Haunted by the Past, At the Gates Confront “The Nightmare of Being” (Review)
Frankly, it's a challenge to review an album from At The Gates without comparing it to their 1995 masterpiece Slaughter Of The Soul: the “black album” of Swedish death metal. It also served as At The Gates' swansong, and a rare example of a band quitting at their creative peak, at least until their reformation in 2014.
The other reason for the comparison is because their new album The Nightmare Of Being (grab it on clear vinyl) is constantly crammed with riffs and structures that seem like throwbacks to Slaughter Of The Soul. This will probably please die-hard At The Gates fans and casual listeners, but it frustrated this more cynical reviewer, especially in view of the flashes of progressive grandeur and sinister symphonic sections this record appears to grasp for without fully committing.
The Nightmare of Being is still pretty damn good. These elder death metal heads continue to evolve their sound with new influences, while they remain true to the classic At The Gates formula of brooding, energetic metal, infectious melodies that fit together like angular puzzle pieces, artistic detours, and lyrical themes of inner conflict and societal disgust, spewed with vitriol by vocalist Tomas Lindberg.
Opener “Spectre Of Extinction” slowly teases the listener with folksy acoustic guitars, followed by dueling electric melodies that ring out in the ether. It quickly hits the accelerator and thrashes on, highlighted by longtime percussionist’s Adrian Erlandsson’s punky D-beats and groovy double bass rhythms. Lindberg's vocals bite with the ever present sense of frustration and rage, albeit a bit hoarser than previous albums. King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque returns for another guest spot to rattle off a spectacular guitar solo.
At The Gates repeatedly fall into a familiar pattern on The Nightmare Of Being. You know how AC/DC songs are all approximately the same tempo, with nearly interchangeable drum beats? At The Gates do the Swedish death metal version of that. A prime example is a song like “Blinded By Fear,” where the verse kicks in with a blistering thrash beat, followed by the chorus section sinking into a steadier double bass drum groove, before it picks up again with the next verse. Rip and repeat. At The Gates brilliantly executed this structure throughout Slaughter Of The Soul, but three albums and 25 years later, it appears they refuse to shake the spectre of their past.
The Nightmare of Being's sophomoric track, “The Paradox,” is another bolt of lightning. Catchy as hell? Yes. A bit formulaic? Yes. However, “The Paradox” hurls a few welcome curveballs. Its operatic mid-section rouses like the climactic scene of an action film. Spindly yarns of clean guitar tones cut in right when the song seems posed to be at its heaviest. This one even has touches of piano, lending an air of Depeche Mode.
Surprisingly, the title track might be one of the big lulls of the album. It's far from garbage, but it is noticeably slower, given At The Gates' propensity for turbocharged aggression. “The Nightmare Of Being” sinks into a drearier pocket, perhaps a sign of their post metal and hardcore influences, with subtle notes of sludge creeping throughout.
The bizarre “Garden Of Cyrus” is a total treat. It might be some of their weirdest music since The Red In The Sky Is Ours. Its first two minutes build up with psychedelic-twinged guitars, and a saxophone solo wails on with big King Crimson energy. “Garden Of Cyrus” creates an eerie aura and still rocks hard in its latter half. I'd love to see if this song ever gets performed live, if they can accommodate the guest instruments.
At The Gates further experiment with eclectic instrumentations in the latter half of The Nightmare Of Being. Their dabblings into the realms of symphonic black metal and strange medieval atmospheres prove the most delightful revelations of the album, although they too often retreat back to their tried and true Swedish death metal formula.“Touched By The White Hands Of Death” crescendos with a sinister orchestral arrangement in its introduction, featuring guest musicians on clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello. But once the band of Swedes blast in and return to their more familiar sound, this one rings too similar to “Spectre Of Extinction.” It's somewhat of a let down, after this song's splendidly haunting first half.
“The Fall Into Time” leads in with a spooky medieval keyboard introduction seemingly lifted from nineties Emperor or Cradle Of Filth, maybe with a nod to Summoning. This track rouses with beating war drums, like an ancient army marching in the fiery distance. The band joins the mayhem and attack with a menacing Middle Eastern scale. Founding member Jonas Björler even throws in a crunchy bass solo, flanked by soulful synths.
“Eternal Winter Of Reason'' concludes this record with a fitting kiss off. This track rollicks with chunky, mid-paced dread, the perfect tempo for a mosh pit. It alludes to the symphonic elements touched upon throughout The Nightmare Of Being, as the band once again employs synthesizer to expand the metallic melancholia. It's a brisk victory lap at three and a half minutes, but avoids sounding too familiar and formulaic, so the record ends on a stronger high creative note.
Here's the conundrum for At The Gates. Slaughter Of The Soul is simply one of the best metal albums ever. But since then, that style of melodic death metal has been copied and ripped off to increasingly diminishing returns, and often by far lesser bands. It appears At The Gates even falls prey to this on The Nightmare Of Being. But, I also see where they might be headed—the strange, jazzy spaces they reach for. One could hope At The Gates go a similar direction as Carcass, who have recorded some of the greatest songs of their catalogue thirty years in, rather than sucking on the fumes of their past.
The evil symphonic elements on The Nightmare Of Being hold much promise. The gothic keyboards remind me of the malevolent atmosphere on Gardens Of Grief, a deliciously grim and unorthodox debut record. Likewise, their classical and psychedelic elements evoke distant similarities to With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, a record whose only formula is total creative chaos. At The Gates prove they still write some sweet hooks on their new album, but they might be at their strongest when they make weird choices. After all, Slaughter Of The Soul is the culmination of everything At The Gates learned from playing with deeply experimental death metal on their earlier records. Who knows what worlds might be waiting to be born from further deviations?
The Nightmare of Being releases today, July 2nd, via Century Media Records. Grab it on limited-to-300 clear vinyl.