So the comment I made on Grymm’s piece on losing your metal virginity may have been intentionally provocative. I resented the proposition that everyone distinctly remembers their first exposure to heavy metal as I do not: I’ve always been exposed to it so can’t recall a precise occasion. While this is true, and as I later conceded, the story is quite different with regard to extreme metal. There’s a romanticized origins story involving Opeth but I could always appreciate them insofar as they overlapped with 70s prog to which I’ve also always been exposed. The first death metal that I heard and loved which was itself derived from metal was The Jester Race by In Flames. Opeth (and arguably Slayer) notwithstanding, this is ground zero for me. And you know what? It holds up brilliantly. Certainly better than 2 other releases of a similar time and style from the same town. Let’s call them The Calorie and Porter of the Seoul.
It may seem an unnecessary point to raise given the nature of Gothenburg metal, but this is primarily on the strength of the guitar-play. The dual attack facilitates heroic harmonies and passages which contrast blasty rhythms with exemplary melodies. The Jester Race is simultaneously supremely headbangable and laden with hooks which have meant I’ve not been able to get over a few of the tracks here. “Moonshield” opens with an awesome acoustic passage which utilizes such a harmony despite the absence of electrification and transitions into a lead which I now associate with not just In Flames but melodeath as a whole. The intro to “Lord Hypnos” blends the chuggy rhythm guitar with a noodly but focused top layer to truly compelling effect and the lead on “December Flower” remains one of their signature riffs, galloping in true Maiden fashion.
Outside of the core riffing passages occupying much of the album’s length, it’s the transitions and little flourishes and embellishments which elevate this to classic material. The guitar bridges used on “Artifacts of the Black Rain” have the complexity of solos but that they recur demonstrates the ability to write and perform technical but tasteful music. Great solos litter the record too. Even the gradual and organic evolution from the breakdown in “Lord Hypnos” offers something a little different to other tracks. Indeed, the short instrumental interlude of “The Jester’s Dance” is another highlight and may be my favorite of its type apart from “To One Far Away” by Mercyful Fate. The early solo is elite and the leads are unbelievably catchy.
And I’ve said all of these nice things without even mentioning the title track itself. I rank it in my top 10 metal songs of all time and never fail to be exhilarated by the introduction which gradually layers instrumentation and accelerates in pace. The chug is so satisfying and the solo at 3:40 is solid gold. I don’t want to vomit superlatives on to this page so suffice to say it still invokes the sense of exploration I first experienced when dipping my toes into heavier metal.
People talk about The Calorie. They talk about Porter of the Seoul. Some argue that In Flames went on to even greater things (not you Sounds of a Playground Fading, sit down). But The Jester Race consolidated their sound and marked the beginning of this exemplary run. It is the kingpin of mid-90s melodeath and remains a classic.