DragonForce are a band the vital statistics of which are well known by now. Album sales figures in the millions, the Grammy nod, the sold-out world tours, the lightspeed guitar work and that Guitar Hero tie-in. What is spoken about less is the band behind the reputation. The stories of on-tour merriment are famous, but less so the enthusiasm and dedication of the musicians responsible for the heavy metal major league outfit.
You may know about Herman Li and Sam Totman’s numerous awards for their virtuoso skill on the guitar, but you may know less about why they came to do what they do. The two guitarists fell in love with touring, and with performing their music live, while playing in their previous band that turned them onto the path they now stride so confidently.
“There’s a special feeling about playing on stage. Some people like to dance to music, some people enjoy going to clubs and head-banging – I just like to play,” says Herman. And it’s this love of performance that led them down their stylistic route. “I wanted something energetic to play – something that you can really let loose and have fun.”
It was on tour where Sam discovered power metal, thinking “this is the catchiest music I’ve ever heard”, and wanting to play those songs for himself. The band came together, a singer was found, and much of the rest is well-documented history. With the significant exception of the “how” part.
The band’s route to success began with, what was at the time, a relatively untapped resource. DragonForce might not have set out with success on a global scale being seen as a realistic goal, but their desire for people to hear their music pushed them worldwide from the start. Around the turn of the decade, the Internet was not the essential tool in spreading the word it was today, but the six- piece had the vision to utilise it with great success, uploading their demo to mp3.com and receiving millions of downloads as a result. It was this that got their momentum going, and paved the way for everything that has followed.
[DragonForce June 2013]
Similarly overlooked is the musical advancement DragonForce represent. In a musical realm where bands of a similar generation are either happy to ape the classic acts or utilise extensive keyboard and string arrangements to move the style onwards, DragonForce are progressive. The increased heaviness and pace they have injected has made them a fresh voice in the world of metal, and one the fans have responded to as a result.
The self-direction and innovative methods of how the band has gone about things does not stop with the musical direction, production and the early internet self-promotion. Both Herman and Sam have designed and built their own signature models of guitar to help them best display their exceptional talents to the fullest possible extent, as they have with the racks they use on tour. But perhaps most significantly, they remain masters of their own musical direction.
Having spent their early days on Sanctuary’s Noise Records label, the band entered into a highly successful partnership with Roadrunner Records to distribute their last two albums, and this is something that will continue for North America. But DragonForce will continue to exert creative control over their own music with the creation of a new record label, Electric Generation Recordings, which will release the brand new album The Power Within in the UK and Europe. In the rapidly changing music industry, they will be in the strongest possible position to adapt and be flexible to continue their success.
DragonForce’s unique methods are in part down to the six very distinct characters that make up the band, bringing with them six different tastes in music that contribute everything from Morbid Angel to Bon Jovi via Stratovarius and Steve Vai. The varied backgrounds the members come from have been spoken of many times, but what they bring to the band beyond their obvious musical ability might not be. It’s not well known, for example, that when a fan pulls on a DragonForce t-shirt, in all likelihood it was designed by classically-trained keyboard player Vadim Pruzhanov, as the band’s Mr Calm has taken on the responsibility of creating much of their merchandise. It’s not spoken about that drummer Dave Mackintosh is as reliable and unflappable as he is a beast of a drummer,
or that bass player Frédéric Leclercq is a multi-instrumentalist well versed in music theory who is the member of the band the others go to for help. People may not be aware that all the band’s live videos are edited personally by Herman himself, and that he is a perfectionist who takes responsibility for working out the precise details of how to execute the band’s creative plans, while Sam is the steady hand guiding the tiller in terms of broad artistic direction, as well as a hugely creative songwriter with a keen ear for the hook. And only with the contributions of all of them can the band succeed as they have done.
For this new album, the band’s line-up has been complimented by new singer Marc Hudson, a superb young talent unearthed after an extensive worldwide search to find a worthy successor to former vocalist ZP Theart, who left the band in 2010. It’s safe to say he’s already made quite an impression, not least on Sam Totman:
“Marc stood out right from the start. As soon as I heard his voice, it had something. I really liked his voice. It reminded me a lot of [former Helloween vocalist] Michael Kiske, and that’s a singer I’ve always really liked a lot. So right from the start, he was one that I kept coming back to. Everything that I would check out from then on, I’d be comparing to him. Even though we saw him fairly early on in the process, by the time we got to the end, no one had done it for me more than him. I was amazed.”
He joins a happier, energised band that draws in this exciting new era for The Power Within. The band are communicating more easily and more honestly than ever before, with a friendlier atmosphere conducive to great teamwork. Unlike before, the band actually jammed out parts of the new album, unlike in the past when songwriting has been a more solitary affair.
“With Marc in the band, we jam together, we rehearse the part for months. We had a good laugh, and that made the album even better,” explains Herman. “The atmosphere is relaxed. Marc brought that positivity and refreshed the whole thing – we feel like a new band again. He brought in new life. And he’s a fast learner, and it’s so much easier to work with someone who’s ‘empty’ rather than someone that’s full of ideas and won’t accept anything else. He’s got a mind and he’s willing to learn.”
The Power Within is the sound of that refreshed band with a new lease of life. It is the band’s most varied outing to date. The album was recorded through 2011, once more at LamerLuser Studios in London and Thin Ice Studios in Surrey, with some parts being laid down at Herman’s house in the South of France and Sam’s place in California. Featuring both their fastest songs so far – no mean feat if you’re DragonForce! – as well as songs like ‘Cry Thunder’, which see the band bringing their sound into a more restrained territory pace-wise without sacrificing intensity or hooks.
Obviously the new man behind the microphone has played a huge part in the new DragonForce, both by the virtue of a different voice and through Marc’s creative input, working to improve and develop the songs to take them to their fullest potential. But it goes further than this. The band have thrown out their rulebook, taking a new approach to how they compose and structure their songs. They’ve refined and distilled what they do, improving and focusing their songwriting skills into an even broader palette.
“There’s nothing missing that was there before, but you get to the point quicker,” says Sam. “There’s just as much vocally, but the instrumental sections don’t go on as long now – and to make up for that, we’ve made sure that they’re really good! It’s why I’m so happy about it – you don’t have a chance to get bored!
“I’m more excited about this album than I have been about any of them,” adds the guitarist. “I hope people love it as much as we do. You make music for yourself, but it’s a really nice feeling when you can see other people like what you’ve done, because you’ve made them happy.
“If they like our other records, they’ll love this – it’s everything they want and more!” Prepare to feel the Force of the Dragon once more.