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The year was 2002, and the world was changing. Geopolitical shifts and heightened tensions meant that countries were looking over their shoulder more than ever before, and the rise of digital and social media would irreversibly alter the day-to-day life of pretty much everyone. Nu-metal was finally getting closer to the point of putting all of their massive pairs of trousers into the wardrobe forever, though, so life wasn’t all bad. It was a time of shifting fortunes for more than just rap-rock enthusiasts, however. In the cold reaches of the Swedish North, a new dawn was breaking over the lair of a titan.
Here's some history. When we use the word titan to describe In Flames, that somehow feels like short-changing them. By this point, the band were the reason there was a pile for everyone else to jump into, let alone simply on top of it. Born of a desire to play something a little more melodic than death metal (hence the name) by founder Jesper Strömblad in 1990, In Flames were early pioneers of the Gothenburg Sound, along with other melodeath legends At the Gates and Dark Tranquility. Named for the specific area of Sweden that they all hailed from, where there’s something in the water, the Gothenburg Sound helped to kickstart a revolution in the death metal scene like few seen before – certainly not softer, nothing so severe, but there was far more melodic dual guitar work and replacing the well known death metal growls with higher pitched or “shriek” vocals.
While melodic death metal spread like jam on warm toast in the mid-90s, In Flames didn’t have the steadiest start. Frequently featuring session musicians and in-and-out players (Mikael Stanne of Dark Tranquility provided session vocals for the band’s debut album Lunar Strain in 1994), it wasn’t until 1996 that they got sick of the transient nature of things and recruited two new permanent members to try and maintain a consistent line-up. Björn Gelotte was added as stickman, before becoming their lead guitarist from 1999 onward – not a half-bad weapon to have in your arsenal.
Their second addition was possibly the most impactful on what was to come for In Flames. Anders Fridén completed what was effectively a player swap deal with Stanne, trading to In Flames from Dark Tranquillity to become their new vocalist and future primary songwriter. The effect of a solid line-up, paired with the huge amount of talent in the players and Fridén’s songwriting ability was seismic. Their second album, The Jester Race, become one of the most influential metal records of all time and a melodeath classic that to this day is hard to surpass in terms of quality, while follow-up concept album Whoracle had the world at In Flames’ feet, a hammer blow of pure melodeath goodness that stands on par with the best in the genre.
It seemed like there was no stopping what had quickly tuned into a rolling juggernaut now; fourth effort Colony was the first to feature the “classic” In Flames line-up; Fridén on vocals and songwriting duty, Gelotte having switched to lead guitar with Daniel Svensson stepping in to replace him behind the kit, while Jesper Strömblad and Peter Iwers attacked the rhythm guitar and bass respectively. It was a recipe for success that seemed like it would serve nothing but good times, a point that was only underlined by the critical success of Clayman in the year 2000, an album with a much darker tone throughout that added yet another notch to the bow of an already master shot. How could the Fab Five do anything wrong from this seemingly unassailable position, where they had stamped their name into the history books with enough force to mark the table underneath?
The year is 2002, and the world has turned upside down for fans of In Flames; there’s a heartbreaker in town, and its name is Reroute to Remain. To call the sixth swing in the batter’s box a stylistic departure is an overstatement, for now– the shift from the classic melodeath sound to a more accessible alt-metal take is jarring and, despite praise from critics at the time, a battle had been set in motion. This war would rage for another twenty years, the pendulum swinging between critically acclaimed but hated by diehard fans (see Soundtrack to your Escape, the natural but definitely more alternative metal follow up to Reroute in 2004) to the other end of the spectrum with Siren Charms, which was fairly evenly hated by everyone.
2019’s I, The Mask gathered up some of the old school elements, blending them with the new normal, but even that didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the way of appeasing things – though by now, Fridén had made it clear that appeasement wasn’t the point of the game, and fair play to him. By now it was obvious it was going to take something herculean to put the train back on the melodeath rails. Well, why have one thing when you can have two? Fast forward to 2021, and a new fighter had entered the arena.
If you could accuse The Halo Effect of anything, it certainly wasn’t a lack of pedigree. A veritable melodeath supergroup comprised entirely of ex-In Flames members (Strömblad, Stanne, Iwers, Svenson and revolving door guitarist Niclas Engelin), there was no shortage of Gothenburg clout to go around and it reflected heavily in their debut album Days of the Lost in 2022. While the general consensus was one of primarily good faith between the two groups, there can’t have been any small amount of nervous looks across the prow of the ship from the current In Flames boys. Did they sense a direct competitor here in the melodeath pseudo-Voltron that had been born from their change over the years?
If they did, they came out swinging. Foregone, the fourteenth and latest release in a career as varied as you like, was a return to form so loud and sincere that it was impossible to ignore the impact of it, rattling the cages of the naysayers and the windows of everyone else. While the alt-metal feel wasn’t gone entirely, especially around the middle of the album, Foregone felt like a stake in the ground moment in a melo-death renaissance, a flag-planting that reclaimed a territory that was dissolving at the borders. In Flames was back, and there was much rejoicing.
So, what exactly prompted this roaring return to a style that In Flames seemed to have long abandoned? It would be remiss to say that The Halo Effect had nothing to do with it – if five of your exes formed a band in your genre, that’s about as sure a kick up the ass as anything. But then, it’s not like the embers weren’t already beginning to produce smoke. I, The Mask was closer to that “classic” In Flames sound than they had been for nearly two decades, so the writing was possibly already on the wall in that sense.
There’s also the possibility that current events played their part. In Flames at their best had always been a manifestation of the true darkness of the world around them, reflected in Fridén’s songwriting and that swaggering anger certainly seems to be front and centre on the new record.
Hell, there’s even a touch of revisionism around the shift in sound nowadays, that it maybe wasn’t as bad as many fans claimed in the first place – though how much of that is newer fans who possibly weren’t born until they were old enough to listen to Reroute to Remain is a question this old man isn’t prepared to answer out loud. Time will tell whether their next album continues the trend towards what once was, and whether it will continue the trend of being a crowdpleaser, but from the sound and reception to Forgone it could well be that In Flames are burning brighter once again.
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