Review Summary: The Swedish lord of melodic metal make a brave and successful return after A Sense of Purpose...
For many bands, releasing that 'difficult' third or fourth album can be a challenging task. For In Flames though, who are now on album number fifteen, it's a small speck in the distance. And after so many albums, you'd expect the band to want to change the type of music they're playing. I was never an adversary to In Flames' post-Clayman sound, but even I (amongst most other fans) found myself bitterly disappointed with A Sense of Purpose, as it seemed to display a band who were lazily treading water with a sound that they had not quite honed to perfection yet. However, SOAPF is a whole different affair, and all the better for it...
After the departure of founding member and main songwriter Jesper Stromblad, who amicably left the band in order to defeat his alcoholism and get his life back on track, you'd be forgiven for thinking IF may have lost some of their spark. But fortunately they still have the songwriting inspiration that fuelled their last album, and in many ways it seems more free, less regimented and altogether more enjoyable.
If you disliked Anders Friden's adopted vocal style from A Sense of Purpose, then chances are you'll find this album hard going. There is an even more evident use of cleaner vocals than on any previous In Flames track, but unlike on more recent efforts, it seems that this is in order to benefit the song rather than to 'sell out' (or whatever other accusation can be thrown at a band abandoning it's more metallic ways). In the title track, which opens the album, the band manage to encompass everything that defines their new sound- melodic guitar, deft use of synths, cleaner vocals and harmonic chorus hooks- into a 4:43 long album track. Opening on an acoustic melody, the song breaks into classic melodic guitar playing and a driving riff that underpins the song from then on. And so, from this opening, we're reminded that it's business as usual for the band's return. Single track "Deliver Us" makes use of the synth elements once again, possessing a wonderfully catchy chorus alongside the typical new In Flames influences.
The band seem to possess an ability to retain a certain sound and yet apply other influences to this, yet maintaining the core theme of their music. Songs such as "The Puzzle" possess some solid riffing and a more hardcore influence, whereas the bluesy "The Attic" sounds both eery and dreamy at the same time. Any accusations that could be made about the band losing their heaviness at first seem legitimate, that is until the arrival of "Darker Times", which carries with it a riff of devastating proportions. Later on we are treated to the "heavier-than-thou" opening riff of "Enter Tragedy", and it's clear that the members are still aware that they are a metal band.
As far as album highlights go, there are plenty. The wonderfully melodic "Ropes" contains a soaring chorus and clean vocals and the fantastic "A New Dawn" demonstrates In Flames riffing of old. It is in fact a song that would not sound out of place on some of the oldest In Flames album and that is very welcome and adds variety to an album packed full of different sounds. Other highlights include the haunting "Fear is the Weakness", with a chorus oozing with metallic menace, and "Where the Dead Ships Dwell" with a heavy, snyth laden opening riff and another chorus to hum along to.
The latter trio of songs on the album are a strange mix. Firstly, there's "Jester's Door", which is largely a voiceover with backing music, followed by cascading synth beats. It's a welcome break, but the album wouldn't have suffered from its absence. The aforementioned "A New Dawn" is a pleasing listen but "Liberation" sounds like something from *whisper it* Staind's back catalogue. Lyrically the song is intact, but Anders voice is not cut out for a 'ballad' like this, and it really does not, even in the slightest, sound like In Flames. There is only so many influences a band can allow before they lose their sound altogether, and hopefully Liberation is not a sign of things to come for the band.
There are negatives to the album, but most of them are easily ignorable. Anders' vocals can really become grating at times, especially when he tries to sing cleanly. However, it is also refreshing to hear a metal singer who doesn't just growl and scream for the sake of it. Besides, I defy anybody to listen to the opening few vocal lines of "Darker Times" and think it doesn't sound wonderfully heavy.
Another complaint would be for the frankly sucky album name, but to condemn it for that would just be ridiculous, wouldn't it!
All in all, Sounds of a Playground Fading is a commendable return for In Flames. Anybody pining for the Whoracle or Colony days needs to move on, for, as awesome as that period of the band's history was, those days are gone. In its place is a style of music that may have changed a lot, but is still, fundamentally, the In Flames sound. If you're of the mindset to be able to accept the new direction of the band's sound, then this album is likely to be spending a lot of time on your playlist. For those of you who can't accept this, then In Flames 'died' as a band a long time ago anyway. SOAPF is a brilliant return- that said, it didn't have much competition, being instantly comparable to A Sense of Purpose. Whether this album is to become one of the band's defining classics remains to be seen, but this has cemented their status as a relevant and creative metal band once again.
And should it ever have been in doubt?
In Flames we Trust, after all.