Friday, March 10, 2017

In Flames.. What the Hell Happened??

And now it has come to this?
A genre defining album.  Cool artwork.

     Betrayed.  There was a time long ago when you could rely on In Flames to deliver decent melodic death metal.  Former In Flames guitarist and founder Jesper Stromblad set out on a mission to meld the powerful melodies of Iron Maiden with the savagery of death metal and did so with a fair amount of success.  The twin guitar harmonies would come through my headphones and lift the music to a powerful height and it truly separated them from their Gothenburg scene counterparts.  It's what made them special.  And now for fifteen years and counting In Flames has challenged the fans of their seminal work to give a shit.  In 2002 they defected to the "alternative metal" scene and for some reason, like the victim of an abusive relationship, I kept coming back; thinking that they didn't mean it.  I thought, "Maybe it's my fault and I'm being too opinionated."  So for the last couple of months I went on listening and suffering through their discography hoping for that "return to form" album with that In Flames melo-death sound that I once knew.  Well I am not doing it anymore.  After enduring 2016's Battles, it's finally time for me to walk out the front door with my suitcase and never look back.  Getting through their back catalogue was an almost foolish endeavor and I will never get those hours of my time back, but at least I can warn others: the In Flames that was is never coming back.  They sold fans of their early work down the river.  They wanted that Korn money.  They wanted that Deftones money.  They wanted a mainstream audience.  Period.  Thus they have become some of the worst peddlers of mallcore metal bitchery I have ever witnessed.  The writing, instrumentation and artwork have degenerated into a that nightmarish niche that I'd like to call "The Hot Topic Tundra".  It is a vapid wasteland where thick eyeliner, bad haircuts and superfluous piercings are presented in order to warn others, "Caution: I have bad taste in music".
     In Flames' writing has always been cryptic and even esoteric at times.  For the most part In Flames still uses this technique.  Personally I find their lyrical imagery less rich and more contrived than before.  In Flames lyrics used to stir up a sense of nihilism and existential angst.  The rabbit hole was a lot deeper to fall into.  Now its more about loneliness, heart break, and not fitting in.  I suppose they are similar emotive forces in a way, but the latter is more easily relatable to teenagers and simpletons.  They are ideas that are ready to be easily consumed in the marketplace.  The title track off of their landmark melo-death album The Jester Race ends with these lines:  

Vanities in extreme formations, 
ride into tomorrows rigid futile scripts 
of our dying jester race. 

All that humans accomplish and all that humans aspire to amount to nothing in the end.  All is vanity.  Life is a sardonic race to the bottom.  We are the jester race.  In Flames are calling humanity a joke.  That's a powerful statement.  Countless books and essays have been written on this.  It evokes the timeless and terrifying question, "What the fuck is it all for?"  Now read the words to "Like Sand" from the new album Battles:

How did I end up here

Half alive and still full of fears
If I'm honest I think you'll see
I'm scared to share what's calling for me
You say, make the most of your time
Hard to work when it's not on your side
What can't kill you makes you stronger
So I heard but I'm going under

That element of futility and fear are still there.  The writer is obviously grown up now, middle aged or "half alive", but he has acquired no revelations or certainty with age.  He is still full of angst and nihilistic terror.  The difference is that the images here aren't as potent or interesting as before.  It also took a lot longer to say.  The song goes on to describe the old cliche of time slipping through our fingers like sand.  And that's the song.  There isn't really much to think about with that one.  It's pretty straight forward shit.  It's the "Hot-N-Ready" of philosophy.  Just consume, tastes good, now repeat.
     Stromblad said in an article from Metal Injection pertaining to some of the reasons he left the band: 

"For me [In Flames] was a guitar/riff based melo-death band.  And it's not anymore." 

He's right.  There are no more bitchin twin leads ascending through the mix.  What we have are synths and clean vocals taking the reins melodically with that tedious nu metal down tuned "chug-chuga-chug" guitar sound in the background.  Now I'd be a liar if I said I didn't love a well placed synth.  Melo-death counterparts Dark Tranquility are a guitar driven band and added synths and a plethora of other ingredients and colors into their music.  It was a very risky move and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.  But these additions were used to ad flavor and a little contrast in Dark Tranquility's overall sound.  In Flames?  Not so much.  The synth sound in and of it itself is good.  They are good patches I guess.  If you're making a Katy Perry song that is.  What in front flipping fuck are they doing dominating the tracks?  The guitar harmonies still make appearances in their songs, and even more so on Battles than previously, but they aren't front and center.  The In Flames guitar parts were what made them stand out and now it seems they are just added in for flare.  Who do In Flames think they are?  Rush from the mid 1980's?  At least Rush still sounded good.  Give me a fucking break.

Fuck.  This.  Bullshit.


     Anders Friden's voice always cracked a little when he growled, but that was kind of his signature.  I never expected him to fully embrace and embellish it.  That squeaky emo shit he whines now is just horrifying.  He sounds like an angst fueled teenager yelling at his mother.  Then there are his clean vocals, which basically sound like everything else today.  I can't tell the difference between Friden's voice with any other mallcore band on the radio.  The Swedish accent is probably the only give away.  Clean vocals in metal music aren't bad.  A lot of my favorite bands use them.  But Anders Friden and the recording engineers behind the scenes employ a pernicious and trying mainstream approach that just makes me want to jump out of a tenth story window.  One of the goals of pop music producers is to make everything sound the same as the previous top selling song.  That's what In Flames vocals sound like.  They are recorded and smothered in audio effects to the point where Friden becomes just like everyone else.  And they are responsible for carrying the melody now, which is such a downgrade considering the way In Flames used to riff the way they did.  
     Anders Friden offered his rebuttal to people like me in an Alt-Press interview:  

"I wanna challenge our listeners a little bit.  They shouldn't know exactly what they're gonna get.  They're definitely gonna get In Flames in some sort of way, but I don't wanna do Whoracle or Jester Race part 2.  When I got into the metal scene, for me it was like, 'Whoa!  There are no rules!  You can do whatever you want.'  Then, when I started playing in bands, all of theses rules were told to me.  What?  Can I not do what I want?  I have to be this person to be part of this scene?  I cannot look this way?  To me, you can do whatever you want."

Artists shouldn't be discouraged from changing their sound and challenging boundaries.  But it still has to sound good and/or keep the listener engaged.  Otherwise, why bother?  And a lot of the "experimental" elements that In Flames use in their music aren't challenging.  They are mainstream sounds and techniques.  The only challenging thing about In Flames for the past fifteen years has been getting through an entire album without turning it off.  In Flames is not a metal band anymore.  They make metal influenced alternative rock.  And it sucks a long and spiked dick.  As Hesh from The Sopranos succinctly put it, "There is good and not good.  This is not good."  No.  This is not good, man.  This is certainly not good.  Hate Awards are usually given to tedious mainstream pop mediocrity that is overplayed and pushed on us.  But that is what In Flames has sort of become.  So I present the first Hate Award of 2017 to In Flames.  Traitors to Steel.  Heretics of the Metal Gods.  Mainstream pop drivel.  Vile and toxic fucking garbage.  I will never even look at another record of theirs ever again.

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