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90s Metal Fuck-Ups II: The Misnomer - 30%

Lord_Of_Diamonds, April 12th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1996, CD, Nuclear Blast

"The Jester Race"? A stellar melodic death metal album? Surely you jest.

Yes, we all know what In Flames brought to the world of metal, and what they did subsequently to effectively take themselves out of the world of metal. Everybody unanimously praises their 90s efforts (and, for a great deal of old-school fans, their millennium effort Clayman). Everybody hates them for "selling out", going alt-rock/metalcore, losing defining characteristics, et cetera, but they don't realize that a lot of those things were already manifesting themselves on this very album: The Jester Race. Just because it's from the 90s era doesn't mean it's automatically good.

For those of you who shit on In Flames for not being metal anymore: This is not a melodic death metal album. By no means. In fact, it's almost more feasible to classify this album as an alt-rock album, for a lot of it. The opening track, "Moonshield", is pure alt-rock, with some Iron Maiden-inspired harmonic runs over power chord chugs and next to no double kicking. The lengthy clean guitar sections are, as Nathan Explosion might say, "totally lame and not metal". It even has the half-time "alternative groove". Only someone with no knowledge of metal genres whatsoever would refer to this opening track as melodic death metal. (As such, it's the only song from In Flames' 90s era that is considered worthy to be played on current set-lists.)

The pointless and poorly-arranged instrumental, "Jester's Dance", follows in the same musical path. The title track does the same thing, too: alt-rock that is not unlike modern In Flames tracks such as "Stay With Me" (from their most recent effort, "I, The Mask"). Actually, now that I think about it, the intro for "The Jester's Dance" sounds disturbingly similar to the intro for "Stay With Me". There's a far-fetched something for you to hate on, former In Flames fans! Self-plagiarism! I mean, the obvious metal influences might show themselves on this album in tracks like "Graveland", which sounds like a thrasher, but when you realize that it's being played in triplets, it's suddenly not much of a thrasher anymore. "December Flower" sounds like an amateur attempt at melodic black metal for a while, and reminds you of a runaway freight train (not in a good way). Any musical content that is not awkward thrash or alt-rock is melodic groove metal. There is little to no difference between the style of much of the material on this album and the style of more modern In Flames alt-rock efforts. The only significant difference is that it doesn't follow the "Five Finger Death Punch" arrangement pattern. I mean, it's still pretty poorly arranged ("Artifacts of the Black Rain", "Graveland", and "Dead Eternity" all have abrupt, awkward endings), but at least it's not as formulaic as later efforts.

When I say "melodic groove metal", I do mean "melodic". There is a difference between making cool harmonies work and ABUSING harmonies! It seems like nearly every single fucking riff from this album employs harmonies in some way, and after a while it sounds more like a gimmick than an artistic statement. It gets so sickeningly melodic, you begin to wonder if In Flames was trying to make a pop record. Seriously, the melodies/harmonies get so thick sometimes, it becomes hard to remember what track you're listening to. It's obviously meant to be catchy, but it's not. It's boring. And, of course, there are the numerous moments when the quad-tracked guitars have a chord chug going and a harmonic melody over the top - the groundwork of metalcore. And everybody knows that In Flames helped to invent metalcore...

If the riffs are that melodic, then imagine how sickeningly melodic the solos must be, one might think. That's the assumption - until you realize that there aren't very many guitar solos. Usually, Jesper Stromblad gets so addicted to harmonics that he allows a harmonic riff or three to pass as a guitar solo, or, when he actually does solo, it's a less-than impressive series of scale runs. These are still sickeningly melodic, I might add, and sometimes even layered with harmonies! It's like Five Finger Death Punch pop vocal melodies meet guitar parts. I think, even if this could be considered a death metal record, it would be WAY too melodic at this point to pass for even melodic death metal.

Former In Flames fans like to complain about Anders Friden's change in vocal styles from a death growl to an "emo screatch". I hate his modern uncleans, too, but as it turns out, there's just as much to complain about on this album as far as his voice goes. Not only are his vocals turned down a bit too low in the mix, he has an almost-constant whiny quality to his growl. And it sounds like he's hyperventilating after he delivers each line. At times, it sounds like he's crying very loudly, instead of trying to summon a death metal voice. Hey... maybe that's it! Maybe he's crying because he can't summon a good death metal voice! Perhaps this would lead to him screaming and wailing more conspicuously on later albums. Oh, speaking of later albums, there's not a single shred of clean vocals on this album. Former In Flames fans like to complain about Anders' Auto-Tune-ridden clean voice as well, claiming that it's out of place, but Anders' "death growl" is just as out of place here, among the constant harmonies of Jesper Stromblad. It would have fit this album better if Anders had just done cleans the whole way through.

The album's production is yet another issue. The guitar tone is amazing, I'll admit that much, but everything else is a problem. The drums are smothered in unnecessary reverb, while at the same time sounding way too thin and loose. Like someone beating on cardboard boxes, and rather sloppily too, I might add. Also, turn up the overheads, please! The cymbals are all but inaudible! Another inaudible thing is the bass. You can sense its presence, but it's been given the Ola Flink treatment: it keeps up with the guitars, but the tone was not scuplted well enough to be audible. When you can hear traces of it, it sounds like a DI. Oh my god, the bass is always SUCH AN AFTERTHOUGHT in metal recordings! State the obvious again, Diamond, why don’t you! And I don't see, if In Flames were influenced guitar-wise by Iron Maiden, why they couldn't be influenced by Iron Maiden's style of bass production too.

The lyrics aren't really that much of a problem. At least it's poetry, thank God, and not teen angst translated to song form. The closest thing that comes to teen angst is "Dead God In Me", which seems to hint at fatherly rape/abuse. Now there's a subject to not be touched lightly. But In Flames did it, and they actually made a decent song out of it. Out of everything on this album, "Dead God In Me" is probably the only track worth listening to more than once. Everything else is just forgettable.

This album is easily the worst of the 90s In Flames efforts. And yet it generates glowing reviews from both first-time listeners and seasoned veterans, many of which hate modern In Flames. The same people who would say that "I, the Mask" is a return to form when compared to "Battles" need to open their ears and see that In Flames didn't change their musical style that much if you compare this album to later efforts. The only thing that changed was their ability to do what they did without it becoming too mainstream-influenced/emo/formulaic/whatever. They lost a lot of their creativity, most of their harmonics, and quite a bit of their fans, too, for not changing musical styles as much as you might think.

If you want "true metal" In Flames, you won't find it in the 90s incarnation of the band, because most of their 90s stuff is exactly as I have described. This is not a melodic death metal album, and again, anyone who says it is needs to seriously rethink their definition of melodic death metal. This album is considered melodic death metal in the same way that Pearl Jam is considered grunge. It just has the label. I’m not writing this because I’m an In Flames apologist. I’m writing it because it makes me really mad when I see people longing for the days of The Jester Race.