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The storm gets a bit extreme. - 88%

hells_unicorn, July 25th, 2006
Written based on this version: 2004, CD, Noise Records

The winds of change have a tendency of rising in sudden gusts every four or five years, and in retrospect, it was kind of surprising that the slow resurgence of power metal that began in the mid-90s didn't see any terribly massive shifts in character until nearly a decade after it began. To be fair, the changes in question had already started to rear its head a bit with the more AOR oriented character of the Masterplan debut, itself a product of a noted change in stylistic direction by Helloween on The Dark Ride, and which would arguably come to influence the change in direction that occurred with Sonata Arctica, Edguy, and perhaps even Power Quest. Dragonforce also found itself changing at around the same time, but instead of regressing back to a more primitive rock approach, would lean back into much of the band's membership's past of merging power metal with more extreme styles in the defunct New Zealand project Demoniac.

In essence, the resulting debut effort Sonic Firestorm is an exercise in moving forward by taking a step back, abandoning the once popular high fantasy subject matter and straight up speed metal influences for something more that's a tad more generalized and stylistically akin to melodic death metal, though without the harsher elements. Indeed, the term that the band coined to describe this album in extreme power metal is a fitting one in that it incorporates a lot of the technical aspects of death and black metal, while avoiding the darker aesthetic that makes said styles a bit less accessible to mainline listeners. This change in direction was partially promulgated by the recruitment of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh, who's generally blistering speed and frequent employment of blast beats out-extremes any of his predecessors in this band, but the songwriting has also seen a noteworthy shift in character; still incorporating the triumphant chorus content and blinding speed metal riff work, but becoming increasingly more technical in character and leaning a bit more heavy on atmospherics courtesy of the keyboards thanks to increased participation by Vadim Pruzhanov in the songwriting process.

Perhaps the best way to understand this album is by picturing its predecessor as a sort of grand battle between dragons and pre-civilized humanity, whereas Sonic Firestorm comes across more as a modern variation of said concept similar to the Christian Bale flick "Reign Of Fire". This is best embodied in the colder and more mechanized character of the extended intro of the opener "My Spirit Will Go On" and the blazing fury of notes that kick off "Fury Of The Storm" and "Fields Of Despair", each of them clocking in slightly shorter than the next but hitting the senses with just as many blows. Similarly, the latter half of the album finds a greater degree of consonant Stratovarius meets Sonata Arctica tendencies, particularly on "Above The Winter Moonlight", a song that all but could have been heard on Winterheart's Guild with a slightly shorter duration and less noodling. Then again, as things draw to a close a familiar set of ideas start to rear their heads, namely Totman's happy-go-lucky songwriting character from much of his Valley Of The Damned content shining through on "Once In A Lifetime" and Herman Li penning a shorter and somewhat nimbler sequel to "Disciples Of Babylon" in "Prepare For War".

Transitional albums can be a sketchy thing, and while Sonic Firestorm is definitely a riveting experience, the excessive character that it takes on in relation to this band's last album makes it come off as a tad too synthetic. Generally fans of this band tend to prefer this album given that it is more indicative of where they would end up on their commercial breakthrough effort Inhuman Rampage, but the passage of time has found more nostalgic power metal fans like myself leaning a bit more towards the old ways. This isn't to say that Dragonforce was ever really in the conservative camp of power metal, as the break between where Helloween ends and they begin couldn't be much clearer if it split the entire planet in half, but that sort of turn-of-the-millennium escapism that typified the conceptual craze of the day was definitely a greater factor on Valley Of The Damned. But whether one likes power metal taken to extreme as embodied in the debut, or power metal repackaged as an extreme concept in this album, both are solid chunks of history that deserve continual consideration.

Rewritten on December 2nd, 2016.