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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 quite easily.
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.”