Talk about the right album at the right time! While I was never that big a fan of the symphonic bombast and Lord of the Rings fetishism of power metal acts like Blind Guardian and Rhapsody, I was tasked with reviewing the new Dragon- land opus over the same long weekend that local movie channels played the LOTR trilogy nonstop in their full extended glory. Since Under the Grey Banner is yet another slobbering Tolkien love-fest, replete with elves, orcs, swords and sappiness (which completes their own trilogy started on their first two albums), it fit right in. Like their previous works, it’s a full-on symphonic cheese factory with enough grandiose pomposity to choke a Balrog. You know exactly what it will sound like and what will be included. Overblown keyboards, soaring vocals, choirs, frenetic neo-classical guitar wankery, it’s a big, overwrought symphonic mess. As such, it manages to work about as well as most albums of this ilk but at least it didn’t send me running for a shot of insulin until the midway point. While its nothing you haven’t heard before from the likes of Rhapsody or Labyrinth, its well done and quite entertaining at times in a too-close-to-Broadway-musical kind of way. However, it has it’s share of consistency issues and isn’t as strong as their 2004 Starfall release. That said, I’m sure fans of this type of Dungeons & Dragons music will love it like a +10 sword of sliceification. In case there was ANY doubt about the nerd-factor of this stuff, Dragonland created an interactive website with maps and narrations to help guide you on the mystic journey they planned for you. Holy nerd bait, Batman!
Since this is a royally bombastic fantasy epic, you get the obligatory overlong intro and dramatic voiceover to set the mood before the first proper song hits. Luckily, after the long wait, it’s a doozy. “Shadow of the Mithril Mountains” is a speedy, energetic power metal tune with predictably soaring, epic vocals and all the grandeur they could fling against the recording studio wall. Jonas Heidgert flexes his vocal muscles to the limit and his singing really puts the song over exceptionally well, as does the Yngwie-ish fret-work on the song’s back-end. “The Tempest” slows things down while maintaining the epic vibe and again, the vocals make the song better than it should have been. Other high points include the galloping energy of “The Black Mare,” the uber-melodic strains of ”Lady of Goldenwood” and the Enya-esque closer “Ivory Shores,” courtesy of Amaranthe‘s Elize Ryd (this could have been on the LoTR soundtrack). The title track gives you the whole fantasy kitten-kaboodle and between the voiceovers and the five-hundred guest vocalists, a decent song lays partially buried and obscured.
Sadly, all is not golden in Middle Earth and tracks like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Throne of Bones” get weighed down by Fred Johanson’s deep, super dramatic, quasi-opera baritone vocals that just don’t work and seem cheese- tastic (“Throne of Bones” may be the most Broadway-ready metal song to prance along in years). Likewise, several songs, while decent, seem very generic and bland (“A Thousand Towers White” and “Durnir’s Forge”). Making matters worse, some of the better songs are saddled with voiceovers that pop in and disrupt the flow and momentum (“Lady of Goldenwood” and the title track). In the final accounting, roughly half the tracks here are weighed, measured and found wanting.
The band’s performances are all quite well done, especially the vocals and the guitars by Olof Morck (Amaranthe, Nightrage) and Jesse Lindskog (ex-Dreamland) and some of their leads and solos are impressive indeed. The symphonics are mercifully kept just shy of overdone on several songs and Elize’s vocals are solid and graceful. If they penned a few more quality tracks like “Shadow of the Mithril Mountain,” we would be looking at a potential usurper of the jewel-studded throne of Luca Turilli but it was not meant to be.
In all candor and honestly, Dragonland was never up near the levels of the best in this genre. Despite some fun moments, Under the Grey Banner doesn’t bring them much closer and I doubt it will attract the Eye of Sauron. While far more palatable than what Dragonforce is doing, this is still middle-of-the-pack fantasy power metal puffery with too much elf and not enough orc. Add a point if you know who Gary Gygax is or if you belong to a LARP guild. Nerds!!