Ever since Martin Brändström joined Dark Tranquillity for 1999's Projector, the band has honed its now-signature sound – keyboard-driven, Gothenburg melodic death metal. Changes since then have been more incidental than structural, culminating in 2005's Character. The band seemed to have settled upon a great formula – crunchy guitars, keyboards to fill in the gaps, the occasional odd meter, and Mikael Stanne's midrange growl.
Character was nearly flawless, begging the question of where the band would go next. Fiction provides a resounding answer – the past and the future. On "Misery's Crown," Stanne returns to the clean singing of Projector; "The Mundane and the Magic" features a compelling duet with a female singer known only as "Nell." Those who thought Projector was overly soft will be relieved that growls nicely balance clean vocals here.
The guitars also step up, firing off strong riffs throughout and bringing back memories of the six string-driven The Gallery and The Mind's I. "The Lesser Faith" is the album's highlight, deploying steely harmonies like raised shields before battle. "Blind at Heart" has a blazing solo that explores rare shred territory; the lead break in "Focus Shift" is likewise fluent.
If Character dabbled in blastbeats, Fiction revels in them. DT hasn't turned into Suffocation or Nile, though; it's just more likely now to elevate a song through brief blasting. The approach is mature and dynamic, another weapon in the arsenal rather than a stylistic crutch.
Niklas Sundin's cover artwork is curiously bland this time, although he unleashes a beautiful two-panel piece in the liner notes. The big "DT" is appropriate, though; it seems to say, "This is Dark Tranquillity." Fiction is a fine summation of the band's history, a way forward through looking back.