won the band the right to re-brand themselves as extreme power metal, a concept that really shook up the power metal world.
I was hooked, and I must’ve spent a good portion of my listening time that year hitting repeat on my car CD player to hear it again and again. It was one of those rare albums that contained music that you didn’t realize you had been subconsciously waiting to hear all along. I was instantly a Dragonforce loyalist, and though their next two releases wouldn’t measure up to Sonic Firestorm’s grand stature, I always managed to find a couple gems apiece on every new album. Yes even on a rather mediocre effort like Ultra Beatdown (ex-vocalist ZP Theart’s last album with the band), I was able to enjoy an epic like “Last Journey Home”. I reviewed their previous album The Power Within, and despite giving them some slack for breaking in then new vocalist Marc Hudson, I found it to be a good, yet not great effort. I think internally I had sort of resolved myself to believe that they would never again come close to the sheer perfection that was Sonic Firestorm.
But then a couple weeks ago, with little in the way of expectations I started listening to their newest release, Maximum Overload, and suddenly I’m having flashbacks to ten years ago. This is as close as Dragonforce have ever neared in matching Sonic Firestorm’s eminence, and its by far the second greatest Dragonforce album to date, period. One of the greater misconceptions of the band is that guitarist Herman Li is the band’s sole musical force, and while granted Li does play a huge part in the recording and production of the band’s albums —- it’s actually fellow guitarist Sam Totman that has served as the band’s main songwriter throughout their discography. In fact, on Maximum Overload, Li has zero songwriting credits, as the band seems to have made an internal shift to integrate bassist Frederic Leclercq alongside Totman as the second half of the Dragonforce songwriting team. Its unclear as to what motivations led the band to make such a dramatic change, but Leclercq did pen “Seasons” from The Power Within by himself, and it was my personal highlight from that album. Whatever the reasons, the change seems to have injected Totman with a fresh gust of inspiration, and Leclercq’s musical knack for thrash and black metal styles also rubs off on large swathes of the album, making this the heaviest, most aggressive sounding Dragonforce album to date.
Alot has been made of the presence of Trivium’s vocalist/guitarist Matt Heafy on this album, but once you hear the results it all makes sense and chances are that like me you’ll really appreciate his contributions. They come in the form of gritty yet melodic backing vocals on gems like lead single “The Game”, where he appears alongside Hudson on the pre-chorus bridge with a rather excellent vocal take. Heafy is also present on my personal album highlight, the adrenaline pumping “No More”, where he is skillfully employed on another pre-chorus bridge, injecting some counter-balance in the form of an aggressive lower register to Hudson’s bright, upper range. The two vocalists employ the same point/counter-point technique on the thrashy “Defenders” to soaring effect.
Speaking of Hudson, I’m realizing how much more I’m enjoying his presence as lead vocalist, he’s got some flex and range to his vocals that his predecessor seemed to lack. Case in point is the band’s incredibly fun take on Manowar-themed subject matter in “Three Hammers”, a Totman/Leclerq composition that has Hudson taking center stage through the verses and chorus —- not a normally Dragonforce-esque thing to do, but it seems to be an influence carried over from The Power Within where tempos were sometimes slowed down with vocal passages given plenty of space. Here Hudson starts off with a husky, narrative voice that he gradually injects with a surprising amount of grit, followed by his highest note ever (“Stand! Fight! Fight for your life!”) in the bridge. Its a stunning display of vocal dexterity, and Hudson’s greatest performance to date. In fact, on a performance level, I’d say the vocals of both Hudson and Heafy altogether steal the show throughout the album —- a baffling thing to say about a Dragonforce album I know. Look, we all knew the guitar work was going to be great —- and it is!
Individual performance accomplishments aside, the true star of Maximum Overload is the renewed vigor of Totman’s songwriting. If his new found partnership with Leclercq is what brought on this sudden burst of excellence, then I hope that they move forward with this as the permanent songwriting team. The audible results are all the proof I need to know that something is working fantastically well. This is an album loaded with gems and only one song that while relatively good, does drag the album down for a brief moment (the slightly off-the-mark “The Sun is Dead”). Take the stunning “Tomorrow’s King”, a song that could’ve easily fit in on Sonic Firestorm (its that great), with its ultra-speedy, BPM grinding tempo that flashes throughout both verse and chorus with nary a let up —- its not the speed that’s impressive, but just how the band can deliver such a wonderfully melodic chorus over the top of that hyper-fast assault.
I also quite enjoy “City of Gold”, a track that veers between speedy and mid-tempo sections with rather rhythmic verses built upon Hudson’s vocal alliteration before exploding in a sneakily ear-wormy chorus (it didn’t hit me at first, but I found myself humming it later when not listening to the album). Oh and there’s a rather inspired cover on offer as well (the band’s first to date) of the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” —- whats amazing about this cover is not only their preservation of the original’s melodic thru-line but just how malleable it was to Dragonforce’s style. This sounds like a Dragonforce original —- I’d wonder if someone who hadn’t heard the Cash version would think so in a blind test —- its got all the musical elements in place (including a beautiful guitar solo that rephrases the original’s most melancholic melody) and the lyrics even seem to fit the band’s typical style. Kudos to them for including the cover on the album tracklisting proper instead of shunting it off as a bonus track. Speaking of which, I’m aware there is a special edition available with four additional songs from the album recording sessions plus some odds and ends, all of which I haven’t gotten to listen to yet. I was only able to listen to the standard version for the purposes of this review, and as is usually the case with bonus tracks or extra discs, I try to only focus on the primary album tracklisting as a representation of the album’s quality (which doesn’t always address everything I know).
Suffice it to say that I’m an unabashed fan of the band. Yes they have their share of detractors that question their ability to play live (which I can lay eyewitness claim to saying that they absolutely pull off, but they’re also running and jumping all over the stage and its a live performance after all —- what do you want?); or some claim that Li and Totman rely on studio trickery to achieve the guitar tracking that we hear on the albums. To the latter I say this: Even if that were true (and documentary video proves otherwise), so what? These are albums, recorded musical art that is supposed to be appreciated for its own tangible artistic value and expression. Are people really naive enough to think that the majority of bands simply play live in the studio and hacks like Dragonforce cheat their way through recording sessions to make their technical abilities seem far grander than they are? No one is that stupid in person it seems, yet the internet is full of them. No one calls Emperor hacks because they can’t perfectly reproduce every single effect from songs off In the Nightside Eclipse live, or do they? Rant aside, I’m surprised to say that Dragonforce might have just delivered one of the best pure power metal albums of this very power metal centric year. Its starting to feel like 2004 all over again… ah look there’s some Bush/Cheney 04′ bumper stickers! Barack Obama? What? Who’s that guy?!