Artist: In Flames
Album Title: Battles
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date Of Release: 11 November 2016
In Flames. Where do I begin with my review of ‘Battles’, the Swedish juggernaut’s thirteenth album of their career? How about at the beginning, with a little personal context?
In Flames were the very first band that I was exposed to within the melodic death metal scene. The year was 1998 and I was given a tatty cassette copy of ‘The Jester Race’ whilst at University. It was magnificent. My head had been turned and thus began a feverish exploration of a magical new genre that combined the heaviness of death metal with the melody of power or classic metal. As we all know, the genre became known as the ‘new wave of Swedish death metal’ also coined the ‘Gothenburg Sound’, so named after the likes of In Flames, Dark Tranquillity et al who frequented the south Swedish city and helped to create the scene in the beginning.
Thus began a long-standing love affair with the pioneering melodeath quintet, leading me to buy up all the early albums and await new releases with the fervour of a true fan boy. Today, the ‘The Jester Race’, alongside ‘Colony’, ‘Clayman’ and ‘Reroute to Remain’ remain firm favourites within an ever-increasing metal collection, receiving regular plays.
Unfortunately, things started to go wrong for me with 2004’s ‘Soundtrack To Your Escape’. As hinted on ‘Reroute…’, In Flames started to veer away from their earlier sound and it wasn’t a change in direction that I personally found favour with.
At this point, I want to put on record that I am not moaning about In Flames deciding to move away from their core sound and I am not one of those shouting ‘sell-out’ from the side lines. What I am is a long-term fan that respects the band for choosing their own path but who doesn’t enjoy their latter material as much as their early stuff. This is me being completely honest, not sugar-coating the truth.
The band has every right to do exactly what they want and explore whatever avenues they want. Sometimes, the changes that a band makes are, to my personal taste, better. At other times, they’re not. But that’s life; I’m not going to moan about it. The fact remains that I came to In Flames relatively early and, having fallen in love with their sound of the mid-late 90s, it is difficult to not descend into the trap of comparing new material with the early output that sits at the centre of my affections.
That said it would also be completely remiss of me to create the impression that modern day In Flames is a completely different beast to original In Flames. Yes there is a marked difference in the output, with newer material flirting with more mainstream rock and metal as well as introducing more modern effects and embellishments. However, the music remains very distinctive and cannot be confused in any way with any other band. Anders Fridén’s vocals might be generally less harsh in their delivery, favouring a cleaner approach and the overall feel of the songs might come across as being less ‘raw’ and untamed in sound and construction, but In Flames 2016 is still instantly recognisable as In Flames.
So, to ‘Battles’ I must turn.
Initially, I found the title of the album very apt indeed because based on recent experiences, I had to battle with myself to listen to the album in the first place. And then, after an initial spin, I had to battle even harder to press repeat. My initial thoughts about this album were not favourable and I even used the words ‘safe’ and ‘lacking fire’ within initial notes.
But I can admit when I am wrong. It doesn’t happen often but I can recognise it when it does! A week on from my intense apathy and initial disappointment, I now find myself in a position where I’m firmly thinking that ‘Battles’ could well be the best album that In Flames have delivered since ‘Reroute To Remain’ in 2002. Allow me to explain.
The quintet of vocalist Anders Fridén, guitarists Björn Gelotte and Niclas Engelin, bassist Peter Iwers and newbie drummer Joe Rickard will not appease those who yearn for a return to the days of ‘The Jester Race’ or ‘Whoracle’ with ‘Battles’. However, if you’re someone who can appreciate quality metal music, you’re sure to lap this record up. As always for In Flames, the production is massive although this time it was handled by a new collaborator in the form of Howard Benson. His is a name that is sure to immediately raise the expectations of some and raise the heckles of others given his work with the likes of My Chemical Romance in the past. I’ll admit I was sceptical but in fact, I think the result justifies the choice.
The aspect of ‘Battles’ that becomes clear after a couple of runs through is how damn catchy it becomes. Nearly every single one of the twelve songs on offer features a strong melody, hook-laden chorus, memorable vocal or infectious groove. To my mind, this is part of what has been lacking over the previous couple of records and which led to my general malaise where In Flames were concerned; if In Flames were going to plough a new musical furrow, I at least wanted it to be interesting and engaging. Sadly, ‘Siren Charms’ did not deliver as far as I was concerned and ‘Sounds Of A Playground Fading’ was hit and miss at best.
