The last few years have been pretty controversial for In Flames. In 2008 they released their 9th studio album A Sense of Purpose to a rather unanimous "Meh". I became of fan of the band around the time this album came out, and I can attest that, compared to everything they'd made before, it was pretty underwhelming. While the album before it, Come Clarity, wasn't amazing, it still had the signature power and energy that In Flames have been known for, that just seemed lacking on ASoP.
2 years later, and the founding member of In Flames, Guitarist Jesper Stromblad, left the band in order to deal with his own personal demons. This lead more than a few fans to claim that In Flames was officially dead. Though really, you'll need a quick history lesson to get up to speed on that debacle.
Essentially, back in the early 90's there were 3 bands that all formed around the same time, in the same city of Gothenburg, Sweden, and they became known as the godfathers of Melodic Death Metal. These 3 bands were In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and At The Gates. They didn't necessarily start the sub-genre, but they were the ones who defined the sound and made it big. In Flames would stick with roughly the same sound for what would come to be called their "Golden Era", with their first 5 albums (Lunar Strain, The Jester Race, Whoracle, Colony, Clayman) but come 2002, things took a drastic change.
Starting with their 6th album, Reroute to Remain, they would begin utilizing a more modern sound, taking influence from Alternative Metal more and more with each release. This has caused a huge schism in the fanbase, between fans of "Old" In Flames and "New" In Flames. Needless to say, the founder's departure only exacerbated the whole thing. This meant that there was more than a bit of pressure for the band, now a 4-piece, to bring something big with their 2011 release Sounds of A Playground Fading.
And believe it or not, they did.
Since I've already made this review needlessly longer than it needs to be, I'm not going to give a lot of info for each track, just a basic breakdown and my opinion on it.
Track 1: "Sounds of a Playground Fading"
This song starts off with an acoustic intro, followed by a good hard dose of stadium rock inspired guitars. It's clear straight away that this album has better production than ASoP did, especially towards the drums. The guitars sound very reminiscent of the last album, but that's not a bad thing since the major problem wasn't how the album sounded, but how it never went anywhere. Here, things are starting off damn strong with Anders Friden giving probably the best vocal performance he's done since Clayman. The riffs are full of energy and this is overall just a great way to start things off.
Track 2: "Deliver Us"
This is the lead single of the album, and it definitely shows in the sound. While it's not a bad song by any means, it lacks the atmosphere of the rest of the album, opting for a more metalcore inspired, synth heavy sound. Anders makes use of layered vocals to do what he's been relying on for the past few years: Scream-singing. It's essentially where he records the vocals twice, once with clean singing, then once with a harsher, screaming tone. This sets up for a unique, but at times off-putting effect. He uses it at other points on the album too, but for some reason it's just more conspicuous here. Still the song is enjoyable, even if it is pretty weak in comparison to the rest of the album.
Track 3: "All For Me"
This song starts off with another acoustic intro that quickly gives way to a powerful, bombastic quitar riff that builds up the energy brilliantly. This song is a bit different from it's predecessors, in that when the chorus comes around, it doesn't feel like the typical chorus, but rather just feels like a logical progression in the build up of the song. The highlight here is Anders' vocals, which are in top form and full of more emotion than the entirety of A Sense of Purpose combined. He's utilizi ng the scream-singing again, but with very few exceptions, it's used spectacularly here, channeling the melancholy of the lyrics with the kind of Power I've rarely heard from him before.
Track 4: "The Puzzle"
On this track, In Flames pauses from the overall melody-driven songs that the last 3 songs were, and instead goes for a more break-down heavy track to spice things up. And while I'll usually criticize a band for making a song like this, it strangely works here. Maybe it's the fact that the drums keep up such an energetic pace that it keeps things from slowing down on the rest of the track, or that Anders is still in top-form Vocally. Whatever the reason, the entire song is loud, full of passion, and the outro is just wonderful.
Track 5: "Fear Is The Weakness"
This track has been described by several reviewers as "synth-heavy" but I just don't see it. The intro riff does have some smatterings of a synth in it, the rest of the song is pretty much just guitar, bass, and drums. This is however the first song that feels most reminiscent of past material. Not in a bad way, but rather in a way of paying homage to some of their earlier albums (specifically Reroute and it's follow-up Soundtrack To Your Escape) with the melody sounding like it would fit in perfectly on STYE.
Track 6: "Where The Dead Ships Dwell"
Now this is a track I would call synth-heavy. If the last song was similar to STYE then this song could probably a bonus track off of that album. There's a very atmospheric sense to the whole song, especially in the way Anders does his clean vocals. Several reviewers (myself included) have used the word "melancholy" to describe the tone of SoaPF, and nowhere is it more clear why than here, with the synthesizer's presence adding an eerie nature to the whole thing.
