In my opinion there are two versions of In Flames: The original version, comprising their first four albums (Lunar Strain, The Jester Race, Whoracle, and Colony), and the modern version starting with Clayman and every album since (Reroute To Remain, Soundtrack To Your Escape, Come Clarity, A Sense Of Purpose, and their most recent offering, Sounds Of A Playground Fading).
As I see it, the original version of In Flames was more about the creation of a style than it was a vehicle for catchy or diverse songwriting. It was kind of an Iron Maiden guitar approach to a death metal band. In Flames was one of the first to pioneer what would be called Swedish Melodic Death Medal. For the first four albums there was not much variation to this approach other than an obvious maturation of performance and quality of sound as the band grew from album to album. Let’s be clear about one thing: I am not an old-school In Flames fan. Many think In Flames peaked at The Jester Race. I think that is a very narrow, ridiculous view of their entire career. I first heard In Flames when Jester came out and liked what I heard, but I wasn’t blown away. All In Flames did for me at the time was spark enough interest to put them on the back burner of my mind for future reference. I did not start calling myself an In Flames fan until they released Clayman. Though their following albums have been a mixed bag for me ever since, Clayman was the perfect combination of their familiar style and the maturity that only years of songwriting can show. For me that meant songs with memorable riffs and vocal melodies.
Now before some of you die-hards crucify me with the “vocal melodies” comment, let me also be clear that I think from a performance standpoint, vocalist Anders Friden has always been the band’s weakest link. He simply is not as gifted as the other members of the band, or his vocal peers from other bands such as supremely talented Bjorn Strid of Soilwork and Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth. The early years found Anders adding a mostly atonal, death metalish shout in a lower register to the more melodic instrumentation. Occasionally he would add a subtle melody to a song, but it wasn’t until Clayman that he honed his craft enough to create some real gems on a more consistent basis. Unfortunately, with the successes came some real vocal stinkers. For some reason Anders no longer sings in the lower register. The higher register sometimes makes me think it could be a different vocalist altogether. These vocals can get a little shrieky at times, but usually go well enough with the thrashing instrumentation. Where Anders fails is when he pulls back on the power and volume. The result is basically someone who cannot sing very well. While I appreciate his subtle vocal melodies, they simply are not worth being recorded unless he belts them out.
True to form in the modern era of In Flames, you never know what kind of quality you are going to get from album to album. The greatness of Clayman was followed up by the inconsistent releases of Reroute To Remain and Soundtrack To Your Escape. Both contained moments of great metal, but also contained unpalatable or boring/forgettable material, some of that due to Anders’ occasional weak vocal moments. While Reroute at least showed a willingness to experiment away from their often tiring style, some of the songs just weren’t good enough to make the effort worthwhile. Thankfully, and with much surprise, In Flames came roaring back with Come Clarity –an incredibly melodic and catchy thrashterpiece that made a strong statement towards the band’s current validity. Unfortunately, this was followed up with the largely lackluster A Sense Of Purpose. While I did not dislike the album like most people, it certainly wasn’t their best effort.
So now that brings us up to date with Sounds Of A Playground Fading. Questionable album title aside, In Flames has done it once again. Not a perfect album, but chock full of some really great songs highlighting the best of what In Flames has to offer. Following the departure of founder/guitarist Jesper Stromblad, the entire album was written by Anders and guitarist Bjorn Gelotte. The title track opens the album featuring a majestic intro building up to ultra-catchy guitar work and melodic, but powerful vocals. I have found there is often a fine line between great In Flames material and efforts that miss the bull’s-eye. This album is definitely cut from the cloth of Come Clarity.
The inviting Deliver Us continues the catchy songwriting at a groove-laden, slower pace, with lots of melody. All For Me begins with a classic In Flames acoustic piece that sets up a grandiose wall of guitar sound that leads into more tasty riffing. Anders’ penchant for minimal production (naked?) clean vocals rears its ugly head at times in this song and it ends weak. All is forgiven when The Puzzle kicks it back into gear with speed and pounding rhythms. Anders shows that he can sing when he puts some balls behind it. I like his use of subtle melodies within the context of his powerful style, rather than the talent-deficient style of so many atonal vocalists in too many of today’s thrashier metal bands. The song becomes very musical in the chorus and back end of the song and leaves little doubt as to the songwriting prowess of these metal veterans.
Fear Is The Weakness has some very Soilwork moments. That song and Where The Dead Ships Dwell are not the most exciting tunes on the album, but are still good. I can almost hear them on the previous album, but I think they come off a little more memorable. The Attic is a slow acoustic piece with Anders talking/lightly singing over some of it. Not really my cup of tea, and I doubt anyone would have missed it if it were left off the album. Darker Times kicks it back up again with infectious riffs and rhythms. The primary riffing/verse sections don’t really have an In Flames sound or vibe to me, but it’s a great song. Ropes sounds like something that could be off Reroute. The vocals are weak, but the instrumentation is okay. Enter Tragedy has a bit of everything, with a head banging, speedy verse, a very musical, catchy chorus, and a slow, grinding, heavy riff section in the back half of the song.
I don’t care for Jester’s Door, as it consists of Anders doing spoken word over an accordion or something and seems to lead into a slow, techno kind of thing at the end. It is a completely unnecessary addition to the album, and thankfully ends quickly. A New Dawn has a very Clayman-type feel to it and is excellent. The middle of the song is slow, melodic, and has a good deal of orchestral accompaniment that works very well. The song builds up again near the end and finishes up-tempo and powerful with the orchestral accompaniment riding underneath. It’s a satisfying song.
The album wraps up with Liberation. I suppose this is a decent song musically, but it’s not metal. It’s rock and comes across as a love song, though the lyrics say otherwise. This also doesn’t sound anything like In Flames, other than Anders’ less-than-stellar, weak example of his vocals. This is a poor choice to end an otherwise great In Flames album.
Overall I am very happy with Sounds Of A Playground Fading. The song-writing is superior, and the performance is first class a majority of the time. If your first listen is something short of memorable, listen to it again. This is one of those albums that may leave you with a so-so first impression, but each consecutive play raises its status. Having listened to it many times as of this writing I would now place it in my top three favorite In Flames albums.