I was a week or so late in listening to In Flames newest album, Siren Charms, which came out way back on September 9th. I had put it off not only due to being busy catching up on records by bands that I actually still harbored affection for, but in large part because I was rather disoriented by the pre-release single “Through Oblivion”. When I finally sat down to listen to the full album, I was so thoroughly disappointed by what I was hearing that I decided to not waste any more time on it. I was going to stick to that plan until I read through the flurry of news articles published last week regarding recent social media comments by ex-In Flames guitarist and founder Jesper Strömblad. As the story goes, Strömblad had invited fans on his Facebook page to ask him anything, and as expected the majority of the questions were in regards to his departure from In Flames in 2010. He decided to write a post to address this ultimate question for everyone and in doing so he delivered a revelation that I don’t think many were expecting (certainly not I). I’ll let Strömblad speak for himself for clarity’s sake:
“Will I ever return to In Flames? No one never knows what the future brings,but the chances are slim as they embarked on a different musical journey,they have a solid lineup and Im on a totally different path in life right now. I would never go into details why I quit, but there is always one official story and there is the other……Alcohol is a quite small part of it. That can also answer the next question, what do I think of their new stuff. Listen to The Resistance and that explains a bit of it. We simply went different directions. I need to stand behind and feel inspired with what I do 100%, I owe it to the fans and obviously the band. All respect to In Flames and their new approach, but for me the band was a guitar/riff based melo-death band. And Its not anymore, but still amazing musicianship and I don’t think its wrong. But its not the vision I had when we started out.” – Jesper Strömblad, 9/30/14
Sometimes, as in the recent situation with Queensrÿche, its hard for entrenched, long-time band members who are reliant upon the band’s touring activities to provide the bulk of their income to simply walk away due to musical differences or general dissatisfaction. I mention that because In Flames transition to its modern sound really started way back on 2004’s Soundtrack to Your Escape (and it could be legitimately argued that it began on 2002’s Reroute to Remain), and as such that means that Strömblad stuck through at least six years and three albums of increasingly drastic musical changes that veered sharply away from the band’s classic era “guitar/riff based melo-death”, as the man himself so succinctly described it. Comparatively the guys in Queensrÿche had to endure a decade’s worth of Geoff Tate’s hideous transforming of that band into a shell of its former self before they found a viable way to extricate themselves by doing a little firing/hiring. Strömblad didn’t have a similar option within In Flames. Complicating matters was the fact that the band was his creation, and it was an increasingly lucrative job after all —- I completely understand why he stuck it out as long as he did. When it was announced that he was leaving the band, an on-going battle with alcoholism was listed as the sole factor in his decision to walk away from a rock n’ roll lifestyle. A clean break perhaps… one even publicly lauded by the remaining band members as they (genuinely, I’m sure) wished Strömblad well in his recovery attempts. Of course in light of Strömblad’s recent comments, I’ve seen more than a few internet jokers suggesting that Strömblad has inadvertently revealed the cause for his alcoholism.
I’ve written about In Flames once before, and as I expressed in that article, In Flames’ musical discography can be viewed as consisting of two distinct eras: The classic 1994-2000 era where the songs were written around the primary guitar-based melodies, and the Friden influenced 2002-present day era where the vocal melodies took prevalence within the songwriting. Its not just a simple case of substituting one for another, as the change to vocal-melody driven songwriting effectively nullified most of the elements that made us In Flames fans in the first place. Its been a suspicion of mine and many others that this seismic shift within the band’s musical approach had their source in the band’s vocalist Anders Friden. That’s not exactly breaking news to any fan of classic era In Flames —- if the metalcore meets Depeche Mode mess that was his Passengers side project didn’t clue you in, then certainly the prevalence of clean singing within new In Flames material was the biggest flag waver. It couldn’t have been all on Friden, because if everyone else in the band felt the opposite, he’d have surely been removed or left of his own accord at some point, right? These days it appears increasingly obvious via songwriting credits that In Flames guitarist Bjorn Gelotte has been Friden’s major partner within the band’s ranks helping him to mold their vocal driven style. Friden has made some recent comments that give credence to that theory, stating in an recent interview:
I think [Jesper’s departure] was bigger for people outside than it was for the band. I think Jesper, mentally, had already been out of the band for a few years before he left. He was actually not touring for almost a year-and-a-half before we made the decision and he exited the band. On a friendship level, it’s hard. I miss the guy, but at the same time, it just didn’t work. People should know: Both Björn and I have done 10 out of 11 In Flames albums. We know how an In Flames album should be done. Musically, it didn’t change as much as people think. – Anders Friden in Alternative Press, 2014
Strömblad’s revelation makes me wonder as to how long he was feeling alienated within his own band. I also am more inclined to believe that there was gradual shifting of power within the lineup from Strömblad (who essentially was the lead music writer during their classic era) to Friden beginning around the Reroute to Remain era. All of this speculation is purely retrograde and of no real consequence of course, but we’re fans and that’s what we do. His comments come as somewhat of a relief to myself in that they help to suggest a sequence of events that explain why a great band capable of writing majestic, breathtaking, folk-infused melo-death could shift so far away from what made them great. It contextualizes those few moments I would hear on those post-2002 albums that would perk my ears up with their vague recollections of their classic era, such as the guitar solo in “Come Clarity”, or on “Vanishing Light”, where the guitars drove the melody as in the old days. They were moments where Strömblad was breaking through to interject some old school spirit into the mix. I also feel a certain amount of gratitude and sympathy for Strömblad in general: Gratitude for what he’s done for me as a metal fan with that classic era of flawless work, and sympathy for the way it seems he was slowly ousted from his own band. He wrote in this post that listening to his new band The Resistance would provide all the answers anyone needs as to his view on current In Flames —- and while I’m not entirely sold on that project’s one album, it does harken to shades of his Ceremonial Oath past with its slightly melodic take on death metal. Its certainly a lot closer to what I really want to hear from him than he was capable of achieving during his final years with In Flames.
