Thursday, August 21, 2014

album review: 'maximum overload' by dragonforce

You won't find many metal bands with a worse reputation within their own genre than DragonForce.

And really, it was inevitable the instant 'Through The Fire And The Flames' popped up as a track on Guitar Hero and DragonForce was vaulted into stardom thanks to a focus on their blazing, gratuitously fast riffs and ludicrously overblown lyrics and sound. Even though conceptually they weren't many steps away from many common topics in traditional power metal and speed metal, they were the ones who got popular and their completely sincere embrace of their material became an easy target for backlash. It didn't help matters that the more one dug into DragonForce, the less substantial and well-written the lyrics were, to the point where the speed and occasionally solid melodic progressions were the only things saving the band from being a borderline parody of itself, especially after less-than-favourable live reviews started coming in. 

Nevertheless, DragonForce continued on with Ultra Beatdown in 2008, which tried to showcase more experimentation and progressive elements and did contain some solid enough songs, but at this point the lyrics were becoming a much more noticeable problem, demonstrating less and less cohesion and elements that were starting to actively repeat themselves. After that, lead singer ZP Theart left in 2010, replaced by Marc Hudson, and they released The Power Within in 2012, which wasn't a bad record by any stretch but the more I listened to it the more I began to think the band was missing their mark. Sure, the fast-paced speed runs were impressive, but DragonForce could write some really solid well-textured melodic grooves at a slower pace, and considering the lyrics of DragonForce were always pretty much interchangeable, I didn't want to see the band become just a gimmick.

In any case, I had no high expectations with their newest album Maximum Overload, featuring new drummer Gee Anzalone after Dave Mackintosh left to pursue progressive rock projects. So what did I get?

Well, it's a DragonForce album. If you like hyper-kinetic, unbelievably cheesy power and speed metal with a fair amount of chiptune and video game influences, you'll like it. If you attempt to take this album with any sort of serious depth, you're going to end up disappointed, but then again, you're probably listening to the wrong band anyways. That said, I will say I'm not as impressed by Maximum Overload as other DragonForce albums, and that their brand of maximalism doesn't always pay as big of dividends as it should.

So let's get the least important elements of this record out of the way: the lyrics. Now I'll give DragonForce credit for slight improvements to their lyrical meter and writing choruses that are a little better structured, but let's be honest here, you could swap out some of the lyrics for any other DragonForce song and what would really change? You get your songs about the glory in battle and adventure steeped in fantasy imagery, you get your dramatic cries for change and to seize control of your dreams, and you get your sparse few songs where DragonForce aims to tell a darker story. And of the three topics, DragonForce is always better at the first two than the last one, mostly because they tend to be unconvincing tackling darker subject matter, even when they bring in Matt Heafy from Trivium for rougher vocals and add darker guitar textures and more symphonic elements. Now to DragonForce's credit, they don't shy away from darker songs like the apocalyptic 'The Sun Is Dead' or 'Symphony Of The Night' which both work pretty well, but then you have 'City Of Gold', a song that tries to go for more personal stakes with the girl trying for showbiz dreams and man, does it feel incongruous against the rest of this album. Even the ridiculously silly yet kind of ingenious cover of Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire' works better than 'City Of Gold', simply because gunning down to more personal stakes with DragonForce's style of instrumentation is almost too campy to be believed, especially when the song plays the same struggle with the same level of bombast and never really slows to take a breath, even going for a key change to amp up the 'epic' feel.

Now to be fair, it's a song that does fit the overall theme of this record, which is dealing with overwhelming pressure from all sides - and to give DragonForce credit, they do tackle multiple facets of this theme, from the resignation and drive to carry on of 'The Game', 'Defenders' and 'Symphony Of The Night' to the explosive protest of 'No More' and 'Tomorrow King' and 'Three Hammers', from the apocalypse that might bring a new dawn on 'The Sun Of Dead' to the constant living on the edge of 'Extraction Zone', each song does bring some differentiation in themes and tone - but you'd be forgiven for not noticing because of a consistent problem for DragonForce, in that they don't really change up their wordplay. Like it or not, if you spend so much time using the same hyperbolic language about fighting overwhelming odds, you lose a sense of some of the drama. 

And unfortunately, the instrumentation falls into some of the same problem. For starters, Dave Mackintosh's loss is keenly felt as Gee Anzalone replaces the more complex drum lines with sheer speed, which can work but does make the drum progressions a lot less interesting. And while I do like the grimier edges on the rhythm guitar getting a little more attention, once again the mix seems more focused on upper-end synths and guitar noodling with various degrees of shrillness at the expense of the bass guitar. And sure, it's impressive to see the various guitar solos at an even faster pace, you lose some of the impact of the solo when the notes flicker by so quickly without a solid supporting melody, like on the opening track 'The Game'. It doesn't help matters that some of the synth choices are really oily and hollow, like the opening line on 'Tomorrow's Kings'. What's frustrating is that when DragonForce slows down a little and focused more on grooves or atmosphere, they can get some great moments: the stripped-back guitars and male backing chorus on 'Three Hammers', the ghostly interlude with the subtle organ on 'Symphony Of The Night', the richer backing choruses and bass solo on the borderline-progressive 'The Sun Is Dead', and especially that chiptune interlude on 'Extraction Zone' which sounds unlike anything DragonForce has ever done with a pretty solid rollicking guitar line and interweaving keyboards. It's very telling that for all of the fast-paced riffing that Dragonforce brings to the table, what I remember most about this album are the quieter moments in contrast, and it's one of the problems of this maximalist approach - if you're full-force all the time and you can't vary your approach consistently, all the speed begins to run together and so do the songs.

And then there are the vocals... and while I think Marc Hudson is a good replacement for ZP Theart and the backing vocals supporting him tend to be fairly solid... man, he's hit and miss for me. His vocals are a little less ragged which can give them some dramatic power in his low-to-mid range, but his high range is incredibly shrill and can incredibly grating very quickly, especially as you can tell the vocal production is struggling to force his contain his voice from going off-key or sharp. And like everything else on his records, his voice is stretched to the absolute limit and doesn't have the slightest element of subtlety.

And I know some of you are saying, "Mark, it's DragonForce, you knew exactly what you were getting into when you chose to review this album, why are you even listening to this band if you don't want to hear insane guitar histrionics and glorious excess?" And yeah, there's a point to that, but my issue is that I'm not wowed by the insane histrionics any more. The sense of pacing to this record really feels skewed to me, always in a hurry to get back to the guitar gymnastics instead of treating them like something special and focusing more on the melodic grooves and dramatic moments DragonForce used to be able to absolutely kill, the reasons I liked this ridiculous band in the first place. I'm not getting a 'Starfire' or an 'Operation Ground & Pound' or an 'A Flame For Freedom', and that lack of contrast hurts this record as a whole. As it is, Maximum Overload is ridiculous and over-the-top and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it on some level, which means I'm going to give it a strong 6/10, but they've done better, and if they don't rediscover musical dynamics in a hurry, they're going to become more of a gimmick and less of a band. 


  1. Have you perchance ever heard that Scrooge McDuck metal album by the Nightwish guitarist that came out this year? (Seriously, look it up.) That would make for an interesting review.