By Adrien Begrand, Photo by Mark Coatsworth
There’s a brilliant old quote by Jerry Garcia that I like to drag out from time to time: “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Although the late musician was referring to the legions of Deadheads worldwide, the phrase can easily applied to any form of music with a strong cult following, and no question, power metal is one of them. An undeniable commercial force in Europe, that highly melodic, unapologetically bombastic faction of metal has always been a tougher sell in North America, its mainstream popularity fluctuating as trends come and go. In the last three years, though, thanks to a certain band of noodling doofuses and a certain video game that allows kids to mimic the insane shredding of said doofuses, power metal has been on the upswing on these shores.
That said, you could have fooled anyone who lives smack dab in the middle of the prairies, where death metal, grindcore, metalcore, and deathcore tends to be the de facto extreme music of choice, youngsters flocking to show after show featuring the Job For a Cowboys, Suicide Silences, Killswitch Engages, and Born of Osirises (Osires?) of the metal world. However, about once a year we here in Saskabush are treated to a little variety by a reputable band that actually likes to sing every once in a while, and it’s always remarkable to witness the turnout. There’s a definite hunger for the melodic stuff out here, and judging by the big, lively crowd that packed the Odeon on this gorgeous early autumn night, yours truly wasn’t the only one who thought the double-bill of Guitar Heroes DragonForce and Finnish stars Sonata Arctica was a welcome deviation from the norm. Decked out in t-shirts that would otherwise be greeted with scorn at underground metal shows, these folks were out to get their wank on in a big way, and by night’s end, they sure got what they wanted.
Coming off as garish as their home city of Las Vegas, recent Roadrunner signees Taking Dawn kicked things off with a half hour set that was more befuddling than anything else. Normally I like any band that sounds like it came straight out of the mid-’80s, but this foursome sounds like it can’t decide between emulating Y&T circa 1982 and Y&T circa 1987. It’s like following up “Mean Streak” with “Contagious”: one minute they’re delivering some shockingly competent post-NWOBHM riffola, and the next they’re going all cock rock on us. It just doesn’t feel right. Singer/guitarist Chris Babbitt was charismatic enough to get the crowd going, which is the least an opening band could do, and the room was buzzing happily after their exuberant but abysmally mixed set, but despite the fun “Time to Burn”, this band is about as credible as an Eiffel Tower in the middle of the Nevada desert.
In the minds of many who shelled out the 37 bucks for a ticket, Sonata Arctica should have been headlining this thing instead of playing only six measly songs, but they made good use of the limited time with a slick, exuberant set. With a new album under their belts in the form of the very solid The Days of Grays, they looked and sounded like a band that was clearly thrilled to finally take their product on the road, even if it meant playing for only 45 minutes per night. Opening with “In Black and White”, the professionalism was obvious from the get-go, the performance lively and tight, with lead singer Tony Kakko doing the frontman thing as well as anyone, hitting all the high notes perfectly, engaging the rapturous crowd, and joking with keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg. Aside from a spirited run-through of new track “Flag in the Ground” (though the vicious moshpit during the tinkly verses was a truly absurd sight), the band stuck to the old material, which, of course, all of us power metal-starved punters ate up, including “8th Commandment”, “Last Drop Falls”, “Fullmoon”, and “Don’t Say a Word”. One could gripe that the band wasted several valuable minutes at the end playing their silly “Vodka” tune and taking an extended bow to a garish synth score instead of placating us with one more friggin’ song (“The Cage”? “Victoria’s Secret”? Come on, dudes, throw us a bone!). That said, fleeting as the set was, it was rewarding nevertheless, and if the fan turnout was any indication, it certainly won’t be the last time we see them crossing the prairies.
When it comes to getting bang for your buck, DragonForce does everything they can to keep fans happy. They might be one of the most polarizing bands in metal today, but they’re also one of the most genuinely fun, both on record and in a live setting. If you’d rather have your metal punishing instead of soaring, then DragonForce’s formula can get tiresome, as if their primary influence is Hear ‘N’ Aid’s “Stars”: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, LONG ASS SOLO, bridge, chorus, etc., but for all the ridiculous fretwork by Herman Li and Sam Totman, garish synths by Vadim Prushanov, full-throttle tempos by Dave Mackintosh, and the Steve Perry-esque affectations of ZP Theart, their music overflows with hooks most bands would kill for. Digital sales of “Through the Fire and the Flames” didn’t skyrocket solely because of those nutty solos on Guitar Hero: it’s one insanely catchy song. And in power metal especially, hooks are everything.
DragonForce’s show is in a way a celebration of heavy metal excess, from risers to do hilarious “tornado jumps” off of, to strategically placed electric fans, to cup holders with long straws for band members to get their alcohol whilst performing, to Totman’s hilarious spandex pants, to an absurd, lengthy keytar duel between Pruzhanov and Klingenberg, to four guys playing each other’s instruments in a way that practically begs for a circle jerk joke, to a fucking THEREMIN. However, despite all that corniness and a sound mix that was less than spectacular, these dudes sure can play, especially Li, who is a marvel to watch, a blend of Steve Vai’s flash and Joe Satriani’s melodicism. The hour and a half set was nicely balanced between material before and after the band’s Big Break. Older selections like “Fury of the Storm” and “Valley of the Damned” were strongly received and the more obscure “Strike of the Ninja” was a very nice touch, but the clear winners were the three big singles, as “Operation Ground and Pound”, “Heroes of Our Time”, and especially the ubiquitous “Through the Fire and the Flames” inspired absolute bedlam on the floor. Snigger if you will, but there aren’t many bands that can have people singing along merrily while simultaneously beating the living crap out of each other in the mosh pit.