At Los Angeles’s Amoeba Records, one of the largest independent music retailers in the nation, there is an entire section for “power metal.” It’s relegated to a rack underneath the “black metal” bins, as if cowering in fear. And why wouldn’t it be fearful? Power metal, as practiced by Hammerfall, Blind Guardian and crossover contenders Dragonforce, is almost always melodic and frequently uplifting, the antithesis of the atonal brutality and nihilism that typify the more “proper” metal subgenres. It’s a stance that’s despised by many serious metalheads, who dismiss power metal as pompous fantasy music for D&D dorks and pimply guitar shredders.
Although the Los Angeles chapter of the Intergalactic Geek Alliance was well represented at the September 8 stop on Dragonforce’s “Inhuman Rampage Over North America” tour, there’s no way that its members alone could have sold out all 2,200 seats of the historic Wiltern theater. This was about as diverse a crowd as you could expect from any rock show. I saw modern-metal fans sporting Trivium tees, balding Helloween devotees, pre-pubertal tweeners, short-haired drunken jocks, and even some actual, flesh and blood girls, a precious commodity at any metal show. There was a surprising amount of non-black clothing. And tellingly, the hipsters came out in full force too, drawn to the irony of claiming allegiance to one of the world’s most ludicrously over-the-top musical acts.
It’s a dangerous game that Dragonforce plays, riding that razor’s edge between sincerity and high camp, serious commitment to heavy metal and mocking ridicule of its conventions. On one hand, the members of the London-based sextet can play like motherfuckers. Most every single moment of the show featured some Olympian feat of ultra-fast drumming, dizzying guitar or keyboard solos, or nigh-operatic vocals, and despite the handful of ballads, the energy showed no signs of flagging during the band’s ninety-minute set. On the other hand, the band members are tastelessly wanky, and they often substitute theatrics for substance. It’s hard to take singer ZP Theart seriously while he’s standing stage center in tight leather pants, wind machine blowing his crimped hair backward, leading an audience sing-along of “In my heart and my soul/ I am out of control.”
To their credit, the members of Dragonforce are far easier to take live than on disc. The Wiltern’s muddy sound actually worked to the band’s advantage, adding some grit to songs whose metallic edges are buffed out by the glossy production sheen of their recorded versions. And all hail the lords of cheese for forgetting to turn the keyboard volume up, though you’d never know it from the way that Ukrainian keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov scuttled about the stage, keytar in hand. The fact that guitarist Herman Li could pull off warp-speed leads without a single fuckup was impressive enough, but this being a Dragonforce concert, of course we got some showing off. Li rapidly switched his left hand between the top and bottom of his fretboard, at one point eliciting a “jack-off” hand motion from second guitarist Sam Totman (not that Totman’s solos were any more tasteful). At one point during “Valley of the Damned,” Li, Totman, Pruzhanov and bassist Fred Leclercq clustered together and each played someone else’s instrument, bonding together in the spirit of masturbatory togetherness.
You could waste a lot of energy disparaging Dragonforce for creating substance-free Celine Dion metal. You’d be right, but you’d also be missing the point. Dragonforce isn’t going to top any critic shortlists, and is isn’t innovative in the least bit, but the members’ grandiose, solo-centric live show brought something that’s been missing from live metal for a long while: fun. It’s not hard to grasp what the band members are trying to do, and once you accept what they are and what they aren’t, you can just sit back and bask in the digestibility of their sappy melodies and overblown musical heroics. Dragonforce walk that sincere/tongue-in-cheek split so well that it’s impossible to listen to its music without either vomiting or falling in love. From the sound of hundreds of fans pogo-ing so forcefully that the Wiltern balcony sounded like it was ready to collapse, you could tell that the audience had chosen the latter.