DragonForce’s Herman Li Dishes on “Through the Fire and Flames,” New Music, PRS Guitars, and More
A super shredding ball of frenetic light, if you blink, you might miss DragonForce‘s ballistic ball of guitar-conquering fury, Herman Li.
When DragonForce’s 2003 debut, Valley of the Damned, dropped into an unsuspecting zeitgeist’s collective consciousness, everything we thought we knew about power metal changed. Charged via hyper-electrified splendor and fury, Li and company hotwired the brains of its fans through presto guitar heroics not seen since the days when giants roved the earth during the ’80s shred era.
An unholy amalgamation of spiraling guitar virtuosity, fantasy lyrics that would make the likes of Ronnie James Dio double over, and retro aesthetics inspired by classic video games. But it wasn’t until “Through the Fire and Flames” – pulled from 2005’s Inhuman Rampage – was included in 2007’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock that DragonForce truly set the world on fire.
In the 15 years since DragonForce has stuck to their guns in the face of critics who call them repetitive. And while some things have changed, what’s remained is Li’s commitment to making music that speaks to his soul. As complex as his licks may be, the long-term London resident’s ethos remains simple: feed an insatiable fanbase that remains ravenous for DragonForce’s perpetually gyrating vortex of metal.
While on a rare break from the road, Herman Li checked in with Metal Sucks from his home in London to recount his memories of Valley of the Damned, the recording of “Through the Fire and Flames,” his PRS signature guitar, and the latest on DragonForce’s next record.
You’ve been on tour with Powerwolf and Warkings. How has the reception been?
It was a great arena tour. It feels like every band is on tour these days, so being able to pull these kinds of numbers and sell out places as we did is great. It’s been great. We’re elated about this tour, and it felt really great to get back out there. And this tour was also interesting because we were playing with Powerwolf and Warkings, so we adapted the setlist to feature more than only our fast songs. We tried to diversify by adding a mix of old and new songs so that people who might not have heard those old songs could get excited about them, too.
What’s your favorite song to play live, and what’s the most challenging?
I guess “Valley of the Damned” because it’s easy, and I never need to practice it. It’s an easy one for me to play, but we haven’t been playing it on this tour. As for the most challenging, that’s probably the one that I’ve forgotten how to play because we’re not playing it now. The only time I don’t remember how to play one of our songs is if we drop it from the setlist. But they’re all challenging in their own ways, and they all have similar characteristics, but there’s none I have trouble pulling off unless we haven’t played it for a bit.
You’ve got a new bassist with you now, Alicia Vigil. How did she come aboard?
We’ve known Alicia for a while now from out in Los Angeles. We were out in L.A., and we started asking our friends out there for recommendations because they knew we were looking for a new bass player, and a few recommended her. All we heard was that she’s a hard worker and could do backing vocals because she’s a singer, and they were right. She’s a great singer and bass player, which is precisely why we started talking to her.
But to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure at the beginning because when you see someone on the stage, you never really know what they’re like in real life. Alicia has her band, Vigil of War, and with that, she has a different stage presence because she’s out front. But once she joined DragonForce, we quickly discovered that she fits in well. She’s a hard worker, a great player, and exactly what we needed.
What can you tell me about your new video for “Last Dragonborn?”
I can tell you that this video was actually made in 2019. And I know that it took a long time to come out. [Laughs]. But we had Alicia record her parts in 2021 after the pandemic had gotten better. But it took a long time to come out; the pandemic kind of screwed things up, so we didn’t release it for a while. Things just got so busy that I didn’t have time to get the video out, so it’s been sitting in the can all that time.
What are the origins of the song?
Well, the song is based on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But it’s a funny spot we find ourselves in where I’ve got people asking me about something I did a long time ago. But funnily enough, as you know, all of the people on the internet seem to think that it’s a brand-new song, and people are still excited about it. So, it’s cool. New fans didn’t know about it, and old fans are happy that a song that they like has a video to go along with it.
So, it’s a win for everybody. But I don’t know, we’ve been playing songs from the Extreme Power Metal album since 2019, and we’ve played this song during most of the shows. So, it’s good to give it a video because we originally wanted to do a video for every single song until the pandemic screwed up the timing of everything.
