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The controversy that is In Flames’ entire career is well known amongst extreme metal circles, in part because they ushered in an era of commercialized music that came to be the least extreme variant on the outer fringes of aggressive metal. This criticism is perhaps mostly apparent amongst orthodox death metal affiliates, who saw albums such as “Lunar Strain”, “Skydancer” and perhaps even “With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness” as being 100% departures from the genre whose name was still touted as being that of the bands in question. To be fair, while the melodic content was a lot more informed by the consonance of early to mid 80s metal than even the lighter albums put out by Death and Carcass at this time, the overall asymmetrical structural tendencies and presentation still kept enough of the practices of the late 80s and early 90s death metal sound to be noticeable.
In terms of death metal tradition, “Subterranean” is actually much closer to the free flowing, extreme thrash infused style that Death had been tinkering with since “Spiritual Healing” than “Lunar Strain”. Usage of acoustic passages and keyboards, which are not completely out of character even for certain Florida acts like Nocturnus, or even that of Morbid Angel when proceeding a bit later in their career. But it should be noted that although the riff assault utilizes a similarly frenetic tremolo character with blast beats raging and thrashing goodness coming in for a needed contrast within the louder passages, the melodic contour is far less chromatic. In fact, when listening to the more blinding passages on “Ever Dying” and “Biosphere” there is a casual familiarity in the guitar work with the blackened landscapes of “In The Nightside Eclipse” and “Stormblast”, though the production practices are not quite as frosty and obscured. Even the garbled screams of one-time vocal helmsman Henke Forss, who happens to be the best vocalist this band has ever had, seems a bit more informed by the sepulchral ravings of Shagrath than any of the Florida or Sweden based death metal mainstays.
While there is clear genre blending at work here, it is also important to keep in mind that this is still a Gothenburg album, and has all of the usual elements at play, albeit far better executed than later offerings. The mishmash of Iron Maiden influenced guitar melodies, occasional folksy and classically influenced harmonic clichés, and the occasional odd twist into semi-happy/triumphant territory pops up. “Stand Ablaze” could almost be classified as a somewhat power metal oriented song between the Baroque-influenced counterpoint going on in the guitar harmonies, and along with it a share of minimalist riffs that are somewhat reminiscent of early German metal ala Running Wild. The intro of said song, along with the ending of “Ever Dying” and the entirety of “Timeless” shows the typical mixture of acoustic work and sound effects, presented in more of a somber traditional fashion rather than the industrial electronic that began seeping in circa “Clayman”.
To anyone who has not heard In Flames prior to the release of “The Jester Race”, this will probably come off as being an entirely different band, and in several respects that is a correct notion. This is music that, while not being the most extreme brand out there, is far from the commercial safeness that has tended to typify this band. This is something that could maybe stand toe to toe with some of the 2nd wave black metal albums that came out at around this time, though the audience being played to here will probably have a greater affinity with the least grim and frostbitten and more melodic variants of said movement. It is perhaps a bittersweet notion that this band did their best work on a short EP, but nevertheless, this is a band that actually did have a brush with greatness, if only one single time.