Live Review : In Flames + Norma Jean + Light The Torch @ O2 Ritz, Manchester on April 4th 2019

I do wonder sometimes whether we need to mix things up more at ROCKFLESH Towers and in order to get more partisan and objective reviews start sending Matt, Sarah, Jo and I to see bands that we are not naturally huge fans of. You see I utterly adore In Flames and short of them walking on stage and doing pitch perfect Daniel O’Donnell covers they are going to garner a gushing review from me (spoilers).

However signs aren’t great early on as a sparse crowd greets Light the Torch, which is bloody shame as Howard Jones is essentially a living legend. The resurgence of Killswitch Engage since Jesse’s return has rather over shadowed Howard’s brilliance as a frontman, but tonight his vocal acrobatics are in full force and he seems relaxed and essentially to be having a whale of a time. The politics around the rather acrimonious departure of James Sankey from the band and the subsequent name change from Devil You Know has over-shadowed what is actually a mighty fine melodic Metal band and I can’t stress enough that Howard’s voice is back to the best it has ever been, soaring in places soaked with soul and then plunging into guttural screams. By the end of a set almost exclusively taken from the last year’s “Revival” (only ‘Consume the Damned comes from pre-name change times), Howard has the rapidly growing crowd eating out of his hands and after all the shit and false starts it feels that like one of metal’s most versatile voices maybe about to finally get that long overdue second shot.

Norma Jean have been in this game for over twenty years but they have had such a revolving door of members that vocalist Cory Brandan (who joined in 2004) is the longest serving component of the current line-up. I must admit that I am just a casual observer to their career, but to my ears they have got more caustic and brutal with each record and tonight they are a whirlwind of un-bridled raw power. From the off, this in your face pissed off Metalcore with the emphasis very much on the core. They sound raw, driven and really rather angry and whereas Howard Jones came across as affable and charismatic, Cory Brandan looks possessed and in throes of battling inner demons. The pace slows down for the almost minimalistic and Neurosis alike ‘Disconnecktie: The Faithful Vampire from Cory’s first album with the band, “O God.The Aftermath”, but then we are off again full pelt into the rest of the set (pausing only for the more melodic ‘Sword In Mouth, Fire Eyes’) before ‘Deathbed Atheist’‘ brings it all to a chaotic conclusion. There are pockets of the crowd who seem to treat the set as the second coming and good on them, but for me it was just too corrosive and brittle for my tastes.

By the time In Flames take the stage, the Ritz is heaving and I am greatly relieved as the constant pushing of the gig on my Facebook timeline had made me fear that was a hard ticket to shift. New album “I, the Mask” may have divided critics (I loved it, but I am biased) but tonight In Flames are in the mood to prove that they are still one of the best live bands out there. From the moment that they start with ‘Voices (the opening track off the aforementioned “I, the Mask”) they are magnificent, the sound is crystal clear and the band operate in tight coordination. In Flames tread a fantastically fertile fine-line between crisp commercialism and the intensity and brutality of Death Metal. They are clean and modern sounding but still manage to have the power and drive to make each track a little whirlwind of untamed energy. They may not have the following here that they have on the continent but in unison every member of the crowd loses their shit big time as “Clayman” ’s ‘Pinball Map kicks in, a snarling riff driven monolith of a track and the energy never abates for the entire set.

Tonight we get a tour de force of driving metal, the setlist is a wonderfully engineered hundred and twenty mile an hour rollercoaster ride through their back catalogue and impressively we manage to get tracks from ten of their thirteen albums, with only their first three releases ignored. This guided tour through twenty years of In Flames history illustrates how they have seamlessly evolved from melodic Death Metal to their current utterly wonderful but undefinable brand of modern Heavy Metal. Its like pictures of your kids, you can only really see the growth when you put the muscular savagery of ‘Colony’ side by side with the rich commercial tones of ‘Call My Name’, both brilliant but both also startling different. As said, tonight is delivered at pace, nineteen songs in under an hour and a half, and with no guitar switches at all (from what I can see) it is track after track after track in a machine gun fast blizzard of highly proficient Heavy Metal. We end, fittingly, with ‘The End’ from 2016’s “Battles”, a kaleidoscope of buzzsaw guitars and catchy choruses, and that’s it, no encores, just a breathless knackered crowd hungry for more. It feels weird to call a band of In Flames pedigree underrated but they are just that, a stunningly proficient and well-honed machine that is certainly don’t get the plaudits they deserve for being one of the finest live acts we currently have in Metal and tonight, as always they were incredible. Even If I am biased.

Words by Stewart Lucas
Photography by Johann Wierzbicki