That begs the question: What challenges did DragonForce face during the pandemic?
We were probably one of the last bands out on tour when the pandemic hit, so I guess the main challenge is when you cancel a tour, you lose loads of money. Apart from that, everything was great during the pandemic for the band. I guess it was good for the world to slow down a little bit – apart from the people dying in the world, obviously – but in our band, it was good to catch our breath.
Being a musician is like being a hamster on a wheel, where you make albums and go on tour repeatedly. So, in some ways, the pandemic was the best thing that’s happened to the band in that we could rest for the first time in years. We didn’t have to go out on tour, but we did finish writing an album. We didn’t record it, but we did a lot of things on Twitch and YouTube, so we weren’t bored.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Valley of the Damned. What are your retrospective thoughts on DragonForce’s debut?
I can say this until I’m blue in the face and tell people otherwise, but people always seem to say that we sound the same as the first album to this day. They tell me, “Oh, this new song sounds the same as the first album,” and then there are people who say, “I don’t like the new stuff because every DragonForce song just sounds the same.” But the fact is that you can see obvious evolution with our recordings, and if you listen to metal and understand this kind of music, you’ll realize that. We’re better musicians now and better performers on stage.
We still play some of the songs from Valley of the Damned; on the last tour, we played several songs from the first album, and we always will. But honestly, there are big changes that have come with time from us playing them and growing as musicians. But if you look back, my playing on Valley of the Damned was not nearly as good as I play now. I guess you could say everything on there is a bit worse when you compare it, but that’s how it’s meant to be, right? If you don’t get better over time, you’re wasting your time.
Is there anything about the album you would change, given a chance?
Well, we did do a remix and remaster of that album about ten years ago, so I don’t think I’d want to mess with it again. Apart from making the mix better, I wouldn’t want to change it again. We basically mixed our first album in two days, and we recorded all those songs by ourselves, but at the time, we weren’t experienced enough to understand how many hours you need to mix a song properly.
We focused more on playing, recording, and production than the mix itself. And so, about ten years ago, we went in and did the remix and remastered it to clean it up a bit. But to be honest, I think the fact that I wasn’t really playing that well gives it that certain energy you can’t recreate when you’re older, and you’ve been playing longer. So, I like it the way it is, but I don’t at the same time.
In what ways have you evolved and improved as a guitarist since?
I think I play better across the board. I’m better in every single department on the guitar; I can play faster and more accurately. I can play more melodically, and I can play more styles on the guitar. But it’s music, so no one can say for sure what’s better and what’s not, I know how I feel, and I think I’m better. Also, now can play on live streams, whereas in the past, I was super scared of playing during a live recording or stream.
But now I’m totally comfortable on Twitch and YouTube, so I guess you can call me a content creator at the same time as being in a band. I have much more confidence in my own playing than before, so I’m not scared to perform. I’m not worried I’ll freak out and be overly nervous while playing in front of the camera. People don’t realize that playing in front of a camera like that is one of the hardest things to do, and it takes a lot of practice to understand what it takes to do that comfortably.
“Through the Fire and Flames” remains iconic. What’s the special sauce when it comes to that track?
Well, that track is not special, funnily enough. It’s a very typical DragonForce song. So, the fact that it’s so well love is pretty funny. Because if you like that kind of music, then you should like every DragonForce song from the first three or four albums. On every album, we have songs with that signature sound and arrangement, but there was something about that song that was a hit. I think it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time in people’s lives. I can’t say there’s anything that I thought made that song special; it just happened that way.
I think we have better songs from that same album or the one before or after, but people liked it because it was part of their childhood and their lives. When Guitar Hero III came out, that song was so big that it’s become a part of people’s lives now and forever. And now it’s continuing as a meme song on the internet, and I’m happy about that. I love the song and appreciate what it’s afforded us, but I don’t think it’s our best song.
Do you still remember where you were as you recorded the iconic guitar solo?
