Death Metal Underground

An At the Gates career retrospective

by Brett Stevens
January 28, 2014 –

at-the-gates-band-photo

Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.

A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.

At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.

At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.

After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.

After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.

At the Gates made the following statement:

We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history

This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.

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20 comments

  • Pure Demoniac Laziness

    Their latest promo pic (with Tomas Lindberg wearing a trucker hat and a “Russian Circles” t-shirt), generic album title (At War with Reality), the “urban” visual aesthetic (cyberpunk/mallgoth hybrid like The Matrix) of the previews and a lack of Alf Svensson can only mean failure. Another damning sign is the lack of classic material in their live sets: unless given an hour and a half (like the Wacken show), At the Gates will only play their last album in its entirety and throw in a couple tracks from the EP before to fill the remaining time (if any). If this is any indication of the “mindset” At the Gates is in for this album, then it will sound like Terminal Spirit Disease with the more “aggro” Pantera parts from Slaughter of the Soul (that’s how they will pacify the modern metalcore and old “melodic death”/AOR audiences simultaneously for maximum income).

  • Wayne

    I saw them live in San Antonio a few years back and was utterly disappointed… The magic was gone, the band was rusty and nervous, and the set was devoted to Slaughter of the Soul with few exceptions. I have since sworn off going to see any reunited classic bands.

  • dawn

    It’s going to suck; we all knew that. File it next to Surgical Steel and the pending Hollywood remake of Suspiria in the “who gives a shit? category.

    Regardless of what this site says, I think The Red in the Sky… is not perfect and certainly has moments of plodding boredom. With Fear is about half brilliant/half dud. Terminal Spirit Disease(you never hear anyone comment on this, positive or negative) has actually aged quite well. It’s more mainstream in structure but has some beautiful melodic work and the lyrics have a strong poetic voice despite the angst(if you bother to read their early lyrics, there was angst visible there too).

    1. fenrir

      I read the lyrics of the first two albums thoroughly. I think there is some angst in the first album. But in the context of portrayals of dementia and madness, I think. The second album had much more mature lyrics in a way. More naturalistic in the Romantic sense, combining it with a more existential (but not whiny) tone. In both cases the lyrics are, in my opinion, enveloped in beautiful metaphor and even poetry.

  • Imposition

    Regardless of what this site says, I think The Red in the Sky… is not perfect and certainly has moments of plodding boredom. With Fear is about half brilliant/half dud. Terminal Spirit Disease(you never hear anyone comment on this, positive or negative) has actually aged quite well. It’s more mainstream in structure but has some beautiful melodic work and the lyrics have a strong poetic voice despite the angst(if you bother to read their early lyrics, there was angst visible there too).

    I almost entirely agree. I would add that Garden’s of Grief is fucking amazing and the pinnacle of the band. I find it much more powerful and unified than Red in the sky. Thicker production, more direct songwriting, and on top of that highly emotionally compelling.

    1. fenrir

      “has moments of plodding boredom”

      Not for me… I do acknowledge that it’s one of those albums which requires dedicated attention, though. But that’s how I listen to music in general, though.

    2. trystero

      I used to have the same opinion about EP vs. album but giving more time to the album has resulted in agreement with the review. The sound is what put me off, even though I didnt acknowledge it. Red is actually quite a strange album once appreciated, far more eclectic and insane than it appears from the thin sound. Unique and brilliant.

  • Gabriel

    Quite honestly, Swedish Death Metal has always seemed dull to me. At the Gates, Therion, Entombed–I’ve tried so hard to appreciate their music on some level but always hit a brick wall.

    1. Fear of Napalm

      Beyond Sanctorum is amazing. Also check out early Dismember.

      Also this reunion is going to suck balls.

      1. Brett Stevens Post author

        This happens consistently in metal when someone invents a new idea.”That’s great, but if we make it more accessible ( = mix in rock music ) we can reach a bigger audience!”

        I think a lot of it also happens when bands aren’t personally strong enough to resist the influences and trends around them. You have your label, parents, friends and teachers saying that you should consider mixing in some Bruce Springsteen so it gets on the radio.

  • Kingdomgone

    The Red in The Sky is Ours is still one of the greatests for me. Although I expect nothing of this exept random shittiness I still have to check it out as At the Gates is one the most important metal bands for me.

  • hiarctow

    The Red in the Sky is Ours is a solid gold metal classic. One of the smartest metal albums ever written. With Fear… and Terminal… are both ok-ish, but nowhere near as inspired as the first album and EP. Slaughter… is abominable.

    They progressively lost direction after the first album, and whilst I respect them hugely for the early stuff we all know they’ve been hearing for years from the doofus metallers that their worst album is their best and their best sounds weak. Given that, It’s unlikely they’ll be looking to make anything the regular readership of this site would want to hear.