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.
 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNDknB7UpFo&w=560&h=315]

 
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 Anders’ 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.
 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7614mSu4hbk&w=560&h=315]

 

Remembrance of Things Past: Iced Earth / Symphony X / Warbringer @ HoB in Houston, Texas 2/29/12

 

I have never been a fan of reading concert reviews. I find that most of them are overwhelmingly positive to a fault; you can often hear the giddy fanboy-ism of the writer lurking just beneath the sentences. I’m all about respecting the die hard fan, but I find that either I completely agree with their concert review, or am indifferent to it. In other words, I get little out of reading them. At best I’ll see what people are saying on message boards or Facebook about overall impressions of a particular tour, check out setlist.fm, and sometimes seek out any pictures available of the stage show. Usually all this is done in preparation for an upcoming show on a tour that I’ll be attending myself. This is why I’ll avoid going into gritty detail about this particular show, and merely offer some lasting impressions. Before I do that, let me indulge a little in a dose of nostalgia.

 

Nearly eight years have passed since the last time I saw Iced Earth live. I missed the Barlow years before the Ripper era, and again when he returned for the Crucible of Man album. Iced Earth had last played Houston on May 8th, 2004 at a tin box of a venue in downtown called The Engine Room with Children of Bodom and Evergrey as openers. It was a transitioning period for the band: Tim “The Ripper” Owens had made his debut on the highly divisive The Glorious Burden album, fans were trying to get used to the idea, and non-metal media had given the band its first press coverage thanks to the epic three-part closing track of the album, “Gettysburg”, and its use by high school history teachers as an educational tool (seriously it happened).

 

There I was, hours early at the venue with a friend of mine, shuffling around downtown Houston in the summer heat trying to find something to eat, bumping into an agitated and bewildered Alexi Laiho on the street who was baffled by the lack of any convenience store nearby (“No we’re serious man, you’d have to walk at least eight blocks in that direction…”), and watching in total amazement as the line to get into the show stretched further than I’d ever seen for a club show – multiple city blocks! The venue had a capacity of 650, and we had overheard the Atlanta Falcons jersey-wearing door guy say that they had oversold the show by hundreds. In effect, there could have been 800-1000 people out there. It was nuts. I couldn’t fathom how that many people came out of the woodwork to see a relatively underground metal band (at least in the States). I’d been going to metal shows in Houston for years before this, and the crowds were never THIS big. Where the hell did these people come from and why did I not see them out and about more often?!

 

 

Doors had opened, and inside the venue I could barely get from the merch booth to the bar, both on opposing ends of the venue. People were nearly standing shoulder to shoulder, and it took deft movements and side-walkin’ to navigate my way through. I recall buying bottles of water only, no beer, even though I was a year past being of age – I just had a feeling I would need the hydration severely. I was right. Hypocrisy and CoB were easy enough to watch, most of the crowd just idly banging their heads and moving slightly. It was when Iced Earth took stage that the maddening deathcrush of the crowd began. We were close to the front, and in the center, and all I can vividly remember is the feeling of being pushed forward along with the rest of the crowd like a floating buoy in the sea. I was having trouble breathing until I managed to wedge out my arms from my sides and use them as physical barriers against the bodies slamming against me, it gave my compacted torso space to take in glorious oxygen. Somehow I managed to keep my place, and once the initial deathcrush subsided I established my personal space and gulped down room temperature water, surprising myself at having held onto my water bottles. I had been a part of some intense shows before, but nothing that had me feeling anywhere close to “I could actually die here… ah well I guess it would be with my boots on right Bruce?”

 

The crowd swirled and slammed together in chaotic fashion for the rest of the show. I was battered and literally bruised upon my side. I have images and flashes of memory from Iced Earth’s actual performance, but far more overwhelming is the recollection that when the band launched into the thirty minute “Gettysburg” as the encore, I silently and ashamedly hoped that the power would be cut, the guitars would short out, ANYTHING to get out of there at that exact moment. I could barely stand upright, and once the band took their final bow I collapsed against the bar alongside several other worn out husks of metalheads, one of whom was my now barely standing friend. I distinctly remember the eye-widening on the bartender’s face as she poured us plastic cups of water and handed them over without asking for payment. We managed to crawl back to my car and somehow, I drove us back home. I can’t recall exactly, but I’m certain that not a word was spoken on the way back. It was a point of pride the next day at work to boast to everyone I could of how brutal that show was (and how by silent implication of me standing before them, and not in the hospital, I was a real hardass). I was 22 and shows like that were one more notch in my ever expanding list of concerts attended, slowly I was becoming a metal show veteran in my own right.

