Sunday, 11 June 2017

DragonForce's 'Reaching into Infinity' - Album Review

Despite becoming famous (or perhaps infamous!) for the difficulty of their signature anthem Through the Fire and Flames on the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the international power metal band DragonForce are certainly one of the most respected bands in the genre. While sections of the metal community still sneer at the mention of the band's name, there is no doubting the popularity and musical prowess of DragonForce. Despite being a fan for a long time, it is probably only during the past four years or so that I have really fallen in love with them. The band's last album, 2014's Maximum Overload (which I reviewed here), was a real turning point for me and it was the first of the band's albums that I really loved (rather than merely enjoyed). While I regard original frontman ZP Theart as the quintessential voice of DragonForce, it cannot be denied that the band have improved hugely during the Marc Hudson era. Hudson himself is a great singer, and probably more vocally diverse than Theart, but I feel the main reason for this overall improvement is the increased involvement of bassist Frédéric Leclercq in the band's songwriting. This role has increased exponentially since this first studio outing with the band, 2008's Ultra Beatdown, and his melodic and slightly progressive songwriting style has really helped to expand the band's horizons. Leclercq has become the perfect foil for Sam Totman - the band's founder, guitarist, and principle songwriter - and this writing partnership has only improved over the Hudson era and has made DragonForce into a much more interesting band as a result. I much as I enjoy the band's early discography, it cannot be said that there is a lot of variation to be found there! While that high-energy power metal sound that is filled full of fantasy-inspired lyrics and lengthy guitar solos is still the core of DragonForce's sound, that has been diversified in recent years with more changes in pace and interesting song structures. Following up Maximum Overload was always going to be tricky, but here we are three years on with Reaching into Infinity, the band's seventh studio album. While initially the overall impression of Reaching into Infinity is that it is not quite as strong as Maximum Overload, it certainly comes close. The diversity of the last album returns here too, and I feel that this is an album that is only going to grow on me further over time. Leclercq is not the only member of the band to increase their songwriting contributions here too, with Hudson this time contributing lyrics to nearly half of the songs. It is good to see Hudson really integrating himself into the band's creative process on his third studio outing with DragonForce, something which I am sure will continue to increase over time. Italian drummer Gee Anzalone, who replaced long-time drummer Dave Mackintosh in 2014, makes his debut in the studio with DragonForce with Reaching into Infinity and turns in a fantastic performance which helps to really drive the material found here.

After the short instrumental title track that really sets the scene with marching snare drums and slow-burning guitar leads, the album really explodes into life with Ashes of the Dawn and it's crunching main riff and washes of warm synths. A key part of DragonForce's sound has always been the twin lead guitar lines of Totman and Herman Li, and the song's extended intro features the first of the many examples of this on the album. In many ways, this is a typical DragonForce song that steams along at a decent pace and is lead by a strong vocal performance from Hudson. His voice during the verses seems gritter than his usual delivery however, and helps to add some overall weight. Hudson's performance throughout this album is probably his best yet with the band, and is extremely diverse and powerful. The lengthy guitar solos are back with a vengeance here, and Totman starts off the proceedings here before Li takes over with his legendary explosive playing. Judgement Day places a greater emphasis on keyboards than the band have done in a while, so it is unsurprising to read that the song was co-written by Vadim Pruzhanov. His songwriting contributions have always been strong in the past, but his role in this department has definitely reduced in the Hudson era. It is great to see him contributing again with this song, which is an early highlight and packed full of soaring melodies. The verse steams along at a break-neck speed, and Pruzhanov's synth melodies fill the gaps between Hudson's vocal lines perfectly in what is almost a call-and-response style. He even throws in a keyboard solo towards the song's middle, which starts off fast and then moves through a groovier section with tough riffs and a pounding drum rhythm. Guitar solos follow, but is the keyboards that steal the show here. Those who think the band have been neglecting their trademark speed in recent years will love Astral Empire, which is a real throwback to the band's early days with Anzalone's fast double bass drumming and machine gun rhythm guitars. The band have definitely been mixing things up in the speed department recently, but this is a piece of unashamedly fast power metal complete with blast beats and flashy shredding breaks. Hudson manages to sing the lines perfectly without it ever feeling like the lines are being rushed, and manages to throw in a few high-pitched screams as he does. The choruses maintain the same speed as the verses, which helps the song to maintain a strong atmosphere throughout. The instrumental section is somewhat different however, with a slower, bass-led section which works really well before the pace ramps up again to allow Totman and Li to trade solos. Curse of Darkness takes more of a mid-paced approach and in some ways feels like a sequel to Symphony of the Night from the last album with a similar horror-themed keyboard sounds throughout (in fact both song titles are subtitles from games in the Castlevania video game series). After the speed-fest of the previous song, it is good to slow things down a little with some crunching riffs and a soaring chorus which really allows Hudson to really get stuck into the vocals. I particularly like the acoustic-driven mid-section which is something the band do not do often; and makes Dracula's keyboard melody seem even more powerful when it kicks back in just before the solo section. Ballads are something DragonForce used to do fairly regularly, but the last couple of albums have lacked. Silence probably the first proper ballad for the Hudson era, and it works well to provide a mid-album break and an overall change of pace. The clean guitars have a really lovely tone to them, and really make you appreciate the meaty heavy guitars when they kick in for the choruses. It also makes you realise how well-produced the recent DragonForce albums have been. Working with Jens Bogren has really improved the band's studio output and has de-cluttered their overall sound to produce something which is sonically-stronger.

