DRAGONFORCE – Holding On
The departure of frontman ZP Theart from United Kingdom-based power metallers DragonForce was confirmed in early March 2010 following an 11-year stint, the man having lent his voice to the albums Valley Of The Damned (February 2003), Sonic Firestorm (May 2004), Inhuman Rampage (January 2006), and Ultra Beatdown (August 2008). Musical differences were cited behind the parting at the time, though DragonForce sadly doesn’t wish to discuss ZP’s departure due to legal concerns. Auditions immediately followed.
“Since DragonForce has been around for awhile, we thought the best way to look for a singer was to do a worldwide search,” explains Herman Li, lead guitarist and co-founder of DragonForce. “We pretty much approached singers from other bands that we like, and also had a few sending us auditions. There were so many things we were looking for. Of course they had to sing well, and had to have a good sense of melody. They had to be able to sing all the old songs well as well as the new stuff too, but I guess the old stuff is actually in a different style in some ways. The new songs have low range and high range, so they had to be able to pretty much cover everything.
“You got the musical side there, but you also have to be able to work with the singer of course. The way we approached working things out was really different to the previous album. We wanted a singer that we could really work with better, and have good communication with. That was one of the important things, to be able to move on. Of course hopefully they could play onstage well, sing live and everything, yeah (laughs). It’s hard to be able to know exactly what you’re getting into until after knowing a guy for a few months at least.
“All that actually lasted quite a long time. Of course while that was happening, we were also writing songs for the new album. It was surprising to find someone from Oxford to sing the kind of stuff that we do, because it’s hard to find a singer who sings melodically. I think it’s easy to just find a guy who growls and goes ‘Raaarrrr!!’ but finding a melodic singer who’s good was really difficult actually, one to fit in the band (laughs).
“Before Marc was even in the band, we actually worked him really hard in terms of the audition process. He sent us a video, and we got him to sing more songs that he had to record live on a video. After that we met up with him just to see his personality, and then we had to have a rehearsal with him; singing a 35-minute set, getting him to learn a bunch of songs, and playing them together. After that I went to see him play with his band live in Reading somewhere, and then afterwards we got him into the studio to record demos of the new songs. If you think about that, that took about eight months to do and that was before he was even in the band. Later on it was just a continuation of what we were doing, rehearsing songs and recording and all that. Marc had a long trial initially before he was even in the band.”
Marc Hudson’s entrance into the DragonForce line-up was publicly announced in March 2011. “Apart from the musical side, one thing that Marc really has is that he is a really fast learner,” the axeman enthuses. “Coming in as a non-professional who was playing pubs he was able to learn really quickly, and he got better and better while he was still recording the album and still while we were rehearsing the old songs as well as the new songs.
“We did a lot of jamming on new songs to get him confident before going into the studio. That was so he could express a song by himself, instead of him reading from a lyric sheet in front of a microphone and things like that for example. That’s why we did all this rehearsing and jamming that we didn’t do before, because we had to integrate Marc into the band. That was so that it was a real band instead of Marc plus DragonForce. We had to do all this jamming to make sure he knew what was going on, he knew us and all that. That was the way to bring out his confidence and things. Confidence needs some time to grow, so his first show and his tenth show are different things. The progress that he made while in the band before we finished the album was a huge leap though. That’s one thing that was really important.”
The right candidate being a fervent admirer of DragonForce’s material wasn’t extremely important, however. “Of course they had to like the music,” Herman stresses. “We weren’t going to get someone who didn’t like the music, but they didn’t have to be a fan fan. As long as they liked what we were doing, that’s good. Some people just like the music but aren’t really fans, you know what I mean? They’re kind of different, and look at the band differently.”
Musically comparing the two, the assortment’s co-founder feels that Marc is a metal vocalist while ZP is a hard rock vocalist. “The tone, the approach, and the techniques are very different, so the way they approach the arrangement and the way they express themselves musically is different,” he reckons. “If you take someone like a classic metal singer against a classic hard rock singer – like Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) versus Bon Jovi – you can hear the difference in the style. I wouldn’t say it’s like that, but it’s similar to how you would compare the two.”
On April 2012’s The Power Within, Herman feels that DragonForce really brought its ‘metal side to the surface.’ “I think that was due a mixture of everything, including the approach to the way we made this album,” he muses. “Previously on the last two albums, we used to just write the music and then go straight to the studio to record it. On this album we didn’t; we wrote the music, jammed it out, and played it together as a band before we even recorded the album. We had more time to rehearse these songs and play them, so it definitely made a difference. Just the approach was much different, and I guess we wanted to reflect that kind of organic feel of the band playing the songs together on the album. Previously we used to just write the music, record the album straight away before we even played it together, and then go on tour.”
Given the sheer complexity of past DragonForce tunes, it would be natural to assume that learning such compositions just prior to tour commitments was a mammoth task. “We did it back on the second album, where it was like ‘Oh God, the songs are so long,’” the guitarist remembers. “If I take you back to 2004, when we went on tour doing songs from Sonic Firestorm we found songs like ‘My Spirit Will Go On’ and ‘Fury Of The Storm’ really difficult to play. Now they’re the easiest songs to play though, and we can have a conversation while playing them. We’ve grown, gotten better I think.”
