Review Summary: The loss of Jesper Strömblad hasn’t altered In Flames’ vision in the slightest. In fact, it seems to have pushed them to try a little harder and tighten up their sound. Too bad Anders Fridén is still their vocalist.
Whether it was the ultra-melodic death metal of The Jester Race
or the electronics-laden sound of Soundtrack to Your Escape
, In Flames have always managed to deliver quality music. This consistency comes despite so many line-up changes that there is currently not a single musician left from the debut album. The most consistent presence has been founding member and chief songwriter, Jesper Strömblad, but even he is gone now. Before he left, though, he was able to slowly guide the band away from their melodic death metal roots and towards a much more modern and mainstream sound. This sound has varied from album to album, but it has basically been characterized by slower tempos, electronic nuances, assorted vocal styles and an overall accessible direction that has been met with mixed opinions. With the release of In Flames’ tenth studio album, Sound of a Playground Fading
, two things are clear: first, this album isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion of the band and second, Björn Gelotte is more than capable of filling Jesper’s songwriting shoes.
Opening track, “Sounds of a Playground Fading”, contains everything a current fan would expect from the band. It is a moderately paced track that is dominated by its strong chorus and melodic leads, and it is instant proof that the transition from Jesper’s songs to Björn’s is going to be virtually seamless. In fact, this album is actually a bit more creative (and definitely better) than their previous release, A Sense of Purpose
. The band have been dabbling in electronics for awhile, but this is probably the first time that they have really got it right. “Deliver Us” builds its core on an excellently done undulating synth pattern that embeds itself in the riffs and is occasionally mimicked by the guitars in order to create a weird sci-fi style disparity. Later on “Where the Dead Ships Dwell” they return to this synth sound and augment it with a dissonant screech that actually distinguishes the song and unexplainably made it one of my favorites. Even where the electronics aren’t openly dictating a track’s direction, though, their inclusion is still a key element. The riffs are almost always supplemented by a layer of melodic synth, but it’s so well integrated that it’s tough to audibly single it out. It’s these little nuanced effects and subtle extras that form the backbone of just about every track, but it’s still the riffs and leads that generate the driving force of each song.
Here, too, Björn Gelotte does an excellent job of seamlessly extending the vision originally introduced by Jesper Strömblad. As has been the case with the last few albums, each song is dominated by cyclical riffing that has a tendency to give way to quick melodic harmonies and classy leads. The difference is that this groove-oriented riff style seems to share much more time with harmonized leads and straight-up guitar solos than has been the case for the last few albums. It would probably be going too far to characterize their increased presence as a ‘back-to-roots’ influence, but their inclusion over the modern chunky riffing is definitely an interesting contrast that generally works pretty well. There are also a few tracks – notably “The Puzzle” and “Enter Tragedy” – that pick up the pace considerably without rehashing the band’s nineties sound; sharing much more with Come Clarity
. If there is a slight difference between Jesper’s influence on previous albums and Björn’s here, it is that the riffs tend to be slightly more varied, even occasionally delving into an eighties rock sound. Despite some excellent and varied music, there is one glaring issue on this album: their vocalist, Anders Fridén.
Anders has never really been a standout addition to the band. He was a capable vocalist back when the only thing he had to do was growl, but he has struggled as the band have continued to diversify. His gritty vocal delivery often drifts into a nasally rasp that is neither powerful nor enjoyable. This is often compounded by the fact that his vocal melodies end up sounding awkward, flat and generally a little monotone. It just seems that he can’t deliver a truly compelling harsh vocal style anymore, and it has a tendency to diminish a song’s power. While this problem is a near-constant issue, it is most noticeable during slower sections such as the backend of “All For Me” which is easily one of his most tone-deaf deliveries to date. In his defense he has improved in other areas, though. When Anders first started experimenting with clean vocals they were mostly passable due to their novelty and infrequent use, but as they have become more prominent they have often totally ruined songs with their atonal squeal. On this album, however, it’s the choruses that generally feature some of Anders’ best work. This can be attributed, in part, to studio effects as they often layer and harmonize his voice during the choruses, but it is also obvious that he has become much more comfortable with his singing.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sounds of a Playground Fading
shares absolutely nothing with the band’s earliest material, but it may surprise some that the band haven’t stumbled due to the loss of Jesper Strömblad. With Björn Gelotte’s guidance, In Flames have picked up right where they left off and have delivered an excellent and diverse collection of songs that mark the band’s most effective use of electronics yet. This is coupled with a resurgence in guitar harmonies and solos that provide an outstanding contrast to the band’s riffier style. The fatal flaw that plagues this album is the questionable vocals of Anders Fridén. Fortunately, about eighty-five percent of his vocal performance is passable but the terrific music deserves more than an average vocal accompaniment and it ultimately suffers from it. Basically, fans of In Flames’ last four albums are sure to find plenty to enjoy on Sounds of Playground Fading
as it is easily better than a lot of what they’ve done recently, but it could have been so much more if the vocals could be anything more than adequate.