The Swedish Symphonic Power Metal band DRAGONLAND has been around for a good ten years now, since their founding in 1999. In the following year they released a demo called “Storming Across Heaven”. One year later the debut full-length came out: “The Battle Of The Ivory Plains”. This one was followed by “Holy War” (2002), “Starfall” (2004), “Astronomy” (2006) and, on the 18th November 2011, “Under The Grey Banner”. And this is my first proper acquaintance with DRAGONLAND. I have heard one album in the shop some years ago, but I can’t remember if it was “Starfall” or “Astronomy”. In any case, for me personally, the music was not Metal enough, focussed too much on melody and accessibility. Nothing wrong with that, each band decides for itself which course to take, but when comparing to e.g. RHAPSODY, NIGHTWISH, and similar (at that time), I found those bands having the stronger songs.
But as it goes, it can happen that a band one didn’t like (or not as much) in the past can have its chances turned. Meaning giving DRAGONLAND another chance. It is said that the new album, “Under The Grey Banner”, continues the famous chronicles about the fantasy realm “Dragonland”, which was brought to life with the first two albums of the band, “The Battle Of The Ivory Plains” (2001) and “Holy War” (2002). Hm… maybe I should check those out then to see if those songs would appeal to me more. “Under The Grey Banner” was mixed by Jacob Hansen and like on any release Jacob worked on, you can clearly hear his touch.
Regarding the music, guitarist Olof Mörck said the following: “After ‘Astronomy’, we knew we needed to explore our music further not to risk becoming a band that releases music every year cast in the same mold, so the idea from the beginning was: what would it be like with a metal album based in fantasy that respects the literary genre, that actually tries to be mature and that enriches said fantasy world with inspiration from millenias of human mythology? To make a neoclassical album filled with overly bombastic clichés of steel clad warriors was out of the question — instead we explored the themes and sounds around various fantasy movies, new and old, and also countless computer RPG soundtracks to infuse the musical aspect with a genuine fantasy feel, and as previously stated, heaps and stacks of tomes on every mythological tale from Gilgamesh to the Aeneid provided a genuine and credible backdrop to the story.”
The album also features some guests. Musical actor Fred Johanson (Jesus Christ Superstar) plays the role of the antagonist and all three singers from the band AMARANTHE (Elize Ryd, Jake E and Andy Solveström). The visual aspect was done by Damian Bajowski (see the PC game “The Witcher”).
“Under The Grey Banner” contains 12 tracks, totalling almost an hour of epic Metal. As is tradition with symphonic Metal albums and especially those telling a tale, it begins with a symphonic intro (“Ilmarion”), as if the soundtrack of a film. “Shadow Of The Mithril Mountains” then kicks in with its fast Power Metal in vein of GALLOGLASS, RHAPSODY, KAMELOT and more. Jonas’s clean vocals go well with the music, though I had to accustom myself a bit to his timbre, as I expected a lower voice. But what DRAGONLAND (all of them) delivers here sounds very good, wonderful even! The soft orchestral break offers a resting point before the power is let out again for the solo and the addition of bombast. A very fine beginning, indeed. “The Tempest” follows directly with the bombastic orchestral arrangements dominating. The music is more accessible and the singing helps with that. Somehow the music is also more emotional, by manner of speech. As the orchestral elements dominate, it’s logic to have a break emphasizing that. Here the violin gets the attention, though the harp (if a harp) joins it. This flows nicely over into a piece where the piano is the guiding instrument, before all reverts to the chorus. All in all, a nice power ballad. Ocean waves make the bridge with “A Thousand Towers White”.
