I first heard about Dragonforce before they became popular through the Guitar Hero games. I heard about their first album when it came out, and I was quite puzzled by what I was hearing. It was lightning-speed power metal, played at tempos I could barely register, and topped off with some of the most gloriously cheesy vocals and melodies I had ever heard. On paper, it sounded like a disaster, but they somehow made it work. Those first two albums were landmarks in the dawn on modern power metal, regardless of how you feel about their influence, and still have songs on them that I absolutely love. But along the way, once they became famous for their speed and guitar prowess, the band and I got separated. I had no love for their ultra-technical, faster for the sake of faster material that came out afterward, and all but wrote them off when they switched singers. Little did I know I would wind up reviewing a Dragonforce album one day, nor that I would enjoy it.
Dragonforce continues what is now a tradition of album titles that play up the teenage bragging that is the worst part of their music, but “Maximum Overload” shows the band finally maturing beyond the pigeon-hole video game nerds put them in. The album is still Dragonfoce to the core, but it goes back and brings in elements of those first albums again, which is a huge benefit to their sound.
“The Game” opens the album exactly as you would expect, with hyper-speed guitar playing and solos that fly by faster than you can take them in, but it slows down just enough in the choruses to let the melodies live in a comfort zone that is easy to sing along with. Dragonforce is finally learning that going all-out all the time isn't effective, because nothing sounds fast when everything is fast. Plus, those aggressive tempos often don't leave enough room for the kinds of hooks power metal is known for.
While I still can't hear Dragonforce without thinking of their previous singer, Mark Hudson sounds like he belongs, giving the songs that hooky choruses they need. Songs like “Three Hammers” have such massive choruses that even people who think Dragonforce is nothing but a gimmick will have to admit they do know how to write a killer song. There are several of them on the record, and not surprisingly they tend to be the songs that don't push the tempos past the red-line. When they back off the gas just a bit, their entire attack sharpens just enough, which allows the songs to hit harder. When they're playing at the edge of their abilities, there's not much room for nuance to be thrown in, which is what kills the lesser material on the album.
The most puzzling aspect of the album is that, in the midst of writing their best songs in a decade, the band ends the album with an ill-conceived, ridiculous cover of Johnny Cash's “Ring Of Fire”. Metal bands have been jumping on the bandwagon of covering pop songs for a few years now, and almost all of them are terrible. This is no exception, as it abandons everything that made the song work, in order to make it sound 'metal'. The only smart thing about the cover is that it closes the album, so it's easy to ignore.
Other than that massive misstep, Dragonforce has delivered their best album in ages, and has legitimately made a record I'm surprised I enjoy as much as I do. Speed is at or near the bottom of the list of things I care about in music, but there's more than enough here to make me forget about how much Dragonforce is pushing things. There are great songs on this album, and I feel confident saying Dragonforce is back to being one of power metal's most important voices, and not just a one-trick pony.