A retrospective glance at the the impact, the influence, and the end of an era.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar:)
With all great groups, there comes a pivotal moment of transformation that changes them from the essence of what you believed they were, to when they emerge from the cocoon of their latest life-changing events and experiences — bursting forth from the studio in a surge of energy and renewed strength. The group under the microscope today — the titanic, and illustrious IN FLAMES, has never stayed with a single sound. As this reviewer has boldly claimed for some time, the Gothenburg legends have distinctly avoided any sense of consistency throughout their discography, almost to the point of jarring, and unpredictable evolution at breakneck speeds. One thing is for certain; if there were any signature of that iconic IN FLAMES sound that could be tracked through their history, it's the willingness of the group to wildly adapt their sound at the drop of a hat.
For better or worse, the boys have always managed to harness a single element of cohesion that is evident throughout their entire catalogue. All of the songs have a strong element of memorable appeal. Landmark melodies make an appearance constantly, and lyrics stand tall and clear even when they're being noticeably whispered beneath a rushing tide of loudness-war waging instrumentals that bury all sound beneath crash and chord.
Twenty years ago, In Flames pushed boldly out of a European market, and into the American one. As well as being the first album to receive an American tour in support of it, both critics and fans alike celebrated this triumphant LP, a crowning jewel to a decade long push for acclaim and a newfound Swedish extreme metal renaissance. Adorned by a royal blue, and fiery orange cover that featured a figure both in homage and parody, this version of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, was crafted by the equally legendary artist Axel Hermann.
What can this humble reviewer say about Clayman that hasn't already been written for the ages?
From the moment you hear a literal needle drop on this album, Bullet Ride takes a goosebumps-inducing moment to rip the bandage off as liquid quadruplets come spilling out with an epic intensity that has seldom been seen from the Swedish north from many years since. A drowning melody of morose acceptance thrums as Anders Fridén softly calls out to listeners in a highly underrated second person perspective that begs multiple questions, pleading them to answer it for themselves. This is a short build to the highly recognizable, timeless four-count silence that is interrupted by an eruption of chorus that cries out the unforgettable lines that both introduced and enticed a generation of metalheads who could count on greatness from the Swedish titans:
Turning, twisting the alphabet.
Awaiting the answer...
Splinters of a poem —
Fragments of what you used to be!
Habitual and gullible —
Run-down memoirs is all that's left!"
It's the kind of abbreviated, emotionally-stretched to the brink, mold-shattering lyrical genius that sets this band apart from the crowd. It's one aspect entirely to write so many new riffs, licks, and melodies that you're individually recognized for it (looking at you, Jesper Strömblad). It's another monster altogether to fit together in a puzzle so well that it feels both hollow and fragmented years later, when the group has mostly gone their separate ways.
For those out there who've never had the pleasure to breathe in Pinball Map, this would be a prime opportunity. Fun, fast, and bouncy as a clown on steroids — this track is the first whiff of an element that would be used for a decade to come. This swift little dance down the neck is another in the extensive line of tracks that are instantly discernible as having the IN FLAMES seal of approval. While the majority of the song's rhythm is a series of low-tone triplets that break away every time the roller-coaster tune hits a refrain, it's just as catchy and upbeat and knows precisely when to trade off the torch for this song's focus and priority. Combine it with the octopus on the kit that Daniel Svensson always was, and you have one fun as hell drum right that fills a ridiculous line ahead of each new chorus.
The next step down memory lane is the predictable, wonderful, anthemic Only For The Weak. Thrust into this track that kickstarts with another ageless melody that can be recognized even when stripped down to a casual whistle, this song cemented the legacy of the band as a mainstream heavy-hitter that could outperform billboard artists who thought that pop and hip-hop had dominated the charts. Words syncopated, drums splashing into each measure with luster, a layer of bass providing harmony well-below the powerful and unconquerable guitar lead that plays alongside this track with the keyboard talents of Charlie Storm, and assisted generously by Fredrik Nordström. This song is a prime factor in making this album the iconic benchmark in Melodeath that it is, and this reviewer challenges any band who believes they have the mettle to attempt to write a single as catchy and simple as this one, and see if it's as widely embraced as this song is.
