Sound — 9
In the history of power metal (and perhaps metal in general), there has quite possibly never been a band as polarizing as DragonForce. The now infamous British sextet has in recent years become the pure definition of a love/hate band, in some circles praised as one of the most talented bands in the power metal scene today, and in others demonized as the scum of the Earth, completely incapable of doing anything right. On the latter view, the criticisms of many of the band's haters eventually boil down to two observations: 1. DragonForce are incapable of reproducing what they compose in a live environment. 2. Every song written by DragonForce is a rehash of the same tried and tested formula. The first of the two ultimately came to be rectified with the release of the band's 2010 live debut, "Twilight Dementia". Although the release proved DragonForce could indeed perform their material on stage, it did very little in regards to their reputation of supposedly writing the same song over and over again. Fast forward to 2012, the multicultural group of extreme metallers have once again returned to the scene, armed with a new vocalist and a slew of new tracks forged with the intention of showcasing everything they can do. Prior to "The Power Within"'s release, guitarist Herman Li had conducted several interviews in which he repeatedly claimed the new album to be the most musically diverse DragonForce effort to date. After many repeated listens, I can safely say that he was not exaggerating in the slightest. In fact, it is entirely possible he was making an understatement. The first thing listeners may notice are the song lengths, which prove to be a complete shift from the long-time DF tradition of albums filled with primarily 6-8 minute tracks. In contrast, the vast majority of songs that appear on "The Power Within" span 4-5 minutes on average, with only one track passing the 7 minute mark. As it turns out, this seemingly odd departure from previously established practice works out better for the replay-value of the album in the long run. Whereas earlier DragonForce releases may have given the listener a feeling of "Do I really want to sit through 8 minutes of that again?", "The Power Within" is more likely to have them thinking "Wow, that was a rush. Can't wait to hear that again." The shorter than average song lengths are only the first of many changes however, for with this album the band has apparently gone back to the drawing board in terms of songwriting, eagerly attempting to perfect their craft while simultaneously venturing into previously unexplored territory. Opening tracks "Holding On" and "Fallen World" do little to deviate from the basic hyperblast-speed trademark DragonForce are known for, with the latter being the fastest song the band has ever recorded at a finger-aching 220 BPM. However, by the third song, the Celtic-influenced Battle-Metal anthem, "Cry Thunder", it quickly becomes apparent that this album is far from "a rehash of the same tried and tested formula". The song's jaunty, Mid-tempo marching and pounding riffs combined with glorious guitar harmonies and soaring vocals make this a standout track for sure, and possibly one of the greatest musical achievements in the band's history. From this point forward, DragonForce slowly begin to delve into less touched upon regions of their original sound for the remainder of the album. For instance, the album's defining 7-minute epic, "Wings Of Liberty", is perhaps the closest the band has ever come to achieving a progressive metal sound. The track begins with an entirely piano and vocal driven intro, giving the false impression that this may be the album's token ballad, until the distortion kicks in nearly 40 seconds later and a lightning-fast bass fill cues the band to do what they do best. What follows after that is a masterful exercise in the use of dynamics, varying between heavy and soft, fast and slow, happy and somber for the entirety of the song, complete with some excellent keyboard work and a well-executed, emotional, yet surprisingly not at all over-the-top solo taking up the mid-section. "Die By The Sword" on the other hand is more reminiscent in style to guitarist Sam Totman's early 2000's "Ninja Metal" side project, Shadow Warriors, once again opting for a slower than expected tempo closer to traditional 1980's metal than typical DragonForce speed. The most standout feature of the song (and additionally the most unexpected) would have to be the solo, which sounds well, jazzy believe it or not, and a perfect example of how Li and Totman are not merely the mindless shredders some may label them as. Seasons may very well be the most radical departure from tradition displayed on "The Power Within", as the riff-heavy, emotionally charged track screams Sonata Arctica or Stratovarius far more than DragonForce. Complete with an unbelievably catchy and well-written chorus, excellent guitar and keys, a very dark bass-driven bridge, and a phenomenal outro solo, it's simply one of the best of the bunch. In fact, the album also features a completely acoustic rendition of the song as a bonus track. Yes, you read that right. DRAGONFORCE wrote an entirely ACOUSTIC song. Despite the generous amount of experimentation to be found on this album, die-hard fans can rest assured that DragonForce are most certainly not abandoning their Extreme Power Metal roots. This can be evidenced quite clearly from twin shred fests "Give Me The Night" and "Heart Of The Storm". The former of the two appears most akin to a hybrid of Helloween and Symphony X, combining ludicrously fast riffing with powerful vocal delivery and even some slight Neoclassical influence in a couple of lead sections. The latter on the other hand sounds more like a tribute to the band's sophomore effort, "Sonic Firestorm", consisting of the longest solo on the album in addition to sporting a very "Fury Of The Storm" meets "Soldiers Of The Wasteland" feeling. As far as the production goes, there's not much to complain about. Most noticeable is the presence of bass, which has been all but missing from the majority of DragonForce's last two studio efforts. Furthermore, the keyboard elements have been signficanly scaled back in comparison to "Ultra Beatdown", perhaps aiming for a more raw metal sound less cluttered with electronics. Some may feel the guitars sound too "digital" at times, but that is a total nitpick in what is frankly a very well-produced and packaged product.