Track 7: "The Attic"
This is the first song to deviate from the overall sound of the album. It's quiet, slow paced, the vocals are subdued, and oh yeah, the melody is carried almost exclusively by accordion. It's certainly different, but it does a damn good job of channeling the bleak nature of the lyrics (which is only 2 verses, no chorus or bridge.). It's a stripped down, slightly experimental song that the band hasn't really tried since Come Clarity's "Your Bedtime Story is Scaring Everyone" way back on '06. Despite the inherent eccentricity of it, the track works damn well, and I can definitely see it being used as a halfway marker at live shows.
Track 8: "Darker Times"
This song is similar in several ways to "The Puzzle", not least of which being that it again has the melody take a backseat to a more "Chugga-Chugga" style riff. Like "The Puzzle" this is miraculously pulled off very well, and the melody does make itself known during the chorus, as well as the last half of the song. There's also a part of the lyrics that has become sort of an inside joke among fans. You see, Anders, for whatever reason, seems to love using the word "plan" in songs. It's occurred several times, and here it's especially egregious when he repeats 3 times in a row "I Have a Better Plan!". But smirk worthy lyrics aside, this is a damn good song with 2 guitar solos and a lot of great guitar work from Bjorn Gellote, as well as a rather interesting outro that I can' really describe.
Track 9: "Ropes"
Some have called this song "Swim" 2.0, due to it's intro's similarity to the song "Swim" off their 5th album Clayman. And while there are several similarities betwixt the two, "Ropes" is still a damn good song in it's own right. For the verses Anders uses purely clean singing (that's right, no scream-singing until the chorus) and it's definitely an adjustment to get used to it. It's just kind of...bizarre that the guy who recorded "Morphing Into Primal" is actually singing hear. Though this won't be the last time this happens on here.
Track 10: "Enter Tragedy"
This song...just doesn't hit me like the rest of 'em do. There's lots to like here: the guitar work's good and reminds me a lot of some of the songs off of Come Clarity which I really enjoyed, Anders vocals are fine, no shakiness or anything, and there's plenty of energy. It's just that, when they get to the chorus everything just kind of feels muted. It's like this is where there should be this big, epic sounding chorus, and instead it's kind of a step down from the rest of the song. it all just comes off as a bit one-note. Not something I'd necessarily skip on relistens, but not something I wanna sing along withe either.
Track 11: "The Jester's Door"
You remember how I said "The Attic" was slightly experimental? Well that's nothing compared to "The Jester's Door". The first quarter of the song is essentially the sound of creaking floorboards and a whistle. Then a slow accordion starts up, followed by 2 verses delivered by Anders in spoken-word in an almost stream-of-consciousness speech referencing the departure of Jesper Stromblad. As he delivers the last line, suddenly the synth breaks loose alongside the accordion in a semi-tribal beat for the last minute. It's strange, nothing at all like the songs before or after it, and damned if it's anything short of beautiful. Second-favorite song on the album.
Track 12: "A New Dawn"
This song is nothing but a 6-minute love note to their "Golden Era" material. The leading riff sounds like it'd fit right in with the songs off of Colony. Everything sounds powerful, and Anders gives a good number of the sparse growls on this album. They also made use of a 5-piece quasi-orchestra to accentuate the interludes, and while I dislike using it there's only one word to describe the effect: EPIC. It's far and away my favorite song on the album, and I cannot praise it enough.
Track 13: "Liberation"
Ohhhhhh boy. This is where things get a bit sticky. In Flames purists will hate this song. I mean fucking loathe. This will be the song "Old" In Flames fans will point to as the biggest evidence of In Flames "selling out". And you know what? to hell with them, this is a damn good song. It's by no means a metal song, rather it's more comparable a hard-rock ballad than anything else, probably the softest non-acoustic song in the band's history, but it's also a beautifully composed, emotion driven, well crafted song and does an awesome job closing out the album. Anyone who refuses to listen to it because it's not "metal" enough for them is doing themselves a disservice.
Overall, this album is more than the much-needed return to form I had been hoping for. After nearly a decade of experimenting and working to find a new sound, In Flames has managed to make a strong, enjoyable album that pays respect to their roots while simultaneously defining themselves for a new decade. If you're hoping for another Whoracle or Jester Race, than you're spit outta luck, but if you want a solid, powerful, melodic metal album, than you'll love Sounds of A Playground Fading.