The Gothenburg sound. Swedish melodeath. This album defines and epitomizes both of these well-known terms in a way that no other record, sans perhaps “Slaughter of the Soul”, can. The melodic death metal ground was fertile, with seeds having been laid by At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity and In Flames themselves with debut “Lunar Strain”, and with “The Jester Race” they hit the jackpot. Less intense than “SotS” and more harmonic than DT’s “The Gallery”, In Flames’ sophomore effort is probably the most accessible and melodic album I still can bear to call a death metal record, and even that feels like a stretch. Amped up Iron Maiden-metal with twin guitars and growl vocals would be a more suitable description, but since this is what melodeath sounds like, let’s adopt the moniker for this review.
First and foremost: there are great hooks in every song. And I mean every. Fucking. Song. The melodies are all over the place, dragging you into the world of toe-tapping and off-key humming faster than you can say “ABBA!” There are fast songs, mid-tempo songs and calmer songs, so even though everything is sugar-coated by guitar harmonies in layer upon layer, there’s variation to be had. Effective breaks and tempo changes help to elevate the energy level when things get too repetitive, and the insertion of acoustic and clean guitars, so common to the genre, add a notch to the dynamic spectrum. The production is a fine testament of the Studio Fredman sound – everything is crisp and clear, with a reasonable punch and just a little hint of sharpness to the edges to avoid fluffy mushiness. Considering the probably ridiculous amount of guitar tracks used, it’s incredible how well-balanced everything sounds, and that all details are easily discernible.
The real selling point of this album is, of course, the guitar work. Heavy and thrash metal-inspired riffs alternate with the sweetest and most innocent of melodies, that could as easily be inserted into a folk melody, a pop song, or on “Powerslave”. The aforementioned harmonies are almost omnipresent, further thickening the six-stringed wall, as well as honeying/lubing the listener’s ear with bittersweet overtones that clash and caress each other like two lovers on the Reeperbahn. Why does all this overtly sweet stuff work so well in a metal context? The hooks, man, the hooks… The melodies are so catchy that even a lobotomy won’t save you from them haunting your dreams. Rotting away in your grave, you’ll still tap your toe to “Dead Eternity”, scaring the bajeezus out of the cemetery caretaker. Also, beautiful solo on “December Flower” by guest Fredrik Johansson (ex-Dimension Zero). The bass supports the guitars and nothing more. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing spectacular either.
The drums on “The Jester Race” are well-played, well-arranged, well-sounding…and safe. Very safe. There are cool double kicks, faster two-beats and even blast beats in one song, as well as some nice tom rolls, but all in all there’s not much that is special about the drumming on this record. It’s all tight and fitting and nice etc, but nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, had Dave Lombardo played on “The Jester Race”, would it have been as good? I’m thinking no, as his playing would probably have taken too much attention away from the selling point of the album, which is…? The penis. Yes. Good dog. Here, have a boner.
Fridéns first recording with In Flames only shows one side of his vocal skill set, which has widened considerably during the last two decades. On “The Jester Race” we get to hear his growl game, which is quite nice, but limited. Fridén’s growls are raspy and mid-to-high-pitched and he delivers the lyrics with poise and rhythmic pregnancy, but as they are quite one-dimensional they tend to get a bit monotonous over the course of a whole album. The lyrics are half-mysterious and metaphor-heavy. The album’s concept deals with the futile human race driving itself into extinction through ignorance, negligence and stupidity. Penned by Fridén and Niklas Sundin (Dark Tranquillity), the lyrics have a magniloquent and bombastic, yet poetic aura, which was very “in” by the time:
Gaia impaled on their horns and lances
to fumes from her body give case
as the throng of blind mind savour the scent,
dream-dead from prosaic and hate
In Flames’ finest moment, in my opinion, was definitely the “Subterranean” EP that preceded this album, but this is surely their best full-length effort. It further cemented the Gothenburg sound as the prevalent genre in the mid-90’s and lifted In Flames into the upper echelon of metal. If you’re ever in need of all-you-can-eat riffs and melodies, this is the album to spin.
Anders Fridén: vocals
Glenn Ljungström: guitars
Jesper Strömblad: guitars, keyboards
Johan Larsson: bass
Björn Gelotte: drums, guitars
02. The Jester’s Dance
03. Artifacts of the Black Rain
05. Lord Hypnos
06. Dead Eternity
07. The Jester Race
08. December Flower
10. Dead God In Me