For newcomers to the band and album, all of this should be a pleasant surprise. Anyone who has never had the joy of a full playthrough of Clayman is about to have their mind blown by the sheer amount of talent displayed in virtually all of the eleven original tracks to grace this timeless and highly-celebrated album. To those who are initiated to the Jesterhead cult, though, a pressing question has to be asked:
How does this re-issue, and the subsequently re-recorded tracks stack up against the original, the 2005 Deluxe Enhanced Edition, and the famous 2008 Nuclear Blast Remastered Edition?
Better than expected. It would seem this time around, the crew took some of the previous gripes to heart regarding the loudness factor, and the overwhelming crispiness of the kit and Jesper's tone throughout the album. They also finally gave that man Peter Iwers his due, bringing out some healthy bass tone that went criminally missing on both the original, and the first remastered editions. It's worth mentioning that while bass was present on many tracks in excess, most notably Satellites and Astronauts and Pinball Map, there were some tracks that just drowned out so much of Iwers' tone that it felt like a one-sided ordeal that could not be balanced no matter how much EQ was tampered with. It was a top heavy killer that — while undeniably beautiful — threw the composition out of balance repeatedly on songs like Swim, Bullet Ride, and Suburban Me when the tone finally did appear beneath the wave of treble. The lowest lows came through in a fine fashion, while casting to the winds any low-mids that might have been lingering. On a set of budget earbuds, listeners could never tell the difference. On a HiFi setup, however, the difference is night and day. The 2020 remaster works hard to bring a much more mid-based balance to the overall work, and does so seemingly across the board.
Snares and toms on clearer with a signature *thump* that comes through with staggering clarity. This reviewer often found a cleaner, more equal sound in the guitar rhythms, lending to it a much more pronounced sound from Björn Gelotte that on many early IN FLAMES albums can leave one wanting more from the man. He's a phenomenal guitarist, and to be able to hear him out front and center in the new mix makes this well worth the efforts.
It's clear those same lessons came through on the re-recorded tracks. Balanced to mids to a fault, more controlled, slightly more ‘punk’ in demeanor, yet still suffering from a criminal lack of mid-lows, these tracks take painstaking efforts to keep the spirit of the original tunes within. One complaint this reviewer had, was the distinct lack of croaky-whispers from the verses of Bullet Ride. While Anders' new clean vocals are of course familiar and appreciated by fans of the post 2011-era group, it's a tad alarming and almost off-putting after hearing the man croak his way into the history books for nearly two decades. He makes up for it in the final verse, but it would've been amazing to hear it done for the first two.
Perhaps the coolest addition to the album is a strings composition known only as Themes and Variations in D-Minor, a wonderfully classical melody featuring Johannes Bergion, as well as Björn Gelotte on guitar. It samples from several of the tracks on the album, in much the same way the acoustic medley on Black-Ash Inheritance struck a chord with listeners who appreciated both The Jester Race, and Whoracle. It's a unique, enjoyable, and nostalgic experience that this Jesterhead sincerely hopes the band produces more of in the future. The entire discography could benefit from such a treatment.
The re-recorded title-track is another story. Sliding in with a cool new electronic intro, this song softens itself up with a tame guitar tone, and a kit that sits mostly on a subdued pair of pedals throughout the track. While this reviewer can objectively state that it's a welcome addition to it, knowing the future of a more technical IN FLAMES, it's understandable that such a change would both surprise and disappoint fans of the group who could see this change as a leashing of an element that felt like it was only barely in control on the original album. These tracks are meant to both challenge and channel a group that existed two decades ago, and to expect results to be a carbon copy of the original would be both disingenuous and unrealistic. Before this endeavor began, this reviewer made bold claims that "if any band could cover themselves, it would be this one," and as far as one can tell, that claim still holds water.
IN FLAMES we will continue to trust. Happy 20th birthday to Clayman!
Clayman's 20th anniversary edition hits the world August 28th, courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records. You can witness another bullet ride, right HERE.