Originally written by Tim Pigeon
Few bands engender as much controversy and incite as much scorn as In Flames has in the past few years. After releasing four of the most influential albums in the melodic death metal genre, influencing hundreds of young bands just now rising to prominence, they have taken their sound in a more streamlined and catchy direction. And like it or not, they are in no rush to rehash the past. But I’m not here to talk about a new In Flames album. We’re going back…way back to 1994. Back to when Göteborg was just a regular city in Sweden with a pretty good local metal scene that was starting to get some wider attention. Back to Lunar Strain.
When I first started getting into the melodic death scene five or so years ago, I was blown away by In Flames’ Whoracle album, and decided to check out what else they had put out. I gave this album a cursory listen at the time and wasn’t impressed. Well, tastes change. This is one seriously good debut album, especially when they were among the originators of the sound. For those who aren’t versed on their Gothenburg trivia, you may be immediately taken aback in the first 15 seconds, for Anders’ characteristic voice is nowhere to be found. Instead, the vocals are handled by the one and only Mikael Stanne, of the legendary Dark Tranquillity. To fully answer the trivia question, Anders sings on DT’s debut full-length. Stanne’s vocals are not the deep, powerful throat that you hear today, rather, the best comparison is to how the young Stanne sang on the seminal Gallery release. Higher-pitched, urgent, forceful.
Besides the addition of Stanne, the rest of the band sounds very much like the In Flames of the next few albums (Subterranean, The Jester Race, Whoracle), but raw, loose, rough around the edges. In essence, it’s a marvelous blend of The Gallery and The Jester Race, while falling slightly short of each of those. But for what it’s worth, they are both in my all-time top ten, so that’s hardly a fault. There is an obvious folk influence, but they tend to keep it separate, with fiddle instrumentals and such, rather than blending it into the meat of the songs, of letting the influence shine through in Jesper’s riffs. The remastered production was a masterstroke, brightening up the sound of an album that was clearly held back by a minimal budget and early 90’s technology.
It opens up with “Behind Space”, a song which any In Flames fan knows and probably loves, although an interesting acoustic folk outro comes in unexpectedly. “Lunar Strain” follows, and is a classic case of Gothenburg done right, mixing thrashy riffs with tremolo-picked melodies and harmonized leads. There are a few space-fillers in the form of a decent metal instrumental (“Dreamscape”) and a folky one (“Hargalaten”), and also a short acoustic piece with female vocals that sounds right out of DT’s “Insanity’s Crescendo”, although comparing the dates, it was probably In Flames providing the impetus. “Clad in Shadows” originated on this album, but in this case, I think the Anders-included remake for the Colony album smokes the original. Here, it’s a little slower, although that brings out the Metallica influence that I always equate with this track. This leads me to the best track on the album, “Upon an Oaken Throne”, a song seemingly played at double-time with a set of nice solos. The boys are clearly just letting loose on this one. There are also a few bonus tracks from the 1993 demo, but they can be found on this album anyhow, “In Flames”, “Clad in Shadows”, and “Upon an Oaken Throne”.
Lunar Strain is an essential album for a melodic death fan, and if you don’t have it already, might as well grab the remaster. This is an In Flames far removed from even the Clayman days, but this is a textbook for early Gothenburg. The Maiden influence is just creeping in, to be fully exploited on the next few albums, but what’s left is a young death metal band that is venturing into lighter territory. Why the hell haven’t I been listening to this all along?