Ultra Beatdown

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Look up the word "juggernaut" in the dictionary and you may just find Dragonforce's photo alongside the definition. Not only does it aptly describe the nature of their hyperkinetic "extreme power metal," but also their vertiginous ascent from utter music community obscurity to new media, errr...juggernaut, when their breakthrough single, "Through the Fire and Flames," became first a YouTube sensation and later a keystone of the Guitar Hero video game phenomenon. This transition -- largely based on the new millennium's most unapologetic display of guitar shredding yet -- propelled the surprising sales of the sextet's third album, Inhuman Rampage, and laid quite a foundation for its much anticipated follow-up, 2008's Ultra Beatdown, which, among other things, will face immediate accusations of repeating its predecessor's winning formula (not to mention key song title words like ''Flame," "Fire," ''Storm," etc.). But this accusation doesn't hold much water in the historical scope of the power metal genre -- a genre that has barely evolved beyond the basic template set down by Helloween's form-defining Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 1, all the way back in 1987. By those standards, Dragonforce's aforementioned guitar shredding and extreme metal intensity alone already qualify as rather radical innovations. What's more, even though frenetic new tracks like "Heroes of Our Time" and "The Fire Still Burns" evidently descend from the band's signature hit (memorable for Herman Li and Sam Totman's ever-spectacular solos more than any innovative songwriting traits), Ultra Beatdown introduces several new elements into the Dragonforce sound -- not the least of which being more abundant, subsonic tempos. Previously wheeled out almost exclusively for the band's mercifully rare, intolerably saccharine ballads (oftentimes wimpier than Journey, and here represented by a somewhat more palatable drunken soccer anthem called "A Flame for Freedom"), these frequently provide welcome breaths of air amidst the album's still prevailing maelstrom. "Reasons to Live," for example, adopts a tango-like rhythm for its solo break, capped by a stunning synthesizer flurry from Vadim Pruzhanov; "Heartbreak Armageddon" boasts a surprising psychedelic flavor in its midsection; and "The Warrior Inside" breaks up Li and Totman's usual six-string frenzy with a stately orchestrated synth section -- plus a soaring finale led by vocalist ZP Theart. And with standouts like "The Last Journey Home" and its only slightly less distinguished fellow epic, "Inside the Winter Storm," the band shows greater dynamic range than usual, arguably earning some definitive "progressive" metal credentials once and for all, beyond the sheer extended lengths of the songs. All of the above is still couched within the band's general extreme power metal template, mind you, complete with tireless drummer Dave Mackintosh (still quicker than a humping heavy metal hamster) and hapless bass player Frédéric Leclercq, who is unselfish enough not to mind remaining mostly invisible throughout. So that about covers the Ultra Beatdown "juggernaut": come for the guitar solos, stay for the music. Power metal may not be the most inventive musical style on the planet, but Dragonforce are making it more exciting than most anyone else has for quite some time.

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