Okay, I'll just come out and say it--I like DragonForce.
I know, I know; just saying 'DragonForce' is a one-liner joke in of itself. Whether its the plague of terrible performances that prevailed during the Inhuman Rampage tour, or the observation that the band can only play at two speeds: metal and ballad, or simply the fact that fantasy-based power metal in general is incredibly silly in how seriously it takes itself, there is no shortage of ways that this band gets made fun of for simply existing. And I agree, some of that is well deserved; there is something inherently hilarious about the level of self-absorption normally found in power metal, especially of the fantasy variety that DragonForce are known to indulge in.
But beyond that, there are still things about this band that are legitimately praiseworthy. Though, yes, the band occasionally has been beleaguered by live performance difficulties, the band members themselves are all nonetheless ridiculously talented musicians, especially in terms of their technical capacity. You would have to be if you played at the speeds they do ("Cry of the Brave" was fucking 215 BPM, and, spoiler alert, one of the tracks on this album beats that). The fact of the matter is, no one else does the genre quite like they do; there's really no other band that performs similarly epic-length power metal at ridiculous speeds with insanely indulgent and gratuitous amounts of soloing. So, yes, while even I find the band to be incredibly hilarious just at the mention of their name, their music is nonetheless incredibly enjoyable and, to a very large extent, unique.
Now, you'll note that there are two main things I mentioned that separate DragonForce from the rest of the numerous generic power metal bands around: the ridiculous speeds at which they play, and the sheer length and variety of arrangement in their songs. Though other bands do play at ridiculous speeds, DragonForce is undoubtedly the first that springs to anyone's mind, and in addition to that, there is a distinctly progressive quality to the depth (yes, depth) of composition in their songs that make them very interesting to listen to. Beyond those two things, however, there isn't anything else to DragonForce's music that other bands aren't doing: the fantasy-based lyrics, flashy guitar playing, and heavily melodic writing are all hallmarks of literally every single other band in the genre.
So, in a long, circuitous manner, this brings me to my main complaint against their newest album, 2012's The Power Within: the album all but eradicates the lengthened, complex compositions that made DragonForce's music so interesting in the first place. So while, yes, the speed element of their music (at least) remains firmly intact, that aspect on its own is not strong enough to make the album sound significantly different from generic power metal. Basically, instead of sounding like a righteous kick to the ass as DragonForce albums should, The Power Within sounds like a regular, bland power metal album. It really was the sweeping, epic compositions that took albums like Sonic Firestorm beyond merely enjoyable and made them legitimately interesting to listen to, and their removal just reveals the rest of the music for what it actually is: incredibly flat and boring.
Take any track on the album, like the opener "Holding On" or the intensely frantic "Give Me the Night", and you'll notice that while, yes, they certainly are still playing at breakneck speeds, that alone isn't making them particularly interesting at all. In fact, it becomes more revealing on other pieces like "Die By the Sword" and the closer "Last Man Stands", which are almost offensive with the baseness of their appeal. Of all, "Cry Thunder" in particular stands out as sounding incredibly cookie-cutter with its almost annoyingly predictable and oft-repeated chorus and inescapable, annoying, and incessantly bouncy 6/8. And this staleness, this crippling boredom, is characteristic of the album in general.
As I mentioned before, the depth of their songwriting has also necessarily taken a hit from the shrinking of the songs. Though many of their themes and melodies to this point have been pretty standard, the sheer volume of them in any one song more than made up for the lack of originality in particular places, and yes, I did just give an example of a place where an excess of quantity does make up for a lack of quality. With neither quantity nor quality, however, it becomes even more apparent how deceptively average DragonForce's songwriting is. These really are just dime-a-dozen melodies, full of overused power chords and predictable resolutions, and nothing even resembling a curve ball or interesting musical idea appears at all.
And while I'm at it, I'm just going to come right out and say it: Marc Hudson is no ZP Theart. I can't quite articulate the distinction properly, but there's something distinctly...normal about Hudson's voice that just can't compare to Theart's almost disturbingly emphatic performances. Listening to Hudson singing instead of Theart is like eating carob instead of chocolate, or appreciating the comedy of Dane Cook instead of Louis CK: there's just really no comparison to be made in the first place. And while I'm not one to start calling out DragonForce of all bands for their predictable lyrics, I will say that the fact that they're very boring and repetitive is only made clearer without any interesting composition to obfuscate it.
In terms of brighter moments, "Wings of Liberty" is really the only track on the album with any meat to it, with any time to develop itself, and, accordingly, it's actually pretty decent. It has a rather interesting juxtaposition of both intense straight-up metal and power ballad traits, facets that are normally kept separate in the DragonForce catalogue. "Fallen World" also stands out for its welcome death metal elements; the frantic blast beating during the intro (holy shit 220 fucking BPM) and emphatic death growls (albeit in the background) are all heavily underutilized elements of DragonForce's repertoire, and their presence here is more than welcome. And, honestly, even "Seasons" is a pretty decent song, given how generic it actually is. But all of these good moments on the album are few and far between, and not really worth the rest of the drudgery on the album that comes along with them.
Okay, you may rightfully point out that being generic is not in of itself a bad thing--heck, depending on the situation, I like listening to generic power metal just as much as the next person. The problem, however, is just that: it's generic, not particularly memorable, and only really good for specific situations as utility rather than as enjoyment for its own sake. This is the kind of music you want to listen to when you're trying to get pumped up or in a high-action situation, where it can be put into the back of your mind without much thought needed in order to understand it. When you listen to music like this, it's not because you want to actually want to have to think about and enjoy the depth to what you're hearing: you want it to fill a more visceral need. You can't enjoy generic music of any kind like this on it's own terms, and DragonForce as such have removed any legitimate interest in their music and relegated themselves to purely contextual enjoyment on The Power Within.
Let's be honest here: presented with the choice of listening to this album, you're better off just listening to power metal bands that are actually good without qualification, like Blind Guardian, or Kiuas, or even Machinae Supremacy. If you have anything resembling a discerning ear for music, then you'll quickly realize how unoriginal, if not flat-out boring, The Power Within is without even getting through half of it. If you felt DragonForce was too overindulgent before, or you're just an honest-to-god diehard fan, or if you honestly don't care that much and just want some fucking power metal, then I still will recommend this album to you. You'll find it's exactly what you're looking for: another fucking power metal album.
2.5 / 10
Posted Dec. 2, 2014, 10:44 a.m.
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