Every year there are albums eagerly anticipated, be it from hot young names, established legends or – and this is usually the most exciting of all the categories – those bands you know are on the verge of greatness.
As DragonForce, the multi-national talent based in London, prepared to release their fourth album at the end of August 2008, nobody who understands the world of metal can have any doubt that ‘Ultra Beatdown’ (as the record is called) was most certainly being awaited with a real sense that we are about to witness a band going from being ‘potential international stars’ to becoming a ‘major global phenomenon’. “Every album is different for us,” says guitarist Herman Li. “We never want to repeat what’s done before and that makes each record we do that little bit more difficult. On this one, we rejected so much because it was going over old ground. We’d heard it before. We’re not a band who get stuck with a formula and are just content to repeat the same thing over and over again.”
‘Ultra Beatdown’ had three hard acts to follow. If ‘Valley Of The Damned’ established the sextet’s fearless credentials in 2003, then ‘Sonic Firestorm’ (’04) and ‘Inhuman Rampage’ (’06) each took them further forward. In fact, the last named has now sold in excess of 350,000 copies in America alone, over 85,000 in the UK and 600,000 worldwide, spawning the US Gold single ‘Through The Fire And Flames’, thereby giving DragonForce the cachet of being the most successful new British metal act in America for two decades! However, the ‘Force are not a band to feel the impact of any undue outside influences. All the demands come from within the tight-knit group of Li, fellow guitarist Sam Totman, vocalist ZP Theart, keyboard player Vadim Pruzhanov, bassist Frederic Leclercq and drummer Dave Mackintosh. Like all the great bands you care to mention, the pressure is internal and eternal, always pushing the band to improve and develop. “You’ll find, for instance, that on ‘Ultra Beatdown’ we’ve been more varied in our pacing of songs” continues Li. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’ve really slowed right down but, whereas in the past, you could say that things were fast all the way through, this time we made a real effort to be a little less frenetic throughout. I believe the approach works extremely well.”
One thing DragonForce have always been good at delivering are songs with a tremendous melodic depth. Whatever other qualities they have – and there are plenty – it’s this trait that long ago marked them out as a class apart from many of their peers. Name any giant of the genre over the past 40 years or so, and they’ve always possessed the ability to compose a cunning tune or several. The same applies here. “There have been people who believe all we do is play fast. But to me, the most important part of any song is the melody. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but also feel this time it’s on a new level. Merely being fast isn’t enough to get you noticed and respected.”
The process in creating the new album began an amazing 2 years ago, when the first ideas were thought through. Studio work began to get into the groove October 2007, with a brief break at the end of that year for The Black Crusade European Tour. “We didn’t ever feel as if there was a time scale involved here. We just did whatever it took to make this the best album of our career to date. The way we’ve always done things means that what is written and demoed in the first place is rarely what we end up with in the studio. Our songs develop, evolve and change as we go along. It makes the studio an interesting place, because we’ll come up with new ideas all the time. Lyrically, we’re taking a look at life and what goes on in the world, but doing this in the usual DragonForce way!”
The new record is once again produced by the tried and trusted team of Li, Totman and Karl Groom of British prog metalheads Threshold, basing themselves at both Li’s studio and Thin Ice Studios in Surrey, where Groom does much of his work. The two guitarists have been involved with all production since the first album along with Groom since their first demo. “Our attitude is: why change what works for us? No producer could know better than the team of Herman Li, Sam Totman and Karl Groom what this band should sound like. If we had someone else as producer, then all we’d do is argue constantly, and then ignore them anyway! So, it would be a waste of everyone’s time. The day we bring in another producer will be the day that we have no ideas at all, and need help…actually, when that day arrives we’d split up! What would be point of continuing when we’re past our peak?”
‘Ultra Beatdown’ is the album that has taken DragonForce to new heights. Crashing in to the Top 20 national album charts in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and the Top 10 in Japan and the band have just been nominated for a Grammy Award. It’s not merely the culmination of a decade crafting and finessing a sound that has made them instantly recognizable across the world. It’s not even state-of-the-art for metal, nor just a gantlet being thrown down for everyone else. This is more than that. It’s DragonForce beating a difficult, yet ultimately satisfying, path. Experimenting, taking risks, being bold – precisely what you’d expect any masters of their art.
“Is this the peak of our career? I don’t think so,” insists Li. “But it’s a further step forward. Hey, I can actually listen to what we’ve done here, and enjoy the experience!”
The rest of the world will follow. Just watch!