In Flames: What was new is now old again
Clayman and my introduction to classic In Flames:
In Flames played a big role in my metal upbringing, specifically in my acceptance and understanding of extreme metal styles. They weren’t actually my introduction to say growling or death vocals, as I had heard various Cannibal Corpse and Obituary records during my teenage years and enjoyed them, though perhaps more for their context as part of a mosaic soundtrack to lazy, boring, suburban summers than their actual musical content. One day I finally obtained Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness on a dubbed cassette, and it was the first album with extreme metal vocals that managed to pull me in and capture my attention, but I still wasn’t fully committed to harsh vocals/growls, and I’d find myself harboring thoughts (that seem heretical now) about how it would sound better with “regular” vocals. Time passed and I began to slowly move away from my mainstream American metal tastes and delve further into the goldmine that was European metal, with its reserves of power metal and traditional metal, styles that seemed vacant on this side of the Atlantic, if they were ever here at all.
It was through print magazines such as Metal Maniacs, Terrorizer, Kerrang!, and Metal Hammer among others where I would receive most of my education about this untapped metal territory. In Flames was a name that I’d see popping up numerous times throughout all these publications, and it was finally a review for the Colony album in Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles that made me decide to aggressively seek out the band’s music. Of course, being 1999 or 2000, whenever this moment precisely was, the internet was limited in options available to preview a band’s music online. I kept the band in mind and finally in July of 2000, I heard the opening track of the newly released Clayman album, “Bullet Ride”, played live on HardRadio. It was one of those “a-ha” moments, a song that made harsh vocals make sense in a way they never had before. I couldn’t imagine listening to the song with any other type of vocal and that was my personal turning point in metal. Anders Friden was my gateway vocalist for harsh vocals, and In Flames became my first true gateway band into the various genres of extreme metal. I went back and listened to Altars of Madness and I finally understood. I remember my next album buying spree was a copy of Clayman, Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast, various Emperor albums, and a mail ordered copy of The Jester Race (other In Flames classic albums would come very soon after). I even appreciated Cannibal Corpse with my new ears (that being said I get bored listening to them far too quickly to call myself a real fan).
The Clayman album in particular was an incredibly important record to me on a personal level. For various reasons, the fall of 2000 was a confusing, turbulent, and overwhelming time full of insecurity and depression and that album became an aural security blanket. I phrase it so because that disc was never out of reach. I had just started university, had begun working a new job, and moved into an apartment near downtown, so I was commuting all the time across Houston with In Flames blasting in my car and in essence becoming the soundtrack to one of the coldest falls and winters I can remember. I loved The Jester Race as well for sure; its hypnotic, beautiful guitars and crushing brutality blowing my mind in ways I never imagined music could (and I remember thinking to myself back then that this was the kind of music I had been subconsciously trying to find for years), however Clayman shared in these new found feelings to an even greater extent. The Wikipedia entry for Clayman lists its lyrical subject matter as “depression and internal struggles”, and it was in these lyrics that I found for the first time an album that seemed to speak to exactly what I was going through at that precise moment. Every single song held some nugget of truth for me, even if it was just like holding up a mirror to myself — it was really the first time that music had impacted me in that severe, stark, and honest manner.
The music only served to amplify the lyrics through wildly ultra-melodic guitar work that was not just window dressing, but actually woven into the fabric of the song as harmonized melody lines — to my ears it was like the classic Maiden guitar sound pushed into overdrive. Something else was at work though. Guitarists (and primary songwriters) Jesper Strömblad and Bjorn Gelotte seemed to infuse an underlying current of homegrown Scandinavian folk music into their guitar work, it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, and it gave their songs a sense of melancholy and ethereal beauty that was not common to me in metal. All this while a punishing rhythm section gave the songs the sheer heaviness and pummeling aggression soaked speed when needed. Friden’s vocals were gratingly harsh yet coherent enough to understand the lyrics, and he seemed to possess an innate sense of when to reign it in and when to unleash, a seesaw effect that made it seem like he was a pressure cooker going off in spectacular fashion. It was so effective it even made his often clumsy on the surface lyrical metaphors (perhaps due to having English as a second language?) come off as unique and even strangely poetic. From Lunar Strain to The Jester Race and Whoracle, through Colony and Clayman, this fundamental approach unleashed masterpieces.
