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Beating down the naysayers. - 87%

hells_unicorn, April 9th, 2009

The history that an individual has with a band makes all the difference with how he/she reacts to its various offerings. Those who knew Dragonforce since their underground days from 2000 to 2002 naturally might be hesitant to embrace what they are now, which is a far cry from the glorious tales of dragon riding and sword fighting heard on “Valley Of The Damned”, let alone all of the additional keyboard and vocal gimmicks that have since been incorporated into the band’s most recent releases. Likewise, someone who discovered the band through the heavy success of “Inhuman Rampage” will come to see their debut as obsolete/cheesy D&D metal in the vain of a faster and more technical incarnation of Hammerfall or Dream Evil, completely at odds with the whole “Guitar Hero” videogame image that the band has since assumed. But then there are, of course, stubborn loyalists like me who’ve stuck with the band from the beginning and accepted almost every change the band has made.

This band’s 4th and latest studio offering “Ultra Beatdown” takes a sort of middle ground between the overindulgent technological approach of “Inhuman Rampage” and the epic meets technical celebration of virtuosity that was “Sonic Firestorm”. The token harsh vocals that functioned as something of an extreme metal window dressing have been dropped, and the electronics have been scaled down to something a little more measured, though still highly prominent for even a power metal band. The songs are still loaded with contrasting sections and interesting twists, while still maintaining this sense of an endless chorus. This isn’t power metal that is meant to have the audience singing along with just a singular refrain section for audience participation purposes, but a perpetual volley of sing-along fanfare melodies meant to make a lead vocalist of every member of the audience for the whole fucking show.

There is time set aside for the band to continue playing with their new gadgets, though now in a more tasteful fashion. “Reasons To Live” sees Vadim the crazy Ukrainian keyboardist with a new toy that sounds like a 21st century version of the Millennium Falcon hyper-drive during the intro and ending, while the equally as insane Dave Mackintosh blasting away like he’s the next Gene Hoglan. In between this it’s mostly standard faire, catchy vocal sections with hyper speed riffs and drumming, but the first 30 seconds of this bad boy are sort of like a tech. death meets progressive metal interlude in what is largely a flurry of Helloween on steroids riffs meets Steve Vai guitar gymnastics. The special edition bonus track “Scars Of Yesterday” is loaded with plenty of quirky techno keyboard sounds, as well as a fair share of neo-classical elements that are somewhat unusual even by the standards set by the last album, but despite hanging on to a fairly non-catchy set of ideas longer than a brief 30 second burst, still finds itself back in familiar territory at key points.

The band’s overt catchiness and the light lyrics of heroics and personal triumph are often the principle point of derision amongst the band’s detractors, aside from the occasional fit of childish bickering about commercial success, and there is just as much of it here as on any Dragonforce album. The first single and lead off track “Heroes Of Our Time”, along with “Heartbreak Armageddon” and “The Warrior Inside” are classic examples of a band that tailors every verse, bridge, interlude and breakdown as if they were an extension of the chorus, resulting in something that sounds melodically linear and one dimensional, in spite of all the activity going on between every other instrument backing up or trading prominence with the vocals. Other songs such as “The Fire Still Burns” and “Inside The Winter Storm” get a little more adventurous with tempo changes and contrasting sections and invoke a bit more of a “Sonic Firestorm” image. The chorus of the latter is ambiguous in that I can’t quite figure out which section is the actual chorus; as two sections have equal power and could each be content to be the final word in the song.

The interesting thing to note is that on this album, unlike any of the band’s other previous full lengths, the band has elected to slow things down a bit for more than just a couple bridge sections and their one token ballad. Whether this a sign of the band maturing a little or just getting bored and deciding not to overuse their human drum machine, the band takes a break from upstaging the brutal death metal scene with their superior use of double kick work and present something that sounds closer to the original template set by Helloween and Running Wild. “The Last Journey Home” is an epic in somewhat of a similar model as “Soldiers Of The Wasteland”, but at about 2/3 the tempo. This contains some of the better ballad moments from this outfit, avoiding sounding too sappy and generally flows evenly from one section to the next, not holding onto one tempo or idea for too long. The other bonus track “Strike Of The Ninja” is a straightforward 80s speed metal song with heavy keyboards added, very predictable, but extremely fun and the only fast song on here to completely avoid an endless blur of double bass.

The special edition also comes with a bonus DVD containing some important educational video for Dragonforce lovers and haters alike. The video of Herman Li’s signature guitar line is more for those with guitar experience who are looking for an instrument to emulate his Vai meets Malmsteen style of playing and want to know how they are built, but the studio footage video is required viewing for anyone wishing to comment on the band’s recording practices. It essentially dispels the idiotic yet all too common belief that the band lives in some sort of colossal studio loaded with super computers that are used to turn dog shit into diamonds. Most of the music is recorded in a bedroom, save the drums, and then mixed by a professional just like every other signed band out there.

Footage of Totman, Li and Mackintosh recording their parts shows pretty plainly that there’s no studio magic work at here, just a band that happens not to be drunk off their asses while playing at this particular time. Everybody in the band can play these parts, and with the exceptions of a few botched gigs where the band wasn’t in peak form (this happens to everyone at one point of another) or otherwise publicly intoxicated, there is absolutely nothing to suggest otherwise. The band does it’s fair share of clowning around, including a shot of Totman erasing an entire keyboard part and then mocking Vadim while not being himself present is one of several parts where the laugh factor is in full gear.

But being the longtime fan of this band that I am, the contents on here need to be measured against the band’s previous accomplishments, and the final verdict is one of worthiness. This is essentially one step behind “Sonic Firestorm” and two ahead of “Inhuman Rampage”, and showcases a band that is still in top form. Part of me misses the odes to medieval glory and knights doing battle on snow covered plains, but that’s what bands like Iron Fire and Hammerfall are for. This band is nothing else if not 100% consistent in their output, so those that love the band will tend to love this, while the detractors will continue in similar fashion, and those who can’t get over the video game oriented album art will be encouraged to get over themselves, shut up, and enjoy the sonic fireworks.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on April 9, 2009.