Sound — 7
It's album number ten for In Flames, but a commemorative shindig isn't really on the cards. Founder and co-songwriter Jesper Strmblad departed in February 2010 after years of bubbling tensions, leaving the band fully estranged from its beginnings as, effectively, a Strmblad solo endeavour. Much has happened since then; the band has solidified as a unit, built a catalogue and acquired global recognition as both a pioneer and a member of the popular, contemporary metal fraternity. This tenth album has to serve as the start of a new era lest In Flames spiral into self-parody and vacate that position. "Sounds Of A Playground Fading" is not an exercise in artistic bravery so much as adaptation. Left to write an album on his own for the first time, remaining guitarist Bjrn Gelotte has put together something that seamlessly continues the gradual evolution of this band's sound from release to release. Guitar hooks are the steadfast foundation stone and most songs are anchored by slickly diatonic riffs, given an occasional rhythmic thump and always decorated by the band's signature harmonization in thirds. Many were expecting a crude Jesper - shaped hole in the wall on this one, and you can see some of the darker, more aggressive elements have been pulled from the mix, but Gelotte has plugged the gaps with his own ideas, different ideas that would have been lost to the mediation process in a creative partnership, you feel. Clearly liberated, the guitarist picks up some vibes from previous work and creates a few new ones, making use of multi-faceted clean guitar work, unusual instruments and a liberal smacking of electronic garnish to this end. The mix is eclectic for In Flames but the package remains thoroughly convincing thanks to quality individual performances and a state-of-the-art production job, utilising the band's own IF Studios to much better effect than 2008's "A Sense Of Purpose". Putting miserably cheesy power ballad "Liberation" aside for a moment, the songwriting has but one significant pitfall. Bjrn leaves his mark as a performer with gratuitous soloing, but unfortunately the act becomes shallow through sheer density, and in some cases the solo sections become a structural crutch rather than a feature with distinct appeal. But let us not forget that In Flames' sound is a saturated one, and that's thanks to the increasingly significant contribution of vocalist Anders Fridn, who has really come into his own here.
Lyrics — 7
Having struggled to find consistency since 2000's "Clayman", the frontman finally seems to have full control of his voice, and has unequivocally chosen melody as his driving force. Notes are pushed through a gritty inflection (punctuated rather than outweighed by screams and growls) and the careful melodic shape of big single "Deliver Us" not to mention potentially massive single "Where The Dead Ships Dwell" - is among his best "clean" performances of recent years. In places control forsakes the album's lyrics, however. For all the certainty in his delivery Anders' messages are typically vague, or "open to interpretation". Issues surrounding his absent friend and bandmate seem an obvious reading on "Fear Is The Weakness" and spoken word vignette "Jester's Door" but in too many cases we as an audience are not being communicated with, rather we are subject to personal musings not always fully formed. Despite the obscure meanings, Fridn's images are perfectly suitable for the style and with such a strong vocal performance across a variety of styles, the album suffers little from the odd hiccup.
Overall Impression — 8
Better than any one album in their catalogue, "Sounds Of A Playground Fading" exhibits this band's ability to weave their melodic practice through numerous styles and moods. The variety on offer makes it an indulgence for long-time fans while newcomers shouldn't have much problem finding an accessible point of entry. Is it a radical departure or transformation? No. Is it a return to the days of old? Barring the immensely gratifying late 90s throwback of "A New Dawn", not at all. Is it a professional, well-crafted record, more than enough to confirm In Flames as a band still worth a damn? Absolutely.