Unsurprisingly, In Flames’ seminal sophomore release, The Jester Race, won the first poll in a goddamn landslide, taking 57% of the votes. It’s an appropriate choice, considering that this whole project is utilizing the first act of In Flames’ career as a timeframe and I ripped the title from the album’s bitchinest song. (Be thankful that I didn’t use one of the myriad nonsensical Soilwork references that were under consideration.)
While this album is rightly heralded as one of the most important works in establishing the Gothenburg sound, when I first encountered this album in 2000, I was slow to warm to it. In fact, it took years for The Jester Race to really reveal itself.
The first In Flames record I heard was Colony, and it absolutely floored me. Instant infatuation. A fuckin REVELATION. I spent an insane amount of time with that album, and mined sites like Burn the Sun, Metal Judgment, and Metal-Rules (as well as an old zine called Promethean Crusade that was a wonderful, wonderful portal) for reviews of their previous work. The Jester Race seemed to be held in universal esteem, so when I stumbled into a copy at my local Disc-Go-Round, I didn’t even bother hassling the poor assholes behind the counter for a trial listen. I snatched it up straightaway, dashed out the door, slipped the disc into the Pioneer deck of my rusted-out deathtrap-ass Ford Ranger, and…
…was pretty underwhelmed.
To this day, the mid-paced In Flames jams aren’t really my thing (many of which rear their head on the band’s next outing, Whoracle), and the opening track, “Moonshield” is probably their most iconic stab at that particular formula. The song’s stunning acoustic intro gives way to this weird…lurch, conjuring images of awkward heshers doing that half-headbang, lean-in-with-the torso thing that you do when you want to show appreciation but shit just ain’t going hard enough. You know when people try to do that “slow mosh” bullshit? This is song is, like, fuckin built for that.
And after that initial letdown, I mostly returned to The Jester Race in fits and starts, in two or three song servings. “Lord Hypnos” got me charged; the opening and closing bellows of “Dead Eternity” were potent as shit; the title track is ludicrously infectious. But I never really threw down on The Jester Race as a complete work. (Though I did reference “The Jester’s Dance” as background music in a written promo for an e-fed I was active in about 17 years ago, so it must have left some kind of impression.)
So this classic record went mostly underutilized. Until, oddly enough, an audio rip of their performance of “Artifacts of the Black Rain” from the Used and Abused: In Live We Trust DVD hit me HARD with a Soulseek haymaker, and in that post-concussion haze, a new appreciation for the record shook loose. The thing that stood out was the URGENCY of the damn thing, and, turns out, that urgency not only permeates this record, but the entire framework of the melodic death sound itself.
While regular-ass death metal opts for grossness or bludgeoning (or both), melodeath riffing rushes you forward, hurtling you through space and time at a more thrash-like gallop while smoothing the edges and adding heft along the journey. And songs like “December Flower” (and the best tracks on Dark Tranquillity’s The Mind’s I, which garnered 22% of the vote for this week) wholly exemplify that sound.
The Jester Race also occupies a defining space in both genre and band history: It’s hella transitional:
- Using Subterranean as a rocketstrap, it’s a major launch forward from their debut, Lunar Strain, which, despite giving birth to two staples in “Behind Space” and “Clad in Shadows,” is awkward as shit and largely lackluster. (The band smartly rerecorded both songs in 1999, and those versions are far superior.)
- It’s the first album to feature Anders Friden on vocals–he essentially traded spots with Mikael Stanne, who took his spot in Dark Tranquillity–who went on to play a massive role in shaping the band’s creative direction.
- It’s the last record to feature significant creative input from guitarist Glenn Ljungstrom, as he only had three co-writing credits on his last outing with the band, Whoracle, a record in which the band ditched his original, more death-metally logo design.
- Fredrik Nordstrom hadn’t quite figured out the signature Studio Fredman sound yet; the production here still had one foot in the world of death metal, and the murky coating tarnishes some of the album’s more robust moments
- And finally, it marks the first appearance of the Jester Head mascot (which, while not as blatantly eye-scraping as Kataklysm’s “Heartbeast” and that thing from those Riot albums, is useless as shit as a character)
So, after spinning this thing for the first time (in full) in probably a couple years, what’s the verdict?
K, so this isn’t really fair, because they created the tropes here, but this has pretty much everything: the churning, let’s go! riffgallop; the Maiden-inspired leads that Jesper Stromblad made mandatory; acoustic / folky passages that would stay in vogue ’til about ’99; the Fredrik Nordstrom / Studio Fredman pedigree. This pretty much IS melodic death metal.
Shred Factor: 6
Look, Jesper still hadn’t found the sweet spot between cheesedick noodling and ripping riffage yet (the instrumental “Wayfaerer” is fucking unlistenable), and Bjorn Gelotte was still on drums, as he wouldn’t grab a guitar until Colony. In Flames were never the flashiest band in the genre, but even so, this one is pretty low on fireworks.
Yes, you have to hear this record to fully understand the genre. It’s what music critics call An Important Album.
But do you have to love it? Nah. I mean, the best song is “Goliaths Disarm Their Davids,” which technically isn’t even on this record, just included in the digipak version as part of the Black Ash Inheritance EP. While The Jester Race might be genre-establishing and encompassing, the best was definitely yet to come.