Review: In Flames – Sounds Of A Playground Fading

An ambitious & teriffic album set to inspire the next creative direction of metal.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

There’s a point when a band switches from a music group to an institution. A switch turns and suddenly there is a rise in both quality and professionalism from the band. Quietly, over time, In Flames has been crawling towards that point. I don’t mean to say they’ve gotten stale but more that they have arrived at a level that leaves their peers in the dust. Even with the departure of founding member Jesper Stromblad, In Flames continue to march forward with great style.

The release of Sounds Of A Playground Fading will announce In Flames have arrived at that “institution” level. It’s an ambitious record that takes all the best of what In Flames can do and just makes it better. So often when I think of heavy music I gravitate towards the experimental or brutally ugly. Every so often a straight ahead metal band nails it and Sounds Of A Playground Fading is just such a record.

In Flames open the album like most great metal records, with acoustic notes that waft heavily until settling into the triumphant opening ring out. Without warning the thrash comes down like a hammer and In Flames is off and running. If they kick off their live set with this song there won’t be a still body in the entire room. You can tell by the construct of the opening title track that In Flames have reached a new arena in their song writing. I was especially impressed at the harmonics in the soloing. It didn’t just give the band a chance to do the standard guitar masturbation; it actually contributes something to the song.

“All For Me” shows off In Flames’ ability to wrangle prog-rock into what they do, while “The Puzzle” is a straight ahead thrash beat down that calls into memory shades of old Pantera and COC. So many bands view thrash as either something to be played as a nostalgia trip or to be dismissed altogether. In Flames see thrash as a building block, something that they can take and infuse with the more technical aspects of metal. Without Iron Maiden there is no Slayer, without Slayer there is no At The Gates – it’s a structure that relies heavily on lessons from the past. When you ignore any of that you either become a joke band or a band that cares too much about being angry to actually write songs. In Flames don’t write great metal songs, they just write great songs.

“Where The Dead Ships Dwell” gives a bit of robotic flow to the album, think Isaac Asimov if he wrote metal tunes. “In The Attic” sounds like In Flames decision to try and write their version of Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building In There”. “Enter Tragedy” is the band’s nod to melodic metal but it maintains a brutality so it never devolves into metalcore. “Jester’s Door” is just fucking weird, in a wonderfully creepy way. The album ends with “Liberation”, the arena rock showstopper complete with sing along chorus, quiet stops, big solos and riffs for days. Based on six or eight listens of Sounds Of A Playground Fading, I’d venture that In Flames wrote this as a live record. It feels like that in everything from the energy to the track order.

I must also give a nod to the vocalist Anders Friden. I am forever being let down by heavy metal vocals. For the most part it’s heartless screaming or soulless, and often funny, barking. Friden actually sings, but with a constant embittered and grinding rasp. Even when the big melodic parts kick in, the vocals never go clean, they stay as heavy as the music.

The drums also set In Flames apart from their peers. This isn’t blast beat fever or double bass boredom; these are drums being played to heighten the song. There is double bass but drummer Daniel Svensson has no problem with a Phil Rudd style kick-snare-kick-snare beat. When the double bass gives way to that, the song ramps up in groove and power. Sounds Of A Playground Fading is a rare metal record that relies more on song writing than spectacle or shtick. In Flames is no longer the amazing band opening the main stage that you have to see. Now, and probably until the get tired of doing it, In Flames will be the headliner who inspires the next creative direction of metal.