“A person needs a little madness,” the Greek philosopher/novelist Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “or else they never dare cut the rope and be free." Though bands are not persons -- indeed, every great fallen band was destroyed or devolved into lameness thanks to homo sapiens -- they, too, become bound by ropes of aesthetics, habit, tradition which, often as not, only strengthen over time.
After unleashing the melodic death metal landmark The Jester Race in 1995 and its up-the-ante-on-all-fronts follow-up Whoracle two years later Gothenburg, Sweden’s In Flames spent its next couple releases taking whacks at the strands of the Gordian knot woven around them -- presumably by that damned Jesterhead mascot.
This blade honing made for intriguing (if ultimately somewhat uneven) evolutions and experimental fusions -- Colony crams enough dual guitar leads into its digital grooves to make Adrian Smith beg for mercy while simultaneously incorporating seamlessly many atmospheric and acoustic elements previously shoehorned with considerable awkwardness into the genre; Clayman’s riff distillation offers an interesting counterpoint to the dirty pummel and roar Entombed stripped down to on Wolverine Blues -- but it was not until the controversial 2002 album Reroute to Remain that it felt as if In Flames were truly liberated creators rather than wards of the contrivances they were thrashing and harmonizing towards.
How much of this was organic serendipity and how much was engineered calculation is open to debate. Several song titles suggest the band understood it was dabbling in the sort of melodic alchemy that is like reverse catnip for the metal messageboard haters -- “Dismiss the Cynics,” “Dawn of a New Day,” the title track which opens the record with a barrage of chest thumpery: “It started as a whisper/Now try to dodge this roar.” Then again, the original edition of Reroute to Remain was subtitled Fourteen Songs of Conscious Insanity while the rerelease a couple years later deemed the effort Fourteen Songs of Conscious Madness, almost as if the band itself could not quite settle on a definition for whatever artistic psychosis had seized it.
However the nature/nurture quotient breaks down, the promise of the sprawling, churning overture that launches the anthemic title track is relentlessly fulfilled. Reroute to Remain is not only In Flames most multidimensional, diverse offering, it is also the record where every previously established aspect of its game -- stellar, yeomanly guitar work; a rhythm section jackhammering ever deeper into the foundation -- congeals, raising the whole to hitherto unscaled heights.
To hear some of the all-too-predictable pissing and moaning, of course, you’d think the Bjorn Gelotte and Jester Stromblad had started crab walking across the stage decked out in Adidas gear, detuned strings flapping in the air, oblivious to the fact that some goddamned keyboardist behind them was turning the band into Depeche-motherfucking-Mode.
In a sane world this caricature of Reroute to Remain would be summarily refuted by even the most casual listen to master blaster clinics such as “Drifter,” “Egonomic,” or “Dark Signs,” perhaps with the Whoracle cover of “Everything Counts” -- one of the few interesting (and heaviest) DM re-imaginings around -- serving as an amicus brief.
Alas, though your humble scribe believes “Cloud Connected” and “Free Fall” are both solid heavy metal songs, if you absolutely cannot countenance any programming or keyboards, dear reader, even as garnish atop extreme vocals and eight-ton guitar riffs, these are but two of fourteen tracks, friend. Utilize that skip button, and the album becomes your moist little heavy metal oyster once again. Likewise, to me “Dawn of a New Day” is a perfect mid-album palate cleanser, but for those who find any folk elements more sissified than what can be found on the great and wondrous Tales From the Thousand Lakes amounts to treason against metalli-Gaia, again, this too shall pass, even if your burning hatred for modern day Amorphis likely never will.
Does Friden stray into some Oh-Gawd-I-be-losing-my-shit-firreal nu metal-isms on several of the verses? Yep. Has it resulted in some YouTube era oddities? Uh huh:
But Friden also delivers some of the best choruses metal has seen in a generation. And if he lured even one impressionable youth away from the dread Staind Limp Linkin Bizit Roach heffalump…well, that is an accomplishment at least on par with Betty Ford kicking the bottle. Or, as Cracked put it in its does-this-actually-exist? In Flames tutorial, "Contrary to the retarded rantings of 90% of their youtube fanbase, they have not sold out."
Alas, all that flows from Reroute to Remain is not milk and honey. The tragedy of the record and its stellar Siamese twin Soundtrack to Your Escape is not that it jettisoned the sound the band perfected back when it had an unreadable logo. Rather, it is that the band apparently became so enamored of its triumphs laziness crept in and quickly calcified into something too closely resembling self-parody.
Take, for example, the angsty performance video released earlier this year for the Sounds of a Playground Fading single “Deliver Us,” -- a middling song any one of the zillion unofficial In Flames cover bands could have written in their sleep put to images of the band performing in the passenger capsules of a gigantic Ferris wheel. The tweed cap sporting Friden perches (alone, natch, so alone…), alternately emoting and gazing in childlike wonder at a fireworks display. Enduring this vicarious embarrassment, one can only wish the band had gone deep enough into its obvious nu metal scholarship to realize tearing up an Old MacDonald’s Farm set didn’t do much for the long-term reputation of Korn’s own playground ode “Shoots and Ladders” and the fireworks in “Cochise” didn’t hold up the inevitable reunions of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine any.
A decade on the imitators are giving the originators a run for their money. Maybe In Flames mistook Ozzfest for Valhalla. Who knows? Hope nevertheless springs eternal. The Swedish quintet mustered the madness necessary to cut the rope and be free once before. There is no reason to believe they could not eventually rise up and slay complacency once again.