CD Review of Ultra Beatdown by DragonForce
Recommended if you like
Helloween, Iron Maiden, Dio
Label
Roadrunner/Universal
DragonForce: Ultra Beatdown

Reviewed by James B. Eldred

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P
ower metal has been around since the ‘80s, and has barely changed since Helloween released Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 in 1987. It’s a ridiculous genre that emphasizes speed, intricate guitar solos, speed, double-bass drums, speed, howling melodic vocals, speed, fantasy-obsessed lyrics, and speed. In other words, it’s totally awesome.

It’s mostly an underground thing, though, especially in America, where metal can only make it if the singer sounds like Cookie Monster and the riffs are mosh pit-ready. But DragonForce might become the exception to that long-standing rule. The exposure of their finger-blistering fast “Through the Fire and Flames” on “Guitar Hero III” opened the band up to audiences that would never consider buying a power metal album, putting them on the cusp of legitimate superstardom in the US just in time for their latest release, Ultra Beatdown, a title that might describe how you’ll feel after listening to it.

This isn’t just music – this is some kind of perverse athletic spectacle, a freakish exhibition of “anything you can play, I can play faster” posturing. Hardcore speed and thrash metal bands may play faster than DragonForce, but their songs aren’t nearly as complex as the extreme power ballads from hell that DragonForce specializes in.

Every song on Ultra Beatdown is like a clinic, demonstrating the extreme end of technical musicianship. Drummer Dave Mackintosh dissects the ways of double bass drumming with the opener, “Heroes of Our Time.” He keeps up the blinding pace throughout the entire album, with his dexterity and stamina only matched by dual lead guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman, who shred with such intensity and complexity that it defies description. Their dueling solos on “The Fire Still Burns” and “Inside the Winter Storm” are volley after volley of tremolos, finger-tapping, string-skipping and just about every other trick in the book (a book that Steve Vai probably wrote). Bassist Frederic Leclercq should get props just for being able to keep up.

Even the keyboardist shreds. Vadim Pruzhanov’s old-school, videogame-inspired arpeggios are so manic and intense that they occasionally upstage the guitar solos on tracks such as “Heartbreak Armageddon,” and give the whole album a bizarre electronic edge that you don’t hear in most power metal (it’s probably the most original thing about DragonForce).

Bringing it all together is lead singer VP Theart, whose frighteningly powerful voice is an unholy combination of Dio, Bruce Dickinson, and Rob Halford, and who sings tales of wizards and warlords, evil demons and, of course, dragons. This is a band that knows no subtlety.

DragonForce’s 2006 album Inhuman Rampage (the one that featured “Through the Fire and Flames”) was a great record, with clever songwriting and catchy melodies. Ultra Beatdown is good too, but still lacking something. It frequently sounds more like an excuse for the band to find ways to go even faster and complex than a collection of solid songs. Some of the songs meander and seemingly exist solely for the purpose of getting as many intricate guitar solos in as possible (no doubt for another “Guitar Hero” game). The technical virtuosity of it all is starting to bury the music.

It goes without saying, though, that if you liked Inhuman Rampage or any other DragonForce album, you’re going to like Ultra Beatdown. They certainly know what their fans want, and are more than qualified to give it to them. Detractors may call it juvenile and stupid, but at least they’re good at what they do. These guys have no pretense about what they’re doing, and they should be lauded for that, if nothing else.

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