As for Siren Charms, I’ve listened through it a few times and keep coming to the same conclusion: This is the sound of a band that has little to no interest in metal anymore. Some melodic guitar figures aside, it bears scant resemblance to even their modern metal era work. Vocal melodies are the back bones of these songs, and the possibility of interesting guitar work is given limited, fractional space at best. More disconcertingly, the songwriting is more prone to uninteresting, plodding, meandering riffs that to serve as a rhythmic backdrop for Friden’s wavering vocal work in bridge sections. In fact he hardly screams at all on the album, and when he does its simply to accentuate a repeating chorus in order to spice things up —- the rest of the time he is firmly fixed in clean vocals mode. Granted, there are moments where he delivers his best work to date in that vocal style, but those of us who have seen him live in the recent past know that its a mirage: He sounds decent in a recording studio with the aid of overdubs, punch-ins, and the ability to get the best possible take. He is hopelessly miserable at emulating those results on stage however, and its in those live situations where the band further distances itself from their classic era. Friden’s reluctance to play older songs is justified by his most likely truthful observation that there are more fans of their post-2002 work at their shows than people clamoring for their old classics. Its slightly tragic for those of us that used to call ourselves fans of the band, because there aren’t many reasons to see their live shows anymore, let alone buy their new albums.
My personal irony here is that after the release of 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading, I accused the band of hypocrisy for mocking fans who clamored for a return to their classic sound while simultaneously repeating themselves musically for their past few albums. It seems In Flames has taken criticism like that to heart, as no one can deny that Siren Charms is a new direction indeed. There’s hope for us Strömblad fans however, as he also mentioned that he’s working on a solo album, and here’s hoping its something that taps into that classic era spirit. I met Strömblad outside of a dusty venue in Houston on their 2003 Reroute to Remain tour, and I mentioned to him that he should consider recording an instrumental solo album, maybe something half electric and half acoustic (because no one did drop in acoustic interludes like Strömblad). He just smiled and asked “Who would be interested in that? Just you?”, and proceeded to walk inside for sound check. Just me and legions of forgotten In Flames fans Jesper —- legions.
October 11, 2014
Hey Pidge, long time no speak.
I’m torn with this album – I want so badly to hate it, and I do to a certain extent. It’s clearly a nod to the MTV audience, a demographic that not just IF have been catering to for some time – visibly so since they became sponsored by Vans shoes – but also numerous other European stalwarts over their last few respective albums; ie. Arch Enemy, Children of Bodom, Cradle of Filth (and dare I say Dark Tranquillity – I’ll get to them in a sec).
BUT – and its a big one – love it or not, the album executes its purpose very well. It was for this very reason I actually enjoyed ‘Sounds of a Playground Fading’ – for too long it seemed In Flames had an identity crisis, perhaps due to the speculative power struggle you note, with Jesper on one hand wanting to maintain the aggressive Gothenburg sound, and Anders on the other, trying to move into more mainstream, alt rock territory. Whilst I too dearly miss the twin guitar glory days, the last two albums without Jesper have in fact been their most coherent works since Clayman (notwithstanding Come Clarity). I’d go so far as to say In Flames have never been as overtly ‘metal’ as everyone gives them credit for; Whoracle and Colony were never the fastest or loudest, but had a consistency in feel from start to finish, which is exactly what has been lacking since Reroute to Remain.
Although not of the same vain, Siren Charms at the very least has this consistency, and each song has a very well defined structure where the now less frequent drum fills and guitar solos seem to jump out and mean something again. I can’t say the same about the last releases by any of the aforementioned bands. Case in point is In Flames’ partners in crime Dark Tranquillity and their last effort, ‘Construct’. That’s an album I want so badly to love, to wax lyrical about how they’re continuing to evolve the sound from ‘Into the Void’, making it all about the atmosphere rather than the old Gothenburg chops. However, whilst DT may not have sold out ala In Flames, Construct did exactly what Siren Charms has done again – short songs with electronic layering, less aggression, questionable studio-altered clean vocals – yet the press somehow lauded this as a glorious return to the Projector days.
