Bet you didn’t expect this one to turn up today, did you? Well, A Scene In Retrospect is always ready to throw a curveball at you, so don’t get too comfortable. In any case, DragonForce‘s Ultra Beatdown is as infectiously fun as a metal record could hope to be, so its inclusion is entirely warranted. That’s enough of an introduction – you can find my own thoughts on the record at the very bottom of this article, right beneath those of my esteemed colleagues David, Robert, and Billie.
I have a longstanding relationship with DragonForce. It all began sometime in the spring of 2007. I was out for a ride with some friends with our bicycles, we were all doing our thing, and while we were taking a short rest somewhere in the park, one of the guys was practicing 180s. When he finally sat down next to me, I heard something like a very lively and agglomerated buzzing from his headphones. So, I ask him what is that and he just doesn’t say a word, he just pulls the buds from under his shirt and gestures me to put them in. As the buds were nearing and finally entered my ears, unbeknownst to me at the time, I started listening to “Operation Ground and Pound”.
It was simply mind-blowing to the then 14 year-old me. I had never heard anything even close to that. At the time Yngwie Malmsteen was the most shredtastic stuff I’d listened to and power metal as a whole was still fresh and uncharted territory. As the unrelenting barrage of notes was hitting me, I was in awe. I stood there motionless, slack-jawed, eyes blank, the whole shebang. My mind simply could not find a way to conceive how any of what I’m hearing is possible. I couldn’t even keep up with the song itself, it was this larger than life flood just washing over my entire being.
It was and still is one of the most significant milestones in my life in terms of musical discoveries. I obviously proceeded to binge on all of their material at the time and I simply couldn’t get enough of it. It was like some sort of divine mana which made me glorious, invincible, and immortal as I was listening to it. Some people had superheroes and what not; well, I had DragonForce.
Enter Ultra Beatdown. I remember feverishly following the singles and the upcoming release, which of course blew my mind back then once I finally heard it. I listened to it, like, ad nauseam. Of all their albums, this one stuck with me the most though. It was simply the most amazing thing I could name in terms of music at the time. The relentless energy, the bludgeoning delivery, the fast tempo, the glorious flourishes, it just had everything I craved for at the time, but most importantly all the damn guitar solos an album can hold.
It stayed with me for quite some time too. I think I only really stopped listening to DragonForce on a regular basis like 7 or 8 years ago. I’ve been revisiting them whenever I feel nostalgia creeping up on me, or when I just need some mindless, high octane, upbeat fun. Now I’m looking back at it both through the nostalgic lens as well as the reviewer lens, but with the added fact that I’ve also become a little bit of a snob with music.
Alright, first of all, it’s a monster. It’s basically 77 minutes of percussive gallops and shredding of some kind. That’s the Japanese edition of course, which has a bonus track in plus compared to the special edition, which had 2 extra tracks compared to the initial release.
Relistening to the album several times over the past few days was a fun and also interesting experience. As far as speed metal and power metal standards are concerned, it still holds up quite well, although it is a bit long even by those same standards. It also sounds much better than I remember it – production-wise. There’s a lot of low end in there to offset all the wild high pitched melodies, and the overall distribution of the layers as well as the separation between them is surprisingly good.
You don’t go into Ultra Beatdown expecting anything else than an avalanche of fast notes and the same drum beat, especially given what the band stands for musically. With that in mind, I still have to say that it’s easily their best album to date. It definitely showed improvements compared to its predecessors and neither of its successors managed to raise the bar. I don’t think DragonForce set out to top it off in any way as it is, and I’m definitely going to keep my criticism laid back, or rather, I will not make it the focal point, since I’m pretty confident that neither of the members are taking the act seriously in any particular way – it’s clearly something that’s about having fun and not much else.
I’d like to also note that Ultra Beatdown was something of a marker, too – if I remember correctly, this was around the time when the band’s live performances were also matching the contents of the studio recording. There was a lot of fuss for some time that the band couldn’t play their own stuff. I ultimately never cared about that, to be honest, but I’m not going to lie, it is nice to have a band to be able to reproduce their material live down to the smallest details.
