Dragonforce – The Power Within (2012)

Posted: April 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

If you haven’t heard of England’s Dragonforce, the history lesson is short and sweet. Guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman formed the band in 1999 and may just be the fastest tag-team ever to play on the same stage. Their unique style of power/fantasy metal played a supersonic speed usually includes electronic elements reminiscent of retro video games. Longtime vocalist ZP Theart has left the band recently, and the new vocalist – Marc Hudson – hopes to carry on the legacy of one of the most entertaining, epic acts in all of metal.

The Power Within is the highly-anticipated fifth release from these shredders, and comes after a four year absence (the record is the first since 2008’s Ultra Beatdown). Honestly, I wasn’t sure the band would ever come back after the controversial chatter surrounding that album and subsequent tour.

You see, calling Li and Totman “fast” is like calling the sky blue or the sun hot. The riffs the two provide on every track are insane. The fingering and fretwork are almost unbelievable – and thus lies the controversy. There have been countless occasions (and fan-filmed video proof) that the tandem have had problems pulling off their six-string acrobatics live. Footage has surfaced of the two either slowing down songs, or drop-tuning their guitars in attempt to “keep up” with the chaos of the studio versions of their songs. For me, I vaguely remember seeing them live in 2006, but was honestly too drunk to remember if they were hitting all their notes or not.

And with that, I say “so what” to the claim that they may or may not use studio tricks to make them sound louder and faster than they really are. Even if it’s true, it’s not the first time a riff has been sped up, or a vocal cleaned up, or a drum pattern looped in the studio for the sake of effect. And if they really CAN play live that fast, more power to them.

That said, let’s get to what we came here for. The Power Within is the first chunk of new music from the band in a long while, and with new vocalist en tow, it’s time to see if the band still has what it takes to stay a top the power metal mountain.

“Holding On” kicks things off with – what else – a double-headed guitar intro followed by a great high-pitched scream for Hudson, announcing his arrival in glass-shattering fashion. It’s frenetic and melodic, and just what you’d expect – which immediately put up a red flag for me. As enjoyable as Dragonforce can be, the last album wasn’t very expansive. I hate using the term “one-trick pony,” but that’s the feeling I was starting to get a few years ago. Unfortunately, this track is more of the same. Sure, it’s got tricky guitar work, but the structure is so predictable it’s almost annoying. But we’re only one track in, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet…

According to the band, “Fallen World” is the fastest, most intense DragonForce song to date, While it does have a certain “thrash” feel it at times, it doesn’t as feel as fast as some of the bands other hits off of previous albums. What is noticeable here is how much more I like Hudson at the microphone. His presence is very powerful, but not so “over-the-top” as Theart was. It gives the listener the chance to appreciate everything about the songs instead of getting caught up in the pissing contest between vocals and guitars that earlier albums seemed to force upon us.

Medieval fantasy has always been an anchoring point to Dragonforce lyrics, but never as much as with “Cry Thunder” which falls somewhere between an Irish folk song and pirate shanty. With the signature blitzkreig of guitars, of course. Worth mentioning is how on point drummer Dave Mackintosh has been so far. To keep rhythm with such a electric pace is no small task, but Mackintosh is up to the challenge time and time again. For a band that is known for the guitars, make sure you are listening to the drums here, as they are just as incredible.

Hudson takes a lower octave for much of “Give Me The Night,” and this is the type of diversity the band has lacked in the past. It’s nothing THAT new, but the vocal switch-up adds a freshness to the track. Also, the guitars are crisp, but not overpowering leading to what may be my new favorite Dragonforce song.

I was pretty convinced that “Wings of Liberty” was going to be a ballad until Frédéric Leclercq’s bass fill ignited the flame about 30 seconds in. The track is a hundred-mile-an-hour ballad on speed, occasionally softening up but staying pretty heavy and inspiring all the way through. Even the solo takes on more of a bluesy feel that stands out for it’s feel instead of it’s pace. Again, the little shifts here and there add a new dimension to the band’s sound, and the end result is phenomenal.

“Seasons” has rock radio written all over it with heartfelt vocals, methodical structure and echoing guitars. In a sense, it took me back to the heyday of hair metal with its accessibility and the lack of shrieking vocals – making it hard not to like. Again, there is a thick bassline and slower, more meticulous guitar parts – but you still get the Malmsteen-esque solos and fills that keep the energy high. It’s at this point of the album that I’ve realized the monotony has left Dragonforce. It’s obvious – at least to me – that they are trying hard to encompass a lot of different styles and sounds on the album, and it makes them sound better than ever.

If there is a track on The Power Within that sounds like “old” Dragonforce, it’s “Heart Of The Storm.” Not only do we get guitar tricks up the wahzoo, we also get the keyboard treatment in high dosage (which has been pretty quiet so far). The solo just screams, and I dare all you guitarists out there to try to copy it. I know I couldn’t.

“Die By The Sword” is another signature track. You can’t blame the band for sticking with the recipe that has brought them to the dance – and the fact that it doesn’t sound like everything else on the album makes it passable here. The piano parts add a breath of life to it, but otherwise it’s a lot of guitars and not a whole lot of anything else. If this is your first experience with Dragonforce, you’ll love it. It gallops and soars, but for those of us that have been with the band since the beginning, this is old news.

Hudson is highlighted in the opening of “Last Man Stands,” which tricks you into thinking it’s something by The Cars early, then slams through a brick wall with pace and prowess. It has a inspiring message and I can actually see the live performance in my head when I close my eyes. Yet again, the guitars aren’t overcooked and pick just the right moments to rip your face off and hand it to you.

The album closer revisits track six and plays the acoustic card with it. I like this version almost as much as the first, and it shows yet another side to the band, as nothing is electric here. It showcases the harmonies and cohesion the band has found among all members, and was a great way to sign off.

So…

I’m taking two things away from this release more than anything. The first is that the change in vocalists appears to have been the right move for the band. I heard a lot more heart and soul on this record than I ever have with Dragonforce, and it was the perfect balance to the technical orgasm of guitars along the journey. I didn’t consider this just a great guitar album – it was a great metal album.

Secondly, Li and Totman (who are the only original members left in the band) have obviously learned a thing or two from the past. They still own it – and are as great as ever – but they seemed to have matured in the sense that they pick and choose the moments a little more eloquently on this album. Instead of giving us 60 minutes of shred, they give us 60 minutes of music – and really good music at that.

Not only has the band shed the image almost instantly of being “that” band, but they have written and performed ten pretty amazing tracks. Where the previos four albums wore on me after multiple listens, I see this release staying in pretty heavy rotation for quite some time due its diversity and “clean sheets” aroma. It’s as if the band still sounds like Dragonforce, yet doesn’t really sound like Dragonforce at all – and that’s a pretty hard thing to do.

8.5/10

Tracklist:
1. Holding On
2. Fallen World
3. Cry Thunder
4. Give Me the Night
5. Wings of Liberty
6. Seasons
7. Heart of the Storm
8. Die By the Sword
9. Last Man Stands
10. Seasons (Acoustic Version)

Buy at Amazon

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