It's a fairly safe to make the statement that the Power Metal and Speed Metal genres aren't the most accessible musical stylings around. Fantasy themes set to a backdrop of epic, progressive musical journeys that span massive amounts of time at breakneck speeds heavily contrast a current musical climate that celebrates simplicity and a “to the point” approach to song writing. But every genre has its market, and every genre has its top dog, and for Power Metal, that top dog is Dragonforce.
With thrash metal slowing down in the mid 90's and heavy music played at high speed and high intensity became normalised, metal heads with a need for something a little more extreme found their saviour in a record called 'Valley of the Damned' in 2001. With the help of internet sharing, Dragonforce quickly became the new “Holy Shit you need to see this” band, as videos of their punishing live performances began surfacing online. Incredible musicians, playing unfathomably technical music, to an audience wielding battle axes and swords, Dragonforce became an underground phenomenon. 16 years on, 6 studio albums and untold world tours behind them, and the band has well and truly become synonymous with speed and technical metal. It's at this juncture we find a very different Dragonforce presenting their latest record, 'Reaching Into Infinity'.
Before we talk about Reaching Into Infinity, It's important to take a step back at the band's last studio album, Maximum Overload, which saw two major changes to Dragonforce's approach to making records. Firstly, the band moved away from their self-produced methodology, and recruited legendary Metal Producer, Jens Bogren. The second major change was the stepping back of main songwriter and guitarist Sam Totman, instead with bassist Frederic Leclercq taking on the majority of the writing. A bold step for a band who have always maintained such strong control over their methods to create their music, but one that paid off with acclaim from both audience and fans for their progression as a creative force. Reaching Into Infinity is a massive step forward again using the same formula, but as Maximum Overload showed signs of the old Dragonforce resisting too much change, this album is a bold leap for a band truly embracing the new dynamics and endless possibilities that come with a shift in creative crew.
I want to point out here, that this is a Dragonforce record. Contained with are many of the tropes that have made this band a worldwide success. The album is fast, really fast. You will hear songs told from the heart of a warrior, telling fables of the bravery of a Dragons soul. You will hear more double kick than at a Big Four concert, and you will hear wailing guitar solos that make mere mortals quiver as their picking hands seize up out of shear inadequacy. This is who Dragonforce are as a band, as like the 6 studio albums that preceded this one, they have kept true to the core of their musical values.
But that's not all that you’ll hear on this record.
Where the evolution and progression found in Maximum Overload only dared to poke it head out, Reaching Into Infinity embraces the new direction with full force. Complex and twisting structures have taken the place of the standard Dragonforce formula. Previous albums became filled with a standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus, ten minutes of guitar solos, chorus, chorus – Infinity sees the band reducing the instrumental bloat, creating dynamic bridges, intros, and outros. Each song finds its own little patch within the record, going to places never seen on a Dragonforce record before. The arrangements are punchy and straight forward at times, others they show incredible ambition, and in the case of the 11 minute epic 'The Edge of The World', we’re seeing the band take massive leaps into uncharted waters and swimming confidently.
By the time the second track, 'Judgement Day', has concluded, listeners have already been treated to heavy, thunderous breakdowns – something never heard before. Through tracks like 'War!', we're hearing death growls and roaring vocals by singer Marc Hudson – a nod to modern metal, only hinted at by the band in the last record by the inclusion of Trivium Vocalist Matthew K. Heafy as a back-up vocalist on a hand full of tracks.
This time the full brutality is brought by the band themselves, shining a whole new light on these songs. Digging deeper into an emotionally charged state than previously seen, Hudson is delivering some of the most poetic vocals found on a Dragonforce record. With a new platform to write against in the form of more traditional ballads such as 'Silence', melodically and harmonically, the vocals on Reaching Into Infinity are the most creative we've seen from the band. That's not to say they're without struggles, at times in keeping with the themes that Dragonforce do, the potential for lyrical cheesiness is, at times, unavoidable – but these moments are easily forgivable in the greater of context of a singer exploring brand new territories.
New drummer, Gee Anzalone brings a subtle, yet effective new technicality to the groove and rhythm of the band. Whilst still punishingly fast at most times, Gee makes use of the quieter and slower tempos through polyrhythms and technical rudiments, a whole new level of playing outside of sheer intensity greatly contrasting the impressive and still very much present thrash rhythms and blast beats. Keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov has become more of a melodic presence in this record. Still painting a soft pad landscape as has become a Dragonforce trademark, he’s created a heavier synth presence to either accompany guitar melodies or even replace them at times again twists new variations into a the classic sound of the band.
I think it goes without saying, there's one key ingredient not spoken of thus far. The dual guitar combination of Sam Totman and Herman Li transcends genres. As proven by the inclusion of their 2006 hit “Through the Fire and Flames” in the now infamous Guitar Hero 3 the final boss battle, the pair have created an almost untouchable reputation for their speed, precision, creative, and unrelenting technical prowess. I say all of this, to lead to the fact that the guitar playing on Reaching Into Infinity has been significantly downplayed. Not to say it's not there, it absolutely is, but rather than expansive and winding duelling solos that were a fundamental ingredient in previous records, this time around, the guitars have been issued a quality over quantity order. Much more care has been taken to use the guitars as a melodic tool in these songs, while the roaring shredding is still very much present, it rarely overstays its welcome as it has in previous releases.
All of the above taken into account, this is absolutely still a Speed / Power metal record. Blazing tracks like 'Land of Shattered Dreams' and 'Midnight Madness' are glorious examples of raging guitar attacks, soaring vocal melodies, and Formula One speed drum beats. Consistent themes of believing in yourself, being true and strong in the face of adversary, these are the thematic characteristics that Dragonforce have held underneath the imagery of warriors and mythical creatures. Tracks 'Our Final Stand' and 'Curse of Darkness' show that the band has barely shifted its metaphoric themes. Instead of changing what the band stands for, Dragonforce have simply taken the steps to package it differently musically.
I was delighted to hear so much music diversity present in this record. From new chord structures, to varying scales and modes borrowed from world music blended amongst traditional heavy metal tones, this is an incredibly rich musical record. Textures and rhythms found here genuinely push the band into new realms of sound. Steep dynamics, breakdowns, slower, faster – Reaching Into Infinity sounds like a band looking for new roads to take to get to a familiar destination. Stepping aside from the paths most commonly taken to venture down new avenues of stylistic variations. At times the traditional path is the best path, and in those times a familiar Dragonforce can be found. Other times, a new and exciting musical journey unfolds for the listener as they're taken to brand new places. Combine all of these new avenues and smash them together with the classic paradigm than Dragonforce has created for itself, and you get what could possibly be the best version of a band that is making the most of changing the script after 16 years of rarely taking a step out of place.
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