The self delusion of newer (inferior) In Flames:
I went back and picked up the rest of the band’s back catalog, and enjoyed those records tremendously. When the next In Flames album, 2002’s Reroute to Remain came out, I listened to it intensely for a long period of time, and while I enjoyed some of the songs to varying degrees it was clear that the band was in a transitioning process of changing up their sound. The next few albums were the result of the this transition, and most readers familiar with this story even a little bit knows what happened next. The huge inevitable fan backlash, greater success for the band with newer audiences, an image change for the band which only fueled hardcore fan anger, etc. With each of their subsequent releases I would read accompanying press interviews with the band in which they stated that they were always looking to move forward with their sound and not wanting to be stuck in the past. There was a clear dividing line in the band’s aural history now; the classic era which spanned from the band’s inception up to the Clayman album, and then the new In Flames era from Reroute to Remain on to the present day. I had mixed feelings on the new era, despite doing my best to support the band by calling myself a true fan (and doing all the things a “true fan” should do, buy the album on release day, go to the shows, etc), and these mixed feelings were really centered around what I felt was a complete inversion of the band’s sound and songwriting style.
Here’s how I see this inversion in a nutshell: With the classic In Flames era, the guitars and their melodic harmonies drove the song, they were in the forefront and almost always provided the main hooks, and the vocals would work around them, often simply accompanying them — go back and listen to the records, it was a sonic trademark of everything in those first five albums. Now, in the new era of In Flames, beginning on Reroute to Remain, the vocals began to drive the songs melodically, mostly through an emphasis on trying to deliver a catchy chorus, and the guitars were relegated to supporting the vocal melodies through simpler riffing (and the wild, ultra-melodic guitar work of the past was now left mostly to the solos). Basically, Anders Friden decided that he wanted to be a singer, instead of a screamer/growler, and he greatly impacted the way the band composed songs to completely alter the fundamental songwriting approach that had been in place for the classic era. Sure it still sounded In Flames-ish in parts, like I said, Jesper and Bjorn would often let their melodic instincts let rip in solos or various guitar passages, but they no longer propelled the song forward with their hypnotic dual harmonies as in past albums. The band lost what made them special to me — and the jury’s still out on who to blame, some people would say it was Ander’s Depeche Mode influences, but I tend to point the finger at a far more general American rock/metalcore/Ozzfest influence that creeped into the In Flames camp.
Bringing all this up, however, is already an online metal cliche — I’m not saying anything that most other fans of classic era In Flames haven’t thought to themselves or spouted out on metal forums the web over. What I’d like to point out however is that the guys in the band are now failing to realize that despite eagerly proclaiming that they only want to look forward and not repeat themselves, they have been spinning their wheels with their last few albums and in essence have been doing exactly what they claim they work so hard to avoid. The sounds and styles of Reroute to Remain, Soundtrack to Your Escape, Come Clarity, A Sense of Purpose, and Sounds of a Playground Fading are the same! As a fan I’ve been patient and have allowed a certain degree of flexibility in this area, thinking that these guys were obviously very keen on heading in this direction and that hopefully they would get it out of their system within a couple albums and move on (and I don’t mean to suggest they go back to their earlier style even, but simply “move on” to something else). But five albums have been delivered in this style, far more than just a couple, and while there are a few pretty good songs on each of these albums, particularly Come Clarity, they consistently failed to deliver the front to back excellence of any of the classic era releases.
When it was announced that Strömblad, the band’s last original member, was leaving, I feared the absolute worst — he was after all the keeper of the band’s signature guitar sound, it would be doubtful that Bjorn Gelotte deliver the melodic goods by himself. And I was right. The most recent In Flames release, Sounds of a Playground Fading, is the dullest, most yawn-inducing entry into their catalog. With the exception of “Where the Dead Ships Dwell”, which has an undeniably great chorus and seems to me one of the band’s best songs in this new-era style, the rest of the album falls flat, and there’s not even the presence of Strömblad’s guitar borne melodicism to salvage the mediocre songwriting. Everything that this once great band had, they’ve lost, and my personal appeal to them is the following: Attempt to get Jesper Strömblad back in the fold, and regardless of whether or not you accomplish that, begin to head in a new musical direction. This current style found its creative peak with the Come Clarity album, and you were pushing it with A Sense of Purpose. Its time to actually practice what you guys so defensively preach in interviews as well as in response to the “I want The Jester Race Pt2″ appeals and genuinely do something forward thinking and new. You can’t blast fans for wanting another album in the style of Whoracle or Colony when you’re currently on Reroute to Remain Pt 5.