IN FLAMES - Battles
November 11, 2016, a year ago
Though it might seem like an unlikely comparison, there are many similarities between In Flames and Metallica, both bands being hugely revered and influential early in their careers and then each massively alienating their original fanbases with trend-following records. But where Metallica atoned for its mid-to-late ‘90s sins and, since 2003’s St. Anger, has tried to make it right to us (hellos also go out to Max Cavalera and his latter-day Soulfly albums), In Flames has consistently found new ways to damage itself, badly. But let’s go back to St. Anger for a second. Though most fans dislike the album, generally we can agree that there was a genuine effort by Metallica to re-connect with the early material: underneath St. Anger’s solo-less tracks and tin chair snare lies the nucleus of a far-reaching metal record, complete with wide-eyed wonder that the band, in very misguided ways, tried - but failed - to capture. The same can be said for Death Magnetic. And, while Lulu kind of messes up the narrative, latest album Hardwired… To Self-Destruct promises to be Metallica’s most inspired album since …And Justice For All. (Long story short: Metallica legitimately returned to its roots after being “just a bluesy hard rock band” for much of the post-Black Album ‘90s.)
In Flames, on the other hand, has had this very unique ability, with almost each and every of its post-Clayman albums, to find new ways to disappoint its fanbase and malign its credibility. The only exception is the group’s anti-Lulu, 2006’s Come Clarity, a record that features legitimately strong In Flames tracks in “Take This Life”, “Pacing Death’s Trail” and “Crawl Through Knives”. The rest of the band’s post-Clayman work is like walking through quicksand, so many of the albums showing brief flashes of taking steps forward only then to sink in their totality as a result of trends, uninspired songwriting and this really bizarre sense of not realizing that songs need to be strong throughout (i.e. the amount of weak verse/strong chorus or strong verse/weak chorus found in In Flames’ post-Clayman catalogue really is unparalleled for a major band).
With 2014’s Siren Charms, In Flames hit absolute rock bottom. For all their flaws, at the very least Reroute To Remain, Soundtrack To Your Escape, A Sense Of Purpose, and Sounds Of A Playground Fading were metal albums. Siren Charms is loaded (Load-ed?) with bad radio rock, full of lackluster songs that mostly evoke feelings of indifference. What remains outside the indifference is disappointment, but the kind of diffused disappointment that accompanies a divorce when the last few years haven’t been the best.
So, here we are in 2016, In Flames now giving us Battles, its first album recorded in Los Angeles. The L.A. connection is significant: L.A. is a prominent feature of this album, Battles’ major-key, far beyond happy riffs encased in ultra-slick, plastic production, the aural equivalent of experiencing one of L.A.’s unending sunshine-drenched days while driving around in a Mercedes. That said, Battles might be the most melodic In Flames album since Come Clarity, the dual leads really coming back to prominence here. But the excitement at the melodies is short-lived, because these aren’t metal songs: they’re Max Martin-esque pop with slightly rougher edges, almost like sleeve tattoos of really colourful butterflies. And while expanding your artistic vision is commendable and growth is both inevitable and healthy, post-Clayman In Flames has consistently indulged in its worst instincts: sugar choruses, predictable song structures, and swamps full of songs that aren’t going to be remembered, let alone resonate, when they end.
Which is sad. Because this is a band that once managed to achieve legitimately great art and inspired legions. Look, old-school fans - those who still spin The Jester Race or Whoracle or Colony consistently - don't want In Flames to stay static and stuck in an artistic space that the band may have grown out of in 2001. But what people do want are new In Flames records that feel genuine and inspired. We all change in life and move on, it’s inevitable. But we also all yearn for genuineness. Battles feels like plastic.