Monday 11 November 2019

DragonForce - Extreme Power Metal (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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DragonForce are back with their eighth studio album and I have to say that I was wary going into this one. With an album title like that and outrageously cheesy cover art that makes it look like a Japanese laserdisc from the late eighties, they're obviously not fighting the fact that they're becoming an unfortunate cliché through a surprising shift into fame.

They've been around since 2001, a couple of years more if we count the early ones as DragonHeart, but they're now more famous than any of their peers. In many ways, they're struggling to remain an actual band nowadays rather than just the ultimate insane Guitar Hero level and, if that's what the world is going to care about most, then why not play into it? Yeah, I was wary.

Sure enough, it starts horribly. The opening track, Highway to Oblivion, is so close to what we're expecting that it almost feels like self parody. The twin guitar attack of Herman Li and Sam Totman is as virtuosic as we expect but are all the technical theatrics they're performing helping the song? No is the quick answer and it stays no for half of it, I think. What surprised me is that, when vocalist Mark Hudson put down his mike to give way to the inevitable guitar duel, it stopped being cheesy for me and I started to dig the song.

My next surprise was that the second track plays better, even though it has the frankly ridiculous name of Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine. I have no idea how Highway to Oblivion is cheesy but a song like this finds a way to avoid that, playing like an early Gamma Ray gem. The keyboard section could be lifted for a retro video game and the theatrical part before it has potential as a sci-fi musical movie trailer. However, there's also restraint here. They could have played this at twice the speed but they chose not to. Maybe they're not planning on being self-parody after all.

So, while DragonForce initially try to be the Steel Panther of power metal, they turn back into an actual band again and I stopped cringing and started enjoying. Yeah, it's still outrageous and overblown but there's a line there and DragonForce moved back onto the right side of it pretty quickly and they stayed there for most of the rest of the album. It still blows my mind that a song called Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine can be on the right side of that line, but hey.

If the shred machine referenced is the Li and Totman double act, then it's a consistent one this time out. I dug the guitar duels on a slew of songs like Heart Demolition, Troopers of the Stars and Razorblade Meltdown. I think the middle of those three epitomises their unique approach of playing guitars in such a way that they sound like chiptune programs. If you're into this sort of thing, they do it better than anyone and they do it a lot.

My last surprise was that that temporary restraint continues. Not everything here is done at hyperspeed and the very clean production job brings details like the acoustic koto on The Last Dragonborn to be front and centre. Sure, these lyrics are cheesy but no more so than anything that Ronnie James Dio sang on half a century's worth of classics. Hudson delivers them well.

The Last Dragonborn is really a melodic rock song that just happens to have insanely fast guitars, just as Strangers is really an arena rock song given the DragonForce treatment. If most of the songs here continue to remind of early Gamma Ray, there are other influences and they're not all power metal. Maybe that's why Extreme Power Metal ends with, of all things, a cover of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. No, I'm not kidding. It's completely unnecessary and it adds nothing to the album whatsoever.

Until then, however, this is strong stuff. As if to highlight that it's not all about those duelling guitars, there's even a hyperspeed bass run from, I presume, Frédéric Leclercq before he left the band earlier this year, on the excellent Troopers of the Stars. There are nice tinkling ivories to kick off Razorblade Meltdown and bagpipes to start Remembrance Day, timely given when I'm posting.

Don't turn this off if Highway to Oblivion, the first single, is too wildly ridiculous for you. Stay with it and it really impresses in a way that's as quintessentially European as Hellyeah are quintessentially American.

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