Review Summary: The legendary Swedes' ninth studio album is a slower, softer affair with a few irritating qualities; however, stellar instrumentation and admirable chance-taking make 'A Sense of Purpose' a refreshing listen.
When In Flames announced their ninth studio album title as A Sense of Purpose
, the metal community was abuzz. Does the title have any significance to the direction the band elected to take on the album? Is it just a red herring? What exactly is the band's exact purpose and approach to the album? What do In Flames have to prove, if anything, since they stormed onto the scene in 1994 with Lunar Strain
, which preceded fan favorites The Jester Race
, and Colony
? The short answer, of course, is nothing. At the turn of the millennium, Clayman
began to indicate signs of the band's sharpened focus on harmony and melody, but this album yielded utterances that turned into full-blown complaints that the band had gone soft starting with Reroute to Remain and running all the way through 2006's Come Clarity
. Come Clarity
, in particular, was an astounding success for the band, arguably because it marked the first time the band was played on American radio - a notable and well-deserved accomplishment for these legendary Swedes. The band's prestige in the metal community is unquestionably distinguished, arguably because they have never written the same record twice. However, the aforementioned gripes intensified over the years, and they will continue to intensify with 2008's A Sense of Purpose
The bottom line with A Sense of Purpose is this: fans of 21st-century In Flames will enjoy this record, as it is best described as a coalescence of Reroute to Remain
and Come Clarity
. The Reroute
elements found on In Flames's latest offering are best highlighted in the album's song tempos and liberal synthesizer incorporation; for the most part, the album travels at a steady, moderate tempo, and the electronics and synthesizers are in heavy use on A Sense of Purpose
. The Come Clarity
allusions, meanwhile, can be heard in Jesper Strömblad's and Björn Gelotte's trademark harmonizations and melodies, coupled with a steadfast rhythm section in bassist Peter Iwers and drummer Daniel Svensson. Anders Fridén, who has recently become the oft-criticized vocalist, continues to strictly adhere to clean singing in his middle and upper registers, practically eliminating his harsher, coarser vocals save for a few memorable instances. In all, fans holding out for another 1990s-era In Flames record are going to have to bury those hopes and dreams. In Flames sound poised to continue down this more mainstreamed sound, and who can blame them, given the increasing successes of their 2000-and-on records?
This is not to say that In Flames have written the same album four albums in a row, because this is not the case. There are noteworthy improvements across the board: the two ax wielders' lead/rhythm dynamic is both improved and impressive, Svensson's machine-gun percussive shots and increased use of double bass and lower-end toms into his repertoire gives the record a pulse, and the layered synthesizers consistently accentuate the harmony heard on A Sense of Purpose
. However, there are some unfortunate glaring weaknesses: Fridén's all-too-frequent, grating whines and phlegmatic clean vocals can completely decimate any momentum garnered by his bandmates (his harsher vocals have always better suited In Flames over the years), A Sense of Purpose
's softer overall sound leads to a tepid album tempo, and it is difficult to decipher between the homogeneous track intros without multiple listens. Fridén's performance overall is good, but he shines best with his more aggressive vocal delivery. The biggest disappointment, however, is not in the album's tenuous vocal offerings or the slower tempos, but in its markedly less abrasive sound.
Despite the aforementioned faults, Svensson's and Iwer's thunderous execution, the atmospheric, sylphlike electronics and synthesizers, Strömblad's and Gelotte's zealous harmonies and melodies, and Fridén's better performances are what ultimately make A Sense of Purpose
a great record. While tracks with shorter runtimes (e.g. "The Mirror's Truth," "Move Through Me," "March to the Shore") tend to be more aggressive - and therefore more appealing to longtime In Flames listeners - the Swedes can also write some powerful musical sagas (such as the aforementioned "The Chosen Pessimist," but also "Alias" and "Delight and Angers"). "Move Through Me" and "The Chosen Pessimist," despite being placed in sequential order at the album's apex, are practically polar opposites: the former is a more bellicose, assertive track bolstered by synthesizers and an abiding vocal performance, while the latter is an elegiac and epic 8+ minute juggernaut. Both serve as great tracks to illustrate the array of sounds heard on A Sense of Purpose
, although they are not the best cuts on the album.
A Sense of Purpose
's bookends, "The Mirror's Truth" and "March to the Shore," are outstanding tracks because they best showcase the band's strengths and highlight Svensson, Strömblad, and Gelotte. The album opener features a stellar opening harmony and solo as well as Svensson's agile double bass and pounding tom/snare combinations; as the song progresses, Fridén's rougher and cleaner layered vocals ("Should I join the feast, should I acknowledge the leash? / A future in captivity, I'm not who I'm supposed to be / Without even trying, let this night explode") are complemented by copious amounts of layered synthesizers and effects. "March to the Shore," a track that could easily be mistaken for a Come Clarity
clone, effectively distances itself as soon as the new guitar progressions and deeper vocals kick in ("Everything has its end, I've done my deed, the final bullet was always meant for me / Pushing the faith, build on our rage / Falling ideals, broken seals, march to the shore: you are a killer"). "I'm the Highway" and "Alias" contain poltergeist and shadow imagery and symbolism, and Fridén incorporates these darker personas with admirable ease ("I am my deepest shadow, something I can't ever neglect / Rise above these ashes before they fade away / In dark moments, I know better; within destruction, I see clearly" as heard in "I'm the Highway," and "Don't believe the mask, it attempts to lie . . . / Don't tell me - tell my ghost - 'cause I blame him for all I don't want to know, I found secrets about life untold," as taken from "Alias"). Another track that deserves to be singled out is the anthemic "Condemned," which contains insanely catchy guitar hooks, spectacular drumming, and an engrossing sing-along chorus that highlights one of Fridén's best moments on the album.
As evidenced by these examples, Fridén's darker-tinged lyricism also continues to revolve around themes of discord and dissention, but also delineates themes of extrication and redemption. Also, if listeners picked up The Mirror's Truth EP
this year, they will find "Eraser," "Tilt," and "Abnegation" (not the same version you heard previously, by the way - this revisited version is clearly superior in every area) on the Japanese release of this record. "Eraser," in particular, is definitely a worthwhile listen for its near-industrial vibe, incendiary guitars, and dominating drum performance. These pseudo-B-sides are a definite improvement over duds such as "Sober and Irrelevant" and "Sleepless Again."
If In Flames haven't already alienated fans clamoring for another Whoracle
, they surely will with this album. However, fans who have come to adapt to the band's softer, more melodic style will come away pleased with this record. There are a number of aggravating qualities to A Sense of Purpose
, especially Fridén's Byzantine vocal performances and a notably softer, sometimes weaker sound, but Iwers' growling, tenacious bass lines are always heard with remarkable clarity, Svensson delivers an impeccable drumming performance, and Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte unquestionably shine as one of the best guitar tandems in metal today. A Sense of Purpose
also flows pretty well; for the most part, each track seems to sonically bleed into the next with little disengagement or distraction. In all, In Flames indicates that they have a crystal-clear sense of purpose: to continue to explore multiple avenues and arrangements, further their musical dexterity by taking chances, and forever embrace the challenge of remaining a relevant force in the metal world.
Move Through Me
The Mirror's Truth