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Guitar jedi

DragonForce sheds the shredder reputation


“About 15 to 30 minutes. Maybe.”

Herman Li is one of the lead guitarists and founding members of DragonForce—the band that has set new speed records for speed metal; the Grammy-nominated, top-20-charting band that contributed the epic encore track “Through the Fire and the Flames” to the videogame “Guitar Hero III;” and the band that will be playing at the Wilma Theatre this Sunday night—and Herman Li is telling me that he only practices 15 to 30 minutes each day. Maybe.

“Well, we’re on tour now,” he says on the phone from Japan. “We really don’t have that much time. I don’t even have the guitar in my hands that much when I’m not performing. By the time you travel and plug the amp in and get the guitar tuned and play the show, you’ve used up as much time as you’re going to get.”

Since their debut in 2003 with the album Valley of the Damned, DragonForce has specialized in a sound that mixes metal with impetuous virtuosity. It’s an impressive sound, handmade and unbelievably skillful at a time when anything fast and technical is relegated to machines. And it has earned DragonForce a growing base of fans who might otherwise ignore metal. Orchestras have been inspired to perform DragonForce’s music, with the result that an entire ensemble of conservatory educated professionals sounds helplessly slow.

Even Li admits that their music is difficult.

“The songs were hard to play in the old days,” he laughs. “We made mistakes. We were human. But now we’ve really come a long ways. Now we’re better. I think that about 95 to 99 percent of what we do on the album we can do in concert. And in concert we can even improvise a little bit. We can jump all over and swing around—have some fun. We’ve been doing this for a while now, and it’s fun to really play with it.”

The sense of playful confidence extends to the band’s most recent album. Released last year, Ultra Beatdown expands the DragonForce sound into new directions.

“The new album is doing really good,” Li says, “which is nice, because it’s more dynamic. There are lots of changes. It’s not just shredding all the time. We wanted to show different ideas. Our previous album was our fastest album—the most intense. But there’s more on this album.”

While DragonForce’s music has always had strong melodic underpinnings, those are now allowed to unfurl into more lyrical sections. And the band’s trademark speed occasionally comes unhinged, flying into out-of-control instrumental interludes that rage like a child having a tantrum or a sugar-rush. “It was just a natural progression. We wanted to fuse different types of things. More weird stuff. Chaos patterns.”

Li also serves as one of the band’s chief songwriters and producers, and he takes his ideas from everywhere. The band’s lyrics range from tales of mythical medieval warriors to ninjas. And broad, cinematic harmonies occasionally arise from the torrents of rock music.

“Everything we listen to influences us,” Li explains. “We gain stuff from music everywhere. We have to learn more than just one thing. So we listen to other types of music. People always think, ‘Now that you’ve done that, what else is there left for you to do?’ But you can always do more.”

I ask him what he’s paying attention to now.

“Videogame music,” he says. “I’m in Japan right now, and people here are buying CDs of just videogame music. I don’t think you can find that anywhere else in the world. There’s a whole audience here for it. They have lots of CDs which are basically only videogame music.”

The connection seems obvious on some levels. Videogame music, like that of DragonForce, is relentless, composed in torrents of notes and drenched in electronic effects. But Li is listening even deeper. “I like videogame music,” he states. “It’s part of a saga—maybe more than other kinds of music.”

As for the band’s inclusion in the mega-popular “Guitar Hero III,” Li has no problem with the fact that millions of people fake musical talent to the sound of his playing.

“It’s cool,” he says of the game. “I think they did a good job of it. It reflected our music in contrast to the other music in the game. And we definitely got lots of exposure from it.”

But Li doesn’t play the game himself. He’d prefer to relax by working on more music. “When we’re not on tour we can do anything we want,” he says. “It’s another time and space. We can actually practice.”

DragonForce plays the Wilma Theatre Sunday, April 19, at 8 PM. Cynic opens. $24/$22 advance.


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