I'll be honest. I expected certain things when I attended Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force show at the Hammersmith Apollo this past spring. I was prepared for all the aging rock couples of London, with their teased hair and blue eyeliner, and for the teenaged spotty hoards in Children of Bodom shirts; the ancient and loyal, mixing with the curious and barely initiated. I was expecting the Michael Schenker Group as the opening band, and was really quite prepared to blister down memory lane with the Euro guitar giants of my youth, and a random singer I'd never before heard of in a poet's blouse and those tiny leather pants with ridiculous pirate lacings up the legs. Oh, and a lot of dry ice. Instead, I got Dragonland. And I immediately had to run out and buy their most recent offering, Starfall.
Now, it's been awhile since I've ventured into the realm of current melodic power metal. I'm not even sure people still call it that, what with all the weird genre-splices, prefixes and addendums that crop up all over the place in the pages of music magazines everywhere. However we're going to categorize the band, Dragonland's Starfall proves to be a more than worthy re-introduction into the genre, at its fantasy theme-laden best. It is an inspiring and satisfying listen, in terms of exuberant creativity and technically tight musicianship.
Starfall is the six-piece band's third offering since their formation in Gothenburg in 1999, released by Century Media in October of 2004, and again by Cleopatra Records in July of 2005. A series of line-up changes suggests they've got the drive and ambition to continually change and develop their material.
The album's opening track, 'As Madness Took Me', is perfectly positioned to set the listener on an enjoyable and surprisingly accessible journey through fantasy and myth, anchored with convincing emotion. The balance between these elements is key, as it purposefully keeps the album from spinning off into the depths of total clich'.
Jonas Heidgert's soaring vocals and lyrics alternately complement and challenge the lead guitar of Olof M'rck, who's selectively placed solos are, at times, totally remarkable (most notably in 'As Madness Took Me', and in the 'Book of Shadows Part Two: The Curse of Qa'a'). The twin guitars of M'rck and Nicklas Magnusson are equally well suited, and are a classic and compelling standout feature of the album. Fans of Dark Tranquility might recognize the ethereal vocals of Johanna Andersson on several tracks, and her voice is used to greatest effect in the Viking-themed 'The Shores of Our Land'. Culminating in the three ambitious and engaging Book of Shadows tracks (an artfully constructed thematic foray into British historiography and Egyptology), Starfall is an album that consciously and carefully blends the mainstays of power metal, traditional Scandinavian folk passages, and innovative and original elements.
While the occasional start/ stop breakdowns, the increase of Elias Holmlid's obviously electronic keyboards, and the reduction of symphonic elements may prove surprising to fans of Dragonland's two previous albums (The Battle of the Ivory Plains, of 2001, and Holy War, of 2003, both released on Black Lotus Records), Starfall is downright inspiring in the way the best power metal often is. It swells in all the right spots, and recedes to give the listener time to reflect in a manner just as pointed and deliberate. It's catchy, and epic without descending into the realm of the totally ridiculous (which might easily have happened, when we consider that Dragonland have, in the past, indulged in a spirited, capable and riotously funny cover of the theme to The Never Ending Story). Everything falls out just as it should, structurally, yet skillfully avoids seeming stiff and formulaic.
Starfall is a definite must for those who already love power metal, but I'd suggest that it's also a great choice for those willing to experiment for the first time. Thematically, the band's own mix of oriental and occidental themes (admittedly not entirely clear in parts), is new and fresh'they're playing with themes without being defined or restricted by them. The attention the band has devoted to detail and precision pays off'the album is engaging and kind of infectious, and, good as it is on the first listen, it improves upon further exposure. Certainly a band to watch, as they're clearly coming into their own.
8.5 / 10
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