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.