Foregone Conclusions: Have In Flames returned to their Gothenburg roots?

There’s been such a steady murmur of anticipation about this album that I simply couldn’t ignore it like I had the past couple In Flames albums. Of course the single that started all this chatter, “State of Slow Decay”, was released way the hell back in summer of 2022, and it’s undeniably Gothenburg-ish, At the Gates-ian trademark riff sequences got everyone’s attention and had metalheads all over nudging their friends to ask, “Have you heard the new In Flames?”. But I was cautious, refusing to listen to the single itself, but reading opinions from people who had and reading comments online here and there. When a couple months later they released the second single from the album, “The Great Deceiver”, this low grade buzz became audibly louder, and I felt myself digging in harder, because I wasn’t about to let this band make a fool of me like they had for years and years straight when I’d eagerly buy each new album in the post-Reroute to Remain era hoping that it would be the one where the band would turn things around (for the record, I stopped after 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading… god that album title, yeeesh).

Recently however, I gave into curiosity as the album release drew nearer and listened to both of the initial singles one night (they went on to release three more in between then and release day… dudes, that’s about half the album, a bit much no?). I was reticent about sharing my opinion on them until I heard the album as a whole but I had to admit that I understood why folks were either intrigued and even a little hopeful. Hell even the album art was suggestive, far more metal-esque than anything they’ve slapped on an album jacket since I dunno, are going back as far as Colony here? Why am I being so cagey about this dumb album you wonder? Because at one point, In Flames really meant a whole heck of a lot to me, I discovered them a few months after Clayman was released and within a couple weeks had already acquired the entirety of their back catalog and would spend the next year obsessing over them and anything else coming out of Gothenburg past and present. The pinnacle was seeing In Flames do a headlining gig that December, a tale I detailed in an autobiographical piece a few years ago. Their music helped me through a rough time and I was incredibly attached to those first five albums, so I gave them a lengthy benefit of doubt when it came to future output, even though it mostly left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now having had time to process Foregone in full over the course of a week, I think that it’s fair to say its the band’s best album of their Reroute to Remain-present day era. It is arguably the best modern In Flames album alongside Come Clarity (and perhaps even slightly edging it), but it is most certainly not a return to “form” if what we mean by form is the sound of their classic first five albums. And I’ll emphasize that last bit, because anyone trying to convince you otherwise is either lying to themselves and you, or doesn’t really understand the difference between the band’s musical approach during their classic era to everything that came in the wake of Reroute (whose album title only looks more precient in retrospect). The difference, in a nutshell, is as follows: Classic era In Flames (Lunar Strain thru Clayman) was written with lead guitar melodies and/or riff sequences as the central motif of a song, often times serving as a hook or refrain, while vocalists Mikael Stanne and subsequently Anders Friden screamed around them. Modern In Flames (ie anything Reroute and onwards) is written around Anders Friden’s vocal melodies as the central refrain, leaving the lead guitars to work around his (often clean) vocal parts. Clayman is a bit of a transition album between these two eras, because while tunes like “Swim”, “Square Nothing” and others were firmly in the old school In Flames mode, you saw the band experimenting with Anders led songs such as “Only For The Weak”, “Pinball Map” and “Bullet Ride” (and because he was only tentatively trying out clean vocals here, these were largely screamed choruses and didn’t sound all that shocking or out of place).

So when I listen to the first single here, “State of Slow Decay”, I get that people flipped out about the Gothenburg elements, but despite those (and they are warm and familiar to hear, as strange as that might sound), I still hear a song built around an Anders’ clean vocal chorus, which lands like a sinking stone. It’s just not a good hook, it takes all the energy that was ripping through the verse segments and pumps the brakes on everything hard, coming across as anti-climatic more than anything. A more suitably old school adjacent track is the third single “Foregone Pt 1”, which seems to pivot around that very Whoracle/Colony riff during the verse build up, and even though we get the expected Anders led vocal chorus, its actually fairly intense and energetic in it’s shape and his aggressive delivery. This is definitely the closest they’ve gotten to touching upon that old school spirit and it was genuinely a thrill to hear it — this is really what I wanted The Halo Effect’s debut to sound like. Worth mentioning here is the unconventionally patterned “The Great Deceiver”, where I did get a bit of whiplash to a sound that really reminded me of something that could’ve been on Clayman, with Anders semi-clean/largely screamed chorus and a really simple yet deft and effective riff pattern that is one of the most addictive things they’ve cooked up in years. If the rest of the album was more in line with the approach taken on these two songs, I think people would be flipping out about this record way more than they were hoping to.