The songs themselves are practically adhering entirely to the set type of a DragonForce song up to that moment. Like, 6 to 8-minute songs, where each has an incredibly long solo, you know. Ultimately all the solos, and even most of the songs are sort of interchangeable, but I do like “Reasons to Live”, “Heartbreak Armageddon”, “The Last Journey Home”, and “Inside the Winter Storm” more than the rest. It feels like they somehow stand out more than the rest and have some actual memorable bits.
I would also argue that “Reasons to Live” is easily the best Dragonforce song, and that it’s a mad shame that it’s one of their lesser-known ones – at least to my knowledge. It’s an absolute certified banger, from its simply wild intro down to what could also be the most creative and ‘progressive’ DragonForce solo out there.
I think that pretty much sums it up. I’m not going to try to sell anyone on this record, at least unless they show express interest in this area. I’m also not going to be singing praise of musicianship or anything related to that, DragonForce are not a band that contribute in any way to enriching the musical landscape. They just found something that’s a lot of fun to do, as tedious, bludgeoning, and repetitive as it may be; it’s a lot of fun nevertheless. Sometimes all we need is to just get some kicks going and not think about anything else. I respect them for this, and Ultra Beatdown will always have a place in my heart.
There are very very few musical groups that I feel evoke the same feelings as the almighty DragonForce. From the moment I first heard “Through the Fire and Flames” as it circled the internet and blew the minds of twelve year olds like me, I knew there was something really different about this band. All these years later, they still evoke an almost untouchable feeling to me. Who does overly produced, relentlessly cheesy power metal as well as DragonForce?! Absolutely nobody. And that’s a statement I will stand by forever.
Ultra Beatdown saw a whole new world of success for the band after the aforementioned track took us all by storm and nearly broke all our wrists trying to play it in Guitar Hero 3. When I heard there was new DragonForce music at my freshman year lunch table, I rushed home to YouTube to find it. Ultra Beatdown begins with the rapturous and epic “Heroes of Our Time”, which is about as DragonForce as DragonForce gets. It’s filled with some of the fastest and wildest guitar parts you will ever hear and oddly reminiscent lyrics (something the band has done forever – seriously, find me a song that doesn’t mention fire, flames, marching, searching, or a handful of other tropes).
My favorite thing about DragonForce is how little I give a shit about any of the behind the scenes, or about how cheesy and redundant they get. Every song could have the exact same lyrics with ridiculously sped-up guitars and I’d be just as happy to spin it as ever. Remember when that rumor was going around and people would surreptitiously scour music videos and live playthroughs of the band in an attempt to be the one that proved they were frauds? While many of my friends did this, I jumped around my bedroom in an unmedicated ADHD fervor, absolutely jamming out to Ultra Beatdown.
It’s been many years since I listened to DragonForce, but this album brought a nice reminiscent smile to my face within seconds. I can listen to it and easily say that it sure is some music, but it’s way outside of my realm of taste now. Even still, “The Fire Still Burns” makes me want to jump into the world’s biggest circle pit and just have fun. That’s the thing with DragonForce – music nerds be damned, this band is just good fun. They’re overly and overtly epic, with unnecessarily fast instruments and passages that feel like they’re straight out of the “Knights of Cydonia” music video, and all of that is incredibly cool and a-okay in my book! Sometimes a lot of us take music too seriously and try way too hard to dissect it. To those people, which includes myself sometimes, all I can say is relax a little bit and get smacked in the face by like 400 fucking BPM instruments like the start of “Reasons To Live”.
That song in particular has some of my favorite lyrics found in middle school, and hearing them again honestly made me pretty happy once more. ‘A stars shines in all of us, we’ll search for all our lives/One day we’ll find a way, and a reason to survive.’ Slowly-becoming-emo me thought that line was way more epic than it needed to be, and I still love it for its nostalgic impact. But anyways, can we talk about that wildly epic prog breakaway in the middle of this track? It’s something that Ultra Beatdown does in a surprising number of tracks, usually followed up by another unnecessarily epic, breakneck solo. “Scars of Yesterday” is the most notable example of this to me, particularly because of how long and wild the solo is to close out the album after one more epic choral-vocal-led chorus. Ultra Beatdown is about as epic as it gets, and about as cool as DragonForce ever got with its really nice prog touches and breakaways from guitar solos that make “Master Exploder” look like childsplay.
