A Fire Inside
On the eve of the release of In Flames' eighth studio album and an extensive tour of Europe and North America, Daniel Svensson is out for a quiet walk with his three-month-old daughter. With a two-year-old at home, too, Svensson, the intense and intimidating man who pummels the drum kit for the Swedish metal mavens, is pensive about the impact that the rock-and-roll lifestyle has on his relationship with his kids.
"It's really hard when they're so small," says Svensson, "because when you get home, they're totally different people. It's one of the negative sides of being a rock star -- maybe the only one."
Calling Svensson and his fellow Flamers rock stars might be a stretch. Whereas some mainstream bands sell a million copies of a single record, In Flames has barely sold that over the course of its twelve-year career. Though it boasts a large following in Europe -- where extreme metal has always found a larger audience -- the group is just starting to gain well-deserved acclaim here in the States, thanks to a stint on last year's Ozzfest tour, where it shared the main stage with some of its heroes, including Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.
The many imitators In Flames has spawned have also helped increase its American profile. Just as the band's tuneful yet terrifying sound builds upon the foundation constructed by Judas Priest and Maiden, among others, a number of acts -- Killswitch Engage, As I Lay Dying, Shadows Fall and current tourmates Trivium, DevilDriver and Zao, for example -- have borrowed from In Flames and its Swedish brethren and risen to prominence in the U.S. in recent years, bringing metalcore to the mainstream. Labels like New Jersey's Ferret Music have assembled entire rosters based largely on acts influenced by the ruckus that In Flames started making more than a decade ago, creating a broader niche in which these Scandinavian metalheads are viewed as pioneers and, well, stars.
"We're getting much more press in North America than we did before," Svensson notes. "When we started in the States back in '99, this kind of music was rare. Back then it was still the nü-metal trend, but this has changed totally. Now all the younger bands play this European-style melodic metal mixed with American hardcore."
In Flames began in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1990, when Jesper Strmblad left the band Ceremonial Oath to take his music in a new direction. At the time, Gothenburg was fertile territory for extreme metal. Groups like Tiamat, Dark Tranquility and At the Gates formed from an extended family of area musicians who had all played in one another's bands over the years, listened to the same records and yearned to marry the melodies and harmonies of classic British metal with the guttural aggression of death metal.
"Gothenburg is a really small city of 400,000 or so," Svensson explains. "Everyone knows everyone. In the beginning, everyone was playing with everyone in five different projects. It's like we're all from the same musical family that has grown into separate bands. The same thing happened in Stockholm with bands like Entombed and Dismember."
By the time its groundbreaking debut, Lunar Strain, was released in 1994, In Flames had included a number of members of that family. The project was a revolving cast of Gothenburg heads, orbiting around Strmblad's interest in combining melody and mayhem. When Svensson joined -- just before 1999's Colony came out -- the lineup finally solidified.
In spite of all the personnel changes, there's no mistaking the group's signature sound. While vocalist Anders Fridén alternates between a hell-hewn rasping growl and a soaring, plaintive croon brimming with rage and passion, Strmblad and Bjrn Gelotte do their best Downing-and-Tipton, creating intertwining figures that are more brawn than baroque. Finally, the devastating rhythm section of Svensson and bassist Peter Iwers relentlessly batters the beats.
On 2002's Reroute to Remain, In Flames sharpened up the production (thanks to vet Daniel Bergstrand), turned up the electronics and showcased simple, bludgeoning guitar riffs and catchy, tuneful choruses. While this experiment in accessibility broadened the band's audience, it also spurred backlash on message boards and blogs from fans who accused the band of selling out to jump on the nü-metal bandwagon -- a rather absurd criticism in the far-from-lucrative realm of extreme metal. In fact, the streamlined sound resulted from everyone -- especially Strmblad and Gelotte -- wanting to make music that could be more faithfully replicated live so that fans got a more satisfying concert experience. By relying less on overdubs and studio trickery, the band was able to create a more immediate, raw impact. Fortunately, the quintet was undeterred by the negative feedback and soldiered on through 2004's outstanding Soundtrack to Your Escape and the forthcoming followup, Come Clarity.
"We don't really discuss how an album is going to sound," Svensson insists. "We just all think about music in the same way. We know exactly how In Flames should sound." Changes, he explains, come about as part of the simultaneous artistic evolution of five friends who've played together for a long time.
A cursory listen to Come Clarity provides convincing proof of the organic way in which the band has evolved. The beats are as tight as ever, the guitar lines crisp and cutthroat, and the vocals retain Fridén's trademark Jekyll-and-Hyde schism. The lead-off single, "Take This Life," is filled with the driving rhythms and guitar wizardry fans have come to expect, while "Leeches" includes some surprising electronics that give an almost industrial edge to the tune, like Strapping Young Lad without the goofiness. Emotive, atmospheric and almost pretty, Clarity's title cut is a Metallica-worthy respite from the assault. Radio-friendly sing-along choruses -- now a mainstay of In Flames' songwriting -- infuse many of the tracks with an added accessibility. Like the best breakthrough metal albums -- from Master of Puppets to Leviathan -- Clarity is a powerful, rib-cracking affair, its impact made all the stronger by sparkling production that makes every note, every beat, every scream sizzle with intensity.
"This time, the guitar harmonies are back more than on the last few albums, and the electronics maybe took a step back," Svensson observes. "A lot of people say this is back to the roots of In Flames, but I don't think we ever got away from our roots."
He acknowledges that there will always be a subset of Flames fans who disparage any efforts that smell vaguely commercial or stray from their roots. Even so, he says, the musicians are more interested in their own artistic growth and "want to progress and develop, getting bigger with each album, bringing more people to shows. That's fine for me. The day it starts to stagnate, I might think twice."
It's hard to imagine the Flamers ever growing stagnant or burning out, especially considering their shared history and vision for the future. "We've been together so long," Svensson points out, "that it's so much more than just a band. We're basically living In Flames. It's a lifestyle."
With all of the bandmembers settling down now and starting families, Svensson says the lifestyle has changed with the music. "We know our priorities," he concludes. "Either you're in or you're out. But the wives, families and kids matter just as much as the music now."
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