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Korean computer game - 67%

gasmask_colostomy, December 6th, 2016

Dragonforce are on a seesaw of cheese it would seem and getting fatter album by album. Aside from the whole 'Ring of Fire' debacle on the most recent album, things have been getting less serious since the first two releases. If you want to know how much cheese to expect from Ultra Beatdown (well, first read the title) you can imagine Dragonforce on that seesaw of cheese again, just about balancing with Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, and Tom and Jerry stacked on the other end. The first two names should indicate that the band had not exactly jumped out of the power metal genre, nor regressed to writing simpler songs, though the duo of cat and house might tell you that there are some gimmicky and populist elements to this album. Oh, and there's a shitload of cheese.

Concerning the differences from Dragonforce's preceding breakthrough album Inhuman Rampage, there are some improvements and some additional difficulties. One of the biggest problems with that release was that it lasted 56 minutes, was primarily a superfast shredfest, and had retardedly many blastbeats - hence, it became monotonous and tiring faster than it should have. That the only ballad closed the album was also a terrible decision. For Ultra Beatdown, there is slightly more variation in pace and drumming style, though still plenty of songs where Dave Mackintosh steals the focus from the riffs and makes all the fast sections sound very similar. There are also still plenty of screaming virtuoso solos and the same over-the-top epic vocals, while one could perhaps see how the band tried to alter certain parts of the formula to make the whole experience less monotonous. These alterations take the form of some "lighters in the air" stadium moments where the power metal drops out and we get sweet gentle soloing, some tasteful piano, or a ballad verse, most of which crop up in 'The Last Journey Home' or 'Heartbreak Armageddon', the former of which also plays around with some '80s rock riffs and keyboards, somewhere close to how Europe sound.

What seems quite evident when listening to Ultra Beatdown is that Dragonforce hadn't tired of their "everything at maximum" formula and actually decided to increase the complexity, length, and ideas base of their compositions. Almost certainly that was a mistake, since these songs mostly fail to maintain focus and interest throughout their arduous lengths (averaging over 7 minutes), while some of the inclusions feel either too wayward or too insipid to be justified. I can't help comparing some of the sprawling eight-minute numbers to the bonus track 'Strike of the Ninja', which does everything that Dragonforce were aiming for in just over three minutes and arguably does it better than anything else on the album. (Add 'Scars of Yesterday', the other bonus track, and its awesome riffing to that debate too.) So the editing is like shit, because the band should have cut out at least two minutes from most of the tracks and possibly dropped one of the more redundant pieces, probably choosing from the two I've already mentioned. Also, I don't understand why the band thought that some of those popular song features (quiet verses and so on) would benefit their songs: I get the fact that it varies the pace, but as often as not it loses the feel of the song, whereas something else could have done that just fine, such as the really cool mid-paced middle part of 'Inside the Winter Storm'.

These minor differences in style make a reasonable difference to the effect of the songs, largely due to the fact that Dragonforce's greatest asset has always been their ability to make power metal sound like a victorious canter across a battlefield and that canter is often interrupted on Ultra Beatdown. ZP Theart is certainly underrated as a power metal vocalist, since his huge lungs and propensity to sound like he's always in the middle of a chorus make everything grand and catchy, though here he has to put up with too much messing about from the instrumentalists to get a clear run for more than a minute or two, as well as all those ballad verses. The other instrumentalists still show copious amounts of skill; however, I remember writing of the previous album that it was like "the giant who is too stupid to control its own power" and that's precisely the problem here too, just even more so. There are a few songs that would have fitted onto Inhuman Rampage, those being 'Heroes of Our Time', 'The Fire Still Burns', and 'Inside the Winter Storm', while 'Reasons to Live' and 'The Last Journey Home' are the weird ones that don't really work, particularly the unfocused former of the two. It starts off with some fake tech-death blasting, turns into a Dragonforce song (with horns) for a bit, then takes a trip into Yngwie Malmsteen's discography (with piano), morphing gradually into more cheesy '80s stuff, returns to the Dragonforce song, and tacks on a pop ballad ending just for good measure.

Ultra Beatdown isn't a write-off by any means and many of the band's fans will love every minute of it. Nevertheless, it's musically all over the place due to some bizarre songwriting ideas and doesn't satisfy or excite as much as the earlier material. As it turns out, the cover image is actually a good indicator: a mostly naked pink-haired woman with a huge gun, like a screenshot from some Korean computer game; you can just tell that this album will appeal to the kind of person who will play that - wacky, hyperactive, and immune to cheese.