You have to understand something about DragonForce. They were a cultural phenomenon of sorts in the mid-to-late 2000s. Thanks to the advent of Guitar Hero and rhythm games in general, they also got a substantial – like, I’d argue life-changing – push into the mainstream since everyone and their mother were playing these games, clickety-clacking little plastic instruments (and later bing-banging when drums were included) in time with songs both old and new. Full body karaoke if you will. You remember, right (please say yes; I’m not that old)?
“Through the Fire and Flames” was huge after being included on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock as the ultimate challenge to players. There was no other song that stomped us out and made our fingers hurt quite like that one, especially on Expert difficulty – RIP to your wrist. There’s a reason it has over 250 million hits combined on YouTube and Spotify (and that’s just the original video and album cut of it from Inhuman Rampage).
Soon after the explosion of popularity, I got CD-Rs of the band’s first three albums from a pal (sorry, it was a different time and piracy was the shit) and I became intimately familiar with their work, loving the rawer feel of Valley of the Damned and its harder lean into more old-school speed metal, yet still admiring the leap in wildness to Sonic Firestorm and the polish of Inhuman Rampage.
By the time we got to Ultra Beatdown, I had worn the absolute hell out of my DragonForce bootlegs. I was wondering how the band would seek to impress me and the rest of us with their fourth album and, honestly, it didn’t take much. Back then, I was still chasing the high of finding increasingly heavier, faster, wilder bands in my slow descent into metal and heavy music’s abyssal depths. Behemoth, Dimmu Borgir, Nile – they all showed me a thing or two at the time, but DragonForce were a constant; a home base for me to return to when I needed something familiar to cleanse the palate. That and Iron Maiden, but that’s a different ASIR.
After all, that’s what DragonForce were good at. They uplifted with their brand of speedy power metal. Their liberal use of guitar effects and tricks also gave them a home among the chiptune and video game metal crowds, which, depending on your taste, either illegitimized or deified them. True, some of their melodic lines, solos, and sonic accoutrements would call back to games like the Mega Man series (particularly the Dr. Wily levels) in oddly unspecific ways, but hey, that was just a little (unintended, I’m sure) easter egg for us ‘90s kids. Hell, Todd Howard even found a way to port The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to Spotify in the form of a song on their most recent album, Extreme Power Metal.
They operate in this hyper-fantastic mode, both thematically and physically. The songs? They all drown in epic tones and vocals concerning the universe, apocalypse, battles (both internal and external), survival, and strife. There’s drinking games you could play with the repetition of lyrics like ‘eternal’, ‘forever’, ‘fire’, and more between songs that would land you in a hospital.
The performances? Well, have you seen Herman Li and Sam Totman guitar duel? Have you seen their keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov finger the shit out of that digital ivory? Hast thou witness’d Dave Mackintosh be a damn machine on the drums, song after song, without relenting? For the layman such as myself, they appear to be superhuman, able to move with lightning speed, almost incoherently so, and can do it live! I’ve heard some less-than-stellar things about then-vocalist ZP Theart’s vocal ability live, but fuck it, I don’t blame him, and he’s not in the band anymore anyway.
It’s true that, unless you’re well-versed in their material, a lot of DragonForce runs together, especially their earlier stuff. What makes Ultra Beatdown stand out besides the awesome name are the slight chances it took with structure and approach. After three albums of gradual increases of quality, but detrimental comfort in methods, they needed to mix it up a bit. Although I ribbed their lyrics earlier, there’s some genuinely cool moments here, like on “Reasons to Live” with its personally triumphant chorus:
‘A star shines in all of us, we’ll search for all our lives
One day we’ll find a way, and a reason to survive
Cry for the day to return like no one can understand
We all face our fears in the world
We all hold our place in the universe
There’s also a very neat instrumental break in “Reasons to Live” that slows things down and incorporates some types of melodies and rhythms I haven’t heard in any of their other stuff. “The Last Journey Home” is one of the most epic songs they’ve written. There’s some tension in the riffing, and the song’s whole structure just begs for a hero’s journey to soundtrack. It’s the kind of song you could see being in the background of an old anime music video. In fact, let me look here… mmm, yep, there’s definitely a few of those on YouTube.