We might not like Siren Charms per se (it’s far from their best work), and In Flames may not be making ‘metal’ in the strictest sense anymore, but it shouldn’t be about the label/genre (Amaranthe, anyone?). It should be about whether the album takes the listener anywhere – if they wish to keep writing albums full of Alias, Trigger, and Only for the Weak, I’m fine with that – I just wish they’d find a singer of the same musical ability as the rest of the band.
October 13, 2014
Sorry it took a while to reply, I read your comment on my phone a few days ago and was rushed so I couldn’t formulate a thought about it let alone type it out. That being said now that I’ve re-read it, I think we’re basically viewing the band through completely different lenses. There’s nothing wrong with that nor is either one of us right or wrong, but I never viewed In Flames past “classic” era as something that I would characterize as more metal than their current era (post 2002). In fact one could say they got even heavier in their current era…. no my perspective is that I fell in love with In Flames classic era work because it was beautiful yet dark, it had ultra-melodic guitar work yet crunchy and dense riffing, and Friden’s vocals were the perfect mix of pained, howling aggression and sorrow. It was a wild, vivid, unique sound that was only mirrored by a few other artists during that era, and even fewer afterwards.
For me, the timing of In Flames was interesting as well. A band that arose in 1994 as a side project of Jesper Stromblad during a time when commercial/mainstream metal was taking a huge hit. For alot of those metal kids in those Scandinavian countries, the grossness of what metal had turned into commercially during that late 80s/early 90s commercial peak was enough for them to turn inwards and do something creative and fresh. Hence the second wave of Norwegian black metal, or in Stromblad’s individual case, he felt himself drawn to create a merge of the Swedish death metal bubbling up around him with the bright melodicism of his childhood heroes Iron Maiden, with a touch of Scandinavian folk influence subconsciously creeping into his writing.
It was a time when metal was being advanced creatively as a result of its fringe edges or outer circles being driven underground by either the disgust of overtly commercialized takes on metal or the forward looking realization setting in that trying to become a rich rockstar playing metal at a time when grunge was taking over wasn’t a possibility anymore. Its just a shame that a band that was able to accomplish such a breathtaking body of work during the aftermath of that moment in time began to turn into a more commercialized entity —- particularly in that they simplified their musical approach and lost what made them special. To me anyway, but I’m sure others would agree.
October 18, 2014
No worries about the delay… always happy to check in for a chat with you!
Its funny how bands mean so many things to so many people – in your case, In Flames bringing that degree of authenticity back to a scene that had largely forgotten what metal was (and the glory of twin guitar harmonies, if I may go further!).
That said, when you note their breathtaking body of work, I can’t say I really agree with you there… I dont deny their chops, and they’ve written some great licks over the years (Swim, episode666 anyone?), but Ive always maintained that In Flames attained fame not from their material, but simply from who they were. Lunar strain and jester race were important albums for their timing, but Im sure you’ll agree needed some polish. Whoracle and colony provided that polish, with Clayman showing you could most definitely mix in some hooks without sacrificing heaviness – and its these three albums that have let them get away with the disasters they’ve had in recent years. RtR rolled around which had some great moments, but was horribly inconsistent (and marked the end of the death metal vocals). STYE was was their mistaken downtuned korn moment, a brief pickmeup in Come Clarity, then another horrible downer on ASOP as they tried to go all punk/core (dare I say to capture the US market), ultimately resulting in Stromblad’s departure. When I look back at this level of inconsistency even before their last two albums, its genuinely mindblowing how they managed to retain their stalwart status amongst the general metal community.
Also, Friden has NEVER been a fine vocalist, on ANY of their albums haha (I also love me some Omnium, but Jukkas vocals are the one thing stopping them from achieving cosmic levels of attention). I’m genuinely surprised they never showed him the door after Clayman. The cynic in me thinks his position was cemented after their income grew – perhaps another point of contention within the band leading to Stromblad’s exit…
October 18, 2014
Interesting position on The Jester Race, I think what you’re sensing as a lack of polish is actually the album’s greatest strength. The awkwardly mixed acoustic/electric – clean guitars in say Moonshield or other such tracks are so entrancing because their guitars are sparse sounding and raw in a melodic way. They have almost a waltzy rhythm to their melodies that is entrancing. On that album, more than any other In Flames (or melodeath album for that matter) the guitar melodies tell the story. The vocals are just another instrument in the truest sense, providing bleak rage (through ambiguous fantasy-esque lyrics where it was more important how they sounded rather than what they said). The Jester Race is such a unique album in metal overall, I can’t think of another album quite like it.
October 13, 2014
Good point about the Dark Tranquility release…. I can see where you’re coming from regarding Construct. Honestly, DT has fallen off for me a bit in the past half a decade or so, as have most of the Gothenburg bands (the few that still exist). At The Gates might change all that with their new album, we’ll see soon I suppose!
The best melodic death metal today is found in Finland, Germany, and New Zealand of all places, with Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum, as well as Ghost Brigade whose new album sounds really promising. Suidakra has been doing great stuff for awhile now but its only recently that they’ve been getting decent press attention for once, and Belakor’s last album was stunning. Even with all those though, I still miss Stromblad’s unique Gothenburg sound though, he really was its best interpreter. I hope he does something in that vein in the future.