It's probably fitting that for all the detractions about "Nintendo" music, DragonForce are actually named after a Sega game. Now, granted, the Super Nintendo (or Super Comboy for the South Koreans among us) had the graphics, but the Mega Drive always had the games. It's a pretty clear analogy, right? Technicality vs. Substance: the eternal struggle. Sure there were some great games on the Super Nintendo and the Mega Drive had some stinkers, but a rule of thumb is a rule of thumb. More notable were the games which won out on both formats: EA Sports dominated the sports market on both Sega and Nintendo, but the real biggie was Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter had a pretty basic arcade design, actually, but what's really important is the fact it made it on both Sega and Nintendo system- it satisfied equally the graphics nerds and the more intelligent game-play buffs. Similarly, plenty of bands have in the past bridged the gap between so-called "serious" musicians and those who just enjoy a damn good song: the Beatles and the Beach Boys straddled the worlds of pop and progressive rock in the '60s, as did Pink Floyd the following decade, without losing out in either camp. More recently, and one an infinitely smaller scale, London-based power/speed metal outfit DragonForce have become an unlikely hit with the mainstream masses across Asia, northern Europe and, most pronouncedly, in their native Britain (In fact, like Street Fighter, DragonForce features players from all over the world).
They seem to have the goods to back it up too; as Metal Hammer magazine so emphatically pronounced: "While most bands want to be bigger than Metallica; DragonForce has the capability to be bigger than Star Wars."
DragonForce's main selling point is their duo of virtuosic guitarists: Herman Li (Chun Li?) and Sam Totman have a long history together, having come together as a pairing in 1998 when Li (then known as "Shred") joined Totman's (a.k.a "Heimdall") speed metal project Demoniac. One could be forgiven for thinking that twice the shred equals twice the noise but in fact the dual-guitar structure, if anything, has a restraining influence. Far from competing for space in the mix, the guitarists' styles have increasingly come to compliment one another- they not only trade lead and rhythm parts (often five or six solos in one sitting) but harmonise a variety of leads and, particularly on Inhuman Rampage
, construct beautifully textured melodies: see album kick-off "Through the Fire and Flames" for proof. Combining contrasting backgrounds in death/extreme metal and classical, the pairing instantly bonded over the shared influence of late '80s/early '90s arcade and video game music. Together with drummer Dave Mackintosh, the duo are mostly responsible for DragonForce's gradual transition from a traditional power metal band with speed metal leanings to a primarily speed metal band or, as the band choose to put it, "extreme power metal."
Indeed, Li and Mackintosh share a background in the extreme metals: death and black respectibely; the drummer recorded three albums with black metal outfit Bal Sagoth. DragonForce successfully integrated the common extreme metal "blast beat" drum technique- that's the rapid, pounding bass drum sound you hear throughout the album. Hardly a one-trick pony, Mackintosh manages a litany of interesting fills throughout the album's fifty-six minutes to guard against any neurological damage which I'm told can result from over-exposure to constant beats (Meg White, anyone?) Bass guitar, on the other hand, is close to non-existant on the album; the only clearly audible example being a couple of slap-bass leads on "Body Breakdown." With such powerful rhythm emerging from the drumkit, though, it's hard to imagine the album lacking in the low end but it's nonetheless a curious fact that a band so built on individual virtuosity lacked a bass player for an entire album.
But enough about what's missing, let's talk about what we have! And what would power metal be without keyboards? (Answer: a lot more credible) Much of the aforementioned "texture" relies on the understated and underappreciated work of Ukrainian keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov whose input is more pronounced here than ever before. Vadim's is the first instrument to be heard on the album (with guitar) and the last- his spacey synth constant throughout much of the album to contrasting effect. Album-opener "Through the Fire and Flames" begins with the dual-sound of droning synthesiser and a light, choppy piano melody, showcasing the group's prog rock leanings. Conversely, "Operation Ground and Pound" and "Body Breakdown" see synthetic sounds utilised as an electronic counterpoint to rather basic heavy metal structures, finding space between the toned down guitar of the verses.
For all the impressive musicianship on show, it's South African frontman ZP Theart who in effect elevates the band from "impressive heavy metal act" to "almost-pop sensations" in Britain. Power metal has always, in essence, lumbered close to becoming pop music without ever really coming close at all, lacking both the brevity of its glam metal cousin and the appropriate subject matter required to penetrate the collective consciousness. Regardless, DragonForce have made inroads into popular culture with a mix of unashamed gimmickry, semi-serious fantastical lyrical themes and, most importantly, infectious chorus melodies. Theart may not have the greatest range (despite what his website says; unless by "amazing vocal range" they mean he can hit both notes
) but he certainly infuses those high-pitched choruses with enough passion and enthusiasm to compensate for his lack of absolute dexterity, which brings me neatly on to my next point: the tunes.
There are just eight tracks on offer here; DragonForce, as usual, choosing quality over quantity- there may only be eight tracks but they each average at an impressive seven minutes. There's a set formula which pre-destines the direction of seven of them: instrumental buid-up; a trade-off of three or four verses and choruses; before Li and Totman (and occasionally Pruzhanov) let free their creative juices for the second half of the song. A tried and tested formula, the only real criticism which can be made is the repetition which inevitably sets in midway through the album.
Opening track and lead single "Through the Fire and Flames" starts proceedings in sensational fashion, unleashing a stream of rapidfire controlled chaos which doesn't let up one beat until closing ballad "Trail of Broken Hearts." Not much can analysis can really be offered of each track- the aforementioned formula is really all there is to it. But the lack of talking points shouldn't belie the immense amount of creative juice which soaks the pages of this heavy metal fairytale; the always unappreciated job of making impossibly fast guitar passages sound unique isn't an easy one and, though DragonForce fail to maintain this over the full hour, the sheer amount of unique material on offer from all band members has to be applauded. From the bumbling thrash-metal riffs of "Revolution Deathsquad" to the trance-y synthesised string-and-guitar motif that begins "Trail of Broken Hearts," there's plenty of variety to keep even the most discerning listener interested in the short-term, and the textured guitar riffs of "Storming the Burning Fields" and "Through the Fire and Flames" are so textured you'd need gloves to touch them, but on a grand scale the album simply repeats itself far too often.
Fans of DragonForce of old will notice a marked improvement in the quality of sound on Inhuman Rampage
- the production is tighter and more refined, the instrumental parts are more intricately knotted together and the album as a whole has an overarching polished effect which even Sonic Firestorm
failed to achieve. This will undoubtedly irk many purists who yearn for the raw, low-budget feel of old, but just as many will recognise the transition as the realisation of DragonForce's massive potential- the sonic upgrade, in my opinion, sets this album apart from, and on top of, its two predecessors. While this may not be DragonForce's masterpiece, it's definitely a step in the right direction for me. Perhaps with the addition of a sixth member, bassist Fred LeClerqe, DragonForce will assemble the collection of songs to adequately compliment their already well-refined sound.