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Playing On Expert

Guitar Hero Hero Dragonforce Seeks to Transcend "Power Metal," But Not Video Games

Dragonforce is an hero and doesn't afraid of anything.

By Tony Ware | Posted 11/26/2008

Dragonforce guitarist Herman Li is like a lottery scratch off--"power metal" guitar wankers all want a shot at him, hoping for the jackpot that some of his shred will rub off. In the case of an interview, though, the goal is a little more realistic. It would be great just to be able to scratch the surface lightly and get past the basic metal aspirations of learning how to play with both more clarity and ferocity, pumped full of adrenaline like some dark-horse sports franchise.

Speaking with Li by phone during a break in the current Dragonforce U.S. tour, the jackpot of enlightening disclosure is not hit. But after repeatedly hearing about the importance of evolution, specifically taking it to "another level"--said in reference to the UK sextet's fifth full-length, Ultra Beatdown (Roadrunner)--it comes more into focus how Dragonforce fits in a world where Halo 3 players use supercharged gaming rigs to score the product endorsements once reserved for physical athletes.

"We're the most up-to-date operating system, the latest graphic cards, operating at the highest resolution--running two panels at once!" Li exclaims when asked to search for an analogy to the Dragonforce dynamic. "I think that's what we did with this album compared to [2006's] Inhuman Rampage--that was a fast shred fest, but with Ultra you have the fast elements, but more dynamics, changes. That's where we can shine, where people haven't seen Dragonforce. In a band with bass, guitar, and drums, you can hear it all, with nothing fighting against anything else. But with a band with as much instrumentation as we have, there's so many frequencies that you won't hear certain tones if we didn't learn to work with softer parts as well as harder ones.

"Like with games, some people code the engine, some [people code] the textures of a video game, and you need the software, hardware, and peripherals to all work together," he continues. "We each work to improve at our specialty, then find how they work together."

On the most obvious level, Li's chosen description is highly appropriate considering that much of the band's stateside notoriety comes from its track "Through the Fire and Flames" being the ultimate challenge in the 2007 game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Looking beyond the immediate frame, though, Dragonforce is the embodiment of the metal paradox--technique-geeked players who practice in front of the mirror versus ones who own the chords and crowds. And in embracing both sides, the band is a perfect icon for a new era of social gaming.

"I think we're definitely not like Viking metal or whatever," Li says when asked if there's anything culturally distinctive about Dragonforce that can be traced to the band's origins. "But I think in a way we're the new cultural metal music. At one time Swedish bands had their sound, and British bands had their sound. But now with globalization you can communicate with anyone, and we bring the 21st-century in that we have the best of everything in there--no boundaries is our culture."

Indeed, Dragonforce is often labeled "power metal," nodding to a genre that peaked in the late '80s with Helloween and then spread in the '90s to bands including Hammerfall and Kamelot. But this is a restrictive misnomer. "Fantasy metal" might be more appropriate. Whereas a group formed in the '80s such as loin cloth-sporting Manowar was like Dungeons & Dragons being played out live, Dragonforce is whipping the Wiimote set into a frenzy through a combination of role-playing elements and overclocked accelerometers. Yet it's not "power," per se, that the band attempts to achieve through its extreme use of extremities. The "power" of metal is most often described in its heaviest, most chaotic aspect. But for Dragonforce it's all about order.

While much metal is defined by how aggro it acts out, melodic metal of the Dragonforce type--drawing equally on the stream-of-consciousness, window-to-the-soul work of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani as the classically structured fervor of an Iron Maiden--can be said to be defined by what it acts on. Almost like motivational speakers (or the fatherly character in an appropriately geeky comic book), Dragonforce songs--full of everyman heroes burning with desire, surviving the flames, sacrificing for victory--preach that with great power comes great responsibility.

Dragonforce must strive to transcend any perceptions of being more prog than progressive and forge an original, inspiration identity from those most familiar six-strings (while those playing along at home can use their solo power to save the other participants in a heated Rock Band 2 game). Along with vocalist ZP Theart, drummer David Mackintosh, keyboard player Vadim Pruzhanov, and bassist Frédéric Leclercq, Li and co-lead guitarist Sam Totman work to make every small inflection and note choice count. You could say all this nears overwrought at times, but you can also go back to playing your NES emulator and listening to chiptunes.

"I approach everything the same way--there's no point to do it if not properly," Li says when asked if he has any sympathetic hobbies outside of music. "Recording, working on my Linux computer skills, martial-arts training to get the next belt level. To be honest, I think every day is a battle--every day you have to do something to get to another level, there's a domino effect--sitting and thinking nothing will happen is actually letting something happen, but not the best thing that could happen."

Asked further about his martial arts practices and how to equate them to music, Li describes Dragonforce not as a single discipline, but as a mixed martial arts bout (just try to find one where the participants aren't referred to as "warriors"). According to Li, success can't be found by simply practicing striking or grappling. You have to be able to commit and submit, while also working on conditioning and being able to take a punch. Why paint a difference between perfecting an arm bar, or the use of the latest compression plug-in? You need to integrate your tools, be the best pound-for-pound, to maintain top ranking in the game, whatever game it might be.

Enter Dragonforce--a band that wants to be the soundtrack of your training montage, musical or physical, virtual or not. Because there's no such thing as a free ride, unless you win the lottery.

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