Review by Jeff Maki
There was a turning point in the evolution of In Flames’ sound in the early 2000s. Fans cite either 2002’s Reroute to Remain, (which featured more clean singing, melody and even a borderline country music song) or 2004’s Soundtrack to Your Escape (an industrial metal album, which, at the time, was its most commercial-sounding release to date) as the albums that “abandoned” the band’s signature melodeath sound. Come Clarity (2006), A Sense of Purpose (2008) and Sounds of a Playground Fading (2011) rode the fine line of heaviness and accessibility, and even yielded some new fan favorites along the way. Then came Siren Charms (2014,) and for many of the fans still left, this was the final nail in the coffin. I’ve been a fan of most of In Flames’ post-melodeath era albums, even Siren Charms. The album had a somber mood and explosive parts throughout. But now with In Flames’ 12th studio album, Battles, and yet more drastic changes in sound and personnel, will they be able to retain me as a fan?
Battles is the first album since 1999’s Whoracle without drummer Daniel Svensson and the third without founding member and guitarist Jesper Strömblad, who excited in 2010, leaving the band with no original members for this recording. From the start, this is a huge obstacle to overcome for longtime fans. Svensson was replaced with former Red drummer Joe Rickard. OK, so enough with all the formalities and boring stuff here—is Battles as bad as the reviews are saying? Is it worth your time at all?
Well, it’s no Reroute to Remain. As controversial as it was, Battles makes that album sound like a melodic death metal masterpiece. It’s no Soundtrack to Your Escape, either. Battles makes that album seem like a heavy metal steamroller, compared to the lighter, more alternative metal on display here. And as far as Siren Charms, all that was left of In Flames’ Swedish metal roots last was heard there.
The sound and style of Battles is closest to Bullet for My Valentine or new Bring Me the Horizon. It doesn’t get any heavier than that, but it does get even lighter. Anders Fridén’s clean singing reminds me of Bullet for My Valentine, while the electronics (which to be fair, have been a part of In Flames’ sound for a long time) remind me of Bring Me the Horizon. Then there are moments on this album that are unforgivable. “The Truth” features backing vocals that sound like children; on the ballad “Here Until Forever,” the guitar lick is straight from Boston’s “Don’t Look Back;” “Before I Fall” is way too similar to “Rusted Nail;” and several other tracks have recycled riffs from recent albums. There are a slew of other alternative bands I could compare certain parts of Battles to, but it’s really too difficult to see in print.
Lyrically, Fridén’s writing style certainly has changed. Things get literal and emo on Battles, as opposed to older albums, where after listening you would spend time contemplating the metaphors and hidden meanings behind his lyrics. I definitely prefer the latter. If there is a theme, it’s “against the world,” with “Like Sand” and “Us Against the World” as prime examples.
So what is good about Battles? The aforementioned “Like Sand” is a haunting folk ballad that shows up early on the album. It’s like a combination of “Dawn of a New Day” and Marilyn Manson, making for an engaging track. “Through My Eyes” is fast and furious in the tradition of “Take This Life” or “The Mirror’s Truth,” but has an identity of its own. “Save Me,” despite some annoying pop-vocal effects, has a guitar riff that will stick in your head long afterward. “The End” was the first song released from the album and left many with high hopes due to Fridén’s re-intensified vocal screams and guitar riffs.
Musically, the band—rounded out by lead guitarist Björn Gelotte, rhythm guitarist Niclas Engelin and bassist Peter Iwers—adapts to the new style, yet has never sounded so weak and uninspired. I don’t know whether it’s due to the production or something else, but even in the more up-tempo songs, which you think should be heavy, they fail miserably to reach previous levels of In Flames material, new or old. The album was recorded in Los Angeles with Grammy-nominated producer Howard Benson, and the band has gone on record saying that recording in L.A. in the sunshine gave the record “a different vibe.” That’s an understatement.
I’m still going to see In Flames live. I’m still going to be a fan. I’m still going to listen to the albums. Even though it’s not quite as bad after a few listens, Battles nearly lost me.
(November 11, 2016, Eleven Seven Music Group)