DragonForce @ O2 Forum Kentish Town, 08.11.19
DragonForce are a London-based power metal band known for their incredibly fast dual guitar solos, fantasy-inspired lyrics and that one song from Guitar Hero III back in 2006. In reality, they are much more than that though, as they arrived at the O2 Forum Kentish Town for a homecoming show promoting their eighth album after 20 years as a band. Members have come and gone during this time, but DragonForce’s core appeal has never wavered. The current line-up consisting of vocalist Marc Hudson, guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman and drummer Gee Anzalone released the new album, which came out a few weeks before the show and is called ‘Extreme Power Metal’. For those unfamiliar with the band, it gives you a fair sense of what they’re all about. The retro album cover also gives a strong sense of the band’s identity, as they have always been heavily influenced by video games in their music, and this tour promised to be a celebration of this with the entire show being streamed on guitarist Herman Li’s Twitch platform.
Kicking things off for the evening were the also incredibly 80’s infused act McRocklin & Hutch. The duo formed by guitarist Thomas McRocklin, former 80’s child guitar prodigy and member of Steve Vai’s BAD4GOOD. The band describe themselves as ‘Shredwave’, which is an apt description of the band’s unique blend of 21st century technical guitar and 80’s synth and pop culture. In one respect, the retro vibe of McRocklin & Hutch very much fit with DragonForce’s aesthetic but on the other, it seemed apparent that their more chilled and electronic sound left a significant proportion of the audience somewhat cold. This is not to deny the ability of either member, and certainly the ‘guitar geek’ part of the crowd who were drawn to the show by the virtuosity of Li and Totman would have been equally as impressed by McRocklin’s obvious talents. However, instrumental rock music is difficult enough to get people into at the best of times, but especially with a less than full crowd who had not previously been introduced to the songs; and consequently the duo failed to make a lasting impression on more than a handful of people.
There was never going to be much chance of the following band not having much of an impact, as Lovebites have been making quite a name for themselves over the past year; helped by their performance at last year’s Bloodstock Festival, their acclaimed 2018 record Clockwork Immortality and now their first full UK tour. Lovebites are an all-female Japanese heavy metal group, who took to the Kentish Town stage dressed all in white to loud cheers and possibly a few raised eyebrows. They didn’t stay that way for long however, as they produced an onslaught of the finest heavy metal. The band does clearly have some of the 80’s influences that one of the defining themes of the evening, but theirs is more along the lines of NWOBHM with a healthy dose of glam thrown in. Make no mistake, this band is no gimmick and these women are clearly incredibly talented musicians, with the duelling solos between Midori and Miyako being a particular highlight. After a frantic forty-five minutes, Lovebites left the stage with several more fans to their name than when they entered it, and their upcoming album ‘Electric Pentagram’, which is due to drop at the start of 2020, will be met with a little ore anticipation than before.
With anticipation already at fever pitch, the laser display which penetrated through the darkened room served to amp up the excitement even further before DragonForce finally took to the stage to launch into the opening track off their new album 'Highway To Oblivion'. From that moment on the crowd was lost in a whirlwind of sonic and visual delights. Not only were the band on fine form, but the stage show was set up to bring out all of DragonForce's best qualities. Two giant arcade machines adorned each side of the stage, which Li and Totman regularly climbed on top of to perform solos, a giant screen across the back of the stage displayed scenes from various classic retro video games and (as the dry ice gun-wielding lead singer Marc Hudson announced with audible glee) a giant metallic dragon overlooked the whole affair from behind Anzalone's drumkit.
The ante was upped even further when Hudson informed the crowd about the show being live-streamed on Twitch, and indeed the guitar maestro Herman Li himself often donned a body cam during certain songs to add to the live streaming experience. The gaming theme was further milked for all it was worth with the inclusion of another new song 'The Last Dragonborn', which is based on Hudson's favourite game Skyrim and had a surprisingly large proportion of the crowd belting out the lyrics to the chorus, considering the album had only been out for a couple of weeks at this point. There was also a break for Li and Totman where Hudson took over guitar duties and climbed on top of one of the arcade machines himself to play some riffs from some classic games before the dynamic duo returned with Lovebites' Midori and Miyako for a playthrough of the Farming Simulator soundtrack, as you do.
The fact is though, for all the glorious gimmicks, it would do DragonForce a great disservice not to point out that even without the stagecraft, it would would have been a terrific show. Anzalone was a consistent force on drums throughout the whole evening, Damien Rainaud deserves particular praise for filling in at short-notice and yet not putting a foot wrong all evening, and Marc Hudson despite not being a prefessional musician before joining DragonForce in 2011 fills the stage so well that it's as if he's been doing it all his life. Obviously though the key draw for many was the irrestible force of Heman Li and Sam Totman's dualing guitars and they did not disappoint. It was also nice to see that picking a set-list comprising half of songs from their new album did not appear to count against them as the assembled greatly enjoyed the new material smattered amongst the old favourites.
One such example was the first song of their encore where they treated the crowd to their recent cover of 'My Heart Will Go On'. Only a band like DragonForce could get away with their singer encouraging the crowd on by saying he wanted to see a circle pit to Celine Dion (and the crowd duly obliging). Of course they ended with "the song that 50% of [the crowd] came here to see", as Hudson put it; which was another terrific example for Totman and Li to show off and for every person in the Forum to sing along with Marc's soaring vocals for the final time. DragonForce might often be maligned by some, but the fact is they are a group of very talented performers who know how to put on a show. They know what their appeal is, and they get everything out of it they possibly can, turning everything up to eleventy-stupid! Whether you're a real fan of their material, or are just up for a bit of nostalgia, DragonForce are a band everyone should find time to treat themselves to at some point.