DRAGONFORCE SLIGHTLY EXCEED YOUR EXPECTATIONS ON ULTRA BEATDOWN
DragonForce, like most good bands, either hits you the right way or doesn’t. And one could totally understand how their music could hit someone the wrong way – when looking at DragonForce from a distance (unendingly optimistic metal played at relentless speed, nuts-in-a-vice vocals, keyboards straight out of Mega Man 4, the fact that the name of the band is DragonForce, etc.), they are undoubtedly obnoxious on paper. But as those of us who like them know, the band’s execution usually ascends that obnoxiousness to come up with a seemingly infinite canon of uplifting, complexly performed power metal songs. So it’s good to know that at the very least, DragonForce haven’t done anything drastic to their formula for their latest fell length, Ultra Beatdown. In fact, in its best moments, the album showcases the band’s most enjoyable material, which for a band that is at the moment best known by the general populous as the hardest part of Guitar Hero III, is quite refreshing.
All that being said, let’s not mince words here – DragonForce, on paper and off, are one of the most absurd bands that have ever existed. They’re essentially a home for the ideas every other metal band passed on for being too kitschy or obnoxious. Their music is, at its best and worst, a wall of ridiculous sound, like being charged at by an army of anime chimps in medieval armor and/or space suits. And make no mistake, this sound is still the one that undeniably rules ULTRA BEATDOWN!!! (The title of the album will now be referred to in caps and accompanied by three exclamation points for the rest of the review, as I feel it warrants it). And not only are the songs absurd, but they’re also relatively long: six of ULTRA BEATDOWN!!!’s eight songs top seven minutes in length.
So how do the band avoid the pitfall of being, I don’t know, the worst fucking band you’ve ever heard? For one, the songs, though admittedly irritating in theory, are also really, really fucking good. The band have been dubbed “Journey on crank” or “Bon Jovi on speed,” depending on which article you read. And all the catchiness and overall lovable nature of the aforementioned bands lies in DragonForce’s uncanny ability to write infectious songs. For a band so seemingly packed with virtuosos, they also manage to come up with material that won’t leave your head for the better part of the decade. And on top of all that, the group seem to take themselves as seriously as they need to be taken: they’re by no means a joke band, but they also acknowledge that taking this kind of music completely to heart makes you, well, kind of a huge tool. There are other bands that demand your rabid devotion and insist their releases change your life; DragonForce, God for-fucking-bid, just want you to have a good time.
Now, none of the preceding two paragraphs are news to people that have been following – or, hell, even to people that have had a fleeting awareness of – the band over the last few years. So much like Motorhead, Slayer, AC/DC, or the Ramones, how does a band that essentially puts out the same album over and over again make an album that’s better than all their other ones? In the case of ULTRA BEATDOWN!!!, the band just do everything they’d already been doing, but slightly better. Instead of just being the cheesy power metal machine they’d been in the past, the band have honed what they do, notably paying closer attention to their songwriting skill. My issue with their last effort, Inhuman Rampage (perhaps one of the most un-aptly named albums in metal history), was that their shtick got old: they pulled out the same stops on each song, piling sped up Maiden and Priest riffs with “woah-ooh” breakdowns and big, hopeful choruses with a minute or three decicated to guitar wankery. This was a blast at first, but eventually lead to a mush, albeit a glitzy mush, of same-y sounding songs. By adding even a shred of variance to the mix, ULTRA BEATDOWN!!! is automatically better than DragonForce’s previous output. But this is by no means makes the record good by default; it’s an impressive effort by a band that were seemingly a one trick pony (or armored steed). They alter some things without moving too far from the sound that made them likable to begin with, making them less abrasive to newcomers and still very, very appealing to previous fans. It’s easily the first DragonForce record that’s not a chore to sit all the way through.
And though it’s a cliché to anoint a breakthrough record as “everything the band did, but better!,” that’s exactly what ULTRA BEATDOWN!!! is. Those big choruses are bigger and much more tuneful; the band only uses the “woah-ooh” trick on a few songs instead of all of them, essentially moving the trick from the “tired” column to the “Holy shit! I love it when bands do that!” column; when put into the context of real, interesting songs, the blistering guitar work of Herman Li and Sam Totman seems effective instead of masturbatory (well, most of the time); the band only slows it down for one song (“A Flame for Freedom”), keeping the record’s momentum almost constant. And let’s not shit ourselves: this is still some of the cheesiest music put to tape. But much like Styx, which ULTRA BEATDOWN!!! recalls more than Journey or Bon Jovi, if you take the band with a grain of salt (or in this case, a salt mine), it’s great and bound to at least put you in a good mood. And unlike most power metal, the band seem to be in on the joke; the guitar/keyboard tradeoffs on “Reasons to Live” and the beginning of “The Warrior Inside” must be a wink to ULTRA BEATDOWN!!!’s audience. In a time when enjoying oneself in music must either be done either through irony or novelty, it’s good to see a band that recognizes how ridiculous they are manage to be pretty damn awesome in the meantime.
(3 ½ out of 5 horns)