 

Fast forward to last Wednesday night, where I was all too keenly aware of how different I now feel at 29 than I did at 22, and how I imagined Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth (the only Iced Earth member onstage to have taken part in the 2004 show) felt himself, now 43, then 35. I wasn’t sure why I had thought about it so much until well after the show, when I realized that the eight year gap between the 04 show and now had represented the longest period between two shows by a band that I had ever experienced. I could only imagine at what an older concert attendee who had last seen Maiden back in the eighties felt recently upon seeing them say on the 2008 “Somewhere Back in Time Tour”. Personal thoughts to be sure of course, but its a goddamned show and you don’t talk about stuff like that there… though I’d bet that it had to cross the mind more than a few times.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this may sound melancholic, but its really not. Its not a lament about getting older, nor is it an admonition for younger fans to show the far older, grizzled metal veterans their due respect (even though you should, seriously, most of those guys are awesome and can tell you some tales). This is a dawning realization that apart from metal being the longest, most enduring thing in my life, it also creates markers by which I remember the past. Not all for sure, but many – how else would I remember who I was, and what I was doing in May of 2004 if not for this Iced Earth concert. Details of my life at that time come bubbling up to the surface, and I wince at some of them, and fondly remember others.

 

I was with some friends at the show Wednesday night, and I remember my buddy to my left speaking with two really short kids standing in front of us as we waited for Iced Earth to hit the stage. The kid pointed to his friend and said “Its his first metal show, not a bad one to start with right?” We approved and slapped the kid on his back and I looked directly over his head to see a greying man in the front row leaning against the barricade wearing a blue jeans jacket that was heavily decorated with concert memorabilia (caught guitar picks, metal band logo pins, badges, etc) including a huge Savatage Hall of the Mountain King patch on the back. It was a stunning juxtaposition.

 

 

I promised some impressions of the show earlier, and I’ll keep it simple: The crowd was mostly older, to be expected I suppose, but as shown above younger fans weren’t exempt. I found Iced Earth far more riveting this time with Stu Block at the helm than I did back in ’04 with the Ripper. He’s the right fit for the band and they genuinely seemed happy to be onstage. They really are a violent and eviscerating force onstage, those riffs can tear through your gut when being channeled out at those volumes, and when Stu did the highs it was the very definition of ear-splitting. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance by Symphony X, my 2011 album of the year winners, Russell Allen proved to be a far more engaging and humorous frontman than he was during the first time I saw them live. I will echo my friend’s sentiments however by saying that I wish the rest of the band could be as enthusiastic on stage as Allen, who has to carry the band live (no wonder he’s drinking straight rum from a glass skull decanter(!)). Warbringer are a band I’ll be paying far more attention to in the future, their Kreator-influenced approach impressed me so much I bought a t-shirt. I was disappointed when their opening set was over. All these details I’ll soon forget however, and it won’t matter. What matters is that it was a great show because we had a blast. I won’t remember the technical details, but I will find it hard to forget practically leaping in between my buddies to thrash out during the heaviest, most climactic moment of “Dante’s Inferno”. This is why I get bored reading show reviews: I want to read about why it was such a great experience for a person, not the ins and outs of every facet of the performance. I want to read stories.

 

Having headbanged and thrown horns for most of the three bands sets, I knew I’d be sore the following morning. Though it wasn’t as violent a show as the 2004 performance was, it didn’t need to be – standing for a long period of time hurts way more now than it did back then. I was relieved in a small way that the crowd apart from the circle pit was fairly cool tempered. You could drink a beer comfortably if you wanted to, and it seemed most wanted to. I got back to my apartment complex and could barely make it out of my car, as my back had seized up painfully. I briefly considered just falling back into the driver’s seat and sleeping there in the parking lot all night. Somehow I semi-hunchbacked it all the way up to my apartment, laughing aloud while doing my best Mort Goldman. A fitting bookend to this particular concert. At the 2004 show, I felt as thought I could have almost blacked out or worse, and I could barely make it from the venue to my car — only to bounce back the following day to head to work. On Wednesday night I could barely walk, and I could only be comfortable falling asleep sitting up on my sofa. I spent the next day sitting still and ice-packing my neck. Iced Earth 2012 had rendered me useless. I could have easily found it disheartening, but I honestly found it humorous instead — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

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