Nothing destroys credibility as quickly as popularity. In Flames emerged from the Swedish metal scene as pioneers of the melodic metal sound. After screwing around with lineups for a few years and recording a couple EP’s, the band put it all together and gained notoriety with 1995’s The Jester Race. Their breakout, Whoracle, followed in 1997 containing memorable tracks such as “Episode 666” and “The Hive.” 1999’s Colony further refined their sound and cemented the band at the top of the extreme metal hierarchy. The bands blend of crushing death metal with Iron Maiden inspired riffing and guitar harmonies were the next big thing in the European metal scene.
Of course, this type of sound has never played all that well in America, but around the same time nu-metal bands like Slipknot suddenly made it okay for a vocalist to sing with a rasp on mainstream radio. It’s not surprising that the next album from In Flames, Clayman, would contain some influence of that style. The harshness of the vocals was toned down and some “bouncy” riffs were thrown in. The band opted to shift its focus away from the twin guitar attack of founding member and principle song writer Jesper Stromblad and Bjorn Gelotte and instead focus on crafting a catchy chorus. Vocalist Anders Friden went with more of a rasp as opposed to a death grunt for the majority of his vocals and even worked in more “clean” vocals than he had done in the past. His lyrics also strayed from the more abstract and towards more personal, everyday kind of emotions that listeners could better identify with. The result was In Flames’ most accessible album. The songs were undeniably catchy, though longtime fans felt like a part of the band’s core sound had been lost.
The band has often felt a little disconnected ever since. The follow-up to Clayman, Reroute to Remain, stands as the band’s most experimental record. The production was slick, almost too polished, and the band explored more vocal effects for a lot of the album’s choruses. The album that followed, Soundtrack to Your Escape, is considered by most fans to be the band’s worst. Uninspired riffs and bland production marred the release as almost all semblance of what In Flames pioneered in the 90’s was removed.
Thankfully, the band came back strong in 2006 with Come Clarity. That album has become a polarizing one with many long-time fans dismissing it, but for my money, it brought back enough of the band’s old sound while moving everything forward. Unfortunately the follow-up, A Sense of Purpose, was too conservative and ended up sounding like a collection of leftovers from the Come Clarity sessions.
Which brings us to today, the eve for the release of In Flames’ latest record Sounds of a Playground Fading. The album’s title evokes bad memories of lousy Korn records, but after a few listens I can at least safely say there’s little Korn found on this one. That’s not to say all semblance of that bouncy, new millennium In Flames sound is gone, but the album is not an embarrassment. The fans that left with Clayman and Reroute aren’t going to be brought back though, as the sound In Flames is going with definitely trends modern.
Sounds of a Playground Fading is not without merit. It strikes me as the band’s most experimental since Reroute. Some of the production techniques the band picked up there are employed here but with more subtlety so as not to over-indulge. This is the band’s first record without Stromblad so there was a lot to be concerned with going in but I think they did well by their old mate.
The opening track has a nice acoustic intro. I expected it to explode into a monster riff but the song mostly eases the listener into a quick, jerky one. Anders’ vocals are pretty consistent with what he’s done on the last few albums. They’re at their best when they have a ferocity to him, usually obtained with slight distortion and some layering. Longtime fans will probably mostly agree that “The Puzzle” is the album’s best track as it captures the most of the old death metal sound. The vocals on the chorus are intense and there’s a nice bridge section for the guitars to show off a bit. Gelotte handles most of the lead work, I’m unsure how much new/old comer Nicolas Engelin contributed there or if he mostly handled rhythm duties, but there are some nice harmonies mixed in. Mostly they’re just for show and nothing really approaches the complexity of the old stuff. One of the other standout tracks, “A New Dawn,” is a good example of the band trying new sounds as the song successfully brings in string instruments to accentuate the chorus.
There are some dull tracks that could be classified as typical newer In Flames. The first single, “Deliver Us,” is one of those tracks that just doesn’t do a whole lot. The chorus is catchy enough, but not more so than some of their more modern tracks. “All for Me” has a disjointed melody that just doesn’t work for me. “The Attic” is less a song and more an intermission, and the album’s closer “Liberation” will be a polarizing one. I read one listener describe it as reggae but I wouldn’t go that far. It does contain perhaps Ander’s most natural sounding vocals when compared with any other track. I honestly can’t decide if like it or not, but I suppose I don’t hate it and for curiosity’s sake alone it’s better than the last few In Flames album closers. It’s also not the worst track, as that title goes to “The Jester’s Door,” some sort of spoken-word thing that degenerates into a Nine Inch Nails knock-off.
In the end I think the fan-base for In Flames will remain divided. Fans that enjoyed the last few albums will probably enjoy Sounds of a Playground Fading while those who only care for the band’s more extreme sound will find little to enjoy outside of a track or two. Those types will especially find tracks such as “Where the Dead Ships Dwell” off-putting because it’s almost pop rock melody. The newness of the album is still very strong so it’s hard to say where it will fit in ultimately with the rest of the band’s catalogue. The first half of the album is definitely stronger as I find myself losing focus during the second half. I feel comfortable saying it’s at least better than A Sense of Purpose but won’t threaten to overtake any of the band’s best works, Come Clarity included.
- The Puzzle
- Fear is the Weakness
- A New Dawn