Sometimes being out of touch for a while is a good thing. I remember In Flames from their earliest years, when they helped to create the melodic death metal genre. My first experience of that was a promo CD of the Dark Tranquillity debut, Skydancer, which blew me away. Naturally, I followed up with albums from At the Gates and In Flames, the other two pioneers of the Gothenburg sound, at the point they got round to releasing their debuts. However, they took their own sweet time and it was too long for me because other genres were calling me by then and real life had asserted itself too. I heard the first few by each, but they didn't have the impact on me that Skydancer did.
Fast forward through the decades and it seems that In Flames in particular had a major impact on the melodic metalcore scene and, over time, while I wasn't paying attention, they appear to have shifted their sound towards it and beyond it. This fourteenth album is a comeback of sorts, with an array of critics acclaiming it for merging the band's two eras, melodeath and a modern alternative sound that owes a great deal to the American bands who took their sound in a new direction. As I only know that old sound—I found (This is Our) House on YouTube and regretted it, so quit there—this is a confusing ear-opener rather than a consolidation of styles.
Initially, it sounds great, not a huge distance from what I remember. State of Slow Decay, which is both the opening track proper and the first single off the album, is fast and heavy with agreeable pace and a really dirty bass underneath it. The vocals are harsh, even though they're very shouty for a death growl. Meet Your Maker has harsh vocals from the outset too, with a deep cleanse of an opening growl. The beat is angry and the bass dirty again. So far, so good.
Well, Meet Your Maker slows down to get jaunty and alternative, with some clean vocals. They're not bad clean vocals but they're drenched in teen angst, which is an odd angle for a band who are well over three decades old. The guitar solo is strong, but it took a while to get used to this style, especially after an impressive opener. And so we go. There's a bounce to Bleeding Out as it starts but a threat too, suggesting a strong song, but then clean vocals that sound like they might have autotune going on. It's definitely hard to get used to the shift.
The best and worst songs are in the middle of the album. Foregone Pt. 1 is the best, a furious song that outstrips State of Slow Decay, with a neat guitar sound that elevates a neat vehemence early on. It's unable to maintain that urgency throughout, but it wraps up with furious drumming from Tanner Wayne. It's a good song. I like how Foregone Pt. 2 starts too, though vehement and furious it isn't. It's not death metal but it sounds good and it feels like it's going to be a nice instrumental interlude. Except then it dives into electronic emo territory, which I'd say is jarring except I'd have to double that when it rolls into Pure Light of Mind, which is a pop song pure and simple with its high clear vocals and pulsing electronic backdrop, however heavy the guitars get at points.
It's like a weird nightmare where I blink and wake up in high school as a sixteen year old kid whose best friend is playing Pure Light of Mind and telling me how heavy it is. I look at him and suggest In Flames instead and he tells me not to be stupid. This is In Flames, he says, and I'm in the Twilight Zone. To be fair, it's not as awful as the old school fans seem to suggest—I had to seek out reviews of the past few albums to see what the general response was and it wasn't remotely good—but it feels acutely out of place here.
I get an inventive band moving through different genres and ending up combining them all—hey, I've been a big Paradise Lost fan since they were failing to not play Nuclear Abomination on stage—but these particularly genres seem to be in opposition. The older school melodeath on State of Slow Decay and The Great Deceiver seems to be about guitars and riffs and musicianship, but the alt rock on Pure Light of Mind and Bleeding Out is about vocals and grooves and raging emotions. I'm not saying that those approaches can't merge, but they're not merging well here.
I'd expect that old school fans, if they're still giving In Flames fresh chances, may well see this as a move in the right direction. There are good songs and heavy songs here. Even when the band are playing in a more modern style, some of it sounds pretty good. I rather like In the Dark. New fans, who have grown up with In Flames being some sort of metalcore band, may be more bewildered. I can see them seeing this as a partial shift in the wrong direction. What I'm fascinated about is if a third audience exists that digs everything here. Who isn't in the band.