The New Guitar Gods: Dragonforce
The multifaceted Brits take their influences to a new extreme called "Nintendo Metal."
The members of London-based Dragonforce are a competitive bunch whose broad taste in music includes power, thrash, death and prog-metal, not to mention classical and pop. Not only are they determined to combine all their influences into each of their songs but they also strive to be more intense than each of their favorite bands. “We take everything to extremes,” says guitarist Sam Totman, “We have the best of everything: the melodies of Bon Jovi, the complexity of Iron Maiden and the speed of Slayer, but with more solos than any of them.”
“We’re always trying to top ourselves,” adds guitarist Herman Li. “Whenever we do something cool, we’re always like, Next time, let’s do something even better.”
Totman and Li formed Dragonforce with vocalist ZP Theart in 1999 out of the ashes of their black metal band Demoniac. Just one paying customer attended their first gig, but constant touring earned Dragonforce a loyal following. Their hit-and-miss debut, Valley of the Damned, was recorded in the beginning of 2000 but wasn’t released for three years, giving the band members ample time to fine-tune its sound. Firestorm, released in 2004, showed the group’s considerable growth, but it was Dragonforce’s third disc Inhuman Rampage, that earned them a following in North America. Equal parts confectionary sugar and crystal meth, the songs barrel from one hopped-up passage to the next with little room to breathe. Some have labeled the music “Nintendo metal,” a moniker Dragonforce invite by, emulating videogame noises throughout the disc.
“When we were in school, we used to play tons of video games, and a lot of them have really great music,” Li says. “Since it was always in our heads, we figured why not add that to our songs.”
As frantic as Li and Totman’s guitar work is, it’s easy to tell the two apart when they solo. Li, who started out playing classical guitar, is the band’s shredder, rapidly sweep picking and playing neoclassical runs influenced by Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, while Totman picks fewer notes, striving for melody over speed. In addition, Li improvises his leads; Totman writes his note for note. “I love what Herman does,” Totman says. “But when I think of a solo, I picture something you can sing like a vocal line. When you’re improvising, you tend to have more random notes that don’t mean very much.”
In the studio, the guitarists vibe off each other’s strengths, giving songs depth and character. But onstage is where Dragonforce really take flight. Not only is the band explosive and theatrical, as it displayed as the mainstage opener for this year’s Ozzfest, it’s also unpredictable.
“I usually start drinking three hours before show time, so I get into it more onstage than I would if I was sober,” says Totman. “It doesn’t affect my playing, but it might make me a little off balance. Once in England, I went to shake someone’s hand in the crowd, and I fell right into the orchestra pit. I couldn’t climb back on because it was too high up, so I just stood there looking like a dick.”