It’s been a long, long time in the making, but In Flames’ 20-year run is finally starting to yield some positive results in North America. Ever since the controversial shift towards a more accessible sound on 2002’s Reroute to Remain, the Swedish melodic death metal pioneers’ North American popularity has been snowballing, thanks in large part to the decision to tour the continent extensively, winning over new young fans along the way. All the while, the band has made some shrewd moves to increase their exposure, such as landing a spot on the Ozzfest main stage and co-headlining Sounds of the Underground, while their signing with trendy hardcore label Ferret was a particularly significant coup, as 2006’s Come Clarity went on to become easily the band’s biggest-selling album in America to date, bolstered by an aggressive marketing campaign geared towards the metalcore-listening, Hot Topic-shopping, Guitar Hero-playing teen crowd.
Despite the fact that Come Clarity achieved a near-impeccable balance between the speed and aggression of In Flames’ early period and the hook-oriented direction in recent years, there is still no shortage of curmudgeonly metal dudes who grumble that The Jester Race and Colony are far superior to their more melodic approach of recent years. While the early In Flames vs. latter-day In Flames argument will likely never cease, the band, to their great credit, has stubbornly kept their gaze forward, and although their incendiary, influential days are behind them, they’ve managed to settle into a comfortable niche over the last six years. The willingness to experiment is still there, but unlike the brash arrogance of a young hotshot metal act, these guys continue to resolutely choose a more subtle route, exuding the assuredness that only a veteran band can do.
There are times on their ninth album A Sense of Purpose where In Flames might be trying to be too subtle and understated in their approach, tending to play it a little too safe, but that hardly means that they’re coasting. The record continues right where Come Clarity‘s more sedate moments left off, focusing on steady, mid-tempo arrangements, allowing the increasingly confident vocal work of Anders Fridén to dominate. Fridén will be the first to tell you his singing voice isn’t that great, but especially over the course of the last four albums, he’s developed a strong, albeit idiosyncratic singing style that serves as a counterbalance to his more robust snarl, and on the new CD, his vocal melodies have never sounded stronger. “Sleepless Again” and single “The Mirror’s Truth” both benefit hugely from Fridén’s continued growth as a singer, while the audacious melodies and gang choruses of “Alias” and “Delight and Angers”, although straying perilously close to post-hardcore, are carried entirely by Fridén’s delivery.
Meanwhile, guitarists Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gellotte continue prove to be one of the steadiest guitar duos in metal, their calling-card blend of crunching riffs and melodic staccato picking never flashy, but always classy. “Disconnected” and the dual harmony-laden “I’m the Highway” both feature some of their most textured performances to date, and later on in the album, more muscular songs like the ferocious “Sober and Irrelevant” and the majestic “March to the Shore” hearken back to the days of 2000’s Clayman, bringing the disc to a strong conclusion.
The one make-or-break track on A Sense of Purpose, though, is the eight-minute epic “The Chosen Pessimist”. Fitting somewhere between the sedate, steady prog rock thrum of the Gathering, System of a Down’s more restrained moments, and the introspective, unflinchingly miserable strains of Radiohead at their mopiest, it’s the boldest excursion In Flames has ever undertaken, the understated instrumental arrangement (E-bow here, synth there, strings over there) putting Fridén ‘s quavering voice front and center. A few years ago, he could never pull this off, but Fridén delivers, big time, during the key first half, his fragile tenor Yorke-like in a way, but just avoiding parody. When the full band erupts into the grandiose, elegiac climax, the emotional payoff is massive, Fridén ‘s howls underscored by cascading synths.
If there’s one fault that can be found on A Sense of Purpose, it’s that its pace can get redundant upon first listen (12 tracks is stretching it a bit), plus it lacks the huge arena-appealing hooks that Come Clarity had in spades, as nothing quite matches up to tracks like “Take This Life”, “Leeches”, “Dead End”, “Come Clarity”, or “Crawl Through Knives”. However, like Reroute to Remain, the album benefits greatly from patient listening, making it a worthy addition to the catalog and continuing one of the more impressive second-decade rebirths we’ve seen from a metal band.
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