There’s a moment in the video for “Through the Fire and Flames”, the 2006 Guitar Hero-fueled hit from English power metal group DragonForce, that broadcasts loud and clear what this band will never be. As guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman trade laser-perfect guitar solos, complete with a pop-up window that gives us close-ups of their acrobatic fretwork, Totman uses his downtime to methodically chug a beer. It’s an attempt to ground the band in the same punk-influenced, lunchpail ethos as its heroes in Iron Maiden. But it only belies the clinical nature of DragonForce’s approach. This group doesn’t perform. It executes. It makes metal songs that sound like metal objects. If Totman actually did have a few pints before ripping that solo, any trace of human error most definitely saw the cutting room floor.
Yet in a way, you can’t help but root for these guys. While its sixth album, Maximum Overload, makes good on its title — stuffing 10 tracks with as many flawlessly played, Maiden-meets-Mario Kart guitar showcases as they’ll hold — it also contains a shimmer of that Steve Harris magic, where the preposterous becomes the triumphant, and you’re reminded that melodrama is an art form. “Three Hammers” is the band at its best, with vocalist Marc Hudson (his second album after taking over for original singer ZP Theart) lustily belting out a tale of three “guardians of light” who lead a kingdom against something evil so things can get back to normal and “the dragons will rise once again”. The music is appropriately over the top, with a solemn, finger-picked intro and plenty of choral synth patches. Storytelling problems like whether or not protagonists are actually the villains — what kingdom would want the dragons back? — just make the listening experience that much more fun.
“The Sun is Dead” is another delightfully unspecific tale of how we need to “fight till the end”. The riffage chugs along merrily until the towering hair metal chorus reassures us, “But with the prayers of the dead / Now a new light will ascend from the stars.” Once again, the questions abound. The people who are already dead will be praying? If something ascends from the stars, doesn’t that mean it’s going in the opposite direction of Earth? This is the kind of serious-but-unpretentious songwriting that gives life to airless productions. It makes DragonForce fun.
Alas, the band only hits this sweet spot a few other times on Maximum Overload. A more accurate representation of its aesthetic would be “The Game”, the abysmal speed metal self-help seminar that kicks off the record. “Ten thousand ways to say sorry / But life writes its own tragic story,” sings Hudson over drummer Dave Mackintosh’s relentless pummeling, one of several half-assed clichés about living with guilt that passes for insight here.
Then there’s “No More”, which asks the question, “Should DragonForce write a breakup song?” By the time Hughes sings his first couplet, we have our answer: “The light is shining / Still I’m not so surprised / One thousand voicemails / For one thousand lies.” Maybe she’s not nice to you because you never pick up the phone, dude.
And the cover of “Ring of Fire” that closes the album? Let’s just say that it exists, and that it shouldn’t. DragonForce should know what it is by now — a metal band that’s at its best when it toes the line between novelty act and Iron Maiden opening act. Let’s hope it throws back a few beers and calls its next album Awesome Fantastical Bullshit.