In Flames – Norma Jean – Light the Torch: Live at O2 Ritz Manchester (UK)

For the past decade or so, melodeath heavyweights In Flames have divided the worldwide metal community. After beginning humbly as a melodic side-project to Jesper Strömblad’s traditional death metal band Ceremonial Oath, the Gothenburg group went on to release a string of innovative albums throughout the mid to late 90s that earned them unanimous acclaim for pioneering a much cleaner, more NWOBHM inspired style of death metal. Alongside the likes of bands such as Dark Tranquility and At the Gates, this fresh approach took the metal world by absolute storm. However, the turn of the decade has seen the Swedes popularity tower to heights not often reached without musical compromise, a notion that most bands of their genre would never dare to entertain. In the case of Anders Fridén and co, they boldly made the decision to incorporate friendly grooves and alternative metal riffs into a core sound that was always considered to be its best when abrasive, off-putting and relentless.

On the back of their thirteenth album I, The Mask (Eleven Seven Music Group/Nuclear Blast Europe), a release which has been hailed as a return to form in some respects, In Flames, welcomed Manchester to a night that was to cover almost every album of their wild musical evolution, as well as some deeper cuts from their latest offering.

The first support act of the evening was Light the Torch, a group that like In Flames in their current state is largely inspired by American heavy metal styles such as metalcore and groove metal. Fronted by former Killswitch Engage vocalist Howard Jones, they are a band worth seeing foremost on the merit of that man’s ability to deliver in the live environment the way he has on every record he ever laid voice to. Apparently, his time away from the spotlight fronting Engage has not had any detrimental effect on his ability to command a crowd either, as both his soaring and screaming chops have not faded in the slightest. Though many of the bands’ actual songs sounded very interchangeable and bled into each other at times, the energy of the performances, some tasty breakdowns and the sight of a bouncy, sweaty Howard Jones kept their performance diverting enough that I would not recommend skipping them if you can arrive early. ‘Calm Before the Storm’ and ‘Die Alone’ in particular were sure highlights of their performance.

The penultimate act of the show came in the form of Georgia lads Norma Jean, and while I must admit I am not a huge fan of their particular brand of metalcore and hardcore punk fusion, I can confirm that their loud, uncompromising live presence absolutely shook the nearly packed Ritz, and gave way to the eruption of one of the biggest mosh pits that I’ve ever seen a support band conjure at the venue. As exemplified by the young woman who I gave my spot at the barrier for (she claimed Norma Jean was her favourite band), it was clear to me that the band’s actual audience were having a blast, and that if you enjoy modern, dissonant metalcore ala Every Time I Die, but with more chaotic breakdowns and the occasional diversion into thrash, you’ll want to be first in line when they next visit your city. ‘1000,000 Watts’ and ‘Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes’ were easily the most bone shattering slices of their set.

After a changeover that went slightly over schedule, an anxious and eager crowd were greeted by the arrival of In Flames and the explosion of their accompanying light show. Beginning suitably with the opener of their latest release ‘Voices’, which in typically modern In Flames fashion seams together guttural verses with a catchy and clean hook, the band proceeded with a setlist that offered up at least one cut from each of their major albums for the past two decades following a somewhat similar formula. While I must selfishly admit at this point that as a fan of the band’s late 1990s and early 2000s material I really wanted them to bust out their more dynamic, aggressive and conceptual material, the angsty inward facing anthems they did perform this evening were arguably some of their modern classics. ‘Where the Dead Ships Dwell’ with its nihilistic yet beautiful lyrics, in particular, was a staple of my college playlist for the longest time, and ‘The End’ being one of the most compellingly tuneful songs of the band’s whole career. These were both respectively, amazing live.

That said, it is not as if there was nothing in the setlist that an old school In Flames fan could enjoy necessarily. Arguably, the best place to see In Flames perform their older stuff is their headline shows, and in the case of tonight; ‘Pinball Map’, ‘Cloud Connected’ and ‘Colony’ were among the vintage cuts performed, and these tapped deeply into my nostalgia of the first time I discovered the band. In addition, it was a great treat to see Act of Defiance (ex-Megadeth) axeman Chris Broderick fill in for Niclas Engelin, as his guitar ability was reliably on point and lent itself brilliantly to the melodies of songs such as ‘My Sweet Shadow’. However, if I were to criticise the show for anything (and I think most Jesterheads would agree with me here), it is the criminal absence of ‘Only for the Weak’ from the setlist, which is an absolute staple of the In Flames catalogue for a reason. That reason being; we all love it.

As far as my overall experience went, I can confidently tell you that despite my burning desire for this band to become as vicious in their songwriting as they once were, the experience of watching them live was incredibly fun, and Anders and co. delivered a very solid performance. Hopefully, in the future, they’ll consider touring a Clayman era set (as was hinted on stage by Anders), but only time will tell.