Sound — 7
"Siren Charms" has become somewhat of a white elephant for In Flames and their fans. Its melodic, mainstream sound, which was short on the kind of aggression and passion In Flames has poured into past works, has left a huge hole in the band's discography, and with the departures of guitarist Jesper Stromblad prior to the less-poorly received "Sounds of a Playground Fading" and drummer Daniel Svensson prior to the recording sessions for this album, it seemed unlikely that the band would recover from the blunder that was "Siren Charms." Now, this is a much broader stroke than I would paint their previous album in. "Rusted Nail" was actually a pretty decent song. "Paralyzed" was reminiscent of the recent mainstream breakthroughs of bands like Bring Me The Horizon and Asking Alexandria, with its more alt-metal melodies, but without losing the trademark guitar sounds and stomping rhythms of past albums. "Through Oblivion" was also a bit more melodic than I'm used to hearing In Flames being, but a well-executed song. Overall, "Siren Charms" was different, but far from being the abomination many fans and purists would have you believe.
On "Battles," In Flames does more of the same. Perhaps with a bit more energy and intensity, however, as there are faster tempos and more harsh vocals. Björn Gelotte and relative newcomer Niclas Engelin trade a lot more harmonized guitar passages and solos, almost to a level not heard since "Come Clarity." Melody is never in short supply on this album, with Anders Fridén singing a vast amount of this record cleanly, usually in between melodic guitar flourishes. Opener "Drained" starts off in a strange sort of way for an In Flames album, but the track does pick up in intensity, and features the band's trademark melodic harmonized guitars and huge choruses. There are a few blistering tracks on this album like "Through My Eyes," which has a heaviness that belies its very catchy and melodic chorus. There are some melodic, almost ballad-esque songs like "Here Until Forever," featuring nearly pop/rock-esque backing vocals and Boston-influenced harmonized guitars, an In Flames trait that remains possibly their last real tie to the Gothenburg sound of death metal that they helped to pioneer in the 1990s. Tracks like "Underneath My Skin" have a heaviness at times that sounds more like contemporary metal bands rather than classic melodic death metal, almost as if they're channeling a sort of "djent" influence at times. "Wallflower" clocks in at a hefty seven minutes and almost feels a bit Tool-esque at times, near-proggy in its ambition, with even a bit of an industrial touch to it. But it is a really good track, as well. Album closer "Save Me" is very anthemic, heavy, and melodic, and is a great example of In Flames using their newer style in a rather positive way.
The production is crisp and modern, with lots of riffs and parts buried in effects, but a lot of the more straightforward musical moments kept fairly simple. There are very sparingly used elements of electronic music on the album, such as on the intro of "The Truth," and a few rather annoying pop/rock style harmony vocal parts (including in the same song). The band's instrumental performances are excellent as usual, with the guitar duality of Björn and Niclas meaning a lot of excellent riffs, melodies and solos. Peter Iwers and newcomer Joe Rickard, on bass and drums respectively, form a propulsive rhythm section, though Peter's bass is often lost in the mix.
Lyrics — 6
In Flames has never been a band I've listened to for their lyrics. As with many metal bands, and particularly those outside of the progressive subgenre, their lyrics seem to me to be more about doing the job than actually being artful and thought-provoking. Case in point is the opening track, "Drained," which features such cliched lines as "Just cause the hurt doesn't show/There's no way to recover/You broke my heart in two/I had a dream of growing old/I saw us driving to the end of the road." There's absolutely nothing wrong with these lyrics on most levels, but lyrics such as these are so overused in this genre that no matter how personal these lyrics may be to the writer, it's hard to really feel any emotional attachment with them. Add to that the fact that the line "You ripped the heart out" is repeated in the song at least sixteen times in its four-minute length, and it's not exactly the best lyrical moment I've read from a metal band in recent memory. Other songs on the album are not quite as repetitive, but there's still a pervasive blandness to the lyrics that makes that aspect of this album very uninteresting.
In terms of vocal skill, Anders Fridén's clean vocals have seen a lot of flexing on the past few records, and to be fair, he's a rather capable singer. He still does a fair share of harsh vocals, as well, keeping a few very small ties to the band's past, but it's nowhere to the level of albums past. However, while his clean vocals are decent, either through post-production trickery or just some strange natural quirk of his vocal style, nearly all of his more powerful clean vocals (usually sung in the choruses) sound overproduced, thinned-out, and pitch-corrected until any semblance of emotion has been completely drained from them. When he does let his voice break and falter a bit, you can tell he's a great singer with a very emotional sound, but I've never heard such a good singer sound so weak on the powerful cleaner vocals as Anders does on this album. It's a huge misstep, and sadly, I feel it's one that will continue for the band on future records.
Overall Impression — 7
Let's face the facts here. The In Flames that made albums like "Colony," "Clayman," and even "Come Clarity" is long gone. The chances that they'll ever go back to their past style for a new album are extremely low. For now, we'll have to accept that the band will continue to evolve along the lines set out in their last two albums, "Sounds of a Playground Fading" and "Siren Charms." And "Battles" does seem to be a slight improvement in some ways over "Siren Charms." But that doesn't change the fact that there are still some quite unsettling additions to the band's sound, especially the "whoa" backing vocals that are present on many tracks, that really prevent me from giving this album a higher grade. That said, there are still a lot of good riffs, solos and vocal melodies on the album. It's kind of like wading through a pool of mud to find a few diamonds here and there.
The biggest issue with this album is that it comes off as just so generic compared to their past works. Funny enough, the album's best track is bonus track "Us Against the World," with some of the album's best riffs and best production and vocal work. It's got elements of older In Flames all over it, but mixed with some of the newer elements in the band, and if they were to expand on this sonic template for their next album, I might consider it a victory for them. For now, I should say there have been worse albums released this year, and bigger disappointments from better bands, and this isn't the worst album that's out this year by a long shot, but I'd only seriously recommend buying this record if you're already a big In Flames fan who insists on completing their discography. Otherwise, proceed with caution if you're still hung up on the old In Flames sound.