In the liner notes for “Death Dealer” on Hymns of Blood and Thunder (Rise Above, 2009), Karl Simon, The Gates of Slumber‘s singer/guitarist, tells off critics who accused his last album of having fluff lyrics. “Not everything in life is deep,” he says. “In fact, if you look at it closely, life is chronically full of shit (…) Crank this one up and just bang your head to it.”
The Gates of Slumber write fantasy lyrics with no philosophical intent. That doesn’t mean that their work isn’t serious, however. The Gates of Slumber are so good at tapping into the core of things that their songs always feel worldly. “Death Dealer” is a great example. The majesty of the riffs, the way Simon’s voice trembles with awe and anguish when it hits higher registers, the invocation of the Lord’s Prayer in the chorus “Lord of shadow, Lord of fear,” make the song a defiant reckoning with death, as well as a fantasy about a Frank Frazetta painting. The emotions are real, even if the subject isn’t.
The rest of the album is as good. The Gates of Slumber imbue their material with pathos when a more familiar treatment would suffice. It’s an inspired decision to write a song based on an H.P. Lovecraft story (“Descent into Madness”) and end it with grief instead of horror. In doing so, the band captures a tragic element of Lovecraft that is easy to overlook. Other songs function similarly: “The Doom of Aceldama” reinvents Judas as a forsaken, unwilling hero. “The Mist in the Morning” works elements of the touring song into a dirge. We’ve heard these stories before, but not these interpretations.
When I talk about originality, what I want as much as musical innovation is surprising emotional effect. In terms of sound, The Gates of Slumber are phenomenal craftsmen, but they don’t do much to reinvent the doom and NWOBHM traditions from which they hail. I love well-observed tradition, but by itself it doesn’t make for essential listening. These songs excel because of effect rather than innovation. They make me notice things about their subjects that I hadn’t noticed before, and in doing so make life more interesting. Ultimately, that’s what I want from art. It’s what I got from The Gates of Slumber’s forebears — Cirith Ungol, Manilla Road, Saint Vitus, et al. — and it’s why Hymns of Blood and Thunder is great.