In Flames are in a bit of a difficult spot at the minute, though that’s nothing new. For years now they’ve been the veritable punching bag of certain metal circles, with their not-so-gradual shift from melodeath to sappy, overwrought washiness seen as something of an upper limit when it comes to bands losing their luster fast. The worst of it is that part of their legacy seems to have overtaken the part where they were actually liked, so much so that it’s difficult to see what the point in keeping up with them anymore seems to be. Sure, the hope that they’ll revert back to their old sound (or at least something of quality in their current incarnation) is always there, but with every album blending even further into their indomitable pile of mush they’ve racked up over the years, that seems more and more like a pipe dream. And thus, I, The Mask really does seem kind of pointless; any hype or excitement around it has been borderline nonexistent, and extrapolating any possible paths based on In Flames’ recent history only makes any preconceptions even more disheartening.

Well, the good news is that I, The Mask isn’t awful; in fact, it’s probably In Flames’ most competent release in a fair few years. But when considering the lows that this band has hit, especially recently, that’s a pretty meaningless statement overall, and for an album that’s more forgettable than terrible and begins to tail off incredibly rapidly after an early peak, that’s not the best of signs. The best term to use would probably be ‘serviceable’, but only that applies to a certain extent, and while In Flames are showing signs of clawing their way back up in estimations, they’re not exactly moving at a brisk pace.

But let’s focus on the positives first, though, and in the context of what should be expected from an In Flames album in 2019, I, The Mask certainly has its high points. Barely a hint of their melodic death metal roots remains, but as far as straightforward heavy metal goes, you can certainly do worse than the title track or I Am Above as far as melody and power goes. Anders Fridén definitely comes across as stronger vocally than their past couple of efforts, and while this is a rather mid-paced affair for the most part, at this juncture, that feels like a solid direction for In Flames to take. Clearly hard rock is playing a much more integral role in their sound, and embracing it does feel like a good step forward, especially now that the vast majority of expectations of something heavier have been well and truly cast aside.

That would imply that In Flames can do something worthwhile with it though, and for what feels like it’s been going on forever at this point, I, The Mask ignores so much of the potential to do something great that’s dangling inches in front of its face. In Flames are not a bad band by any means, but the fact that they keep refusing to play to any sort of strengths makes this album impossibly frustrating, and given how much it’s dragged down by a back half that really does go nowhere and offers nothing close to fire or intrigue, a solid formula on paper is one that’s sucked of the majority of its mileage. But even beyond that, there’s a bafflingly unearned sense of complacency at I, The Mask’s roots that In Flames can’t afford to have at this point, not when they’ve struggled to deliver anything that’s really stuck in years. This is no different either, with writing that draws from the dregs of flavourless metal banality in its profound lack of vision or value, and a sterile production job that leaves virtually everything as a flat, undercooked slog to get through. These are basic features that a band of In Flames’ stature should well be in tune with by now, and while the hint at improving overall in the first half can soften the blow slightly, there’s really no excuse for how little this band seem to be trying anymore.

Honestly, it makes the moments of quality that I, The Mask does have feel like flukes, hitting a target by pure chance as yet another album squanders any possible potential in order to just get released. Sure, those moments add up to a net positive overall, especially considering In Flames’ track record for vacuum-sealed nothingness, but on the whole, I, The Mask fails to impress yet again. It’s basic, middle-of-the-road fare that’s really gotten played out by now, and even though it’s a bit less intolerable, that’s hardly a glowing recommendation by anyone’s standards. What’s even more damning, though, is that it continues to see In Flames floating through the void where no one is actually impressed by what they’re doing, and to see them keep doing it anyway is just kind of sad.

5/10

For fans of: Trivium, Avatar, Bullet For My Valentine
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘I, The Mask’ by In Flames is out now on Nuclear Blast Records.

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