Sound — 9
The self-confessed "fastest band in the world" may often be accused of writing "nothing but the same songs" or putting technical wizardry over feel, but truth be told, DragonForce are no strangers to change. Since their breakthrough album "Inhuman Rampage", DragonForce has tightened their belts, become far more focused, and, dare I say it, more committed to "serving the song", but without ever losing the thing that makes DragonForce... well... DragonForce. Switching out vocalist ZP Theart for Marc Hudson on "The Power Within" led to a fairly major change in the band's sound, with song lengths generally being cut down from an average of 7-8 minutes to a much more easily digestible 4-5. The solos, though still incredibly wild, have gone from strange Nintendo-style noises and impossible speed and precision to something a bit more believable and melodic. Acoustic guitars and power ballads have made a greater number of appearances.
I start this review with those facts because, as much as some of the criticisms levied against them hold true, DragonForce is a band that has always simply marched to their own (incredibly fast) tune, and ultimately are in this to please no one but themselves and the most loyal of their fanbase. No one truly expects DragonForce to come out and make a major change to their style, as what they've been doing has been working incredibly well for them.
However, "Reaching into Infinity" shows a band that has an increasing urge to throw us a few curveballs. While tracks such as the first singles "Ashes of the Dawn" and "Judgement Day" are classic DragonForce through and through, and will likely represent the tracks on the album that stick fairly close to the band's overall script, the band has shown some rather profound and strange influences on some of the album's tracks.
Straight out of the 80s, we have "Silence", one of the band's most emotive power ballads yet, a much slower and more plaintive piece than DragonForce fans will be used to. While "Astral Empire" begins with perhaps one of the fastest tempi on the album (at a blistering 220 bpm), the track slows down for the instrumental section where, alongside the usual histrionics from guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov, bassist Frederic Leclercq gets in on the soloing action as well.
"War!" exhibits a more profound 80s thrash metal direction, showcasing a somewhat more brutal direction for the style of Marc Hudson's vocals, blending them with his signature high, clean voice in the choruses. And perhaps the album's biggest highlight, at least for myself, is the epic-length "The Edge of the World", an 11-minute prog-metal journey showing influence from bands such as Dream Theater, with its changing tempos and different moods. During the middle section of the piece, the band even launches into a nearly Opeth-like death metal section, complete with harsh growls from Hudson, and guess what, they're actually pretty great! This piece contains some of the heaviest and sludgiest riffs from Li and Totman as well, and for my money, constitutes some of the best writing on the album, as well as proving the band can successfully branch out from their style.
Despite these few curveballs, nothing is actually taken away from the band's style when they stick to the script. "Midnight Madness" has one of the most infectiously catchy and uplifting choruses you'll ever hear in any song. The aforementioned "Ashes of the Dawn" and "Judgement Day" are songs that perfectly encapsulate the things one would typically expect from DragonForce's sound, though the latter does give Vadim some space to stretch out with the keyboard intro. "Curse of Darkness" also shows the band going in a more traditional "dark" direction for power metal, at times showing shades of bands like Stratovarius and Sonata Arctica.
This also marks the first DragonForce album to feature the work of new drummer Gee Anzalone, and he is every bit as capable of a drummer as outgoing member Dave Mackintosh (and if you've had the opportunity to see him live, as I have, he definitely looks like he's happy to be a member of DragonForce). Production duties on this album were handled by Jens Bogren, who has worked with many acclaimed bands such as Haken, Between The Buried And Me, Ihsahn, Leprous, Dark Tranquility and so on. The mix is one of the nicest I've heard from DragonForce, or is at least on par with the work on their previous album "Maximum Overload".
Lyrics — 9
Another point of contention for a lot of fans and critics of DragonForce alike is the quality of the band's lyrics. Often penned by bassist Frederic Leclercq, their lyrics often did contain repeated uses of the same lines in different contexts (how many of us have seen the "DragonForce's Greatest Hits" video on Youtube by now?).
But with vocalist Marc Hudson becoming more and more involved in the lyric writing process, there has been a notable evolution in the band's lyrics. While you're still going to find repeated lines like "we're the masters of the universe" and "set the world on fire tonight", and the usual sort of DragonForce lyrical imagery, there are moments where the band actually branches out into different lyrical territories, especially in the storytelling on tracks like "Curse of Darkness": "Shattered dreams, I am a shadow of the man I used to be/But I know tonight, your pain will be my delight/Hear the symphony from the score of the damned/Unleashing the eternal fire/Ride on your way, this is your curse of darkness/Ride through the night and one day you'll be free/Look to the sky where our hope's burning bright/Hear the laments of innocence rise". The album's resident power ballad "Silence" tells a tale of sorrow, seemingly ending in the suicide of the song's main character after the loss of a loved one: "Mother, these are the final words I'll write/I know they're full of sadness, I know they'll make you cry/How I've tried to hide the truth of my despair/The sadness kept on calling, drowning out my prayers/There's no place for me, I'm torn apart/And I wish I could have made things better".
Marc Hudson's vocals may not have the rasp of ZP Theart's, but his vocals are a great fit for DragonForce's style, and while he definitely relies mostly on his high, clear singing style throughout the record, he does get the chance to showcase his diversity more prominently throughout this record than any other record he's done with the band, from more dramatic raspy power metal vocals in "Curse of Darkness" to thrash metal brutality on "War!", all the way to full-on death metal growls on "The Edge of the World" (something which the band had normally outsourced to Trivium's Matt Heafy on past records). In fact, one of the bonus tracks, a cover of Death's "Evil Dead", features what have to be some of the most brutal vocals ever recorded by DragonForce.
Overall Impression — 9
DragonForce may not be for everyone, and let's face it, even their most loyal fans are often exasperated by the band at times, but even the most ardent of critics simply must admit that this band is incredibly good at playing at their own rules and ignoring popular trends in favour of simply doing what works best for them.
But when the band decides it's time to shake things up a little bit, they do get right down to business and go to town on it. Tracks like the thrashy "War!" and the epic and proggy "The Edge of the World" show that the band is more than capable of writing more than "just one song", and "Silence" proves that they can play slowly with feeling. People who are quick to dismiss DragonForce based on the idea that they only ever do one thing may be missing out on a fair bit of variety, as "Reaching into Infinity" may very well be the most diverse DragonForce album yet.
And in my opinion, this may also be their best album. While it may not have the immediate staying power of a track like their classic "Through the Fire and Flames", on an artistic level these are some of the best songs DragonForce has come out with. And there are some predictably catchy earworms throughout the record. But even for all this diversity, the album never feels cobbled together or forced, and is still a cohesive listen.
If you're a fan of power metal but have been unsure about DragonForce up to this point, this is definitely a great album to check out.