In Flames — Subterranean (1995)

For some reason I just forgot to post this one, so here it is! I promise I’m still working on Gardenian’s Two Feet Stand. In the meantime, here’s this.

Having established the most clearly-conceived identity yet seen in the Gothenburg death metal scene, In Flames returned to the studio in 1994 with 5 tracks more of their developing melodic death metal sound coming in at a very concise near-21 minutes. They also managed to do this without having a solid lineup at all, as Subterranean was recorded between November and December of 1994, but still manages to feature two different drummers and guitar tunings, indicating a somewhat hectic recording schedule.

In Flames employed two different drummers to record Subterranean. On the first two tracks (as well as the myriad of bonus tracks I’m not going to discuss) the kit is manned by Daniel Erlandsson, brother of At the Gates drummer Adrian Erlandsson, who proves certainly a more dynamic drummer than IF founder Jesper Stromblad had previously on Lunar Strain. Erlandsson drums capably, but perhaps his most noteworthy contribution to the two songs he played on is his insistence to play 3 beneath 2 during the transition verses on “Ever Dying,” an effect that doesn’t quite land and adds some weird unsteadiness to an otherwise excellent track. It’s a bit of a showoff move. All’s well that ends well though, Erlandsson has been the drummer in Arch Enemy, one of metal’s most popular touring groups, for many years now. Stromblad moves to rhythm guitar, replacing Carl Naslund from The Lunar Strain. That’s perfectly sensible as well, Stromblad wrote all of the material there and here on Subterranean. Glen Jlungstrom on lead guitar and Johan Larsson on bass are both holdovers from Lunar Strain who would stick around until 1998. Both sound significantly better on this record as well: Jlungstrom and Stromblad play leads in a style far better suited to the melodic death metal being played, and while Larsson’s playing is still basic he’s also much more audible in the mix, thanks to improvements in recording as well as some differences in song arrangements. Tracks 3 and 5 were drummed by Dark Tranquillity drummer Anders Jivarp, who doesn’t really get much of a chance to stand out, but he definitely gets the chance to sound a lot more human here than he did on Skydancer. Finally, whereas the entirety of The Lunar Strain was recorded in D standard tuning (primarily used by Death’s Chuck Schuldiner), Subterranean sounds like two tunings were used. “Stand Ablaze” and “Everdying” were definitely recorded in D-standard as well, but the title track and especially closer “Biosphere” sound like they must have been recorded in standard given the low chugging “E” notes we hear as the basis of many riffs.

Anyway sorry about that, let’s talk about the music. Returning to my original statement: the music is very good.

“Stand Ablaze” opens on some mysterious digital piano and altered radio communication samples before tearing into I think four harmonized guitars tremolo picking furiously to outline this apocalyptic, baroque chord progression. Soon the chord progression changes as we’re treated to what would become an In Flames classic, a melodic guitar lead as an intro. In this case the lead itself is stately, violin-like as it outlines the simple one and five chord vamp. Still lacking a full-time vocalist, the distinctive croaks and roars of Subterranean are brought to us by one Henke Forss, who gives us in “Stand Ablaze” something like a thematic sequel to “In Flames” on the previous record, reinforcing the band’s romantic lyrical image alongside its melancholy guitar work:

The time is now
Please tell me how

Set ablaze…

Remembering how it used to be
Scarred for eternity
Was it meant to be?
A life in harmony…

Once again, the “flames” that they are “in” here are a burning personal misery. The song continues in that furious fashion for a minute before the switch to a big folk-metal riff in swing time that gives things a slower, bouncier feel before bringing the main chorus back in, leading into a harmonized guitar solo that pulls the band into a big key change and through to the end. It’s an opener full of momentum and hooks that sounds a lot closer to what we would come to expect from melodic death metal than anything we’ve really heard up until this point. “Stand Ablaze” is fantastic.

“Ever Dying” is similarly loveable. The track opens on a hook guitar riff outlining the one and four chords, but when Forss croaks “DIE” and the second guitar comes in it counterpoints the first melody with notes close and far to give the two interwoven guitar voices a massive span of range sounding together, which lays the bedrock for the first verse. I almost said this in a previous review as a joke, but I’m secretly coming to believe that My Dying Bride may have been one of the most important influences on Gothenburg, given how the MDM bands have all seemed to embrace not just harmonized guitar lines, but also counterpoint. It’s also here to point out that the rhythm guitars sound really good on this EP. They have exactly the right kind of “pokey”-ness to them, there’s the exact right amount of the treble frequency band being produced by the guitar sounds. The song employs a fairly stiff transition riff before carrying into a different verse in the same fashion as the previous primary idea/verse that it then modulates the key for dramatic effect (the classic secondary dominant shift, otherwise known as “playing the same riff up two frets on the guitar.”) Right about the time Erlandsson quits trying to screw with the rhythm, that track drops into a lovely acoustic folk section, leading into an awesome pseudo-black metal riff that gets harmonized before the band drops into a truly nasty shuffle riff that becomes a midtempo thrash riff and then another fun melodic riff in the song’s original key before coming back into the original riff. Once again: good shit. Lyrically I’m pretty sure this song is about vampirism but that’s a vague guess honestly.

