It's always tough on fans when a singer leaves a band. Sure, Van Halen did fine with Sammy Hagar, and AC/DC didn't exactly flounder when Brian Johnson joined, but there's always that moment of "Oh jeez, will this work?" Post-Lane Warrant, heck, even post-Hagar Van Halen - there's lots of scope for a misstep. Well the new Dragonforce album, The Power Within, will immediately shut up anyone who expects the band to lose some of its edge following the departure of ZP Theart. About a year after Theart walked, Dragonforce announced they'd enlisted Marc Hudson as their new voice. And what a voice. Dragonforce still sounds like Dragonforce, but even more musical, more powerful and more exciting. For a band who dishes out killer riffs and impossible guitar licks as easily as walking, kicking it up a notch is quite a feat. But The Power Within delivers.
The band turned the whole recording process, the rehearsing, their entire way or working upside down for The Power Within. A change was on the cards anyway: after a decade together they felt it was time to shake things up. Theart's departure just happened to coincide with this reorganisation. They even actually jammed together for the first time, rather than bringing in fleshed out demos and ideas. Guitarist Herman Li says the band wanted to avoid the rushed vibe of the previous two album cycles. "When we finished the Inhuman Rampage album in September 2005, we were still touring for the previous album. So it was all about going into the studio, writing the music, recording it and then, guess what: you're going out on another tour for the previous album! But this album, we got to play it together and transfer that energy with which we play the song into the album."
One of the goals for the new sessions was to integrate Hudson not only as a voice, but as a fully-fledged member. "It's not just Dragonforce plus a singer," Li says. "He's actually in Dragonforce. This is definitely the great thing on this album: we were so open, so there's no bullshit about upsetting anyone here. We talked about the music and said ' We don't like that… we like that.' With Marc we tried many things, many different vocal approaches, and merging them together, all for the goodness of the album. For the music. The art." But this shouldn't be any surprise to longtime fans of the band. Dragonforce music is more than just guitar solos with songs around them. "People might get confused because we play a lot of solos, but really everything in the song - all the solos, the leads - they're worked out way after we've got the singing down," Li says. "It's got to be catchy before we put it in. So then it's not just about playing simple chords and soloing over it later! So it's definitely concentrating on the music first." Of course, Dragonforce are known for playing super-fast, 200bpm stuff, but on this album they also brought it down to some midtempo songs and an increased awareness of groove. Anything goes. "We also have a song which is faster than all our other songs. It was a way to make the music dynamic and explore the voice of Marc, because he definitely has a really wide range from low to high. On the last album we got a little obsessed with sitting there with the click and the music and trying to play every lick perfect. This album we promised each other to not do that. And I can hear things that aren’t perfect. On this album we tried to approach it that way so it was more organic than our last album, where I was sitting there trying to get every sweep perfectly timed, and tried to get even the noises of moving the chords away.
Fans don't need to worry about an absence of cool guitar tricks though. "We definitely have all the fast stuff," Li assures us. "But on this album, it's not like the old album where we threw in all the whammy bar tricks, sweep picking, taps, whatever, into every song. This time each song has its own theme. And on this one we tried to approach it so that every note fit every chord really nicely and created the right tension and the right feel. So we're kind of going slightly against the scene. Because everyone is shredding now - y'know, eight fingers on the neck, six, seven, eight strings, necks left and right, loads of stuff - but I think notes that sit on the chords and that move and bend into the right chord, we go a bit more into that. Exotic bends and all that kind of stuff."
As one of the most respected and talented guitarists of his generation - seriously, the guy's chops are insane - fans are clamouring for a Herman Li solo album. Is it ever going to happen? "The energy goes pretty much into Dragonforce, really," Li shrugs. "If I do it with friends it’s a lot more fun, because you don’t want to sit there alone programming drums. It’s not really musical. I want some guy to trade off guitar solos with and do harmonies with." But then he offers a glimpse of hope: "Maybe if it happens it’ll be in about a year or two."
BY PETER HODGSON
The Power Within is out now through 3Wise Records.