It's astonishing to realize that DragonForce now have a history going back 15 years, and that they're about to release their sixth album. But such is the pace at which music and life move these days that what was seemingly a highly promising young British metal band just yesterday are now an established full force (ahem) on the scene. In fact, their reputation is such that anything new from this lot is regarded as a landmark moment in the ongoing story of metal. But the new DragonForce album is a revelation, one that will surely entice them to another level of achievement.
It's called "Maximum Overload," and that's precisely what you get from the 10 tracks on the main album, plus the five bonus songs for the special edition and a DVD. "We have our own style and sound," says Herman Li, who founded the band in 1999 with fellow guitarist Sam Totman. "And we didn't want to move away from that. Once you've got your trademark approach in place, that's what fans come to expect from you. But we also wanted to challenge ourselves. We didn't want to rehash what we'd done before, but take it all in a fresh direction."
So, for the first time in their history, DragonForce have worked with an outside producer. The man in question is the celebrated Jens Bogren, who has previously worked with Opeth, Katatonia, Devin Townsend and Paradise Lost, among many others.
"We had thought about getting Jens to mix our 2008 album ("Ultra Beatdown"), so he was always in our minds. Sam and I have co-produced all our albums so far but the problem with that is it can be really hard to push yourself and the rest of the band. There's always the temptation of going to the pub instead! This time around, we wanted a producer who'd really challenge us, and Jens was the perfect choice."
When you listen to "Maximum Overload," you can hear the way DragonForce have matured, which has actually increased the intensity and power the band generate. What's gone before - from 2003's debut "Valley Of The Damned" through "Sonic Firestorm" ('04), "Inhuman Rampage" ('06), "Ultra Beatdown" ('08) and "The Power Within" (2012) – has laid impressive groundwork, but this is an album with a towering momentum.
"Jens didn't let us get away with anything. He was a slave driver, which is what we needed. He kept on pushing us to get the very best we could deliver. That was a good position to be in, because it meant whereas we might have settled in the past for one standard, this time we had someone outside the band insisting we could do it better."
So, what can we expect this time around from DragonForce? Li is unequivocal. "I'd say you can expect something heavier and also thrashier than we've been before. Yes, it is a different approach for us. But there's still a lot of the trademark DragonForce style present. When people say their new album is 'different', it can mean virtually anything. But what we've avoided is drastic change, which nobody wants." It's about evolution not revolution.
The album was recorded over a period of six months in various locations. "We did a lot of the sessions at Jens' own studios (Fascination) in Orebro and Varberg, Sweden. We'd start about 8am and go all the way through to something like 6pm. We also worked at studios in the UK. And I even did some guitar solos on the yacht owned by Zoltan Bathory from Five Finger Death Punch! "Changing the environment for recording does help, because the different atmospheres can inspire you. We also took breaks at some points, which again was a great help to us. It allows you to stand back and objectively listen to what you've done so far, and you can sometimes hear the way you can improve on what's already there."
There's one guest on the album. Trivium's Matt Heafy. "He does backing vocals on the songs 'The Game', 'No More' and 'Defenders'. We've become friends with the Trivium guys from touring together through the years. On a few songs, we wanted to add a different mix of melodic to extreme vocals, and Matt had the perfect voice for it. When we approached Matt, he immediately agreed to do it."
Another first on the album is the fact that the band have done a cover, the song in question being Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire." "That was Sam's idea. And what we did was take the song and adapt it to the way we play. It's not a hard song to learn, but it is a challenge to do it well. Will we did it live? We shall have to see…"
The line-up that recorded this album is the same as the one responsible for "The Power Within," which means vocalist Mark Hudson (who made his recording debut in 2012) has bedded more comfortably into the band, while Vadim Pruzhanov is on keyboards and Frederic Leclercq is on bass. Dave Mackintosh plays drums on the album but he has subsequently left the band, being replaced by Gee Anzalone, hailing from Turin, Italy, and a graduate of the NAMM Music Academy of Milan.
"Dave just wants to do more progressive music, and that's not a problem for us. He leaves on good terms, and even suggested we contact Gee to replace him. We've gone through this situation before, changing a member of the band after an album's been done. And it's never been tough for us to bring someone new at that stage, and I'm sure we'll adapt this time with no problem."
With "Maximum Overload," DragonForce haven't so much reinvented themselves as reimagined their aspirations. The result is an album full of command, energy and vitality. It's got strength in depth and breadth. Sophistication allied to an attention to detail that goes beyond what's been done before.
"Just repeating the same thing is a waste of everyone's time. We all feel we've recorded something purposeful, for us and the fans."
Bio by Malcolm Dome
London. May 2014
"Maximum Overload" available via Metal Blade Records in the US August 19, 2014 and in Europe August 18.