Cool Things: Maximum Overdrive

Try to imagine, if you would, what would happen if you had a pair of Klingons who had been raised their whole life by Vikings in the tradition of Nordic myth and then learned to speak English and play the electric guitar. Time travel would obviously be involved and I’m not sure it wasn’t a part of what created Dragonforce, one of England’s more recent rock exports to the world at large. At the very least it would certainly explain a lot.

Dragonforce, for those of you not familiar with the band, is a British power metal group, formed near the end of the last millennium and founded on the guitar sounds created by their two lead players, Herman Li and Sam Totman. These two men have one goal in life, namely to play the guitar as fast as is humanly possible. They are very, very good at it. In fact, they may very well be the best in the world.

That said, Dragonforce’s early discography has some notable weaknesses. It’s been said that they basically only play two songs, a power ballad and a sort of upbeat power metal. It’s hard to argue with that – a lot of their songs on their early albums are very similar and most of the rest border on identical. Listening to their sophomore album, Sonic Firestorm, is a lot like listening to a single, hour long track. On the other hand, that album has some if their defining songs on it and the music is good, it just sometimes feels like it’s overstaying its welcome. And for a band noted for routinely cranking out tracks six to eight minutes long a focus on epic scope is kind of to be expected.

The lyrics on those albums are not anything impressive. It’s laced with fantasy imagery and largely focuses on bloody conflict and overcoming it by courage and determination. While having the grit to face such dire challenges is an important thing to strive for and the musical style Dragonforce embraces certainly goes along with such themes, there’s nothing else there on those early albums. It’s pure escapism.

This technically brings us to The Power Within (2012), Dragonforce’s second most recent album, where the band began to show more variation both lyrically and musically. However this post is mostly about Maximum Overdrive (2014), which came out about a month ago and most of what I’ve got to say applies to both albums so let’s skip to the present.

First, Maximum Overdrive has about five different musical aesthetics, four if you remove their cover of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. This gives the album a little more musical diversity than earlier albums, which is definitely welcome. Now it’s not to say that Totman and Li’s fascination with fast guitar playing is bad. Quite the contrary, that’s the band’s claim to fame and something you really can’t get anywhere else. But a little variation in how it’s delivered is good.

Second, the band’s lyrical depth has been growing. If you get the Special Edition album off of Amazon it comes with a total of fifteen tracks, three of which are stark departures from the usual lyrical themes. “City of Gold” focuses on a young girl who’s left home to try and make it in Hollywood only to find herself homeless instead. “Extraction Zone” examines the difficulties of video game addiction and what might drive a person to it (a theme already explored some in “Give Me the Night” on The Power Within although that song is about drug addiction.) Finally, “You’re Not Alone” is a powerful song about recovering from grief after the death of a loved one.

Quite a difference from old songs that were basically The Ring of Nibelung set to electric guitar (not there’s anything wrong with that.) All the songs still offer a perspective about overcoming extreme difficulty to gain great reward, which goes nicely with Dragonforce’s musical style, and it is nice to hear that the band thinks that’s as much a part of the real world as it is the myths and legends the band clearly loves so much.

Dragonforce is not a musical experience for everyone. But it is a must for fans of excellent guitar technique and inspiring music.

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