Drinking the wine
An act out of love
Consumer of lives
You’ll join us tonight…

Behold immortality
A dark eternity
Eternity, eternity…

Henke Forss is an awesome vocalist, layering low and high pitch growls on key hook points, and makes a pretty strong impression saying very little. But his actual lyricism leaves things to be desired compared to Mikael Staane who preceded and Anders Friden who followed. “Everdying” ends with an acoustic interlude, the sort of which In Flames would do many of through the 90’s. It’s the sort of pretty that becomes difficult to describe multiple times over. Perhaps setting this one apart is the bright timbre, as it’s played in C minor on a D standard guitar, meaning most of the piece is played in the higher overall range of the instrument.

Speaking of tuning and timbre: I already mentioned the two different tunings, but just to emphasize that point, this is by far the “brightest” In Flames recording. Not only is the tuning itself higher on the last 3 tracks, but the guitar tone itself is some really buzzed-out, trebly gain of the type I enjoy very much, and this EP also serves as a preview for the infamous lead guitar tone we would later hear on The Jester Race. (I’ve often described the tone as being “If you boosted the front end of your amp with a Super Nintendo.”)

By the end of “Everdying” I was ready to declare that this shit slaps, but the back end of the EP doesn’t quite hold up as well.

Title track “Subterranean” is when we hear the noticeable shift in guitar tone and timbre that leads me to believe the band had tuned up their guitars. The word “Subterranean” means “below the surface of the earth”, (“sub”-”terrain”) but weirdly enough this track seems to be a strange love song. “With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness” this is not.

My tears fall like rain
From the longlasting pain
When I look at your eyes
My heart just dies
Beauty divine
I hope you’ll be mine
Open your arms
For all time

The entire song is that bad. I’ll spare the lyricist further humiliation. Fitting that such silly lyrics would be matched to these riffs, because this title track opens with the goofiest version of the “Phantom of the Operahook that I’ve ever heard. (The Andrew Lloyd Webber one, not the Iron Maiden one.) The band plays that modulating open riff between F minor and A minor, then settles on A minor to introduce us to a hook, featuring a bouncing harmonized melody that merely outlines the itself-simplistic chord progression, to the point of almost resembling yet more neo-folk before dropping into a low shuffling verse that smoothly transitions into a different chorus. Being in standard tuning, if this track had clean singing it would basically be folk metal. They repeat that structure before crafting a transition in another key before reintroducing the first hook, which then goes on another brief tangent before coming back to the E minor shuffle. On a few levels this is a bit of a step down, but the general energy of everything is still pretty compelling. There’s also the distinct texture of synth pads courtesy of Jesper Stromblad. (That’s actually pretty funny trivia if you know where In Flames trends historically.) “Subterranean” isn’t a bad song, but it’s not quite as striking as the previous two tracks on first listen.

Even on an EP, In Flames has got to have more than one interlude to make sure everything has the appropriate up-and-down sense of blockbuster pacing. (Or maybe their record label demanded 20 minutes of original material, but they don’t sound forced.) “Timeless” is not only the second acoustic interlude on this 21-minute EP, but it’s also at the exact same tempo as the one at the end of “Everdying” just to make things feel really eerie. Thankfully some precise playing and dense harmonic layering (once again) make for interesting listening, but I’ll cave that this is getting a bit repetitive, weren’t there also like 6 interludes on Lunar Strain? I didn’t go back to check. That record had like a violin solo and an entire neo-folk track. What a bizarre and awesome flex.

Our closer “Biosphere” opens on a hook that I . . . look, I can’t just keep saying “neo-folk” or “folk-metal” or whatever, so let’s go with viking metal. The intro to “Biosphere” sounds like a cross between the Scorpions and the late viking Bathory albums for about a minute before using a very Iron Maiden-type of transition to get back to their melodic death metal when Forss’ vocal comes into the mix. He’s there for a quick verse before yet another shift, this time to aggressive thrash, and though the verse concept is reintroduced, it’s these thrash ideas that take up most of the song before they end on the hook they used to open the song. “Biosphere” seems kinda forced together, especially with a title that has nothing to do with its lyrics. I do actually quite like the very Metallica riff they introduce at 1:26 that comes back, but the connective tissue between that riff and everything else just isn’t that convincing. I love my thrash metal, but it feels like a distraction from the fresher ideas that this band is bringing to the table.

In all, I think it’s fair to say that the EP ends a little weaker than it started, but it’s also not much of a dropoff. Subterranean as a 21-minute EP, even with its interludes, feels more immediate and aggressive than the preceding album, but it was ultimately a sidestep, a window into a brief transitional period. In all, it might actually be the “worst” In Flames recording just because they don’t quite sound like themselves. The last two tracks have hooks in the style that the band would become famous for, but are surrounded by ideas that sound “inspired” but not exactly “confident” if that makes sense.

Conclusion: As much as I like most of the material here, Subterranean is a relatively forgotten piece of this band’s history, and not without reason. Though “Stand Ablaze” and “Everdying” may have been the two best songs recorded by the band to that point, eclipsing anything on Lunar Strain by a fair bit for composition and sound quality, that also tells you just how productive In Flames were from 94–2000. Lunar Strain drops in 94, this comes out in 95, and then in 96 The Jester Race comes out, leaving this EP completely in the dust. But if you’re as big a fan of this group as I am, then this EP is definitely worth checking out, and definitely should not be forgotten.

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