Although In Flames have still yet to achieve great success in North America, the Swedish band, over the past decade, has become one of the most revered, yet highly scrutinized metal acts in the world. Originally the brainchild of guitarist Jesper Stromblad, In Flames have steadily amassed as strong a back catalogue as anyone in the genre, highlighted by such albums as 1995's influential The Jester Race, 1999's Colony, and 2000's Clayman. One of the progenitors of what has become known as prototypical Swedish metal, the band initially excelled at blending the melodic guitar harmonies of '80s greats Iron Maiden, with the more aggressive, death metal influence of Carcass, creating a classy, intense, yet always accessible form of contemporary metal. The band's lineup has remained intact for a remarkably long time (a rare feat for any band), and they're artists who steadfastly refuse to be pinned down into one of metal's many narrow subgenres. Their last two albums have contained some of their boldest music to date, creating an uproar among the more obsessive fans, who accused them of sounding too "nu-metal", instead of playing it safe, adhering to the same old sound.
2002's Reroute to Remain was a highly contentious album among fans, as the band started to use more tuned-down, churning chords, as opposed to the staccato riffs they used to specialize in, and most impressively, singer Anders Friden started to experiment more with more mainstream-friendly, "clean" vocal melodies. The band's seventh studio release, Soundtrack to Your Escape, which came out this past spring to much fanfare, was another much discussed album, but while conservative listeners have unfairly dismissed the record as being a pandering attempt at achieving Stateside success, in actuality, it's fascinatingly bold attempt to stretch the limits of the In Flames sound, and metal in general. In doing so, they've issued a direct challenge to their entire fanbase: you'd better be ready to accept the fact that our music is evolving. It's the work of masters completely unafraid to do whatever the hell they want, and instead of shooting themselves in the foot, their integrity remains intact, the album turning out to be their strongest release in four years.
The record gets off to a brilliant start with the roaring "F(r)iend", which hearkens back to their mid-'90s music, Friden delivering his distinctive death metal howl, veering from shrieks to guttural growls. All the while, though, an artsy, experimental edge lurks underneath, as sly production touches are brought in, such as subtle industrial influences. That mix of old school and contemporary continues on the thrasher "In Search For I", the pummeling "Touch of Red", and "Dial 595-Escape", which revisits the melodic guitar licks of Colony, but anyone looking for a complete return to the early sound had better avoid the rest of the album, which, quite frankly, provides the most fun.
"The Quiet Place" deserved to be a massive new rock radio hit, but nobody bit. Yet. One of the most audacious songs In Flames has ever recorded, and one of the best metal singles of the year, it's a seamless blend of modern metal and the progressive harmonies of late '80s Queensrÿche; keyboards serve as a backdrop to a hypnotic, chiming guitar hook, as Friden puts in a powerful vocal performance, emitting emotive croons, strong singing during the bridge, and emitting a full-on scream during the catchy chorus. It's classy, melodic metal of the highest order, simple enough to connect with a mass audience, yet innovative enough to impress fans of more progressive sounds.
Elsewhere, "Dead Alone" finds a comfortable middle ground between death and power metal, shifting from ultra-heavy intensity to a soaring melodic chorus in an instant, while "Like You Better Dead" takes on a simpler, metalcore sound, but again, the creativity of the band rears its head, as a strong chorus creeps in. "My Sweet Shadow" threatens to be a maudlin ballad, but is saved by the terrific guitar work of Stromblad and Bjorn Gellotte, not to mention the thunderous polyrhythms of drummer Daniel Svensson.
Ten years ago, Friden's intense vocals were too much for American mainstream ears, but with the recent rise of aggressive, hardcore influenced music, the time seems right for In Flames to finally become more than just a band with a cult following on the other side of the Atlantic. It hasn't happened yet, but the In Flames cult continues to grow with every release. They might be the most obsessed-over metal band this side of Metallica, but there's a reason a band like this elicits such passion from fans. With as many high quality releases as the band has put out, the fans demand excellence every time out, and with Soundtrack to Your Escape, In Flames continue to hold up their end of the bargain.