|Album Title: Lunar Strain|
|Artist: In Flames|
|Label: Wrong Again Records; Regain Records (remastered)|
|Production: ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● (70%)|
|Songwriting: ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● (90%)|
|Muscicianship: ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● (80%)|
Comment: "Showcasing potential of great things to come."
+: Nice folky/acoustic pieces; simple but effective leads/solos
-: Overuse of tremolo picking; simple, occasionally mistimed drums; terrible original production
Every band that goes on to produce a series of great albums or become pioneers of a genre will undoubtedly have their first album heralded as an amateurish masterpiece; one that every respectable metal head should have in their collection purely on merit of its bands later albums. For Metallica this was Kill 'Em All; Dark Tranquillity - Skydancer; Venom - Welcome to Hell, etc. Most of the time, the record's quality is hyped merely because it is the first album of a great band, so of course, no matter how it actually sounds, just bearing said band's logo makes it an instant classic. In many cases, if said album was judged in a context not as the first album of a great band but just as an album , it would not be nearly the 'classic' it is put out to be. In Flames' first album Lunar Strain largely falls prey to this syndrome.
That's not to say that Lunar Strain is not an enjoyable record; quite the opposite. It is, however, a record that takes a tuned ear and is very much an acquired taste - which is saying something for the largely catchy and accessible songwriting that In Flames is known for. Indeed, the first time I bought the record I did so merely because it bore the "In Flames" logo. The first few times I listened to it I had not yet begun my journey into appreciating more extreme forms of metal. Do not be mistaken - Lunar Strain is not a release that is particularly easy on the ears in that it is more of an old school melodic death metal album; one that does not grant instant gratification. Lunar Strain requires a degree of savoring and marinating in one's mind and ears.
Luckily, Lunar Strain was reissued domestically in 2004 as a remastered edition, cleaning up the largest barrier to enjoying it: the production. My imported, non-remastered edition of Lunar Strain was terribly quiet, muddy, and not mixed well at all. Considering the fact that the album was created in a matter of weeks and largely written and performed by the band's true mastermind (Jesper Stromblad), it is not surprising that the sound was not top notch. Even remastered, many of the imperfections are still there, however, the sound is much louder, clearer, and the instruments can be differentiated from one another. The fact that recordings still retains its warm, amateur sound is part of the charm of the record.
That being said, listening to the remastered edition is quite an enjoyable nostalgic trip. Many of In Flames' hallmarks are present including reference to celestial themes (hence the title), folk/classic guitar-inspired interludes and/or songs, simple but tasty leads, and instrumentals. Although not nearly as instantly hooky as later albums like The Jester Race or Whoreacle, the album is by no means "brutal", especially by death metal standards. Indeed, elements such as folky acoustic passages, female vocals (on one song), use of few blastbeats, and Iron Maiden-esque harmonized leads will likely turn off 'elite tr00' metal heads.
The songwriting, is, however, top notch. There are so many unusual and innovative things going on here that defied normal convention of that time. It was unheard of for extreme metal bands to have soulful acoustic sections in there songs or an entire song consisting of a guitar and fiddle. In a way, this album sees In Flames embarking on a path similar to that of Metallica; one of skillfully merging the riffing of extreme metal with the musicianship and progressive elements of more melodic metal genres to produce a sound that appeals to fans of both.
At the same time, the songs seem to lack focus. While each song has its own character be it an instrumental, a song with an acoustic section, or a song with female vocals, it is very difficult to feel the album as one cohesive unit.
Musically speaking, the whole is definitely far greater than the sum of its parts. Taken by themselves, none of the instrumental or vocal performance are terribly of note (although Mikael Stanna of Dark Tranquillity fame does do vocals). In fact, because Jesper did the drums himself, while not only being rather simple, are even occasionally down right off tempo or having mistimed fills. Super-shreddy solos have also never been Jesper's strong point, even on later albums. However, he uses the simplicity to his advantage. While the solos and leads are likely not particularly technical or difficult, they are well-placed and very melodic and catchy, doing what they are supposed to do; that is, not detract from or overwhelm the music, but rather compliment it.
In sum, Lunar Strain will likely not be an album that appeals to fans of In Flames' later sound, especially those used to the sound of the last few records. While certainly not as classic as some may make it sound, the record is definitely one that should be sat down with a listened to a few times. The record is best savored and digested as a work of its own, not as one compared to or praised because of the other works of In Flames' later catalogue.