Ok so admitting my biases: In Flames is kinda the reason I started this project. (To my friends reading this: yes, I know, you’re shocked.) I had a lot written up about when I started listening to this group and everything but the short version is In Flames is my favorite band. For context my previous favorite metal bands that I would say still rank up there, to give you a sense of what I like: Megadeth, Trivium, and Nevermore. Basically, if you want to skip the love-in, here’s your out.
And we go:
. . . we people are too much interested in our own career instead of our families our friends and stuff like that. And the other thing is that we lend too much of our brain to the machine, we let the machine do most of the things, and in the end . . . there will only be a few people . . . who know how the machines work . . . maybe we will be overrun by machine. — Lyricist/Vocalist Anders Friden on the concept of The Jester Race.
The Jester Race is phenomenal. On a superficial level there were two things that were not great about The Lunar Strain and this album addresses both. First: the lead guitar playing on The Lunar Strain was pretty questionable. That issue has been resolved. The group is now joined by drummer Bjorn Gelotte who also contributed lead guitar playing to this record. He would shift to the second guitar position in 1999 and in later interviews has been very uncomplimentary of his own drumming and while he isn’t as good as the session drummers who played on Subterranean that in its own way works out: much in the same manner as the guitars that play simple riffs, Gelotte plays mostly simple beats. On top of that, his lead guitar playing also exhibits this same simplistic quality, playing these absurdly catchy melodies that are not very technical, always scalar, often stepwise, and on this record it really doesn’t sound like he’s using any vibrato, even though there’re opportunities all over the place for it. It’s an extremely restrained style. His guitar and drumming contributions to this record are fantastic.
But lemme tell you about my dude Anders Friden. This guy? This guy. There’s just no gimmicks here. He sounds completely real. His voice creaks, and cracks, and he just fucking goes into the microphone like he’s trying to vibrate his tongue out of his throat. He sounds like a dying animal. He sounds like a creature to be pitied. Admittedly Friden’s vocal style gets a zero on the “wait I can kinda hear what he’s saying” scale of death metal technique, but it gets an absolute ten on the “what the fuck is that, that sounds like something completely unhuman has visited our earth” scale. And his lyrics? Oh my god his lyrics I just adore them.
“Moonshield” starts on this very repetitive, almost sleepy sort of dual acoustic guitar bit which is also aided by percussion in the background keeping a steady heartbeat bump under everything and splashing some cymbals on top until it’s just the kick drum while the guitars play this really sweet lead line. Right when everything is at its softest is when a snare drum cracks through the mix, and then we are hit with just these massive walls of guitars and a deep, full, clean low end of bass.
Going in the opposite direction of Subterranean the guitars have now been downtuned even further, going down to C standard, two tones below standard tuning, and I’d call this the primary factor over anything else that makes these riffs sound just monstrously huge, especially since the bass has to reach so much lower as well. We’re back at Studio Fredman with producer Fredrik Nordstrom at the board and I don’t know exactly what they did for guitar sounds on this record but suffice to say the guitars sound distinctly Scandinavian: buzzy, boomy, harsh, huge. There might be tons of overdubs but what I really hear is just walls and walls of distortion. I can’t say I even really liked this guitar tone the first time I heard it but it’s grown on me immensely to being a personal favorite. And then there’s the lead guitar tone. It’s . . . bizarre. It’s saturated and there’s some reverb on it and it sounds appropriately “big” but I’ve always described it as if someone boosted the front end of whatever guitar amp the band was using with a Super Nintendo. There’s just some bizarre overcompression happening that makes these guitars sound almost unlike guitars, which is actually pretty close to what I’d call the rhythm guitars as well. It’s just a nasty sound, but in the context of the bass as well as the overall quality of production, they come off as beds of saturation rather than walls of noise.
As the first of the albums guitar leads closes we’re reintroduced to Anders Friden, coming through sounding like something tortured and dying. One of the primary factors that will continue to make In Flames relevant and interesting throughout their career is Friden’s fascinating lyrics and vocal performances and they definitely begin here on the mildly-vague and thus highly-interpretable “Moonshield.”
