Review Summary: No seriously, why didn't they just take the huge eagle all the way to Mt. Doom?
It’s called symphonic epic power-metal. The very name of the genre itself is extravagant and ostentatious and Dragonland, along with acts like Rhapsody of Fire and Dragonforce is regarded as a leader in this niche for good reason. Their 2006 offering “Astronomy” was as close to a classic as one can find in power-metal. It’s rich, layered orchestral sections joined forces with excellent, diverse riffs topped off with the trademark heavy dose of cheese all wrapped up in a nice well produced package made for an extremely refreshing listen compared to what is normally offered. Five years later and Dragonland has forgotten something extremely important, musical deliverance comes first and storytelling comes second.
“Under the Grey Banner” is more than just a step in the wrong direction, it’s a band stepping off of their own path and jumping right on the beaten trail with everyone else. Part of what made “Astronomy” so great is that Dragonland created something different. There was no constant barrage of the double peddling of the bass drum in the background, no constant muted chugging with some (or none) minor licks to add some flavor while the vocalist crooned about the dragon that got away, yet that’s exactly what they deliver in this go around. One listen to the song “The Trials of Mount Farnor” will illustrate near 80 percent of the CD. That is not to say the whole CD is 5 minute chunks of this formula, nay there are some very interesting bits and pieces in the interludes and breaks in these songs but in the back of your mind you know what’s going to happen in 20-30 seconds. These breaks are few and far between and waiting for them isn’t worth the drone of muted chugging that comes before and after. Another example of false hope is the intros. Many of them showcase the potential of the orchestration for some soaring epics, especially “The Black Mare” and “Fire and Brimstone” but this feeling is soon dashed as the songs kicks into gear.
The execution of the music, however, is spot on, it’s more than obvious the members of the band are extremely good at their instruments and the orchestral sections, while underutilized considering how well they were in “Astronomy”, are top notch. The vocalist was never exactly a shining example of what to strive to be but he has always been more than competent in his duties. Yet he, like the musicians backing him, fall into a bland, formulaic pattern some singing, high vibrato, some more singing, some more high vibrato all while never really showing much range. The lyrics…..the lyrics are cheesy of course, dragons, sons of dragons, as well as travelling long distances through mountains are all here but personally, I’ve never minded some cheese with my meal and I don’t mind it here. Dragonland is supposed to be telling an epic yarn filled with fighting, betrayal and other fantasy centric elements and it does just that.
As mentioned earlier, this focus on storytelling is the crux of the problem this record has. Storytelling records and concept records are two different beasts, concept records are more subtle while storytelling is a lot more direct and obvious which can lead to a problem in balancing the music and storytelling. The problem with “Under the Grey Banner” is Dragonland was entirely too focused on storytelling and put writing interesting (or good) music on the back burner. The time between records might have alleviated this problem and Dragonland could have written something on par with “Astronomy”, one can never know but this record is the epitome of bland. If, however, you’re in the mood for some power-metal in the style of almost every other power-metal band out there, you can’t go wrong with this.