In Flames is a band that has received a ton of flack for their change in musical direction. Over the years, they’ve enjoyed a sizable surge in popularity which inevitably alienated their original fan base. In Flames fans are polarized into two camps - pre or post 2002’s “Reroute to Remain.” That album marks the band’s completed shift to a more commercial sound - abandoning their melodic death metal roots for a more “groove metal” approach.
If you’ve read this blog before, it is probably no shock that I tend to fall into the first group of fans - believing their death metal sound was superior. I understand bands need to evolve, but I just can’t hang with that new stuff. The personal affront that some fans take at the band’s shift, speaks to the strength of their earlier material.
As Swedish death metal was evolving and splintering off into other sub genres, there was talk about the emerging “Gothenburg sound” which combined the traditional elements of Swedish death metal, with the melodic guitars of more traditional metal forms (specifically, Iron Maiden). This sound would eventually become what we call “melodic death metal” nowadays, but the key bands (At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames) had no idea what they were starting - as far as they were concerned, they were just playing Swedish death metal with a twist.
In Flames’ debut, “Lunar Strain” has a rough production and menacing vocals from Michael Stanne (sounding akin to At the Gates’ Lindberg). On “Jester Race,” they clean up the sound, boost the lows, and bring in Anders Friden for vocals. All the elements that made “Strain” effective are enhanced and bolstered here, but the song writing is the real key. Opening track, “Moonshield” starts with acoustic guitars and transitions into a riff that is more harmonious and melancholic than heavy. There is immediately a noticeable departure from anything that could be construed as traditional DM, however the guitars are still crunchy as hell. There is an emphasis on catchy, traditional metal melodies that makes it sound both old school and fresh at the same time. Check out those major scales on "Goliaths Disarm Their David's," or the instrumental, "Wayfaerer." This is the most positive and upbeat sounding death metal there is - it's a crazy contrast. Of course, now this shit has been done to death, but in 96 this was revolutionary stuff.
Every once in a while, a band gets in a spot where they are in the zone and simply can’t do anything wrong. In Flames’ 1996 sophomore effort, “Jester Race,” is one of those albums. This is on par with Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Death’s Symbolic, or Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence. It is re-playable to a dangerous degree (perhaps annoying others). After this one came the mighty Whoracle which is great, but not as consistent. After that… It was a somewhat rocky trip downward. 5 out of 5.