Though they’re little more than a punchline these days, it’s hard to overstate just how important In Flames were in my journey into metal fandom. As I began my crossover from nu-metal kid into “the real shit” — sometime around eighth grade — the Swedes were one of the first contemporary bands to really hook me. At their peak, they hit every note I wanted to hear: the sense of melody I’d come to appreciate from classic artists like Maiden and Priest; a heaviness that, unlike nu-metal, didn’t feel clownish; and most importantly, an almost unfairly catchy presentation of both those component parts.
And it’s thanks to that last point in particular that Clayman was the first In Flames album to hook me in. So in honor of its 18th birthday this past Tuesday, let’s take a look back at it.
So first, let’s talk about that catchiness. The trajectory of In Flames — more than any of their peers in the Gothenburg scene, I’d argue — has been marked by a gradually increasing gravitation toward “the mainstream.” (Using that term as loosely as it can possibly be used in the context of metal music, natch.) To be clear, they were always melodeath — but even within that framework, the tweaks they made couldn’t have made that endgame any clearer. Meatier production; re-worked versions of older, rawer songs; Depeche Mode covers…you can see the pattern developing.
Clayman is often considered the last good In Flames album. Reasons for that will differ from person to person, but to my ears, it’s the last one in where those tweaks didn’t overpower the qualities that had originally endeared me to the band. This time out, the evolution manifested in the band’s songwriting; while these tracks generally retain the traits you want from In Flames, they also, at times, give the impression that this time out, the band realllllllly wanted a hit.
More than on any of their previous releases, you get the sense that In Flames just wanted the songs on Clayman to be freaking anthems, man. And to be fair, in an ideal world, they totally could have been. From “Pinball Map” to “As the Future Repeats Today” to the title track, some of these refrains are just unfair. But crucially, the band gave us hooks for days, while simultaneously…still mostly sounding like In Flames! (And also, literally sounding great; having co-helmed production duties since 1995’s The Jester Race, it feels like Fredrik Nordstrom polished the band’s sonic capabilities to their peak on Clayman.)
Of course, there’s a reason not all that many people call this their favorite In Flames album — not everything hits on this thing. The mid-album cut, “Square Nothing,” has ambitions that I’m not sure its execution ultimately matches, and the 1-2 punch of “Suburban Me” and “Another Day in Quicksand” close the album on a relative whimper. But still, Clayman does more right than wrong, and what it does right, it really, really does right. And, ultimately, I haven’t been able to say that about an In Flames record since. (Though some on our team here at Nine Circles would disagree, as you may end up seeing here sometime next week…)
Which brings me to my final tidbit. Let’s think of Clayman as the end of “good-In Flames” and the beginning of “‘meh’-at-best-In Flames.”
I don’t know if it’s fair to call everything they’ve done since then outright “bad”; sure, a lot of their output has, in fact, been pretty butt since then, but they’ve also had their occasional moments. A lot of it, ultimately, is most guilty of simply not-really-sounding-like-the-same-band-anymore. As they’ve moved more and more toward the pursuit of catchiness, they’ve lost more and more what made them In Flames in the first place. (Even down to band members! Only vocalist Anders Friden and guitarist Bjorn Gelotte remain from the band’s “classic era.”)
Still…good-In Flames commanded a certain degree of respect from me. As I touched on earlier, they were hugely important to my development as a metalhead. From them, I branched out into Dark Tranquillity and At the Gates, and from them into traditional Swedeath. There’s a pretty direct line. Because of this, they are, for better or worse, a band I’ve always seen fit to afford at the very least a courtesy listen to whatever they’re working on.
But, here’s the thing…if good-In Flames lasted six years from 1994’s Lunar Strain through Clayman, that means that at 18, meh-at-best-In Flames has now gone on three times as long, and counting. On top of that, the band’s last two efforts — 2014’s Siren Charms and 2016’s Battles — were…not great, to put it mildly. (The latter was, to put it less mildly, borderline un-listenable.)
So, with all this in mind…is it time to cut myself off? And if not, what’s a fair point at which to throw in the towel? Is it still to come? Has it already past?
(To be clear, these are rhetorical questions, internet people. I don’t care what you think either way.)
At any rate, happy 18th to Clayman. Enjoy your cigarettes and (in most of the world) alcohol. Folks at home, there’s never a bad time to jump back in and revisit this one.
Keep it heavy,