Direct Power Metal, yes sir. The keyboards in the back and the lead solo in the front, before the rocking and pounding verses are delivered. The clean singing is done with enough passion, reminded me a bit of the Finnish band EXCALION. Halfway there’s a nice cinematic orchestral break, moving slowly towards the guitar solo. Key elements here: catchy melodies and ditto rhythm. “Fire And Brimstone” is another highlight. A powerful take-off with orchestral bombast flowing into clean, galloping verses. The singing is not just clean, but also operatic at some point, which could be compared to the recent works of THERION. Melody is key in this song and it’s diverse, coming from the vocals, the orchestral arrangements, … all very well done. After the obligatory solo and furious Metal outbreak (good change there), the orchestra (esp. wooden and brass instruments) once more gets the focus. Very much filmscore-ish. A power burst introduces another solo round. Hats off for this one!
DRAGONLAND plays Symphonic Power Metal and “The Black Mare” definitely is proof of that. It’s fast, the rhythm gallops, it’s got power and there’s the required bombast! Mighty stuff! I like the variation between the verses, atmospheric bridge and full-on, hymnic chorus. Also noteworthy, if you pay attention to it, is that the kickdrums are important for the rhythm when the guitars are silent. Yes, it’s not such a big deal in the grand total, just something I noticed. The keyboards also provide a solo, in vein of e.g. RHAPSODY (OF FIRE) and STRATOVARIUS. What’s more, there’s even a Jazzy moment before the band returns to the bombast of before. Talk about variation!
“Lady Of Goldenwood” is a semi-acoustic song, Folky even, in vein of FEJD, ELUVEITIE, CRIMFALL and so on. Female vocals lead the way here. The music contrasts heavily with the preceding and following tracks, offering a more dreamy sound. But it’s very welcome and very nice. “Dûrnir’s Forge” is slow, has power and sounds bombastic. You can almost imagine the forge itself. 😉 The verses start off calm, yet get the Metal injection in a second instant. Next to that, the melodic side of the music was not forgotten. The dwarf voices are a nice addition somehow in bringing the song/story to life. All in all, a good track, but for me this was a little less compared to the others.
In “The Trials Of Mount Farnor” bombast and Metal are very active. So is the double bass and at high speed. There is a slowdown before the chorus kicks in. Next to the powerful pounding and blasting, it’s nice to see the symphonic elements counter and come more to the front. Otherwise the music would be a bit too monotonous. “Throne Of Bones” is an interlude, dreamy and atmospheric. The orchestral arrangements are the basis for this. A theatrical speech fills the lyrical parts, comparable to TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA. The title track, “Under The Grey Banner”,begins with orchestrations and marching drums. The Metal comes in slowly and then takes over command. In the midtempo verses, the orchestral elements are vital, very vital. It’s in the chorus that the tempo goes up and blasts are delivered, aiding Andy Solveström in his growling. The album comes to a close with the dreamy ballad “Ivory Shores”, which is good, though not that special.
Due to the many layers and happenings on “Under The Grey Banner”, and probably because this is my first proper listening experience regarding a DRAGONLAND album, it took me a while to appreciate it all. This album sounds massive, epic, cinematic and more. It is quite an achievement what the Swedes have have done here. Respect for that. Where in the past I found the music relying too much on melody, I find that on “Under The Grey Banner” there is a fine balance between heavier stuff and more orchestral compositions. This is an album to be very much proud of and obviously very much recommended to fans of the style (RHAPSODY, EDENBRIDGE, NIGHTWISH, KAMELOT, STRATOVARIUS, etc…). However, if I may say so (and it’s my own, personal opinion – fans may have another one, as with every band ;)), the songs almost sound too good, too fabricated, too smooth. Sure, nobody wants a raw production, especially not with such music, but keeping the edges a little rougher would perhaps not be that bad.
- Shadow Of The Mithril Mountains
- The Tempest
- A Thousand Towers White
- Fire and Brimstone
- The Black Mare
- Lady Of Goldenwood
- Dûrnir’s Forge
- The Trials Of Mount Farnor
- Throne Of Bones
- Under The Grey Banner
- Ivory Shores
Jonas Hedigert – vocals
Olof Mörck – guitars
Jesse Lindskog – guitars
Elias Holmlid – keyboards
Anders Hammer – bass
Morten Løwe Sørensen – drums