The second half of the album opens with the upbeat Midnight Madness which is another throwback to the band's early days with plenty of speed and the band's trademark fantasy lyrics. It is the only song on the album solely credited to Totman, and it showcases his songwriting style perfectly. Songs like this also showcase the drumming skills of new recruit Anzalone. While his style is not hugely different to that of Mackintosh, it is songs like this that demonstrate he is the perfect replacement for the Scotsman. While the song is very enjoyable, it does make you realise how the band's sound has progressed in recent years. DragonForce albums will always contain songs like this, which is great as it is arguably what they do best, but it is also great to see songs like this as part of a bigger picture of styles than their raison d'être. That difference in styles can easily be seen with the next song War! which, after a clean intro, morphs into a heavier song that definitely has more of a thrash feel than anything the band have done before. Hudson's vocals are gritter than their have ever been here, which helps to emphasise this thrash feel, and even a cheesy keyboard solo early on cannot shift this vibe! The pre-chorus is more of what you would expect, with more overt melodies; and the chorus mixes both feelings together perfectly. Leclercq's rough backing vocals mixed with Hudson's gritter delivery makes for a catchy and hard-hitting chorus. It is done in a bit of a call-and-response style with the rougher vocals being mixed with some of the highest power metal screams Hudson has ever performed which sounds fantastic when combined together (imagine King Diamond's trademark style and you will not be far off). This heavier style works well for DragonForce and this is something I would like to see them expand upon in the future. Land of Shattered Dreams is another fairly typical DragonForce song, but it seems to place a greater emphasis on vocal melodies than usual. The music here, despite still being a fast metal song, is fairly minimalist with simple rhythm guitars and basic beats. It is keyboards that provide many of the melodies with a fairly busy line during the verses and a strong presence throughout. The chorus is another winner too, which some of the most instantly catchy vocal lines of the album, which really benefit from the less-busy musical arrangement. One thing that has been noticeable in the Hudson era is that the band's songs have, on the whole, been much shorter. Seven or eight minute long songs were normal during the Theart era, but this has mostly not been the case recently. The Edge of the World is the band's longest song to date however at just over eleven minutes long! This is definitely the real highlight of the album, and feels like the song DragonForce have been threatening to write for a while with the more recent forays into progressive writing. The chorus is just stunning, with a really heroic overall feel, and the rest of the song is made up of a mixture of styles that just fit well together perfectly. Acoustic-driven sections mix well with heavier sections and everything that is great about the band just shines through here. The Floydian guitar solo after the second chorus is actually played by Leclercq, which shows he is more than a competent guitarists as well as a great bassist and songwriter, before the song takes a heavier turn with a death metal-influenced section with harsh vocals. I suspect Leclercq sings these parts, as he does the occasional harsh vocal sections in older songs live, but this is the first time the band have used them as a lead vocal style. It works fantastically, and just adds another dimension to this epic and potentially career-defining song. That would have been a great way to end the album, but instead Our Final Stand, which is a more typical DragonForce song, acts a victory lap and a great upbeat feel and lots of excellent twin guitar work from Totman and Li. It is just a fun song, and acts as a perfect coda for the album after the previous epic. Overall, Reaching into Infinity is another excellent from a band that continue to improve. While I feel that Maximum Overload is still the stronger album at the moment, if you ask me again in a year or so's time that might have changed! I can see this album ending up in my Albums of the Year list at the end of the year, and if it does it will be a well-deserved accolade to have earned!

The album was released on 19th May 2017 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for Ashes of the Dawn.

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