In 2002, I saw Soulfy and In Flames open for Slayer. Of the two openers, In Flames impressed me more, coming equipped with style, youth and engulfing passion. I was certain that In Flames was destined to become part of the heavy metal landscape for years to come, as were most other attendees and metal people on the whole.
The stage was set for In Flames to ascend metal's throne and dominate the kingdom. Pundits were on their bandwagon, fans were behind them and the road had been paved. While the band marched on, I can't say that In Flames ever became the band I thought they would develop into. Seemingly plateauing somewhere around 2004, In Flames watched as bands like Five Finger Death Punch and Children of Bodom surpassed them for notoriety. Not so different from the late days of Anakin Skywalker, In Flames perhaps never became the chosen ones we wanted them to be (although make no mistake, they didn't take a Dark Side turn, either.)
Still I always mainted hope for In Flames and continued to do so as I sat down with "Sounds of a Playground Fading."
Then something unexpected happened. For the first time in a long time, I couldn't finish an album. Couldn't hack it. Couldn't get from first track to last.
Somewhere along the line, In Flames became a shadow of Disturbed. There are still the staccato bursts of percussion coupled with snapped-off, biting guitar riffs. Yet, the entire effort feels factory-stamped, each cut in the first half sounding musically similar to those surrounding. The end result is unimaginitave at best and bland and pedantic at worst.
Single "Deliver us" contains all the signature elements for In Flames, but is geared down and throttled back. The song (and surreptitiously, the album) relies heavy on the angry, disjointed vocal performance to carry the album's passion. "The Puzzle" is a much more typical piece of In Flames fare, with rolling drums and roiling fury.
I got as far as "Where the Dead Ships Dwell" and was so taken aback at the band's shift into territory bordering dangerously close to pop metal and the recent mainstream trendsetters like Three Days Grace that I turned the music off.
I don't know what happened. I don't know why it happened. "Sounds of a Playground Fading" suffers from losing longtime guitarist and founder Jesper Strömblad and all the technical ability he brings to the table, but there's more to it than that. The album is missing the band's soul as I knew it in 2002. All the best to Strömblad as he battles some personal issues; I hope he finds peace and resolution. As for In Flames, all the best to them as well; I know they can do better than this.