"some music was meant to stay underground..."

70000 Tons of Metal - The World's Biggest Heavy Metal Cruise

In Flames - "Sounds of a Playground Fading" (CD)

In Flames - "Sounds of a Playground Fading" CD cover image

"Sounds of a Playground Fading" track listing:

1. Sounds Of A Playground Fading
2. Deliver Us
3. All For Me
4. The Puzzle
5. Fear Is The Weakness
6. Where The Dead Ships Dwell
7. The Attic
8. Darker Times
9. Ropes
10. Enter Tragedy
11. Jester’s Door
12. A New Dawn
13. Liberation

Reviewed by on June 11, 2011

"Each In Flames effort has served as a graceful stylistic transition between its predecessor and its successor. Thus, there is an appealing symmetry to their unfolding career, often overlooked by their critics and taken for granted by their loyalists."

Make no mistake: In Flames never stopped innovating. There is a reason these Swedish pioneers of “melodic death metal” (or “Gothenburg metal”) have continued to captivate, delight, and infuriate for nearly two decades while entire battalions of copycat bands have come and gone with relatively little impact: theirs is a truly original, evolving, progressive vision. It’s no wonder, then, that the metal world routinely awaits their impending new releases with a shivery, electric mix of giddy anticipation and nervous apprehension.

This is truer in 2011 than ever before. Following the loss of founding guitarist and hookslinger extraordinaire Jesper Strömblad early last year, many were left with serious doubts about the future quality of In Flames’ songwriting. What’s more, frontman Anders Fridén’s vocal progression on 2008’s “A Sense Of Purpose” had driven the proverbial wedge even further between the three principal factions of their sprawling fan base. The stubborn, stuck-in-the-past purist crowd (for whom 2000’s “Clayman” or, in extreme cases, 1995’s “The Jester Race” serve as the end of the line), the younger Guitar Hero types (brought into the fold with the 2004 hit “Soundtrack To Your Escape”), and the longtime über-devotees (“can’t we all just get along?”) could finally all agree on something: no one knew what In Flames would do next.

So, is “Sounds Of A Playground Fading” simply “A Sense Of Purpose” Part II, as equally hoped and feared by so many? Well, yes and no. And that “no” is a big N-O.

Let’s start with the most obvious bone of contention of the past nine years: the evolution of Anders Fridén’s vocal style. After progressing from a guttural growl to a shredded-throat shriek and incorporating increasingly clean-sung epic choruses, he reached a tipping point on 2006’s otherwise excellent “Come Clarity,” which saw his adopted brutal/clean dichotomy run off the rails into over-the-top, poorly controlled melodrama. On “A Sense Of Purpose,” he tried a new approach: a smoother hybrid of aggressive singing and melodic rasping, which buoyed highlights “The Mirror’s Truth” and “Condemned” but left cringing puzzlement in the wake of the radio-rock nugget “Delight And Angers” and the ghostly, Bjork-influenced (!) “The Chosen Pessimist.” Fridén has not altered his general course on the new album.

But… Fridén is better here. Much, much better. He has buckled down, worked hard on his technique, and unleashed a passionate performance that sees him in complete, confident command of his voice. Stylistically, he’s all over the map, but he transitions between singing, rasping, and shrieking so smoothly that all previous doubts regarding his vocal range should be put to rest – or at least seriously challenged. Also helpful are both the decidedly darker nature of his lyrics and his playful nods to the past – his spoken-word croak on “Jester Script Transfigured” (from 1997’s “Whoracle”) and his classic death growl of yore are revisited on the industrial interlude “Jester’s Door” and the melodeath epic “A New Dawn,” respectively.

Instrumentally, “Sounds Of A Playground Fading” follows the same pattern. Remaining guitarist Björn Gelotte has built and improved upon the sonic framework of “A Sense Of Purpose” by plumbing the band’s back catalogue since 1999, the year of his switch from drums to guitar – and of the classic “Colony.” The result is an appropriately modern metal album with a refreshing old-school undercurrent, brimming with past influences but maintaining a smooth cohesion throughout.

“The Puzzle” and “Enter Tragedy” reintroduce the speedy aggression of “Come Clarity,” while “Where The Dead Ships Dwell” and “Darker Times” embrace the marching industrial groove of “Soundtrack To Your Escape” and 2002’s now-classic “Reroute To Remain.” The opening title track and bouncy first single “Deliver Us” may echo “A Sense Of Purpose” the loudest, but woven through all of this are the shimmering, jaw-dropping harmonized guitar leads and solos that endeared In Flames to so many in the first place. “Fear Is The Weakness” and “Ropes” can hold their own with anything off the brilliant “Clayman,” and the aforementioned “A New Dawn” is a dead ringer for “Colony.”

Producer Roberto Laghi, who joined the fold for “A Sense Of Purpose” and this time teamed up behind the boards with Fridén himself, has handled this album masterfully. Daniel Svensson’s snare drums snap sharper, Peter Iwers’ bass is a muscular presence, the heavy riffs crunch harder, and the leads slice through all sounds like a blade. While the atmospheric backing keyboards occasionally intrude on the territory of fellow Gothenburg pioneers Dark Tranquillity, and the electronic effects can be a tad overdone, these are miniscule complaints – overshadowed only by the disappointment that arrives after the album has run its course. The infectiousness and integrity of these songs will make you long for more.

Since their debut in 1993’s “Lunar Strain,” In Flames has never made the same album twice, and each effort has served as a graceful stylistic transition between its predecessor and its successor. Thus, there is an appealing symmetry to their unfolding career that is often overlooked by their critics and taken for granted by their loyalists. Viewed in that light, “Sounds Of A Playground Fading” is exactly what it ought to be – and, one can hope, a prelude to an even more exciting musical chapter.

Highs: The amped-up songwriting, dazzling guitar work, and vastly improved vocals make each track an absolute winner.

Lows: The electronic “ear candy” effects can be unnecessary at times, and while this is In Flames’ longest-running album, to their credit, it feels shorter than it should.

Bottom line: A mature, handsomely executed blend of everything In Flames has recorded since 1999, with superb guitar work and impressive vocals.

Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls
4.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)