What happens to bands? Why must they always become increasingly banal and uninspired with time? OK, so it’s a generalisation, but those words are applicable to so many bands. In Flames are one such band.
Their last two albums (2002’s Reroute to Remain and 2004’s Soundtrack to your Escape) are nothing less than shocking to a fan of the older material. Granted, the more rhythm-based noodlings were becoming apparent on the previous two albums Colony and Clayman; especially the latter which regardless is still great, this just illustrates that a stylistic move does not necessarily have to result in soulless pap, it can be done let it be known.
It makes me weep tears of blood to go back and listen to The Jester Race whilst thinking of the band’s contemporary material. I guess you can look at it two ways: positively, that at least they did release some excellent stuff back in the day, or negatively, focusing on the subsequent switch to mass appeal and rebellious teenagers. I’m not one to chant ‘sell-out’ at bands, because it’s difficult to truly know whether decisions were made to water-down in attempt to sell albums or twas a simple matter of wanting to alter sounds from an artistic point of view. But let’s just say that I don’t care for the newer work of this band.
And that brings us to the focal point of this review, the band’s second album, The Jester Race. It was released in 1996 during a particularly high point in Swedish melodic extreme metal, also unleashed around this time were the transcendent releases of Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery (1995), Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane (1995), and Eucharist’s Mirrorworlds (1997). It was a fine time indeed.
This album represents the pinnacle of In Flames’ career, and perhaps the entire melodic death metal subgenre in general. The album is a heaving cauldron of harmonious riffage, energetic compositions, and catchy melodies. At this point the band still retained some of the folkish qualities that had proliferated in the first album, probably best showcased in the occasional acoustic moments, such as the one which opens the proceedings in ‘Moonshield’.
The warm guitars are able to conjure up a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere with their harmonised tremolo picking and layered soundscapes. Some of the song highlights are fifth track ‘Lord Hypnos’, which may or may not be related to the H.P Lovecraft story, I’d assume not, presumably a different tale of sleepy events, nevertheless it has a superlative mid-section that builds from acoustic breakdown to a rising tide of guitar concord. ‘December Flower’ contains what has undeniably got to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, typified not only by it’s esteemed position amongst fans of the band, but also guitar fans in general. Interestingly enough the solo wasn’t done by either of the In Flames axe-slingers, it was Fredrik Johansson, former guitar man of Dark Tranquillity. It is simply an excellent, soulful journey of pleasantness, so smooth as to be untouchable by the human hand were it made physical. It swims around in a cataclysm of nodes and scalar shapes within a period of time that is only too short.
It’s a perfect synergy of melodious instrumentality and death metal brutality. Obviously distinct from bands such as Morbid Angel or Deicide, the band holds onto its death metal heritage mainly via Anders Friden’s raspy vocals and the intermittent drum flurries. Remarks along the lines of Swedish Iron Maiden, or extreme Iron Maiden, in the past clearly have validity, especially with the lead-guitar harmony histrionics.
To sum up, The Jester Race is the zenith of the musicology of Gothenburg ensemble In Flames. I said before that tears of blood were shed at the cognizance of the current state of affairs; well perhaps those tears will be soaked up by a good celestial gorging of the aural senses in a repeat listening of this high watermark of not only Swedish metal, but metal in general.
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