How did you want this album to sound
and stand out from your past records?
Totman: I thought, for a start, the songs
would be shorter. In the past, most songs
would be around seven or eight minutes.
Now they are all averaging about five
or so. That is something I wanted to do
anyway, whether we changed singers or
not. People don’t have the attention span
to get into something. It’s sad in a way
but I have become that way myself, too.
I can’t really bother listening to an eightminute
song either. I would rather hear
two catchy shorter songs. But to make
up for that, I tried to get everything
into that five minutes, so we aren’t really
losing something. We have more guitar
solos underneath vocals and compacted
it in a way without losing anything.
We also went back to more of a metal
album sound. With the last couple of
albums we had more electronic-y stuff
and keyboards coming in, which I think
was definitely cool at the time. But
we realized that we took it as far as it
could go. You could say the sound has
gone back to more like what’s on Sonic
Firestorm—before we started to bring
all those extra things in with the keyboards—
in a way. With Marc’s voice, we
have more range to work with. I thought
ZP had a great voice, but he wasn’t really
good down low and Marc has a really
nice tone when he sings down low and
then he can sing really, really high as
well. So it just gives us more room to
make things interesting, really.
Did you have to change any of the
older songs to fit Marc’s voice?
Li: In a way, we are able to play the old
songs like we used to play them. I don’t
mean that in a bad way, but on the last
few tours we tuned down a half-step since
they were long tours and we didn’t want
to stretch our singer too much. Now, we
just play everything in standard tuning.
Totman: That was something that we had
to take into account when choosing a singer.
Obviously, when you write songs for a
singer it suits them better because it fits them
perfectly. We needed to get someone who
could sing the old ones, so we tried them
out and he sings them all really well. It never
bothered me when bands would tune down
like that but a few people would say, “Ah,
they are down tuning, the singer must not be
any good.” It’s funny, to say we are back to
standard tuning now, but there you go.
Sam Totman works his well-worn Ibanez STM2 signature model in London on June 17, 2011.
Photo by Jukka O. Kauppinen
How do you split up the leads on an album?
Totman: We sort of just sit down and try
and make it “fair,” in a way. I will write the
solo sections out with the chord progressions
and then we will sit there and look at
what we’ve got and just try and make it balance
out evenly. If I am doing the second
solo on one song and there is another song
with the same kind of tempo, then he will
do that one. Rather than me always getting
the first one or vice versa.
Are your solos improvised in the studio
or written out ahead of time?
Totman: For me, I totally write them
all out because it takes ages to try not to
repeat any licks that you have used 100
times before. Every album gets harder and
harder. I will split it up with one bar of
something fast and then maybe a melody
thing for a few bars—something that people
can remember. From there, I might do
a funny noise or some technique. It’s really
a bar-by-bar process. The next step is to go
back and learn the whole thing and see if
it sounds good together. I think Herman
improvises them over the actual album
and then takes whatever one sounds best.
He might play five in a row or five takes
of one solo and then pick out the bits he
likes. I think he writes his solos quite a lot
faster than me.
Li: For my solos I took a standing-up,
improvising approach where I don’t even
look at the computer. If it sounds good,
it’s good enough for me. In the old days I
was obsessed with looking at the screen and
seeing if I played it right or not. We try to
approach it in a more organic way.
Do you stick to the same solos from the
album when you perform live?
Totman: I pretty much stick to mine how
they are. I think it’s cool when I go see a
band, or see a band’s DVD when I was
younger, and notice how they changed it
a little bit. I would never want them to
change it completely.
Li: The songs “Cry Thunder” and “Fallen
World” changed. After playing it live, I ended
up doing a different solo on the album.
Was there a solo on the new album that
was particularly challenging?
Li: It varied from song to song. For example,
“Give Me the Night” was either the
first or second take. We just went straight
for it. Some songs took a long time, like
I did the solo two months before and I
would revisit it and end up changing it.
Even though you mentioned you wanted
to stay away from longer songs, “Wings
of Liberty” sounds like a return to your
Totman: That’s what I call a more typical
DragonForce song. That was the nightmare
of the whole album for me. I just couldn’t
get it together at all. For probably over a
year I couldn’t get a middle section. I considered
getting rid of it the whole time. This
Pro Tools session I have for the demo was
about 15 minutes long with all the different
bits. I would put some in and then take
them out and try new things. I went over to
Fred’s [Frédéric Leclercq, DragonForce bassist]
and asked him to please try and write
a middle section for this song. There are so
many bits and pieces to it—I guess that’s
why it came out the length it did.
DragonForce is known for playing at
insanely fast tempos, but “Cry Thunder”
shows a different side of the band.
Li: In the old days we said we were never
going to do a mid-tempo song. Guess what?
Here is a mid-tempo song. We play a lot
of fast solos and songs over that 200 bpm
beat, so let’s see if we can pull the tempo
down and see if we can express music differently.
It forces us to evolve because when
you play fast all the time you might start to
play a lot of the same licks and ideas.
Totman: The first thing I think of when
I am writing a song is what drum beat it’s
going to have. I thought okay, I will do a
song that has a 6/8 [sings beat], or whatever
the technical word for that beat is. Then
it has that Irish-sounding melody. I have
always thought Irish music was quite cool
with that folky kind of sound. I think it
came together more easily because I had
written so many songs at that same 200
bpm tempo, it was hard to think of something
new. I had never written anything at
that [slower] speed before, and it came out
On the other side of the dial, so to speak,
we have “Fallen World.” Is that the fastest
tune DragonForce has recorded?
Totman: Yeah, I think it is. “Cry of the
Brave,” which was a bonus track on Sonic
Firestorm, is pretty fast. I thought “Fallen
World” was the same speed, but apparently
it’s about 5 bpm faster, so it’s not a huge
leap. Basically, 90 percent of our fast songs
are all about 200 bpm, so we thought we
should do one at 220. The first thing I
thought was to put the metronome at 220
and see what happens. That’s another example
of how the speed determines the song. I
found that anything much over 200 didn’t
really suit it. I know with all these thrash
bands that I used to listen to like Sepultura
and Slayer, their fast songs might be at like
240 or even 250, and I tried writing some
stuff for us at that speed and it didn’t really
work, but 220 seemed to be okay. Then
again, what’s fast? People would say, “Wow,
you play really fast,” but the vocals aren’t
particularly fast. Just because the drums are
fast, you can still ring out some chords.
Li: Because we were writing some midtempo
songs like “Seasons,” and even “Die
By the Sword,” which is a bit slower, we
thought we had to push the other way
as well. We pushed it faster and put the
7-string guitars on it and kept it heavy and
brutal but still melodic and catchy. That
was one of the ways we let the fans know
we haven’t gone in a completely opposite
direction here. We still have the classic,
fast DragonForce songs like the opening to
“Holding On” and “Heart of the Storm.”