Founded in 1990, In Flames is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most influential names in modern Swedish metal (as well as melodic death metal in general). It’s no wonder, then, why their shift toward a more alternative sound in the early 2000s caused a lot of polarization and controversy amidst diehard fans (despite increasing their audience and sales significantly). Although it’s likely a tad more vicious than 2016’s Battles overall, the quintet’s newest LP—I, the Mask—fits very much in line with those recent predecessors. Thus, if you’re not into their new direction, this one won’t bring you back, but fans who’ve been with In Flames all along will find I, the Mask to be highly focused, dependable, and rewarding.
While longtime vocalist Anders Fridén, lead guitarist Björn Gelotte, and rhythm guitarist Niclas Engelin remain, I, the Mask marks the studio debut of both bassist Bryce Paul (who replaces Peter Iwers) and drummer Tanner Wayne (who replaces Joe Rickard). Naturally, they had a lot to prove here (especially during the record’s most frantic flashes), and luckily, they ceaselessly validate their involvement. Opener “Voices,” for instance, finds them tastefully guiding the guttural verses and tuneful choruses with fetching rhythmic shifts; in contrast, the more complex and hellish “I Am Above” demands trickier and faster playing, and both newcomers elevate the track with continuously skilled adaptability. Overall, Paul and Wayne fill I, the Mask with the technical prowess that’s always fitting and stimulating but never too ostentatious.
Although they’ve streamlined and calmed down a bit over the years, In Flames is still quite capable of dishing out plenty of satisfying brutality. The title track is probably the best examples of this, as it finds Fridén, Gelotte, Engelin masterfully belting out demonic screeches and sophisticated yet unpredictable guitarwork, respectively, that’ll please fans of any era. Subsequent tracks (“Call My Name,” “Burn,” and—to an extent—“Deep Inside") are similarly relentless and beguiling in their unapologetic ferocity. Of course, these songs also frequently balance that aggression with more accessible and memorable passages (including an abundance of multilayered clean vocals) that, while a tad generic and commercial, still work very well within their contexts.
On that note—and perhaps to the chagrin of early In Flames adopters—many of the best sections on I, the Mask find the group seizing softer statures. Among these highlights are the acoustic guitar decorations within the viscerally urgent “Follow Me” and the engrossing fervor within the lightly Mastodon-esque “(This Is Our) House.” Easily the best track on the entire record, however, is closer “Stay with Me” due to its intertwined acoustic arpeggios and especially heartfelt performance from Fridén. It’s not as intricate, luscious, or remarkably distinctive as, say, instrumental works like “Pallar Anders Visa” or “Acoustic Medley,” but it does recall those gems to an extent. It’s a great bit of songwriting for sure and a fine way to end the sequence.
I, the Mask doesn’t shake things up very much or restore In Flames to their “glory days,” but it certainly sees them perfecting their modern style on every selection. Despite being scaled down in scope and skill to some extent compared to their career highlights, there’s still myriad moments of nourishing wrath, delicate asides, and catchy choruses in-between. As such, I, the Mask should appeal to all lovers of the genre to some extent, and frankly, the band deserves some accolades just for producing something so appealing after racing by for so long.