While past DragonForce tracks haven’t been altered for live performances, Marc’s delivery somewhat contrasts with that of ZP’s. “You don’t wanna change the melodies around because those are written the way the songs were,” Herman emphasises. “You put a few screams here and there, and a few touches of his sound. His tone vocally is very different anyway to ZP.”
The musician judges The Power Within as closer in feel to Sonic Firestorm than Ultra Beatdown. “Ultra Beatdown is a much more extreme, longer songs kind of album,” he surmises. “Every song was long, and every song was over the top with more things than you can imagine putting into a song and into this kind of music.
“The Power Within doesn’t sound like any of the other albums because this album is more diverse with all the different tempos we have. We went full-on, 100% with everything on the new album. In the old days, we had one tempo pretty much. We stuck with a fast tempo, but this time we played around a bit with different tempos and showed different sides of us. Every song has its own feel so we tried to have one song more symphonic, another song more guitar driven with less keyboards, and things like that. You’ve got your acoustic song, and you’ve got your seven-string, faster than all the other songs and heavier. Of course you have the fast stuff and the faster stuff, but there’s definitely more on this album. We’ve mixed the feel for each, whereas every song on Ultra Beatdown had everything.”
‘Fallen World’ has been touted as the quickest track that DragonForce has ever recorded. “Of course there are some slower songs like ‘Cry Thunder’, ‘Seasons’ and some songs that are somewhere in between,” Herman acknowledges. “We can’t just go in one direction – slower – so we have to go faster too (laughs). You’ve got your normal, fast DragonForce songs like ‘Holding On’ and ‘Heart Of The Storm’ and then you’ve got even faster than that, so fastest ever for us. We’re pushing in all different directions. ‘Fallen World’ I think was actually written a little bit later, but it changed quite a lot after Marc joined the band. We wanted to go a bit more extreme but also a bit heavier, so that’s why we brought in the seven-string guitars – to give it a different tone. It’s actually kind of weird. With a six-string and a seven-string guitar, the sound is so different and even the mix of it sounds different.
“Mixing ‘Fallen World’, it was just the way that it sounds compared to the other songs because of the notes and the key. The approach to the vocals is different too; they’re a bit more aggressive and a bit lower until you get to the chorus which has a more epic kind of tone. We kind of mix it up on that song, and then you’ve got the high screams at the end and stuff like that. It goes from a low to high level in vocal range.”
As the axeman alluded to, ‘Heart Of The Storm’ is one of the pacier numbers on The Power Within. “That’s your more classic DragonForce song,” he appraises. “That’s 200bpm, your fast DragonForce song with double guitars and all that. That’s the classic sound right there that you’d expect; if you hear that song, you’ll know it’s DragonForce no matter where you are.”
Positioned as track number five, ‘Wings Of Liberty’ is the album’s longest song. “It’s the more symphonic, epic one on this album,” Herman figures. “That’s actually got more use of keyboards than some of the other songs, so when I talk about the feel of different songs we went for a symphonic feel on that one.”
Cut initially as a part of DragonForce side project Shadow Warriors, ‘Power Of The Ninja Sword’ was recorded for use as a Japanese bonus track. “We thought we’d just do that one,” the band’s co-founder states. “Why not (laughs)? It was as simple as that. We did it last time. Basically, Shadow Warriors wasn’t a side project. To cut a long story short, we worked on those songs with Sam and I helped him record them because I was learning how to do recordings. Those songs are songs that were written a long time ago. We did do one on the last album as a bonus track and people liked it, so we thought we would do another one this time. That’s Japanese only though, so it doesn’t make any difference to this part of the world (laughs).”
Although solely a Japanese bonus track, fanatics will inevitably discover ‘Power Of The Ninja Sword’ through the internet. “The internet? What’s that?,” Herman jokes. “Never heard of it. I don’t even know what the internet is (laughs).”
‘Cry Thunder’ was selected to highlight The Power Within for music video purposes. “That was the first song that we actually played live from the album, and funnily enough we never thought that was gonna be the first music video,” the guitarist reflects. “The reason that we played that one live was because we thought ‘Hey, we’ve got this mid-tempo, slow song. Let’s play that live and throw that in the set.’ If we played the old songs, almost every single one of them is fast. When we played with Iron Maiden, that was when we started playing that song for the first time. It became the first music video, just like some songs I didn’t expect to be on the album like ‘Seasons (Acoustic Version)’.
“We filmed a performance music video on purpose. We thought it’d be cool to approach it that way really, because the last one we did was all computer graphics generated stuff. We thought we would go back to the live stage performance stuff, and take it back to the basics. That’s how we got known in the first place, doing lots of shows. In the old days we were totally the best live band, and then suddenly things changed.”
