There might be something inherent in the numerology of waiting 4-5 years before releasing an album that also happens to coincide with the year 2011, or maybe my own bewilderment at the recent studio accomplishments of SYMPHONY X, IRON SAVIOR and RIOT have me resorting to a semi-superstitious response, but this is turning out to be one of the more exciting years for Power Metal releases, old and new schools alike. Add to the recent list of recording studio triumphs DRAGONLAND, an all but forgotten name in recent years given the long period of silence and the recent side-project stints of lead guitarist Olof Morck, and the picture of a genuine resurgence becomes all the more clear.
To keep all of the historical particulars in order, DRAGONLAND's past can be separated into 2 distinct eras, namely the fantasy era and the progressive one. While the latter label applies more to lyrical pursuits and a subtle difference in atmosphere than the technical extravagance of PAGAN'S MIND, both "Starfall" and "Astronomy" were pretty well removed from the RHAPSODY (OF FIRE) oriented symphonic sounds of the two albums that preceded them. The release of "Under The Grey Banner" has ushered in what could be equally dubbed a return to the first era, as well as a completely distinct one when comparing it to their formative years. Which ever label one assumes depends largely on how large of a role modern recording practices and a somewhat different attitude play in making distinctions.
In short, while stylistically this is a little bit different from what RHAPSODY OF FIRE has been doing, they would be the logical point of comparison/contrast when dealing with this album since the genre is undeniably the same. The years that Olof has spent with NIGHTRAGE and his recent project AMARANTHE has definitely brought with it a subtle helping of Melodeath influences insofar as has riff work and guitar sound goes, and at times things get heavy enough to borderline on outright Speed Metal. But while also hearing a rather sizable amount of symphonic blasts and operatic guest vocal slots, including a rather brilliant if perhaps a little over-the-top baritone singer that turns a rather mundane orchestral ditty in "Throne Of Bones" into something Wagnerian in influence, this is still very much conducive to the mode of recent RHAPSODY OF FIRE works, though with a bit more energy.
While a lot of the instrumental/interlude songs have a huge similarity to soundtrack material from the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy ("Ivory Shores" sounds like a homage to Enya's "May It Be"), the real meat of this album is when the metal hits the road. Otherwise run-of-the-mill Speed Metal infused bruisers with a slight Malmsteen edge such as "Shadow Of The Mithril Mountains" and "The Trials Of Mount Farnor" are brilliantly augmented with a heavier production. And the goods are really brought home on the galloping wizardry of "The Black Mare" and the all around mix of orchestral and metallic brilliance culminating in the climactic epic title song. All the while, the band systematically avoids many of the excesses of the genre, resulting in an even-handed yet still dramatic vocal display out of Jonas Heidgert and a solid support role for all other instrumentalists in congress.
Some may have dismissed DRAGONLAND as mere tag-alongs in the early 2000s from Sweden who picked up on the Italian Symphonic scene and ran with it, but this album pretty well outclasses much of what said scene has put forth, especially in the past eight years or so. Olof's leads are generally brief but about as deadly as the come, and the bulk of the contents on here are more of a songwriting triumph than a technical one for any individual player in the fold. This has been done before, it will likely be done again, but it is doubtful that it will be done this way and with this much energy again by anyone in the near future.
(Online December 13, 2011)