At the Gates - The Red in the Sky is Ours
Deaf Records (1992)
Within the history of any artistic genre or movement it is often possible to discern a discreet and predictable developmental pattern. Its initial emergence is murky and indistinct, with multiple artists groping awkwardly around the edges of what it will later become. Soon, the inconsistent fumbling gives way to a second stage in which new artists emerge to consolidate and codify, emphasizing the essential and discarding the dead weight the genre founders had carried over from the previous generation. Finally, yet more artists arrive to build upon the now settled foundation, expanding upon it and ushering in a ‘golden age.’
In death metal these three eras correspond roughly to the years 1983-1986, 1987-1989 and 1990-1993, respectively. It was during the last of these periods that the overwhelming majority of death metal’s greatest albums were released. Bands like Deicide, Atheist, Incantation, Amorphis Demilich, Fleshcrawl, Dismember and Necrophobic emerged to push the genre to new heights, but perhaps no band pushed the limits further or faster than Sweden’s At the Gates did with The Red in the Sky is Ours
At the Gates are often considered the ‘fathers’ of melodic death metal, and while the term itself may be of doubtful utility as a genre tag, it certainly provides a reasonable starting point for understanding The Red in the Sky is Ours
. While its basic approach to instrumentation clearly marks it as a death metal album, there is an underlying awareness of the emerging black metal movement in the fluid tremolo picked melodies (sometimes consonant, sometime dissonant, sometimes built just from the fragments of the chromatic scale - always with the chill of the Void in their depths) that form that compositional backbone and chief vessel for meaning in these songs.
Often these melodies are accompanied or embellished with strings. In fact, The Red in the Sky is Ours
frequently resembles nothing so much as string concerto emerging from the depths of the inferno. Here, the guitars evoke the demonic, lightning-fingered cadenzas of Paganini (the title track), there a melancholic adagio for cello and double bass (“City of Screaming Statues”). At other times, the melodic lines are juxtaposed disconcertingly with dissonant counterpoint (“Through Gardens of Grief”), bringing to the mind to dystopian visions of the darkest of Modernist nightmares.
Technically, The Red in the Sky is Ours
is breathtaking. While it doesn’t aspire to the nth degree musicianship of, say, Cynic, the instrumentation is considerably more complex than one would find even among many technically accomplished bands like Deicide or Morbid Angel (and certainly far more advanced than the viscerally primitive bludgeoning of the then preeminent Stockholm scene).
But what really catches the ear is the vast array of techniques at the band’s disposal and the calculated precision of their employment. The Red in the Sky is Ours
makes use of everything from keyless modalism to polyphony to radical dissonance to elements of serialism and set theory to construct, enhance and complement (and sometimes deconstruct) its central melodies. The Red in the Sky is Ours
may very well be the most compositionally aware album in death metal history. Still, none of these techniques are applied indiscriminately, and in their seamless incorporation into the broader context of song we are made more aware of the central experience of the whole of the music, rather than experiencing it as a series of constituent parts.
For this reason, The Red in the Sky is Ours
distinguishes itself not just in the epic breadth of its vision or the diversity and innovative vigor of its technical execution, but in the totalizing holism and lucidity that mark it a master work among master works. The mastery of tactical detail is matched and more than matched by a strategic mastery of metastructure in which each brilliant detail is rendered more vivid and powerful through its placement in the overarching narrative of song. Similarly, each song is enhanced by its placement within the larger context of the album.
Equally impressive is the seeming effortlessness of the whole project. For all the studied precision of its instrumentation, The Red in the Sky is Ours
exudes the sort of intuitive genius that can neither be taught nor achieved through rote practice. The Germans call it Fingerspitzengefühl
– the ‘finger sense.’ It’s a term that strikes exactly the right chord, evoking both the sheer magic
the album conjures, and the deft and nearly undetectable touch of the band’s skillful manipulation of the listener.
Despite the labyrinthine complexity of much of the music, there is very little of the jarring discontinuity the characterized the work of many of band’s contemporaries. Where artists like Deicide and Atheist built tension through abrupt rhythmic dislocation, At the Gates achieves the same goal through subtler manipulations of dynamics, texture, harmonic shading and melodic development. As a result, The Red in the Sky is Ours
retains a certain grace and fluidity of movement that aestheticizes the violence, rage and alienation at its core without diminishing or obscuring them.
It was perhaps inevitable that excellence of this magnitude would prove unsustainable, at least in the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot world of modern recording. While At the Gates would go on to release three more albums, none even remotely approached the rapturous levels reached with The Red in the Sky is Ours
. However, the greatness of this album is such that even subsequent mediocrity can in no way dim the glory of a band that once stood at the very pinnacle of their artform.