Dragonland - Under The Grey Banner
For those who still judge books by their covers, you will immediately be impressed with Dragonland, another in a long line of European over-the-top symphonic metal projects. This blend of traditional and speed metal coupled with orchestral and choir arrangements is and has historically been an easy sell; it all was seemingly made to be together. What typically kills this style, for me and for many others, is a combination of heavy repetition and unabashed pretention. Even if a band can avoid these pitfalls, they must deftly combine all of their elements with practiced precision, because in such an ensemble effort, scrutiny is so easily invited.
Under The Grey Banner is a continuation of one of Dragonland's older conceptual albums and, right off the bat, my unfamiliarity with any of their back catalog puts me at a slight disadvantage in measuring their new record's merits. As a stand-alone concept, it's not overly difficult to follow, and if your idea of exciting lyrical themes include elements of Tolkein and the like, you're in for a treat. Elves, dwarves and all other sorts of mythical imaginings await within, spicing the naturally fitting symphonic power metal nicely. As for the music itself, it's totally hit or miss from one track to the next, which kills any promise of a continual music experience. This is the oft-forseen failing of so many proclaimed concept albums. But it does not diminish the well-received elements of Under The Grey Banner. Much of the record falls flat due to uninspired and typical orchestra pieces, including repetittive interludes and a rather boring intro. The word "mundane" applies perfectly. Where Dragonland shines is when they put their collective feet to the pedal, pursuing higher tempos and injecting energy into otherwise flat proceedings. "A Thousand Towers White" is the earliest example, and it even features an orchestral interlude that, while killing the flow, works on it's own merits. "Durnir's Forge" is the best track on the album, merging mid-pace and higher speeds with ease and utilizing the symphonic element to great effect.
One of the things that helps save some of the more plodding and standard moments are the powerful and capable vocals, not so much standing out amongst other acts of their ilk but acting like the most-aptly fitting piece of the overall puzzle. Under The Grey Banner shines at times but too often fails to hit a particular mark, leaving it floundering somewhere between "you'll like this if you like stuff that's similar" and "you may not like it regardless of whether or not you like stuff that's similar". For a conceptual album to fail at it's inherent promise of an album's worth of entertainment, one must consider it a failure in general despite it's slim pickings of decent material.
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