In Flames – “Battles” album review

In Flames

Battles (2016)

Rating: 74% (decent)


We all have to grow up some time. At a certain point in our lives, we care less about late-night party scene and more about getting up for work early in the morning, less about the latest craze and more about getting our children into better schools while encouraging their first accomplishments. Our living rooms are now covered in family pictures rather than in band posters and edgy counterculture proclamations.

It only goes to reason that our musical heroes have also aged. Where the teenage version of me raged against the world along with the seminal melodic death releases such as “The Jester Race” or “Whoracle” made by the guys only a few years older than myself, the mid-30s version of me begins to recognize that In Flames of 2016 is considerably closer to middle age, and is probably dealing with many of the same existential dilemmas I have found myself in at this point in my life – parenthood, matters of personal and artistic legacy, a general change in the pace of life. The band’s last several albums hinted at this, but now, with “Battles”, In Flames had delivered the record fully immersed in the mindset of early middle age, where youthful exuberance and aggression are generally tempered by considerably more sedate and introspective emotions.

In short, “Battles” sounds like a metal album made by a group of guys pushing 40 and feeling it. For the most part, the album is mid-paced, with more emphasis placed on vocal lines and catchy melodies than on outright riffing and speed. Some of the arrangements have a very distinct pop influence, most notably on “The Truth” (which for some reason rekindled my memories of such 1990s radio-rock wonders as P.O.D.), but also surfacing throughout the record. While this produces the sound guaranteed to turn off the metal purists, the end result is surprisingly listenable, and might broaden the band’s appeal to the crowd with nostalgic feelings for the nineties.

There are several songs where In Flames attempt to harken back to their trademark twin guitar riffing (“The End”, “Us Against the World” – the latter being a definite throwback to older era as one of the fastest tracks on the album), but “Battles” is less about guitar heroics and more about the general atmosphere. Unlike 2014’s “Siren Charms” with its often directionless meandering and rushed songs, “Battles” presents a rather cohesive whole, and has a good amount of diversity within the material. Sometimes it works very well to produce an atmospheric, moody modern metal record – at other times, the experiments get in the way (for example, the electronic s in the beginning of “Save Me” are a distraction), but for the most part, nothing on “Battles” is outright offensive.

Perhaps this might be the album’s biggest critique. It feels honest, but it also is not very challenging, and seems content to tread the same waters as the last several In Flames records. Everything on “Battles” is decent to good, but not much of it is great, and some of the experiments veer dangerously into the territory where they lose the core In Flames sound of intricate dual guitar work and folk-inspired melodies in modern arrangements. In place of those melodies, the band takes an almost synthpop-inspired approach, which challenges the core of what this band is, and further alienates many of the older fans who were angered by “Reroute to Remain”.

 At its core, “Battles” is about 30% “A Sense of Purpose”, 30% “Siren Charms”, 30% nineties-era heavy rock, and 10% outright heavy pop of bands like Amaranthe. The songs are generally good, and while many represent relatively safe ideas, they feel like they represent who the members of In Flames are at this stage in their life. So, perhaps the “Battles” they are talking about are less about turning the world upside down and more about making it to the next PTO meeting or paying the bills on time, but at least it sounds like In Flames care, and this is all I can really ask of them at this stage in their career.


Post-election blues

This has been a contentious electoral process, and it brought out the worst in many of us. That said, it was also a learning experience, both for me personally, and for us as a nation. It produced both good, bad, and ugly outcomes while shaking our political and social alignments to the core.

The good: the process of voting for candidates maintains its integrity. I will admit that I had my doubts about the electoral process prior to the election, and was expecting to see a preordained result, however, the fact of Trump’s unlikely victory suggests that the candidates are, by large, elected through the votes of the citizens rather than by some clandestine process… unless, of course, you are the Democratic party (more on that later).

The bad: while the public trust in mainstream media was already low, this election has essentially put a nail in the coffin of the idea of truly independent press in the United States. The press coverage of the 2016 election has removed the doubt that the mainstream media is a tool of the political establishment, and will continue to provide slanted, one-sided, and oftentimes outright false coverage of the events to benefit their candidate of choice.

The ugly: oh my, where do I start? Let’s skip the obvious (the election of a political equivalent of a shock-jock to the highest office in the nation), and examine how it got to this point. The Washington political establishment has created this mess themselves by encouraging polarization of the country in naïve hope that it creates reliable voting blocs to push their candidates through the gerrymandered districts, while the core of the government policies has not significantly changed outside of social window dressing. As such, the politicians acted without any accountability, pushing through ill-advised policies and acting in their own benefit rather than benefitting the nation at large. Now, the results of this polarization and arrogance are rearing their heads.

