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Rules of Engagement 

By tweaking the form, DragonForce makes power metal cool for American headbangers.

Herman Li (third from left) and DragonForce: Trampolines rock!
  • Herman Li (third from left) and DragonForce: Trampolines rock!

When you hear and see the UK metal band DragonForce, you're instantly converted or instantly convulsing with laughter -- or sometimes, it's a combination of both. The band's video for "Through the Fire and Flames," the first single off its third album, Inhuman Rampage, is one of the most preposterous things you'll ever see -- and at the same time, it will cause you to thoroughly re-evaluate the very definition of "awesome." It's been a YouTube smash pretty much since it first hit Headbangers' Ball in early 2006 -- mostly because of the guitar solo bit, where not only do you see the flying fingers of Herman Li and Sam Totman in picture-in-picture close-up, but the long shot reveals this absurdity: While Herman solos like a maniac, striking painful, neo-G.E. Smith facial expressions, Totman stands there placidly drinking a beer, waiting his turn. ("Operation Ground and Pound," the group's most recent video, depicts the two axemen competing in a Guitar Hero-like video game that is almost as funny.)

"The video wasn't really expensive to make -- it was quite a cheap thing, but it's done us lots of good," says Li. "Sam just started drinking anyway during the take, and we thought it was cool to show the fingers in the box. You do all this hard work to solo, and people don't see it. I used to hate watching videos where there was a solo and they'd completely hide it."

Indeed, DragonForce doesn't exactly hide its soloing. In fact, they make it the focus of the live show, setting up ramps and risers all over the place and even leaping on trampolines while playing, all of which made quite an impression on fans and neophytes alike at last year's Ozzfest.

"We've been doing it for quite a while, so we've gotten used to it," says Li of the trampolines. "I can't say the first time we were all that good at it, but you get better. There's no way the first time you're going to get it perfect -- timing of the jump, timing of the landing, when to hit the chord -- those kinds of things have to be practiced. But we've been doing it for a few years, and we've been getting better."

The astonishing physicality of DragonForce's music and performances is something to behold, but if you think about it, there are long-term bodily consequences. In recent years, there have been a few extreme-metal musicians who've fallen prey to carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries, including one member of Immortal and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine. Li's not worried, though, saying blithely, "I don't see that as a problem. I hardly even play the guitar on tour. If you play one and a half, two hours a day, that's nothing. We're not sitting on the bus playing for three hours, then going on stage and playing two hours."

Since the audacious solos are the point, it's easy to wonder how much thought DragonForce has invested in the rest of their music, but Li insists that they view songwriting as a total package. "The solos actually come last," he admits. "We write the singing and the chords first, before anything else. Then we add to it and add the solos last. There's no point in writing a bunch of solos. It'll be rubbish. If it's not catchy, why would you suffer through three minutes of singing and a chorus until the solo starts? And if the song's bad, the solo doesn't make it better."

DragonForce plays something that sounds superficially like power-metal as practiced by Iced Earth, Helloween, Stratovarius, and Blind Guardian: multiple guitar solos per song, keyboard arpeggios that run through your skull like a lobotomy performed with a red-hot paper clip, and ultra-anthemic lyrics about absolutely nothing ("Fight now, let's break the chains/So strong we must feel the pain/Forever torn apart from the haunting fears of my heart"). Basically, if you've read the hilarious online tribute "101 Rules of Power Metal" (www.metalstorm.ee), you know the drill, and DF have taken Rules 15 ("More solos means more epic"), 21 ("16th notes are the only notes"), and 23 ("Keyboards get solos too") to heart.

"We don't play the old, straightforward power metal anymore," says Li. "We do something else, so it's not just an '80s copy. A lot of the bands in Europe just copy the old style. They don't put a twist to it. It's great to sound like your hero, but you've got to bring something new. Bands like, say, Hammerfall, for example -- they came out and did a good job in '98, '99. They kind of revived melodic metal in Europe, but they sound exactly like the old stuff. The only difference is, they're a younger band instead of in their mid '30s, so people go, 'Wow, young people doing that!'"

DragonForce's willingness to incorporate everything from death metal's double-bass to dissonant shrieks at the climax of Li's and Totman's solos -- not to mention the odd doom or classic thrash riff -- makes each song a hyper-adrenalized sequence of "holy shit" moments. By combining staggering instrumental technique and a willingness to make a total spectacle of themselves onstage, the group has made power metal something Americans can get off on without reservation -- a feat Manowar, Iced Earth, and numerous others have tried -- but failed -- to achieve.

"You have to do your own thing -- believe in your own thing and stick to your guns and see how it goes," Li concludes. "If you start changing for these imaginary people that complain about it, well . . . People want us to be the traditional power-metal band, but we're not going to be. We don't go on moaning about it; we just do our own thing."

More by Phil Freeman

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