01. Sounds of a Playground Fading 02. Deliver Us 03. All for Me 04. The Puzzle 05. Fear Is the Weakness 06. Where the Dead Ships Dwell 07. The Attic 08. Darker Times 09. Ropes 10. Enter Tragedy 11. Jester's Door 12. A New Dawn 13. Liberation2011 Century Media Records
Dissecting a new album from metal pioneers In Flames can be done in two ways. First, one could judge a fresh album based against their entire discography, putting anything new up against heavyweights such as Whoracle, Colony or Clayman. Second, one could compare a new offering against other records from the more recent era of In Flames, most notably the stuff they've given us since 2004, when metalcore really started to take its hold and, as a result, turned into something really vanilla. Actually, vanilla is delicious. That's a terrible saying. We'll go with the latter. The best comparison for how to look at a new In Flames record is how one judges a new Metallica album. Look, the glory days are long gone, and they don't have that early fire in them anymore. When Death Magnetic came out and it didn't suck out loud like Load and Reload and didn't embarrass and sully the name Metallica like St. Anger, it was something of a win. It was the best they could do at that point in time. It was their new high water mark. I'm sure some of you reading this probably disagree, and that's ok. Again, pay attention to the overall point. The same can be said for Sounds of a Playground Fading, In Flames' first effort in three years and 10th disc overall. Had this album followed Whoracle, chances are the bandwagon would have emptied right away and then crashed into an embankment. No, it doesn't measure up to that. Not even close. But compared to A Sense of Purpose and Come Clarity, it's pretty damn acceptable. A great record? Not even close. But it's respectable for the band in its current state. It's probably the best they're capable of giving us. One thing that could have helped this record was trimming the track count down from 13 to 10. More isn't always better. This is bloated and eventually repetitive. Each time I listened, as I progressed through the track count, I kept feeling astounded there were so many songs left to hear. It was burdensome. You shouldn't feel that way listening to an album. But that happens here. Take away an "Enter Tragedy" here, a "Darker Times" there, and at least they'd be trimming the fat, making this less cumbersome and more listenable. Sadly, that choice wasn't made. I could live without the overly dramatic and downright silly "The Attic." Who decided this was a good idea? This is the first In Flames record without founding member Jesper Stromblad, but his absence isn't all that noticeable. Had I not known he'd left the band, I wouldn't have figured that out by listening to these songs. Frontman Anders Friden sings more than ever before, with very little of his death growl left, but his voice suits the material. He still has a knack for hooks and a strong voice, and it's possible he couldn't even manage to recapture the ferocity of his earlier vocal work. The production is pristine, the songs are catchy sometimes, yet In Flames still are stuck in that same rut as most other metal bands: They just can't produce anything truly memorable anymore. There are a handful of good cuts, such as the title track (what a horrible album title, by the way), "Deliver Us," which has a pretty sticky chorus, and "Ropes," which has a bit of an Iron Maiden feel but also leans into pop territory. There even are some decent ideas on "Where the Dead Ships Dwell" and closing ballad "Liberation," but they won't go down as classics by any means. These are the best songs this band is capable of producing, and luckily, they're better than what they've conjured up the past half-decade. Yet, that's only half a compliment. There's a line on "Fear Is the Weakness" where Friden sings, "We are losing identity," and it sort of made me chuckle. The problem actually is every other band stole their identity and In Flames didn't adjust. They stayed on the same old beaten path and kept coming up with less and less compelling work each time out. At least with Sounds of a Playground Fading, the same-old sounds a bit better, but it won't challenge anyone and it won't open any eyes. The diehards will fall in, the old-guard fans will continue to look away, and In Flames will get further away from the things that made them so important at one time. It's what they've become, and at least this time around, they did it as best they could. Bottom line: Perhaps "taking chances" isn't in this band's plans, as In Flames just keep coming back with the same style of album again and again. But compared to their records of the last 5-8 years, this is their best of that span. Doesn't that count for something?
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