Review Summary: Pressing play on a new In Flames album has been a difficult experience for a while now. Does I, the Mask do anything to change that?
Pressing play on a new In Flames
album has been a difficult experience for a while now. Their more radio-friendly “third era” has been plagued with trope-laden lyrics and lethargic, toothless songwriting. A far cry from the levels of quality they were once known for. Many argue that this is a result of the sanding down of their sound for mainstream appeal, but it's not that at all. There is no reason why In Flames can't create quality music within this sonic space, but with Siren Charms
and especially Battles
, they have repeatedly failed to do so, at best delivering a song or two that might be worthy of a playlist somewhere. This brings us to In Flames’ 13th album I, the Mask
, and another chance to crack the radio-friendly formula.
Initial impressions are good and In Flames don’t waste any time getting started on I, the Mask
. The opening salvo of Voices
, the title track, Call My Name
and I Am Above
are the most engaged in their own music In Flames have sounded in a long time. These tracks, as well as later album cut Burn
, are aggressive and energetic in a way that demands attention. Riffs are punchy and melodic and leads and solos rip over top. Anders Fridén’s vocals feel vital and authentic, albeit auto-tuned to near-death at times. The choruses, despite being a little over-dramatic, are anthemic and powerful. With this run of songs, In Flames seem to nail the balanced sound they’ve been chasing for the last 10 years. For the first time in ages, they feel like they have some life to them.
This soon changes. By the time the fifth track shuffles its way out of the speakers, we’re back in familiar territory. Tracks like Follow Me
and In This Life
plod their way through predictable song structures without much conviction. Serving up lifeless riffs and bland choruses that offer tedious saccharine insincerity instead of anthemic power. This shift makes the standard of songwriting on I, the Mask
frustratingly inconsistent. One moment the band sound better than they have in a decade. The next moment, it's treating listeners to the same turgid formulas that plagued much of Battles
. While the quality never dips quite that low, the songs do start to blur together in a beige wash of mediocrity.
Then, of course, there is (This is Our) House
(This is Our) House
is an interesting track. This "try not to cringe challenge" of a song manages to distil all the album’s faults into just four minutes. The riffs chug along and feel as if no-one bothered to finish writing them while the chorus dives headfirst into empty euro-cheese. Worst of all though, and something that has plagued previous releases, are the lyrics. Even the best songs on the album suffer from lyric writing that never develops beyond a surface theme. These are the Bella Swan of lyrics. There’s enough there to carry the chorus and imply a topic, but not enough to actually mean anything. Listeners can project whatever feelings they want onto these songs; a lazy way of creating emotional engagement.
It’s hard to call I, the Mask
a good In Flames album, but it's hard to call it a terrible one either. The quality of the songwriting is all over the place and it suffers from songs that feel only half developed. When executed with some conviction the results are the best In Flames tracks we’ve had in a long time, but it too often isn't. Many tracks rely too heavily on the kind of melodic choruses that metalcore bands beat to death years ago. Which, while well written and offering some great hooks, aren't enough to distract from the album’s shortcomings.
I, the Mask
is the closest the In Flames have got to nailing a more accessible sound, but they've still only managed to offer a handful of good songs here. It is by far the best album they've have released in ten years, but the competition wasn't very high. There is great potential here, but In Flames just haven't capitalised on it. Maybe next time.