Tired of dull ages, I walk the same ground,
Collecting the tragedies still
Hollow ambitions in a hollow mind
Carried my cross to the hill
And how I lust for the dance and the fire
Deep of the nectarine sunset to drink
Spill me the wind and its fire
To steal of the colors — I’m the moonshield
Shattered hope became my guide
And grief and pain my friends
A brother pact in a blood-ink penned
Declare my silent end
Finally a new bridge is introduced with a fairly sudden key modulation as the narrative comes to its conclusion:
Naked and dying under worlds of silent stone
Reaching for the moonshield that once upon us shone
And then the rest, lyrically, is repetition. We’ll come back to how this fits the musical structure later.
If you check out this song on Genius nobody has written anything for it but SongMeanings.com has a lot of people going at it, many with very valid interpretations, though all of which are also cruxed upon a particular meaning for the word “Moonshield” which, as you’ll likely note, is not a real word, not a real term. That doubt over “What the fuck is a moonshield?” is also the driving point of interest for the lyrics, essentially creating a series of relatively digestible details and wondering how you fill the rest of it out.
Some interpretations are somewhat literal, others purely allegorical. For me, I find the total meaning to be communicated in the fact that virtually all of these literal and allegorical interpretations of the song compellingly stack up together on top of each other into a connected web of ideas of images and ideas, all of which lead us to the same general conclusion: there is a central protagonist in this song who is being more or less coerced into something by the others in their life, most presumably community, and is bitter over it because they (correctly) anticipate their own doom. As a singular reference point, the way I’m tending to see it now, just to give one example, is that the Moonshield is more or less the guard you would see guarding a town at night in some medieval/fantasy setting, when everyone else is living their lives, and they’ve been doing this for a long enough time that it has driven them to despair. They’re tired of this dull age, they walk the same ground, and collecting the tragedies still. While they’re performing this nightly duty, they “lust for the dance and the fire,” literally to be near the warmth of a nightly bonfire and the communal dance that takes place near it. At the same time, if this moonshield has been “collecting tragedies” then this is our first suggestion that this nightwatch job is not just some boring sleepy guard duty, and “hollow ambitions in a hollow mind/carried my cross to the hill” seems to suggest that in their own mind they’ve already cast aside whatever desires or dreams they have because they know they are ultimately sacrificial, and that they’ve been knowingly condemned to this fate.
The line “Naked and dying under worlds of silent stone/Reaching for the moonshield that once upon us shone” invites many interpretations. One way you could go with it would be to question why the protagonist is naked and reinterpret the basic narrative as being something akin to Final Fantasy X and its theme of ritual sacrifice, though in this case it seems as though the ritual sacrifice is to replace and maintain a protective god rather than to appease a vengeful one, as such they would be “naked and dying under worlds of silent stone” as part of a ritual sacrifice deep in some cave system, far away from the moon’s light (“Reaching for the moonshield that once upon us shone”). Another viable interpretation is that “worlds” is a typo or mistranslation from these ESL Swedes (there are a number of typos and errors that are recurrent in both groups early work) and the actual word is “words” which would make it “under words of silent stone” which would seem to suggest the image of a death amongst graves, or perhaps beneath some sort of uncaring structure. On the flipside of that, you could also choose to think of it as “Naked and dying under a world of silent stone” which, the moon is made of rock. By putting those two ideas together you can also come upon the image that makes most sense to me, which would be that this character is dying underneath the sky, the moon, as well as all the other celestial bodies upon which we have seen no life, a planet like Mars made seemingly entirely of rock.
In any case, it’s after we’re given this image of the protagonist dying and reaching out that the song takes another turn back into the acoustic, as though we’re left to ruminate upon this quiet, mournful image of tragedy that is, one way or another, completely senseless, for a full minute before the band brings life back to the arrangement and we’re able to revisit upon this character’s envy of the lives he saw being lived as his parting thought, as Friden’s voice croaks out, the bass and drums drop, and the guitars sputter and feedback into the after.