Still, this is the same DragonForce that took us by storm in 2006. “The Fire Still Burns” is wonderfully, cheesily symphonic and dramatic with its vocal delivery. Li and Totman just melt their respective fretboards trying to playfully outdo each other. “Heroes of Our Time” could have easily been on Sonic Firestorm or Inhuman Rampage, which, in some ways, made it a perfect single for the album to bridge between major releases. We still get a ballad-type song with “A Flame for Freedom”, and there’s more interesting takes on tracks like “The Warrior Inside” and “Heartbreak Armageddon”, complete with theremin and other oddities!
For a lot of people, DragonForce were a flash in the pan – something ridiculous to admire, but always hold at arm’s length. For those of us that were in the right mental place at the right time, they were instrumental in helping us explore a bond with unapologetically fun and fast music that really seemed to capitalize on our desire for the maximal, the apex, whose goal posts always seemed to move further and further away with each new blistering discovery. I guess the search is never over because I’m still like that 13 years later. Thanks for pushing me a little further in the right direction with your ludicrous music, DragonForce.
Ah, the comforts of taking the last slot in a feature such as this by default. Everything important has already been covered by the previous writers, and so I get to leisurely relay any and all personal thoughts and anecdotes as I see fit – while breaking the fourth wall in the process. Neat!
Taking a casual stroll through my more recent articles, you might come to the conclusion that the kind of music we’re dealing with today really shouldn’t be something I’d associate with, and you’d be right – kinda. I think the last metal record I got into was back in 2018, when Yob released their masterful Our Raw Hearts; since then, my relationship with the genre has been on a steep downhill slope. And yet, there remains but one forceful tether that keeps me connected with it: nostalgia. That, my dear reader, is where DragonForce’s Ultra Beatdown enters the picture.
I remember very well the days of high school metal snobbery, in which me and my comrades in music used to scoff and sneer at the very mention of DragonForce. ‘They’re poser bullshit,’ we would say, ‘and they can’t even play their songs live.’ We would go on and on like this, turning our undeservedly pretentious noses up like we knew what the hell we were even on about. Turns out that all it took to rectify that hilariously slanted image was to – you guessed it – actually listen to the damn band for a change. So that’s what I did, and oh my, was it a swift kick to my fragile metalhead ego’s figurative shin. I loved it.
With due hindsight as my witness, I don’t quite get what teenage me ever found particularly objectionable about DragonForce in the first place. Sure, there’s a buttload of camp and cheese involved in the making of their music, but that complaint coming from a nu-metal kid turned metalcore dabbler is mighty rich. Ultra Beatdown exemplifies everything one could love about this band: it’s epic, uplifting, and surprisingly life-affirming (the latter shining through mostly when thumbing through the lyrics). Seriously, it’s roughly an hour of wholesome fun wrapped into the most dizzying power metal guise one could ever hope to find.
While all members operate at maximum capacity for an album that truly lives up to its name, I must admit that my favorite thing about this band has always been ZP Theart’s voice. Far removed from the shrill, affected histrionics of other singers in the genre, his warm presentation only added more weight to the positive messages hidden within the knowingly overblown guitar theatrics DragonForce are known (and loved) for. One such instance comes from my personal favorite song off of Ultra Beatdown, “Reasons to Live”; I will leave you with a direct quote while I go slap up my past self for his unwarranted self-righteousness a little more.
‘A star shines in all of us, we’ll search for all our lives,
One day we’ll find a way, and a reason to survive,
Cry for the day to return like no one can understand,
We all face our fears in the world,
We all hold our place in the universe,