[Update: I will make changes to this list as new albums come out. The original version of this article was posted before Battles was released. As you can see, the newest album, I, the Mask has knocked Battles from the top 5.]
In Flames has had a lot of power ballads for a band that is nominally death metal. Their vocalist Anders still spends about half of each album making noises with his larynx that we would normally associate with radiator problems, but somehow they’ve fit in about one song per album for the last ten years in a recognizably Stairway to Heaven or Every Rose Has Its Thorn mold, with quiet verses, bombastic choruses, and chord progressions from the Diane Warren songbook. The band is quite open about its 80s infatuation and between the suffocating atmosphere induced by relentless double bass and compressed, downtuned guitars it can be refreshing to find an open meadow of lush green melodies on a record.
Mind you, the band wasn’t always melodic in the sense a non-metal fan would understand. Their first ten years had melody confined to the guitars, and even Anders’ growls were more guttural then than now. The pop sense that infuses their current output really only became apparent in 1999 with the hummably catchy opening track of Colony. They also had hints of their ballad-writing potential with tracks like Satellites and Anstronauts off the wonderful Clayman album. These two albums marked a departure from the Swedish folk (at least as metal fans understand it) -influenced sound of their early work to a more conventional rock sound that TROO FANS (every metal band more than 5 years old has these) still resent.
On to the top 5 (out of 5).
1. Come Clarity
This song was quite a surprise when fans first came across it in the middle the their 2006 album, also called Come Clarity. Maybe what was most surprising about it was that it was a clearly poppy ballad in the middle of a metal album that seemed somehow more an authentic representation of what the band wanted to be at that point than the very metally songs surrounding it. Fans complained remarkably little about this song, especially compared to how bitter they were about new sounds on the entire 2 albums preceding this one. It has a lovely acoustic riff to start off, a less than obvious but very memorable melody in the chorus, and lyrics that many of us pushing 30 at the time felt pretty deeply. Anders shows hints of a habit that will be less effective on other entries on this list, that is emotively talking out of time through verses and bridges, but in this song it really feels like the best expression of his thoughts in audio form, rather than just having forgotten to come up with a melody for that part.
This is the most power-ballady entry, and as far as I hoped they would take this openly Bon Jovi-ish style of writing before I saw that they had decided to jump the shark with With Eyes Wide Open. I must say Anders has really put a lot into his clean singing.
A lot of fans see In Flames’ post-2000 output as a long gradual slide into pop-metal worhtlessness, but the entire Sounds of a Playground Fading album which this song comes from is a classic to me and the best representation of what they’ve been trying to do in merging pop rock with the Gothenburg sound. In this respect the addition of Gardenian guitarist Niclas Engelin has probably helped, or so I would have thought except that the first album that he actually played on (after this one, where he was a member but didn’t appear on the record) displayed none of his influence.
3. The Chosen Pessimist
This is less a power ballad in the Journey sense and more in the Metallica And Justice… sense. Its chorus isn’t exactly hummable and doesn’t even come up until the song’s almost over. The verses similarly encourage more listening than singing along, and the solos are understated or hidden in the production. Still, it builds up nicely and is a welcome play on expectations for a more straightforward power ballad after those on the last 2 albums before this (Evil in a Closet and Come Clarity).
I have to say of the album that this one comes from that In Flames is very obvious when it comes to regressing out of loyalty to their TROO FANS and their constant calls for a return to a heavier sound. This album (A Sense of Purpose) as well as Soundtrack to Your Escape have a few tracks each that sound like the band is saying “Yes, the last album was a bit too pop, so here is some unremarkable heaviness to compensate”. If the band has some space to fill on a CD, let Anders put in one of his electronic tracks or something clearly different (but still metal) like his collaboration with Niclas in 2003. Fans may complain in the short run, but in 10 years people will at least still remember the disc.
4. Evil in a Closet
This to me was their first power ballad, appearing on the Soundtrack to Your Escape album, which mostly because of the frozen hamburger-like guitar sound is probably my least favorite. The song itself is solid, and sounds very good live, largely because the vocals are less produced and because Anders’ extemporaneous mumbling sounds… extemporaneous, instead of the 1 take out of 5 that sounded the most emo.
Man, I’m writing like I don’t even like these songs. I like them. I just have to point out all the things I don’t like first, and whatever’s left you can assume I enjoy. In this song, the clean guitars stand out as a particularly effective product of Metallica’s legacy, the keyboard flourishes over the chorus are noticeable and catchy but not gimmicky, and Björn’s solo is restrained and lovely.
(for Björn’s best solo ever and another early hint of In Flames’ power ballad potential, check out the middle of Zombie Inc. from Colony. Aren’t you glad he moved from drums to guitar?)
5. Stay with Me
At least half the songs on new In Flames albums at this point really need to be judged on the catchiness of their vocal hooks rather than some antique notion of heaviness or riffage, and not ironically to say “How far they have fallen! They’re practically pop”, but just “Given that this is practically pop, how good is it as pop?” This is very good pop song, until the singer starts shrieking around 4:40. The moment where it dares to be dissonant, where the vocal melody stays on Db (the 6th note in F minor), is just odd enough to be memorable without trying to outsmart the listener. A pop listener, of course.
The problem I keep having with new In Flames songs isn’t that they’re poppy; it’s that repetitively poppy. I don’t listen to a lot of Beyoncé, but I bet she doesn’t use the Em-C-G-D chord progression on “If I Were a Boy” on every song. I, the Mask has a similar problem with Battles in that it feels like half the album is Cm-Ab-Bb or Cm- Eb-Ab-Bb. We accept the poppiness at this point. We just want more flavors of pop.
6. With Eyes Wide Open
To me, this song, like a lot of the songs on Siren Charms, wears its “we’re no longer confined by genre!” intentions too much on its sleeve. Still, for what it is, this is a well-written song, and might sound better to someone who hasn’t heard any other In Flames songs. I’m pretty sure this song like most was written almost entirely by Björn, but really it’s an Anders showcase. The high notes in this song definitely don’t sound like a death metal singer who sometimes does clean vocals (something of a cliché since the 2000s, and often done with as much skill as a parlor trick). I know he’s using a backing track on this live version, but still, better than anyone has the right to expect of someone who usually sounds like he should be hacking up his internal organs between songs.
7. Here Until Forever
True to form, the latest In Flames album, Battles, features another power ballad. I rate this one last, mostly because, as with the rest of the album it comes from, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything self-aware with the clichés that it employs. At least the video is neat.
The wheels really seem to be coming off at this point, with the (American) drummer from Battles having been replaced (by another American) after only 1 album, and mainstay since Colony Peter Iwers leaving (and having his spot filled by another American) to spend time with his family/side project (with original In Flames member Jesper Stromblad). The amount of parentheses in this paragraph ought to tell you that some of this information is not officially significant, but adds to my sense of foreboding about the future of this band.
There you go! If current trends continue, we’ll be able to make this a top 10 list after 5 more albums!