This 2016 election season, the voting public sent a clear message to Washington – the status quo just will not do, and Washington insiders and career politicians failed to heed it. This is what powered the rise of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and the rise (and the eventual victory) of Donald Trump on the Republican side of the election. The voters made it clear early in the primary season that they did not want an establishment candidate, and that they wanted a candidate who actually addresses the things that matter to them, with a degree of believability.

It did not matter that Trump’s campaign promises might turn out to be worth less than the air expelled from his lungs while speaking. It did not matter that Hillary Clinton publicly subscribed to certain policies championed by Bernie Sanders. In the end, the voters wanted to take a chance on Trump (never mind his own dealings with Washington insiders over the course of his time in the public eye), and did not believe Clinton’s sincerity (after her decades of being, well, a politician, and doing what politicians routinely do). The public wanted change. We were promised change with Obama, and got more of the same leadership by politicians, for politicians, never mind that Obama himself was in retrospect a fairly decent leader who would have easily won a third term if he was eligible. If this new fresh face did not deliver real change, the voters asked themselves, why would another career politician?

And this brings me full circle to the Democratic party’s selection process. It appears that the party’s thought process for selecting a candidate was rooted in an outdated paradigm that once a voter can be galvanized into the party, he or she will vote on the party line. They mistook the enthusiasm many people felt for Bernie Sanders with the enthusiasm for the party, and did not realize that many Sanders voters represented the same rebellion against the status quo which produced Donald Trump. These voters were not vested in the Democratic party, and could no longer be swayed by traditional fearmongering (vote for our candidate, because the other candidate is a monster). The selection process by the DNC did not help, as it created well-founded suspicions of collusion and foul play to push their preferred candidate at the expense of what the more enthusiastic voters actually wanted. The Democratic VP candidate was a nail in the coffin, a non-entity outside of Virginia, and a slap in the face to the progressive movement who did not want another establishment choice. As such, the Democratic party could not galvanize their voter base, while the Republican party managed to galvanize theirs in spite of resistance from the party elites – in fact, the very fact that the Republican party elites offered Trump lukewarm support at best probably helped his chances with the anti-establishment voters.

In short, the Democratic party used a process which produced a weak, uninspiring candidate with too many flaws, and alienated a sufficient part of its voter base to make it count come November 8th. Had the superdelegates served their intended function of picking the most eminently electable candidate (especially knowing who the opponent was going to be), we would have been talking about President-elect Sanders (or Biden, if we were to be given a more mainstream choice) today, by a landslide. Instead, backroom political maneuvering and shady underhanded deals produced perhaps the only Democratic candidate Donald Trump had a realistic chance at beating.

As a side note, I have no regrets over voting the way I did, and will not be blamed for not supporting a bad Democratic candidate to prevent an election of an unknown. It was on the Democratic party to provide the voters with a candidate acceptable to all (or at least most) of the party’s base, and the party has failed to do so. If the Democrats wanted Democratic votes, they should have put forth a better candidate instead of going for the next-(wo)man-up mentality and losing an eminently winnable election.

To continue with the ugly side of things, this election has been as contentious as any in the recent memory. Even the worst of the insults and accusations thrown at Obama paled in comparison to what transpired between Clinton and Trump. I am thoroughly disgusted that we as a nation stooped down that low, and that such childish slurs actually impacted our thinking at the polls. E-mails? Russians? Benghazi? Grab them by the…? I was really hoping that we were more mature than this, and that our voting public had a greater understanding of what did and did not matter in this election. The amounts of sheer bigotry and hatred on both sides of the electorate made me shake my head. We are supposed to be the people of one nation, though of many different creeds, ethnicities, religions, and orientations, yet we certainly did not act like it. This is another side effect of long-standing polarization of the electorate, and I can only hope that as the newer generations enter politics, we can see some healing.

In conclusion, I can only hope that we can overcome the wounds caused by decades of two-party mismanagement and bitterness. Perhaps the system of checks and balances works as it was intended to. Perhaps Donald Trump proves the old idiom that your qualities as a person do not necessarily translate into your qualities as a leader of the greatest nation in the world. Perhaps he will surprise us all and go down in history as a great president (though there is no telling which way his time in the Oval Office will go). Perhaps we even need a flawed individual like him in the office to reflect on who we are as a people, and to find a way forward as a unified nation and, hopefully, a force for good in the world after almost losing our way. All I can do is hope.