Metallica used acoustic guitars more or less as a set up for a punchline. The set-up is you turn up the pretty acoustic guitars for a minute, and the band called Fucking “Metallica” demonstrate surprising depth and influence by giving you said pretty acoustic guitars before fucking up your day, week, month, and year when they drop that big nasty riff. It’s a gimmick, basically. A good one! What In Flames does here is incorporate the acoustic guitar, the old-world folk influences that dictate how that instrument was played, culturally, and then uses the electric guitar as a modernized presentations of same-said ideas “turned up to 11” as it were, such that transitions between acoustic and electric are almost meaningless. The soft acoustic playing sets the old-world setting and tone for the lyrical narrative to take place in. Said setting and tone make the exact bedrock foundation for a lyric that expresses setting and tone while also being an expressive vehicle to purge some of the anger of its writer, Friden, who establishes a theme lyrically he would return to many times, that being his unease in his sense of place within community.
“The Jester’s Dance” is a fine and welcome instrumental interlude. Having already used acoustic guitars extensively, “The Jester’s Dance” is a different flavor that I enjoy greatly: The bass and drums provide a “Heaven and Hell” style slow-galloping bedrock while a crystal clean guitar overlays these clean melodic sections where close notes ring into each other for a little bit of a tiny dissonant rub. The SNES-boosted lead guitars come in again for a very catchy, memorable lead to introduce a bit of dirt into the mix before the clean guitars are suddenly replaced by guitars coming with this utterly devastating power-chord transition into a nice chunky riff that follows the foundation set earlier. The clean guitars come back for a little, and then the big nasty guitars come back in on that same riff they introduced themselves with earlier, but playing a few harmonized variations instead, and then things clean up again before the fadeout. The reinterpretation of the sort of audio landscapes portrayed through this “Heaven and Hell” bass riff is really compelling, and since it’s in F minor, the same key as the track before and after, it comes off as an extended segue between the two songs it connects, and as such is placed perfectly in the album sequence.
At this point we’ve spent the first 7:10 of this “heavy” melodic death metal album in a really chill space relatively speaking and I just want to point that out and how different that would still be as an aesthetic decision. There are loud guitars, but your typical MO when sequencing a metal album is to put an exciting cut first to get people in, “the opener” as it were, and if you want to hype up the drop of that nasty riff like Metallica, just add some sort of BS clean intro, people will eat that up. (I always do!) “Moonshield” and “The Jester’s Dance” tell that entire dynamic to go eat shit, starting the album on its chillest “full song” and then following that up with the track most bands would use as an intro, instead using it as chill connective tissue. There’s a lot to say about this, but the short version is that this point the record really doesn’t care if you’re bored, especially because they know you’re about to really headbang, and that’s impressive.
All of that 7 minutes of relative chillness? Buildup. “Artifacts of The Black Rain” is the first song on this record in a style that would be recognizable to fans of modern metal, opening on a chugging, thrashy harmonized riff with pounding double-bass that gives way to big modern sus2 chord voicings. While Gelotte dropped leads in “Moonshield” that conveyed the simplistic, folky sense of melody that’s crucial to that songs “old-world” vibe, the lead over this has a comparable type of simplicity but a more modern sense of composition, something that develops even further in the transitions between verses, while the tempo, the chugging, and the sus2 chord voicings in the rhythm guitar that the arrangement is built upon all bring the music from the “old-world” vibe into the new-world vibe.
Once again, all of this musical detail is reflected in lyrical detail. “Moonshield” reflects on alienation and isolation from community and how that is actually a function of the community itself. “Artifacts of The Black Rain” adds dissent to the mix, while also matching a more modern setting to the song to match the more modernized music.
Stood there leaning to the city moon,
casting silhouettes tall to grip her white rooms
the black-clad voyeur in his black-clad masque
in the serpentine sun of tragedy basked
We’ll come back to the word “moon” in a second but: love this imagery. We establish that a figure is standing in a room, “leaning to” rather than “gazing upward” at the city moon, and the word “voyeur” suggests said figure is looking out past the window of their room to see the lives of others, as well as casting “tall” silhouettes such that we can interpret the angle in relation to the source of light. Two lines and we already have: Dude, standing at window, in building, looking out at the city. We have silhouettes in a “white room” but we immediately establish the central figure as “black-clad” and wearing a black mask as an image to separate the figure from the setting, immediately. The word “voyeur” adds double meaning: not only is this figure sort of ingesting the stories of other experiences he can see from this vantage point, but as well, it suggests a sort of sinisterness to him since Voyeurism is not a celebrated quality, which stacks on to being “black-clad” and wearing a black mask as things that make this character seem villainous. It’s such a rich image to open the song.
But what is he so antagonistic towards?
Stood there cursing at the soul-dead mass
with their fabled illusions, the vain dreams that passed
splinters of a life rushing by in the whirl
alone, silent warrior in a fantasy world
Seems like an asshole, but we at least know why now: people out there aren’t living spiritual lives, they’re going with the flow, accepting the reality of “fabled illusions” while their “vain dreams” pass on as they so unconsciously live. And its the macrocosm of each of these tiny “splinters of a life rushing by in the whirl” with their lack of consciousness and inability to see their own true goals being crushed along the way that drives this central figure’s opposition to whats been constructed around him.
He cried for night, but night could not come
so, swept in the shroud of misanthropia he went away . . .
The phrase “city moon” was used earlier in the song and that seemed to suggest nighttime imagery, but perhaps something even more sinister is lighting the city since night will no longer come. This is functional: we’re not in the present-day understanding of night and day where the sun rises and sets, we’ve entered an age for whatever god-forsaken reason, daylight never ends, in contrast obviously to the age of the “moonshield.”
This is where we come up on the most puzzling lines of the song from which its title is derived, continuing from earlier.
. . . and fed the empty galleries
with the artifacts of the black rain
sunken into the shadows with a dry, sardonic smile
While perhaps being a reference to the death of an arts culture (“empty galleries”) there’s also a small possibility this song is itself referencing the title and concept of The Gallery by Dark Tranquillity from the previous year, aided by the fact that Anders Friden was helped in translating lyrics from Swedish to English by DT guitarist Niklas Sundin. The really puzzling line is the title itself. “Black Rain” in reality refers to two actual things: rain thick with dust essentially, a very rare weather phenomenon, or nuclear fallout, which is tempting to diagnose as the idea given that nuclear power has always been a favorite of metal songwriters, but I don’t think either idea quite fits. In my opinion the “black rain” here is an allegorical perversion, much the same as the “city moon” that creates persistent daytime. Whereas rain as we understand it is usually clear and reflects light, the rain of this city is black. “Artifacts of The Black Rain” as it were seems to be just pieces of technology or tokens from life in this sort of hellish existence, resultantly. The earlier presentation of this character as a villain then means that he is antagonistic towards what has been built around him that steals the soul and culture out of people. He is a villain to a monster.
His rejection of this cursed future is detailed in the songs ending, after a long bridge and guitar solo:
He made the footprints a part of his heart
to rouse a sacred confrontation
Stood there carving on the monument to lies
digging of the Earth, making friends with the soil
as the all-mother rises and bares her bleeding thighs
he disappears into her cold, icy womb
The first two lines are a bit vague but they have enough context to work from, I believe the idea that making “the footprints a part of his heart to rouse a sacred confrontation” implies the character’s sort of burial of their own doubts and their need to go through with this “confrontation.” The confrontation, as it were, comes off as a political suicide: the protagonist leaves his final thoughts engraved on “the monument to lies” before literally digging his way back to the earth from which he sprang and burying himself alive to be reunited with any lingering sense of spiritual purpose they have left.
Aside from any meaning I’m assigning, this track also just definitively slaps, Gelotte’s lead playing here is some of his most definitive and the hooks he overlays onto these riffs are just excellent. Almost any time Friden isn’t bellowing out his anger over these riffs his voice is replaced by the lead guitar again which just gets absolutely drilled into your head with its clever ways of following the chord progression and creating its own rhythmic accents. As well, since not every song on the record is in the same key, the fact that “Moonshield”, “The Jester’s Dance”, and “Artifacts of The Black Rain” are all each in F minor gives them a vague sense of connectivity that is only reinforced later in the album’s closing arc. That is, except for the middle bridge of this song which comes in with a surprise key change to C minor and on top we get the first of what would turn out to be relatively few but also very good solos by album co-star Bjorn Gelotte.
Did all of that seem a bit dense? Lets simplify a bit. “Graveland” is the fastest and shortest vocal track on the record and is placed perfectly in this track list to up the energy after what should count as a long extended opening. Jesper was clearly really into his At the Gates when he wrote this, borrowing their furious 6/8 shuffle and at the same time being pretty much just as good at it as they are, crafting fast, aggressive, yet also harmonized and wonderfully detailed riffs that sound angry and rich and full, maintaining that same sort of cleverness as the song passes its second chorus and downshifts into 4/4 before really tearing things up with a very brutal alternate picking riff. Of all the songs on the record, it is the most “metal” so far.
In matching, “Graveland” is a fairly simple anti-war song with some unfortunate “humanity is the virus” undertones that I’m just not gonna dig into too deeply since they’re also communicated in as basic a fashion as anything on this record, but there’s a brief narration I want to cover:
So weak, so hollow-minded
the primat flock responds
the jester race submits
Much like the protagonist of “Black Rain” Friden here narrates on the disappointing responses to war. Throughout the song, Friden connects warfare with the idea of primitive humanity, in the previous verse speaking of “Neanderthal hunger for the flesh of war so frail” and immediately after in the chorus roaring “For each day of war is a failure for man/enslaved in her mordial genes.” While “mordial” is not a real one, “primordial” is and I’m fairly certain it was being shortened, so it references war being this concept that we as a species are attached to at our most basic and unevolved level. While whether “the primat[e] flock” (another typo) and “the jester race” are separate concepts is up for debate, what’s no longer deniable is that the literal meaning of “The Jester Race” is humanity itself, a laugh and a half of a failed civilization. Musically this is the record’s simplest song: we start in one place, after the second chorus we go somewhere else, then we come back in time for the end. That lack of any sort of floweriness musically aids the tracks brutal lyrical assessment, and since not every song on this record sounds like this, its particular anger stands out.
As a side note: this song is also the first time Friden will sort of carelessly throw out the word “rape” as a metaphor for destruction or theft, something that unfortunately becomes somewhat recurrent. We’ll come back to the relative immaturity of the overall concept itself but that’s later.
Having railed against humanity and modernity and war, let’s rest for a while, shall we? “Lord Hypnos” opens on a very simplistic chugging guitar riff (the key isn’t the same, but it’s pretty much the same tempo as “Black Rain” and I’ve seen the two songs be confused,) before dropping into these massive power chords that tense and resolve wonderfully underneath my favorite “lead hook” on the record that is simplicity defined. In Flames would eventually develop this type of lead hook into a signature element for a brief period, but the simplicity of this lead in particular reflects the love of Iron Maiden. By contrast, the verses use of tremolo picked chords and single-note harmony layers with IF’s sense of melody reflects the more recent melodic tendencies within black metal, though I doubt that was intentional. As a chord progression, “Lord Hypnos” is still obviously in Bb minor, but there’s also plenty of emphasis on the respective Db major chord in the hook and verses such that there’s a slightly happier/dreamier sound to this track than any of the preceding, aided as well by the band playing in Bb without tuning down their bottom string as they would on later records. As a result, the root minor chord is much higher than the major III voicing that the band uses to express that chord, something that I also feel emphasizes the slightly “major” feel of the track. This resulting more “positive” vibe marks yet another shift in musical “setting” so to speak and gives a great platform for Friden’s wandering lyrics about sleep and the realm of dreams:
I lie in your soothing arms, lord Hypnos
your garment alive with your song
I lie in your soothing arms, lord Hypnos
Steep the spiral to your far abode,
in the wake of slumber, on visions I rode
and fell like history through the chasm of ages
into the charged, forbidden zones
I really cannot emphasize the vicious fear with which Anders Friden projects the words “charged, forbidden zones.” Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep, and from there the rest follows: it seems as though our character here is on a metaphysical journey between states of sleep. The song continues in that fashion. . .
How I have searched
through a million worlds and faces
yet unaware, I have not found
my own true face, traceless and profound
. . . and when the second chorus comes to an end everything stops, and once again we’re visited by acoustic guitars for this extended, majestic interlude that eventually brings the guitars back for this massive but also dreamy set of chords and a wandering guitar lead on top that feels reflective of the dream journey we’ve been going on in the song.
Eventually Friden comes in with a narration pulled from William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,”
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar
This connection to Friden’s previous verse about having “not found my own true face” which previously seemed a bit disconnected, now it seems as though there’s this intentional journey in dreaming to try and find a “true face,” a sort of idealized self-image, and building on this theme of spiritual discontent that had been established in other tracks.
An interesting part of this song as well is that it almost feels like we get the story presented to us backwards, as at the very beginning and again at the end we’re presented with “I lie in your soothing arms, Lord Hypnos” which seems to be the endpoint of this sleep journey rather than the beginning of it, as though Friden is waking from sleep and has to recall these events backwards as a result, thought that would also be a slightly generous interpretation. Just another great track on this album, similar in some ways to “Artifacts of The Black Rain” but after you’ve listened to the album more than twice it’s pretty obvious why they both made the cut and the different vibes they’re both bringing.
“Dead Eternity” is up next and is actually a re-recording of a song from the Subterranean sessions that they did with Jocke Gothberg, hence his lyrical credit for the song. Again, forgive me if my interpretations are generous but broadly speaking, “Lord Hypnos” is a song about sleep that also speaks of life in itself as its own kinds of sleep through its thematic connection to Wordsworth. At the end of the song about sleep we have a song about death, which not only completes the circle on “birth is but a sleep” but as well in broader terms, Hypnos is the god of sleep while his brother Thanatos is the god of death, as such both songs are placed as such in the album sequence. What works thematically is a little weak in terms of pure structure, but that’s still some cool shit.
Since we’re already way over time and budget on this review I’m going to spare a lyrical analysis of this track in particular. It’s not bad at all, and I think Gothberg deserves some credit for having written lyrics a few years prior that are intelligent and craft enough to fit with what we’ve seen so far, but his communication of ideas is also straightforward, the song is narrated from the perspective of “existence” and goes into a good bit of detail about metaphysical processes one undergoes when dying. Musically the song has a jump-start opening that ends up quickly giving way to this very quiet and also very sort of imposing bass riff that’s just outlining a simple power-chord, giving an intense and almost “scary” musical setting as the narrator confronts his newest victim:
You’ll never be alone again
You’ll never die again
You’ll never be born again
You’ll forever be, stuck here in eternity
This is before the songs revs up into a high-tempo blast-beat feel for a while before the guitars crunch into some mid-paced downpicking riffs that just absolutely slay, it’s not worth the time to list all of them, until the end of the song comes through with a sudden 6/8 switch-up for an extension of the guitar solo section before Friden comes back to bark those opening lyrics again and just kill it to end the song.
Buried here deep in the middle of the track listing as the other longest song on the album, (behind “Moonshield” by a mere second,) “Dead Eternity” can honestly be a bit of a drag in the middle of the album on some listens while on others some of its more head-bopping riffs end up getting their love and flowers. Like I said, the thematic attachment to “Lord Hypnos” makes a lot of sense but sticking a track like this dead center in the middle of the record with the slow opening is kinda asking people to hit the skip button even if they shouldn’t in the long run.
Never mind though, here comes the title track. “The Jester Race” returns us to the key of F minor that the first three tracks were in, as well as using the same echo-y clean guitars we first heard in “The Jester’s Dance.” While we have established that the Jester Race is humanity, if you look at the cover of the album you’ll notice that it is adorned by these horrid machines tearing up the landscape, as though these machines are also themselves racing. Much like “Moonshield” the distorted guitars come in playing fairly close to what the clean guitars are playing, resulting in a pumping, simplistic downpicking riff that establishes the verses. Here at the beginning, Anders Friden clarifies his vision perfectly:
Rush faster on the one-way lane
the answers so silent
Rusty gods in their machine-minds armours
grind our souls in the millstone of time
the “deathbed harvest” is dead man’s banquet
of mould ridden bread and black, poisoned wine
We’re in a death trap, racing our way towards oblivion, contributing the fruits of our labor to a parasitic machine. Relatable! The chorus comes in and outlines a fucking root and minor five vamp which is about as simplistic as it gets while the guitar goes off on this really catchy lead as Friden regretfully croaks:
And we go..our steps so silent
And we go..our blooded trace;
The Jester Race
The song goes on with its disembodied descriptions of this horrid machinery that damages and steals from the earth (another unfortunate lyric to describe this: “the newly raped ground”, yuck), and which those who are thrall to it seem unable to imagine a world without it:
Calling our to the gathered masses;
their answers so silent
And we go..
We continue in this fashion until 1:47 when the band drops just one of the nastiest, heaviest, Jump The Fuck Up riffs I ever heard that they attach to a fantastically heavy ascending harmonized riff on either end, and this constitutes a different verse between choruses that the band also returns to a few times. This riff is just awesome.
Where everything is headed is thus inevitable:
Vanities in extreme formations
ride into tomorrow’s rigid great face
The Machinery outlives the futile scripts
of our dying jester race
And what’s great about heavy metal is that when you say something fucking unbelievably depressing like that, you follow it with a really sweet guitar solo. There haven’t been many actual “solos” on this record, maybe none that I can recall so far, but this here is a guitar solo, a particularly heroic one that has a few fast runs but is in the overall significantly more about some really sweet note choices at the right times. One of the many peaks of Bjorn Gelotte’s style as a lead player. Not to be outdone, before the song ends, Anders stands in front of the mic and delivers this absolutely horrifying scream that peaks out at the top of his throat like a dying insect.
Much like “Artifacts of The Black Rain”, we follow the big midtempo chunker with the heavy ideas with something a little meaner and a little simpler. “December Flower” is a pretty simple encapsulation of everything that makes this record great: very chunky, catchy riffs, sweet lead guitar playing, and lyrics that veer wildly between philosophical heavy metal visions and then mere ruminations on simple topics, such as this song which is literally about snow, the “flower of December” as it were, one of the more intriguing contrasts given its attachment to one of the most aggressive tracks.
When the bleakest of powders
lie rooted to the starched stones
and roots that feed the peaking trees
embrace the sleeping shores
Archaic pearls of sleep and death
the voice of December losing its breath
and the floweryard of whit[e] and grey is haunted
While having plenty of galloping rhythms and interesting harmonies in the low guitar voicings to consider, by far the most famous part of “December Flower” is a guitar solo that hits at 1:26 and lasts 44 seconds. (Translation: a pretty long solo.) That’s very different from anything else on the record. It was played by one Fredrik Johansson, who was actually a different guy with that name that was not the guitarist from Dark Tranquillity, who first of all definitely brought his own gear and did not record a guitar solo with The Super Nintendo as I’ve mentioned, resulting in a very smooth, professional lead tone, and a resultantly technical solo where Johansson comes in with some lovely, precise picking sequences ending in some very sugary vibrato, the sort Gelotte has avoided, and while being a long solo it also has the composition and arc to peak and climax at exactly the right time. While perhaps almost a bit cheeky in its show-off styling, it’s a lovely compliment to the lyrically subtle song that has lodged itself into fans’ brains.
“Wayfaerer” is the sort of thing that In Flames just literally never did again. An instrumental that begins and ends in F minor like some of the other major album tracks, this instrumental goes through a lot of very crusading and seafaring 6/8 shuffle riffs. There’s a riff at the beginning here played near the bottom of the neck that shows off just how gritty this tone is as the tops of all of these notes peak out through the palm muting and just buzz. A keyboard comes in and while synths would become a growing element of In Flames sound, the usage here is very, very different as another session soloist, Kaspar Dahlqvist (an extremely skilled part-timer with a big resume) who just tears through some prog runs on a soft early 70’s moog-style tone, and if that didn’t seem weird enough, the band stops everything and transitions into F major in a really loud, bright way, emphasizing it with another nasty SNES guitar lead from Gelotte before returning to the minor key and some more synth runs, and then a sort of big, almost happy fade-out rock ending as Gelotte bends his way into infinity.
It almost ends up coming off as an extended intro to our final cut, “Dead God In Me”, since as the track number flips over we’re greeted with the same key and tempo, and some of the heaviest riffing on the record. And yet again, we’re in F minor as a result. While there’s no such thing on an album as an “unessential” track if you’re doing it right, In Flames marks all of the “major” tracks on this album with the key of F minor, including the title track, giving a feeling as we listen and re-listen to the album that some songs are sort of asides (like “Graveland” and “December Flower”) but that other songs are somewhat longer, more conceptual individually, and also connected to the greater themes of the record itself, that being our joke of a society.
Honestly, I’ve gone at it with virtually all the lyrics on this record but “Dead God In Me” is a really disgusting track. Not tasteless, not “problematic,” but just unforgiving in its willingness to imply all of the horrible details of child sex abuse, (specifically tied to the Catholic church I believe since so many of these stories were breaking around that time) suffice to say that the word “in” in the phrase “Dead God In me” is horrifyingly literal and refers to both immediate and lasting physical and mental trauma, and connects that new idea back into the sort of “Jester Race” concept by connecting this sexual abuse back to the greater power structures that are themselves parasitic, as previously established.
You pick the unripe lilies
deflored and peeled the bleeding petals
made known to me
the grainy stains, the crimson lotus
of the Black-Ash Inheritance,
the semen feed of gods and masters
The worms still in me,
still a part of me,
racing out from leaking rooms,
swoop from broken lungs to block the transmission
to put an end to the nomad years
Friden puts his final touches on this angry screed of a record with a vicious accusation:
you are the
dead god in me
It’s after he leaves us with that that the music stops and then we hear a woman screaming before the musical assault briefly continues, and then ends, not fading out, not looping into infinity, just stopping, right at the end of that riff.
Conclusion: I hope we can forgive my established biases but it should be obvious that I think this record is incredible, my favorite by a wide margin of the records covered so far. The low tuning and harsh guitar tone give this record a means to sound utterly vicious while the employment of harmony, melody, and rhythm connects it to a broader cultural history, reflecting various moods and feelings while also keeping a high level of energy and attention, alternating slightly more technical riffs with more massive ones and constantly finding new ideas for Friden to bellow over, while also being capable of providing clean interludes and “flights of fancy” as it were that take songs to different places. Friden uses this platform to project his voice, which is unreal, and his lyrics, which are lovely when they’re not depicting things that are utterly awful. The Jester Race while being filled top-to-bottom with classic bangers musically is also filled up with the horrid bellows of Friden’s voice and the haunting vision that his lyrics portray, which although somewhat immature in its pessimism is also totally befitting of the gloomy music it is set within.
I was critical of Slaughter of The Soul for showing clear enough contempt for the modern condition without really expressing any really clear . . . opinions as it were. It was fairly observational. On The Jester Race Friden’s lyrical vision shows, at least marginally, a clearer sense of what it predicts, what it accuses, and what it opposes. Friden’s message is dead clear: as a society, we’re on a downward trend where our primary crime is a lack of consciousness and a lack of action. “And we go . . .” and its repetitions ring with the same tragic Non-Inevitability of Vonnegut’s “so it goes.” He feeds us grim visions of fantasy futures that incorporate the aesthetics of metal that tickle our mind, while perverting that imagery to rob it of its usual machismo and empowerment and at least attempt to turn it into a relevant commentary on where we were and where we were going, which is definitely where we’re still going.
Because of history we’re going to get into, people don’t talk about this record the way they should, but just like I said about Symbolic, this is one of the absolutely transcendent metal records that virtually any headbanger should hear, and if you want an introduction to “extreme” music, this record is as good a point as any. If anything, it’ll spoil you.