Artist: In Flames
Label: Nuclear Blast
Exactly 20 years ago, Gothenburg metallers In Flames released their 5th full-length album, Clayman. While the Swedes had already enjoyed moderate success in Europe in the 1990s, it was Clayman that landed them a support slot on Slipknot’s UK tour and paved the way for their breakthrough in North America as well. It is largely considered their last pure melodic death metal album (and their last good album, if you ask most of the fans of the group’s early material) and a watershed moment in the band’s history, as on the following albums, In Flames would embrace the influence of contemporary American metal, dividing the fanbase in the process. Since Clayman is getting reissued this summer, what better time to revisit this landmark album than now?
Listen to the album on Spotify:
Clayman is perhaps best known for spawning “Only for the Weak,” which – armed with an incredibly infectious main melody and a bouncy groove – is the most popular track on the album and the In Flames song with most plays on Spotify. Therefore, it’s no wonder that it has remained a setlist staple over the years and people still jump up and down to it every time it’s played. “Pinball Map” is another hit, juxtaposing fast and furious verses with a poppy singalong chorus, hinting at In Flames‘ future direction, as there aren’t a lot of melodic leads to be found here and the main hook is delivered by Anders Fridén on vocals.
Despite the increased use of keyboards and melodic vocals, Clayman is definitely a guitar album and the 6-string tandem of Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte is still driving the songs. Besides the obvious nods to Iron Maiden in the harmonized leads and solos, there’s a strong classic heavy metal feel in some of the riffs as well, such as the intro to opening track “Bullet Ride,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Queensrÿche record. “Swim” includes some tasteful wah-wah riffing and guitar melodies galore, while “Suburban Me” on the whole sounds like a hard rock tune with screaming vocals. This makes it a unique song, not only in the In Flames catalog but the whole subgenre of melodeath, and just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, guest guitarist Christopher Amott (of Arch Enemy fame) plays a solo that blows the roof off. Drummer Daniel Svensson also gets to showcase his chops on “Brush the Dust Away,” which kicks off with an impressive drum intro that makes the preceding ballad, “Satellites and Astronauts,” seem like a distant memory. Throughout the record, he adds cool little fills into the songs, and he and bassist Peter Iwers lay down a solid basis for the guitars, vocals, keyboards, and other extra spices.
As a curious companion to the high-octane music, a lot of the lyrics on Clayman tackle themes such as insecurity, depression, and suicide. While the preceding Colony (1999) is Fridén‘s strongest album vocally, Clayman represents his finest hour as a lyricist, as the songs are metaphorical yet relatable and manage to avoid the pitfalls of angst and melodrama that he would descend into on more than a few occasions in later years. Indeed, the lyrical content is one of the reasons why my favorite song, the despondent half-ballad “Square Nothing,” is so meaningful to me and helped me through some dark days when I was younger. There’s even a healthy dose of irony on the album, as demonstrated by the title-track: “To aim and miss / my supernatural art.”
Although Whoracle (1997) is my personal favorite album from In Flames, Clayman is a close #2. It’s not without its flaws, because “…As the Future Repeats Today” comes across as a bit of a filler track, but it’s not weak enough to detract from the full album experience. Clayman can arguably be considered the quintessential In Flames album, as it retains the guitar ear candy of their early efforts while ushering in a more streamlined and accessible sound that eventually made them famous. Fredrik Nordström‘s production is top-notch and it’s no wonder that Clayman has become a popular reference album in the world of metal production. For this reason, it’s quite puzzling that In Flames elected to re-record four songs for the upcoming 20th anniversary edition, but I doubt even that will be able to take away from the magic and legacy of this undeniable classic, the heights of which the band hasn’t reached since.
Rating: 9.5/10, 4.5 stars
1. Bullet Ride
2. Pinball Map
3. Only for the Weak
4. …As the Future Repeats Today
5. Square Nothing
7. Satellites and Astronauts
8. Brush the Dust Away
10. Suburban Me
11. Another Day in Quicksand