I’m sitting in the exact same room now that I was when I recorded the solo for “Through the Fire and Flames.” I was sitting right here in London, and I can remember it clear as day. Back then, we were making music for fun because until the recording of Inhuman Rampage; we had never made any money in DragonForce. It was a net zero. From the moment of signing the record deal and all the way to the recording of that album, we made nothing. So, we just did it for the love of music, and that was it because there was nothing else for us. And that’s when some of the greatest music comes, the times when you expect no return from it.
You can’t control what comes after, and we couldn’t then, so we made that music purely for the love of it, and maybe that’s why it turned out as it did. But as far as the business part of music, the people around you who tell you different things and try to influence what to do that has a lasting effect on your music. No matter how stubborn I was or how much I tried to ignore that, I’m sure that played a part in what happened after. But I can say that the recording of that song and that album was a very natural musical expression from us at that time.
What are some of the most significant differences between the European and US metal scenes?
Well, things are a little bit closer with the internet than they used to be, so it’s not as divided. But I would say that the U.K. follows the US, while in Europe, there are so many countries that they don’t need to follow anybody. Take Germany, for example, they have a strong sense of what they want to listen to, so they don’t follow anyone. But in the US, the machine is so powerful in terms of promoting music that it does have a certain kind of domination over everything. But Germany is one of the most diverse places for metal; there are so many festivals and bands that can tour around and make a living.
I do think to be a professional musician, though, if you want longevity and a career in metal music, it’s important to build it up in Europe. Because once they like it, they’re gonna keep liking it, while in the US, you can come down just as fast as you rise. Having said that, I think there is a bit more creativity, imagination, and risks taken in the US metal scene. And you need to take risks to stand out because the music business is one of the most competitive spaces. You’ve got these minds working at creating something beyond what’s been done before, and that’s a challenging space to live in.
What’s your secret to good heavy metal guitar?
Do whatever you feel like, and don’t care what others think. Don’t worry about what techniques other people are using; never worry about doing what other people tell you to play. The most important thing is to play what you want and ignore the noise. I think that’s more important than getting perfect technique or playing fast. You’ve just got to play the way you want to play and let things fall into place from there.
What sorts of guitars and gear are you using these days?
Well, I’ve got 200 guitars, so it’s hard to say. [Laughs]. For a long time, I played my signature EGEN 18, which Ibanez made for me back in 2007. But mainly, I’m playing my new PRS signature mode now. Beyond that, I use a Kemper Profile.
What is it about the Kemper and the PRS that you like most?
Well, the Kemper is this amazing little machine you can bring with you, and I like that I can profile and copy any sound that I like. It’s some of the best technology out there, and I like to make the most of it. So, I don’t have to bring a huge amp and racks and stuff anymore, which makes life much easier. As cool as that stuff is, once it breaks, it’s a mess to replace, and you might not be able to get another like it. It’s crazy what you can do with the Kemper.
As far as my guitar is concerned, I designed it with PRS to specifically be my dream guitar. So, that means it’s got everything I want from a guitar but was never able to get from other brands. It’s a great guitar, and it works perfectly great for me. As you know, though, it’s a custom guitar; it’s not something you can buy off the wall at a shop. And with that in mind, my idea was to try and put every piece of technology and everything I know about guitars into this one model. I made the guitar that no one was making, that I could never find, and that I couldn’t buy but always wanted. And now, PRS is building it for me. So, yeah, it’s my dream guitar.
You mentioned that DragonForce has a new album written. Do you have a release date in mind?
I can’t tell you anything just yet. Not until it’s done, at least. Because things change all the time, and the pieces are constantly moving, shifting, and changing. Even though it’s written, there are always going to be surprises in terms of what’s going to happen to it. But I can tell you that we are slowly working on it.
Do you have a potential release date in mind?
To be honest, no. And the reason is that the music industry is changing quickly now with streaming and everything. With all the changes, releases take a long time to set up – longer than they used to be – so I don’t know. I can tell you that I don’t want to mix the album and then have it sit there because it’s taking forever due to delays, and then no one gets to hear it. I’d rather give it away for free before that happens, but that’s not even a guarantee anymore. So, to maximize the potential of the album’s success, I’ve got to plan ahead. So, I don’t know. It’ll come out whenever, maybe next year, or maybe the year after. Stay tuned.