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Pop Metal Part 1: catchy, fun, and aggressive - 85%

Jophelerx, May 19th, 2014

While Dragonforce had always been fairly popular in power metal circles, they exploded into prominence all of a sudden when their song "Through the Fire and Flames" was included on the highly popular video game Guitar Hero 3. Suddenly they weren't just popular in power metal circles - they were popular in other metal circles, in rock circles, and in circles of anyone who liked Guitar Hero and wanted to seem cool. This being the case, one day in 2008, my sort of odd history teacher allowed one of my classmates to play a song while we did some classwork; he claimed to have originally intended this policy to go around to entire class eventually, although only two or three other people ever contributed. However, what I heard on this day was something like I'd never heard before; something so glorious that I had to search for more. Yes, it was "Through the Fire and Flames," and yes, I was 14 at the time, as you may have guessed.

While "Through the Fire and Flames" is far from the best metal song in existence, it will always hold a place in my heart, not only because I find it enjoyable, but because it introduced me to the genre I've almost exclusively been listening to since then (for those who are bad at math, that's six years). A friend of mine ripped me a copy of the CD, and I've been spinning it on and off ever since - my first ever (ripped) metal album. That being said, I realize my nostalgia glasses are going to give me a pretty biased view of the album, but I'm still capable of pointing out strengths and flaws, specific things that I like and don't like with valid reason why I like and don't like them, so don't discard this is fanboy ravings quite just yet.

After the band's brilliant debut Valley of the Damned (VotD) and their less brilliant (but still solid) follow-up, Sonic Firestorm (SF), what would logically come next? Perhaps an even further dip in quality? Well, many would say yes, but I disagree - and whatever the opinion, it indisputably took an unexpected direction. Not drastically so, but still, it's there. SF took VotD's frantic riffage, poppy hooks, and serene beauty and took it in a much different direction, emphasizing the former and putting the other two on the back burner. It was darker in places and more aggressive overall, with a grittier performance from vocalist ZP Theart.

On Inhuman Rampage (IR), rather than taking it to even more aggressive and/or darker, does pretty much the opposite. It's like a different progression from VotD; SF is the album that actually came after it, but IR could have been as well. The band scales back the riffage and darkness and aggression even further than it had been on VotD, opting for a very poppy, heartfelt, majestic direction. For those of you who have already heard the record, this may sound a bit strange, considering there's a lot of blisteringly fast solos and leads, and they even introduce some harsh backing vocals in a couple of places, but this is definitely significantly poppier than VotD. The guitars often fall out from under Theart during choruses or various other sections, and there is heavy use of synthesizers and occasionally even vocoders. Additionally, there's even more multi-tracking of vocals than in VotD, especially in sections without a guitar presence ("Storming the Burning Fields," "Cry for Eternity"). The only thing that appears to have become a bit more "metallized" is that there is only one ballad here, rather than two as there were on the two previous records.

Luckily, that ballad is good. VotD and SF both had two ballads, one of which was bad and one of which was good, so it could have gone either way, but this one is excellent, falling just under the monstrous "Dawn Over a New World" from SF. There is also a pretty widespread claim of "sameyness" for DragonForce, meaning that all their songs sound the same. This idea is a pretty preposterous claim to make about the first two DragonForce albums, at least in the capacity that it's been made, but it holds a little truer on IR. I mean, obviously the songs all have distinct verses and choruses, but the guitar solos do tend to run together unless you're intimately familiar with the album - and sometimes even if you are.

However, I could safely place the songs into three categories: songs that are a bit darker and more aggressive ("Storming the Burning Fields," "The Flame of Youth"), ballads ("Trail of Broken Hearts"), and the rest of the album. So yeah, you've got five songs that are quite similar, but they're all awesome, and they're different enough that I still enjoy listening to all of them frequently. Well, except "Body Breakdown," the weakest track here. It's pretty dull overall and I wouldn't bother with it, but the record as a whole is quite enjoyable and is actually more consistent than the previous two albums - the changes here certainly aren't all bad.

This is DragonForce at it's catchiest, most headbangable state, and it's wonderful. It's accessible and poppy as fuck, but sometimes that's what you want to hear. The songs tend to be blisteringly fast, anthemic, and riddled with guitar wankery, and that will more or less tell you about the five songs I mentioned before. Hell, even "Storming the Burning Fields" more or less falls into this category - but the last two tracks are a little different. "The Flame of Youth" is much darker, with an ominous, depressing introduction, and while the riffs are still blisteringly fast, it's got a more filthy, almost introspective feeling to it. Sure, it's DragonForce and their songs aren't going to be incredibly deep, but the themes of escaping eternal torment are pretty poignant here, with dark verses contrasted by a happy prechorus and chorus about what life would be like, but then the end of the chorus brings you back to reality - "In a lifetime searching we must fight through the eternal pain." Again, I'm sure it wasn't intended as anything terribly philosophical, but considering I've battled depression quite a bit in the past, the themes ring very true with me, which is why it's my favorite song on the album.

"Trail of Broken Hearts" is a pretty standard DF power ballad; sappy as hell, but fun if you can stomach how saccharine it is. It seems pretty heartfelt, at least to me - certainly moreso than songs like "Through the Fire and Flames." Overall I think the album is very, very good - and of course I have nostalgia to thank for at least a little of that - but not without its flaws. Sometimes the synths and effects become a little much, and of course hearing solos without a huge amount of variation for sometimes two or three minutes can get a little bit dull, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and Theart is at the top of his game here, as is the songwriting, for the most part. If you haven't heard this album yet, I strongly urge you not to listen to all the hate and just give it a chance. It's something I've come to love very much, and well worth your time.