New Dragonforce Record Features Johnny Cash Cover, Guitar Solos Recorded on a Yacht

Dragonforce is a gateway drug to heavy metal for video game nerds. No, really -- I've seen it happen.

In the British band's 15-year span, they've been able to develop a sound that truly stands a part from any other band within the genres they're constantly rotated between. It's as if some festival organizer is scratching their head somewhere, saying "Well, they fit in with speed and power metal... but they've also got that hard rock ballad sound down... the fast-as-hell guitar arrangements are on par with technical death metal... and, uh, they also sound like the soundtrack to a retro video game. What's that called again; 'Nintendo metal'?"

And the description wouldn't be far off. The Grammy-nominated band is known for its overwhelming ambush of organized yet chaotic sound, with fantasy and supernatural-based lyrics, soaring melodic vocals, electronic accents, and techniques that do sound like retro video games.

In fact, Dragonforce guitarist Herman Li recently told Guitar World that people have described the band as "Bon Jovi on speed" and "Journey meets Slayer."

Li founded the band in 1999 with fellow guitarist Sam Totman, and Marc Hudson (lead vocalist, who came on board just in time for 2012's album), Vadim Pruzhanov (keyboard, keytar, synthesizer, backing vocals), Frederic Leclercq (bass, backing vocals), and Gee Anzalone (drums, backing vocals) round out the lineup.

Dragonforce's sixth studio album, Maximum Overload, comes out August 19. It's 10 high-intensity tracks, more of the signature sound that fans have come to love from the band-. However, this time around the band decided to challenge themselves even more.

Taking a fresh direction, they decided to work with an outside producer, Jens Bogren (Opeth, Devin Townsend) for the first time ever (Li and Totman have always co-produced the records). There's also one guest on the album, Trivium's Matt Heafy, who does backing vocals on "The Game," "No More" and "Defenders." It's also the first time ever that Dragonforce has included a cover song -- "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash.

The result is an album recorded over a six-month period at an array of locations, from Jens' own studios in Sweden, to Zoltan Bathory's [Five Finger Death Punch] yacht. It not only displays how the band has matured musically, but how they've also incorporated heavier elements, bringing a taste of '80s thrash metal to the mix. As Li puts it, "It's about evolution, not revolution."

Up on the Sun talked with lead guitarist/founder Herman Li about how giving up control on the album enhanced his creativity, covering Johnny Cash, and the experience of recording a guitar solo while standing on a moving yacht.

You guys brought in a new producer on this record, Jens Bogren, to challenge yourselves as musicians. In what way did that challenge Dragonforce?

Herman Li:I think that one thing is we had to hand the work over to someone external. Sam and I are control freaks because we're producing all the time. While the process was happening we were learning techniques that were a bit different than how we usually do it.

Was it for you to hand over some of that control, since you have worked as the producer on so many albums?

It was OK for me; I think it was harder for Sam in the beginning. Um, but, I was okay with it because I guess when I started recording I didn't have this load on my shoulder like how I used to. I used to have to write so many notes about what had to be done. I didn't have to worry about it. And when I knew something needed to be recorded I didn't have to do it myself; I could just send an email. That was kind of cool, like, oh, is that all I have to do for that?

I'm sure taking that load off your shoulders accented your creativity a bit.

Yes, I could think about the playing. This was the freest album for me to record.

You can definitely hear the thrash element incorporated into Dragonforce's signature melodic speed metal. What other musical boundaries pushed on Maximum Overload?

Uh, I guess in certain songs like "The Symphony of the Night," we don't usually do the neoclassical style song on purpose, because when you do classical music you can sound too similar to older neoclassical rock or something. It's hard to differentiate yourself. But with that song we did a good job setting ourselves a part. We were able to do that. Dragonforce is not like another band. We tried a different style we hadn't done before; and I guess we hadn't really done an organ solo before. Laughter. I had to get used to it, but after a bit I was like 'this is cool'! Of course, we still have those types of songs where you're like, 'OK, this is a Dragonforce song.'

Dragonforce has never released a cover before on an album, so where did the idea originate to include Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"?

We have never done a cover before and we actually thought we weren't going to do one. Laughter. But we thought, 'hey, even though doing covers isn't original, it would be original for us, since we've never done one!' The band has been together for 15 years. Laughter. So Sam put together this demo, and "Ring of Fire" sounded like a Dragonforce song. We didn't want it to sound like the original. We wanted it to sound like the band for people to appreciate the sound. It needs that Dragonforce element when recording it.

It's definitely a unique angle.

You know, in a way I thought that this was, um, even faster than some of our songs. How can a cover song get even faster than some of our own songs?

You had a lot of different recording environments, from Sweden to the UK, and you even recorded a few guitar solos on a yacht owned by Zoltan Bathory [Five Finger Death Punch], correct?

Yeah, that's right.

How was that experience?

With Zoltan, I thought, hey, let's bring some different kinds of inspiration. Rather than sitting in a studio and in a room, let's bring it somewhere different. Originally I thought we were going to record it in an arena and chill out there. But Zoltan...he likes to take things to the extreme. So he's like, 'nope, we're taking it the yacht and we're going to record it at sea.' And he said that I was only allowed to record it while the boat is moving and you have to stand up. So that was his rule. I wasn't allowed to sit down. So we did it that way, which was pretty funny. We need to post that on the Internet sometime.

So was that your favorite environment to record in?

That was definitely the most fun to record, anywhere. I guess all the other solos were in a room somewhere. That was the only time outdoors. Laughter. The was the guitar solo for the song "The Game" and "City of Gold."

What is your proudest moment on the record?

Uh... well, I'm not quite sure. Music is such a complicated thing and there's so many ways to look at it. Just finishing the album you're always so happy, and it's kinda a relief. Sometimes when you start an album and you're recording in a six-month period, you almost feel like it's never going to end. And when you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you know the end is near, it's like this big sigh of relief that it's actually going to happen. So, to hear the music at the end, all put together.

Things don't always go according to plan and you're always able to fix the problems. But there have been times -- not with this album, but the last album -- there was a part where I wasn't sure.... This may be the finest Dragonforce album we've had in some time, and we've finished it. Maybe it's because we used a producer; we actually finished ahead of time this time around.

Some guitarists only take their instrument out of the case when it's time to tour, while others never seem to put it down. Where do you fall?

Ah..laughter. Unfortunately, I don't really have that much time to play the guitar at the moment. I practice a lot before tour, but I'm not a guy that only plays the guitar. I like to do martial arts and other things... to enhance my mental, mental state. So I'm not the type that has it out. Actually, I hate the guy who can't stop playing! It's like, please, stop playing and have some space and some silence! I'm not that guy. Stop playing when it's time to stop playing!

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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise