A Sense Of Purpose
posted on 4/2008 By:
In the movie Bull Durham, rookie minor league pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoush is chosen to be the pet project of local English teacher/amateur baseball psychologist Annie Savoy. She will teach him how to improve his game mentally and physically. Oh, and they will also have a lot of kinky sex (which we never actually see). In their first bedroom scene, the perpetually horny LaLoush is tied to a bed in his boxer shorts, eagerly awaiting some of that Annie Savoy tail. She enters the room fully clothed, puts on a record of some strange foreign music, and proceeds to read him poetry until dawn. “It’s a lot more tiring than fucking,” he later states to his catcher/mentor Crash Davis.
What is the point, I hear you all asking yourselves? This scene ran repeatedly through my mind while listening to A Sense of Purpose, the latest release from In Flames. Just as LaLoush was eager to get laid, I was excited to hear new material from one of my favorite bands, hoping it would be as enjoyable as I remember the band to be. What actually happened, though, was a lot more disappointing, and the listening experience made me more tired than rocking out.
Let me move away from metaphor into context here. My feelings on In Flames are well documented (and if you need a refresher, go back and read my reviews for Soundtrack to Your Escape and Come Clarity on this site.) I have stood by them even as numerous fans have fallen to the wayside in recent years. I have defended them through some questionable musical shifts. I am not someone who is just bitter, waiting for the next Whoracle or The Jester Race, but even I have to draw the line somewhere, and A Sense of Purpose is that line.
“We’re not even trying!” vocalist Anders Friden sings in the album opener and lead single “The Mirror’s Truth.” Well, actually, a quick check of the CD booklet reveals the line to be “Without even trying,” but the key message remains. Although this is likely the type of self-effacing lyrics that bands often direct towards their detractors, it rings uncomfortably true here. It’s almost like they aren’t trying anymore, or at least, not trying to satisfy their core fanbase. But wait! Here comes “Disconnected,” sounding a lot like a Come Clarity outtake – until the chorus, anyway.
That last remark sums up the majority of this album. You’ll hear “Disconnected” and think that things are on their way up, but then a track like “I’m the Highway” comes along and dashes your hopes. In between, you get mediocre stuff like “Alias” and “Delight and Angers.” Often times, this all happens within the same track, and I for one am having too much cognitive dissonance to enjoy the damn album.
I’m sure glad I got to hear “Move Through Me” at this point. The first truly great track here is followed by the single worst track here, and possibly of their entire career, in “The Chosen Pessimist,”– and at just over eight minutes, it’s like they’re just rubbing it in my face. It’s a quiet, softly-played ditty that gains a bit of strength in the latter half but is still incredibly agonizing to sit through. What do they do for a follow-up? Turn right around, crank it up, and deliver one of the standout tracks in “Sober and Irrelevant” – yet another potentially, painfully true assertion.
Perhaps the ultimate frustration is that the album is pretty damn good from this point on – “Condemned,” “Drenched in Fear,” and “March to the Shore” all sound like the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect and enjoy from In Flames (and if you’re fortunate enough to pick up the Japanese version, there’s three bonus tracks after that of equal or greater quality.) If the whole album sounded like these last four tracks, I’d be telling a whole different story.
I’m also having problems accepting the abundance of keyboards on the album. They’ve always kept them in check before, but now they’re using them a lot more liberally. Sometimes it’s a good thing, adding a little extra something (“Alias,” “Move Through Me”); sometimes it’s just more dead weight (“The Mirror’s Truth,” “The Chosen Pessimist.”) I guess I’ll let it slide for now, but if I hear a piano ballad on the next album, I’m getting the Dismember guys to pay a visit to IF Studios.
I am an In Flames fan, and as an In Flames fan that has been steadfast in his support of the band, I can honestly tell you that A Sense of Purpose is a huge disappointment, marred by the peaks-and-valleys of quality and an overall sense of mediocrity. It isn’t so much that it’s bad, in spite of some truly bad moments; it’s the fact that they have some really good moments that show they could have made a great album (or at least, a better one) and they’ve just opted not to. I’m all for growth and evolution, but only when it’s for the better. Sadly, A Sense of Purpose is a step in the wrong direction.
posted on 4/2008 By:
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
- Hunter S. Thompson
It would be woefully redundant to state that an In Flames release will conjure a wellspring of opinions from the metal legions...but I suppose I've done just that (albeit inadvertently), so fuck it. Opinions have certainly been mixed, and the ol' boys from Gothenburg aren't rocking strong approval ratings as of late. In spite of the derision that has been flung their way over the course of this decade, few bands can boast of a following that rivals that of these Swedish stalwarts. Each new album serves to pull the band up another rung on the high-profile ladder; a skyward trend that seems to deflect attention from the fact that they are on album number nine. As they've gained more and more new fans, they have been simultaneously stringing along the devotees that initially propelled them to their pedestal in the late 1990's. Proudly, I count myself among these devotees; we the army that eagerly awaited every album during their glorious TJR-thru-Clayman run--in turn, providing the spine of their career with a fluid of slavering fandom. Since the turn of the decade, we have been led along on a string, tied to a pillar of disappointment with a loose knot of hope.
As forgettable and misguided as each of the post-Clayman records have been, they've shown glimmers of previous awesomeness amid the dreck. Underneath the EuroKorn what-the-fucks of Reroute To Remain, the uncharacteristic and forced atmospherics of Soundtrack To Your Escape, and the unfocused intensity of Come Clarity, the band has always kept a finger on the pulse of their past. Granted, that finger has been compressed very lightly, and the pulse itself has been muffled by layers of regrettable artistic decisions, but it was there, dammit, and there was hope. A faint, fighting spark of hope--hope that the band could somehow, someday, someway recapture the lightning that once made them one of the most electrifying acts in heavy metal.
This is where the knot comes undone. This is where the spark dies.
A Sense of Purpose marks the end of In Flames' long, protracted battle with relevance within the sect of the metal world that gave them life. Without a sliver of doubt, it can safely be said that it is the most tepid album of the band's storied career, and not because they have taken yet another stylistic turn for the worse. No, the reason why this album is flatter than Hilary Swank's chest in Boys Don't Cry lies in the fact that the band --to rip a quote from the chorus of the lead single, which they seem to have penned without a shred of self-awareness-- aren't even trying anymore. They aren't pushing themselves to progress instrumentally, to strengthen their trademark sound, or up the ante in any way, shape, or form. Glaringly, it shows, and as a result, A Sense of Purpose is an album that serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to rehash mediocre ideas from the past and wrap them in an inoffensive, soft-around-the-edges package.
This is as safe as a record can get; in fact, one could even call it "nice." Even Glass Joe had more tenacity and heart than this punchless bag of bones. Each song relies on a manufactured blueprint of pop anthemry, with Anders Friden delivering a flaccid, aggression-free version of his once-wicked scream throughout. His harsh vocals are a mere shell of what they once were; even the throat-shredding howls that had surfaced as recently as Come Clarity are nowhere to be found. The same virus of half-assedness has afflicted the guitar duo of Jesper Stromblad and Bjorn Gelotte as well, as they start nearly every song with a galloping, faceless, recycled riff that could've been carbon-copied from "Egonomic", "The Search For I", or "Versus Terminus" (take your pick), only minus any smidgen of aggression that those songs contained. Under the guise of "musical growth" and "progression," the band is just lazily ripping themselves off, and, in turn, ripping their fans off as well. Yeah, it's catchy...yeah, it's hummable...but it's also criminally diluted, lame, and fucking weak.
Weakness is not one of the central tenets of quality music. Unrestrained passion, limitless instrumental potential, and invested intensity are, and the tracks on this album display none of these traits. "Sleepless Again" is wistfully poppy, sounding like something Thrice would've done circa The Artist in the Ambulance. The thing is, Thrice can pull this kind of song off, because they do what they do with conviction. Here, it rings hollow. "Delight and Angers" prominently features Anders' screechy whine, as he begs for healing in one of the most vapid, powerless choruses on the album. "The Chosen Pessimist," an eight-minute abortion of a ballad that is, again, tainted by awful vocals and a glaring lack of melody (once the band's strength), challenges "Metaphor" for the title of Worst Song of Career. Seriously, the way Anders croaks and cries here, it sounds as if Bono is stepping on his neck while holding a starving African in his arms. The somewhat powerful cleans that he tested out on that wretched Passenger record seem like a distant mirage.
The remainder of the tracks are mid-tempo, middle-of-the-road, and flat-out middling. After dropping hints toward a return to form on the last album, In Flames have hurled forth a lukewarm offering that doesn't even contain a single barn-burning steamroller among the crap, a "Minus" or a "Vanishing Light" to satiate longtime fans. There's a severe lack of freshness permeating from this thing, and the excitement and electricity that should accompany the release of a major album is markedly absent. A Sense of Purpose is a non-event. No new surprises abound, no new controversies are conjured...all that remains is the music, and the music that this band is creating at this stage of their career simply isn't worth listening to. As a metal-oriented pop album, this fails. As a pop-oriented metal album, it fails. As a turn towards alternative hard rock, it fails. Strangely, it doesn't fall victim to failure in a fiery, self-destructive shitdive. It simply dies with a whimper, a glum whistle, and a shrug of indifference. Ineffective, pedestrian, and, frankly, insulting, A Sense of Purpose is a slap in the face not only to fans of the band, but fans of musical integrity and adventurousness in general. We should be infurated, but there simply isn't a reason to care.
To paraphrase a lyric from "Disconnected:" You sound like shit, In Flames...but at least you sound like something. Congratulations, and farewell.
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