The truth is that this album is largely rooted in the sound of modern In Flames, with a noticeable step up in the overall aggression levels (I had to go back and slog through I, The Mask and Battles to determine that for godssake). And in fairness, I do enjoy some modern In Flames, the aforementioned Come Clarity was a relatively decent post-Reroute Jesper Stromblad era album (though it’s not aged nearly as well as I’d hoped), and I liked some sporadic songs from the albums that followed after that), and I can honestly say that there are a few modern In Flames songs on Foregone that I think are legit some of their best in that vein. As far as clean vocal Anders goes, I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good as he does on “Pure Light of Mind”, his vocals hitting an quasi-falsetto tone in the verses and a really solid, modern rock approach that actually suits him in the chorus which is itself an incredibly satisfying vocal melody. It’s that rare semi-power ballad that the band have tried before but never been able to quite pull off, and the clean vocals here are a boon to the song, not a hinderance. Similarly effective is “A Dialogue In B Flat Minor”, where Anders goes clean on the pre-chorus and chorus together, and though some may find those lyrics in the refrain a bit corny, it somehow works as a memorable earworm. I could easily see many hating this song with a passion, it’s so close to everything we tend to detest about modern In Flames (and it could be that I’m just a sucker for a really well written hook and am giving it a pass on the cringe factor).

Elsewhere on the album however, I found that most of these songs weren’t all together that remarkable, at times walking that fine line between boring and aggravating. A song like “Cynosure” really sounds like something that could’ve fit into any of their past six albums, with a few cool musical elements grabbing your attention, but the band failing to mold it into a cohesive whole. Ditto for “In The Dark”, where thick growling vocals can’t mask a dreadful hook, and the mid-song abrupt transition fails to make up the deficit (though I’ll admit the twin guitar solo towards the end is a nice moment). And did anyone get real “The Quiet Place” flashbacks when hearing “Meet Your Maker”? I can’t help but hear echoes of that song every time this track comes on (as you might have guessed, not exactly a ringing endorsement then). I didn’t mind “Bleeding Out” nearly as much, even though Anders leans a little too close to that whining tone in the chorus here that I can’t help but be irked by at this point. And “End the Transmission” is a decent album closer, built on a chunky riff that segues into a rather unusual pre-chorus/chorus that works despite sounding clunky on the surface. There actually aren’t any songs I completely dislike on the album as a whole, but most of this stuff falls in the category of “Eh, it’s alright”. In short, there’s nothing here that genuinely excites me.

In the past few years, I’ve avoided listening to pre-release singles by metal bands for the most part, usually because they’re a flawed indicator of the album as a whole and I don’t want my opinion going in to be negatively influenced. In the case of Foregone, listening to those first two singles a couple weeks ago might have worked in my favor because they really helped realign my expectations for what the reality was likely going to be, in comparison to people’s fanciful hopes. I’m actually glad that I didn’t hear the instrumental album opening track, “The Beginning of All Things That Will End”, as my first taste of this album — because that actually is the best song on the album in terms of going back to the sound of those first five In Flames albums. It’s not earthshaking either, but I’ll always associate the sound of prettily melancholic Scandinavian folk melodies played on acoustic with a somber cello swooping in underneath as a trademark of those hallowed Stromblad driven classics. Had I heard it first, I would have really been let down by the rest of Foregone, and this review might have been angrier and harsher, but as it is, that instrumental just makes me sad. Because it’s clear that Anders and Bjorn (Gelotte), the remaining two members from that classic era, know what they would have to do in order to really go back to that old sound (they got damn close on “Foregone, Pt 1”), but for reasons known only to themselves, they simply won’t do it. And maybe they genuinely can’t, not for a whole album. Maybe that DNA left when Jesper left the band… but he’s not putting it to use in The Halo Effect, and dammit, no other band has come forward to claim that incredible sound and do it anew, and I’ve been craving it’s return for over twenty years now and am still hungry.

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 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.



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