Not so here. Opener ‘Drained’ begins quietly with plenty of dark atmosphere and an ominous spoken-word delivery from Fridén. The track grows in intensity before literally exploding into the first monster chorus of the album. Strange looks from neighbours be damned, I’m singing this track as loud as I can whilst taking the dog for a walk. To think I wasn’t keen on a first listen. Matt you plank.
‘The End’ quickly follows and instantly, the groove carries me away. The guitar tones, leads and riffs do hint heavily to the earlier days of the band, there’s no denying it. It’s glorious and sends a little shiver down my spine. The lead guitar solo is also a genuine flashback, albeit surrounded by a much more slick, modern and accessible framework.
As I alluded to earlier, one of the big bones of contention amongst fans relates to Fridén’s vocals. There can be no argument that over the years, he has experimented with different styles, mainly opting for a cleaner delivery. On ‘Battles’ however, he gets the balance just about right, I think. The clean croon is present and correct, but so are the gruff screams that typified earlier releases. Indeed, on ‘The End’, he sounds as caustic and venomous as ever.
Elsewhere, ‘Like Sand’ features an archetype In Flames bouncy groove topped off by a cheeky chorus whereas ‘The Truth’ begins like an electronic dance track and introduces what sounds like a child’s choir to enhance the truly anthemic chorus, accented by more old-school In Flames lead guitar work.
‘In My Room’ features a delicious bass, impassioned vocals and yet another ear-worm of a chorus, whilst in stark contrast, ‘Through My Eyes’ is one of the heaviest and most technically adept compositions that In Flames have penned, strangely reminiscent of compatriots Soilwork in some ways. It goes without saying that the song opens up into a huge chorus but surrounding it is a frenetic and urgent track full of top drawer musicianship including a cracking lead guitar solo from Gelotte and powerful drumming.
A special word needs to go to the title track which, at under three minutes is the briefest composition on ‘Battles’ but which also happens to deliver arguably the biggest and most memorable anthemic chorus on the album. I might have pressed repeat a few times.
For me, personally speaking, there is still the odd moment where I raise an eyebrow. ‘Here Until Forever’ for example flirts very closely with the emo scene. It remains a hugely powerful and memorable track, one that I can’t help but like. However, it’ll be sure to divide opinion ever further within the grass roots of the band’s following. The haters will hate it, but the rest might just love it.
Then there’s ‘Wallflower’ which offers something just a little bit different to say the least. Dominated in the early stages by Iwers’ commanding bass guitar, it is a mean and moody slow-burner that is deserving of its seven-minute-plus length. It builds ominously, toying with doom influences and minimalist atmospheres as it does so. And then, at the 2:30 mark, in comes something altogether more Gothic-sounding and electronic darkwave in tone. The chorus is a sprawling affair that ups the tempo and increases the melody quota slightly but it is a brief interlude as the minimalism returns complete with claustrophobic atmospherics.
‘Battles’ then comes to a close via excellent ‘Save Me’, which teases us with its ideal blend of old and new. The highly digitised vocals at the beginning are then replaced by a classic-sounding lead guitar line that has a nostalgic warmth to it, like the return of an old friend, making me smile in the process. The chorus is more in keeping with more modern mainstream metal but yet again, it’s absolutely enormous and the whole thing comes together in a powerful and majestic manner, the perfect way to close the album.
I made my peace a long time ago with the fact that I would never hear In Flames treading old ground. And good for them I say as it takes guts and self-belief to continually strive for new horizons. If I want to listen to an album like ‘The Jester Race’, I can listen to ‘The Jester Race’, it’s as simple as that. But for the time being, I’m just a little bit hooked on ‘Battles’. The more I listen, the more I like it. And the more I listen, the more I am firmly of the opinion that the material on ‘Battles’ is some of the most vital, hungry and passionate music that In Flames have recorded for well over a decade. And you have no idea how genuinely delighted I am to be able to say that.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.0
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:
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