Comments regarding ‘the old days’ inevitably spark questions about ‘the new days’. “I think we play better than we’ve ever done before, but with the internet and incredible technology…,” Herman begins. “On a mobile phone, it sounds like complete shit. It’s kind of a fucking weird thing, because people don’t really care about bands live in the same way we do. Years ago people judged bands live by going to live shows, instead of judging them by a compressed audio / video feed on a low resolution computer screen. Unfortunately a lot of uneducated people think this is what it is musically. That’s how it sounds when the microphone in your smartphone is only supposed to pick up your voice, and not record a whole PA blasting out with that much bpm and that much intense music. It sounds like garbage. That’s why a web stream always sounds horrible, because the compression is pretty lame these days. Especially all this so-called secure streaming or whatever that gets captured, it’s always really bad quality anyway. That has changed what live music is all about.
“People think when you hear a band live they sound exactly like they do on the album, but live productions are supposed to sound totally different anyway. I think people have been blown away by the amount of music they hear, but they don’t see enough shows to understand what shows are supposed to be like. If I went to see a band and they sounded exactly like they do on the album 100%, I would think something is wrong. It isn’t humanly possible, but hey, people are accustomed to having a certain ear. Imagine you hear 100 albums, but just one show. You just don’t know what’s going on in a way, how live shows are supposed to sound.”
Officially released live material including Marc is yet to exist, but time can rectify this. “I’ve got equipment that I can take on tour to record, so we’re probably gonna record some stuff anyway at least for ourselves to listen to,” Marc’s bandmate speculates. “That’s to see what we’re like, how we can improve on things, and how to get better. We’re always looking at ways to improve the show. I think the way we play now compared to any time before is definitely the best we’ve ever played to date.”
Slowing down the tempo in certain instances meant that additional guitar techniques could be implemented. “The guitar had to be played differently, the vibrato and the note choice and all that, techniques,” Herman analyses. “When I say techniques, I mean techniques you use to express the music have to be done differently. I think there is a lot of emphasis on different bending of the notes, because when you’ve got a bit more time to play you’ve got a bit more time to use different techniques. When you’re playing really fast you don’t really have time to bend the notes, so that’s something we worked on for this album.”
Overall, The Power Within’s tracks are among the shortest that DragonForce has ever recorded. “In some ways we thought that we should maybe compact it a bit, and make sure every single bit is good instead of having long melodic bits which are okay but not that amazing,” the axeman divulges. “We just made sure that every bit punches you in the face, and kicks your ass kind of thing (laughs). Because of playing together, rehearsing, and jamming those songs before finishing the recording, that kind of changes the structures of the songs when everyone is playing them at the same time.”
Lyrically speaking, The Power Within delves into a mixture of topics. “We’ve got some fantasy lyrics, and we’ve got stuff which is more straightforward which you can obviously hear are based on current events,” Herman reveals. “‘Give Me The Night’ is actually about a problem with any kind of addiction. ‘Seasons’ is more of a personal relationship kind of song. That’s weird to say in a DragonForce interview, actually (laughs). There’s that, and then you’ve got ‘Holding On’ which is about current events. Things are really tough these days, so it has more of a positive message.”
The record’s cover artwork, meanwhile, is more simplistic. “It’s just one way to approach it,” the co-founder ponders. “With the last album we did something really complicated which I thought was really cool, very artistic. This time we’ve gone for a more simple approach. It’s just a different approach. With every album we try to not do exactly the same as the last one, so this one is nothing like the Ultra Beatdown cover.”
In the United Kingdom, the release of The Power Within will be handled by DragonForce’s newly formed label Electric Generation Recordings. “If you look at what’s happening these days, a lot of small labels are closing, bigger labels taking over the smaller ones and closing them, and all that kind of stuff,” Herman notes. “We already went through that before; we were with Noise Records, and then Sanctuary took over. We pretty much made all the decisions before, and now it just makes it easier to control what’s going on, like when we want the album out. It helps us to get on tour easier, for example. If anything doesn’t work, it’s our fault. We can’t blame anyone. The main thing here is that we have control of the music. We don’t have to worry in a year’s time if the label actually gets closed down, and you have no-one to talk to and you can’t do this and that. I’ve experienced that myself.”
The Power Within marks the closing of one chapter, and the opening of another. “Things change pretty quickly these days,” the guitarist contemplates. “Fortunately, we were never part of any scene which is the reason why we also took our time to release this album. We’re not a part of any scene that we needed to catch up on. We just basically carry on doing the music we want to do, and if people like it then that’s great. If not, then they don’t (laughs). It’s not gonna change the way we look at the music. If you think about it, if we followed what people say then we’d never even be here anyway – we wouldn’t be playing this kind of music. If you look at the scene as it was in the UK ten years ago or whatever, it was completely different. If you played solos, people would just drop dead laughing at you. Now, apparently it’s cool.”
The Power Within was released on April 11th, 2012 through JVC Victor in Japan, on the 13th through 3Wise in Australia, and on the 15th through Electric Generation Recordings (distributed by Essential Music) in the United Kingdom. The full-length was subsequently issued on the 16th and 17th in the rest of Europe and North America respectively, all via Roadrunner Records.
Interview published in April 2012.