Lyrics — 8
While the aforementioned live release Twilight Dementia certainly proved DragonForce were capable musicians who could perform just about anything in their catalogue, former singer ZP Theart was clearly the weakest link in the golden chain based purely on that album. The man with the once magnificent voice that many identified the band by had fallen into a shadow his former self, with excessive smoking and drinking being a primary cause for his lackluster performance. Coupled with differences in musical opinion in the months following the recording, the remaining members of DragonForce soon found themselves searching for a fresh new set of lungs with which to write the next chapter of Extreme Power Metal. After nearly a year of scouring YouTube auditions and approaching professional singers, they finally found the right man for the job. Enter 24 year-old Marc Hudson, a young, up-and-coming metal singer from the UK, whose list of influences range from Bruce Dickinson, to Michael Kiske, James LaBrie, and Sebastian Bach to name a few. From start to finish, Marc puts on one of the most impressive vocal performances in the history of the band, filled to the brim with impressive metal screams, melodic singing, and even some lower-register vocal work that was noticeably missing from ZP's time with the band. Although vastly different in his vocal approach than his predecessor, Hudson shows everything he has on this album, from the gritty aggressiveness of "Fallen World", to the beautiful falsetto singing of "Seasons"' acoustic counterpart, and of course the earth shattering B5 metal scream on which album-closer "Last Man Stands" ends. The backing vocals also deserve a shout-out, adding an incredibly epic atmosphere to equally epic music. The very Blind Guardian-esque choir-style support fits perfectly, contributing to many explosive choruses and even verses. Some songs such as "Fallen World", "Heart Of The Storm", and "Die By The Sword" include slight death growls in the background, provided by bassist Frdric Leclercq, while others feature guest female vocals from Pythia vocalist Emily Ovenden. As far as lyrics are concerned, much of it seems to be the same fantastical nonsense DragonForce have been going on about for the past four albums. However, there is one thing any reader of this review should be completely aware of. You may want to sit down for this. Okay, are you ready? THERE IS NOT A SINGLE "SO FAR AWAY" ON THIS ENTIRE ALBUM! Yes, I know. Major shock, isn't it? Aside from an alternate chorus version of "Heart Of The Storm" included on the album's special edition, the infamous lyrics do not once make an appearance on the "main" album. Aside from that, there's still all the "flames", "storm", "warrior" schlock we have all become accustomed to. Despite that, some songs do have some real-world meaning to them in which these words are used in a more metaphorical sense, such as "Holding On" which is about the world's current economic crisis, "Give Me The Night" which speaks about drug addiction, "Last Man Stands" which is written about constant warring in the Middle East and tension over nuclear weapons, and Seasons which is apparently about a bad relationship Leclercq went though some time ago (trust me, the song is much better than that makes it sound!). Despite continuing to recycle similar words from previous albums, it seems that on their latest effort DragonForce have at least made more of a conscious attempt at injecting genuine meaning into their lyrics as opposed to simply stringing together random words that sound cool.
Overall Impression — 9
Despite (or perhaps in spite of) their reputation of supposedly repeating their trademark formula over and over again, "The Power Within" is easily DragonForce's most mature, unique, and well-executed release to date, and an immensely enjoyable serving of power metal at that. Even with the loss of their original singer, the band has managed to compile together a fantastic collection of tracks that should easily satisfy their legions of fans while allowing them to push the boundaries of their style much farther than in the past. After four long years since their last release, DragonForce have returned to prove that no matter what happens, "Through The Fire And Flames" they carry on.