I’ve been meaning to review this album ever since it came out back in November. So here it is, better late than never.
Many bands go through stylistic changes. It is natural. You can’t necessarily expect someone in their 40s to be the same person that they were in their 20s and therefore musical preferences change. We’ve seen Opeth go from Death Metal pioneers to Prog Rock kings, whilst still showing their focus remains on their music.
Then we come to In Flames. To say that Battles is polarizing would be a massive understatement. For over 26 years In Flames have been one of death metal’s pioneering bands, heavily involved in shaping the iconic Gothenburg sound we know and love today. Their discography is a melodic death tour de force. In some respects it is difficult to believe that todays In Flames is even the same band.
“Drained” opens up Battles on a strong note with a lot of aggression towards the beginning riffs. It comes across as a continuation of Sounds of a Playground Fading (2011). Vocalist Anders Friden belts out his screamy lines and instrumentally the song is tight. It sets the tone for what is to come – intricate tight riffing, harsh and clean vocals and big choruses. Lead single “The End” has an infectious groove. Through the guitar tones, the leads and the riffs, the song hints heavily towards the bands earlier days. The guitar solo is a definite flashback to their past, albeit encompassed by the more modern, accessible framework that it has around it. There has been a lot of debate about Friden’s vocals and on “The End” he sounds as caustic as ever.
“Like Sand” features your standard In Flames bouncy groove and has a reasonable chorus, but the song itself feels average compared to the standouts on the record. It doesn’t help that it is sandwiched between “The End” and next song “The Truth” – a song that introduces, what seems to be, a children’s choir to enhance the anthemic chorus. I know a lot of people have been put off by the “gang shout” that is the choir, but I like it, it fits the song and when you add in the old-school lead guitar work, you’ve got a really cool track.
“In My Room” starts off as another average sounding song before the chorus hits. It has just enough about it to keep it interesting. Just. The twin guitar work piqued my interest though and it is something that In Flames can just tap into and do no wrong. For me, it’s the verses that ruin this. Delayed riff and bouncy electronic bass kick off “Before I Fall” which features intricate, precise riffing throughout, as well as an absolute scorcher of a guitar lead! As with everything on Battles the chorus is catchy as hell and gets in your head.
We’ve already touched on the fact that there are moments throughout this album that manage to blend the past with the modern tendencies and none of these are more satisfying than on “Through My Eyes” with its shredded riffs and double bass drumming during the verses that meld into the memorable chorus melody. In some ways this track is reminiscent of their Swedish compatriots Soilwork. My one gripe with the track though is that wah-wah solo seems to be turned up WAY TOO LOUD. Seems like someone is screwing with my volume knob. It takes me out of the song completely, which is a shame.
Possibly the biggest chorus on the album is saved for the title song “Battles” – coming in at 2 minutes 58 seconds, it is the shortest on the album and features some fairly heavy riffing also. “Here Until Forever” has a bit of an emo vibe. I hear 30 Seconds To Mars or My Chemical Romance in this. The jazzy drums are a nice touch and sets it apart from what has come before it. The song does have a power to it and whilst I found it to be fairly memorable and I did enjoy it, I can see that haters gonna hate.
“Underneath My Skin” ramps up the aggression and power once more. Heavy riffs and impassioned vocals from Friden but is a song that could’ve easily been left off the record. “Wallflower” offers up something completely different from the rest of the album. It is a mean and moody slow burner that is initially dominated by the bass guitar of Peter Iwers (playing on his last In Flames album). It is a song that is given room to breathe and builds ominously, playfully toying with doom influences and creates an eerie atmosphere as it does. There are touches of Depeche Mode/Nine Inch Nails when the song gets Gothic-sounding and electronic darkwave in tone. The chorus is sprawling that ups the tempo and, as with all the choruses on Battles, ramps up the melody before the minimalism returns along with its claustrophobic atmospherics. New drummer Joe Rickard does a great job on the record as a replacement for long-time member Daniel Svensson, and here he plays more in the pocket, allowing his fills to be more tasty than explosive. The dynamics on “Wallflower” are showcased wonderfully. A definite highlight on Battles for sure.
The album closes with “Save Me” which once again mixes in the old and the new. The power in Anders Friden vocals on this song really does shine through. There are classic sounding lead guitar lines that hark back to the older In Flames whilst the chorus (yeah its catchy! surprised?) has more of a modern mainstream metal approach, but comes together in a powerful way and is a great way to close the album out.
So for all the hate that Battles has been getting, is it a bad album? No! If you are looking for a return to say, Whoracle (1997) then you will be disappointed, but if you’ve followed the band album to album, you’ll see this natural progression and you’ll probably embrace it.
It’s a record that represents where In Flames are in 2016. They have naturally moved towards a cleaner sound and whilst old-school fans may feel alienated, Battles is a solid record that showcases the sound of In Flames 26 years after they exploded onto the scene.