Music is a language, and utilizes formulas to communicate emotions to an audience. This is the most basic understanding of the idea of music as a tool, but the mastery of the manipulation of human perception through the mathematics of musical language can only be effective if an artist has something substantial to say, and uses the medium of music as the vehicle to communicate that idea, rather than approaching this communication as if the method of expression is the message itself. This is the disconnect we see as musicians “mature” and develop their craft as their passions slowly extinguish, and it is not surprising that the best releases using metal as a communicative tool are often released in a band’s initial releases, when they knew the least of how the musical language works. This ignorance allows an immediacy that overwrought cynicism betrays, and it is here that the heart of metal thrives. The education gained from elaborating on the language of music can enforce the initial artistic message when the understanding of human perception is developed, or it can suffocate the communicative process should the composer fixate on how the listener will react to the information presented. The efforts of post-reunion At the Gates are mired in the latter type of composition, and To Drink from the Night Itself is the band’s most grievous offense.
As the members of the band are now seasoned professionals, their knowledge of the language of music is at an extremely high level, but the wielding of this knowledge is amateurish and at times pandering. The band knows the audience wants to hear something that sounds like At the Gates (Slaughter of the Soul in particular) so they throw out a formulaic SOTS riff to start the record, as a melody remains steadfast over a minor sixth shift in root. It’s a tried and true musical trope popularized by the band and emulated by every metalcore band since, and it is inherently saccharine and transparent. The composition of this initial track which bears the album title is baffling, as it relies on vocal breaks to piece the incredibly simple arrangement together, and the repetition of phrases makes the listener crave something like a guitar solo to break up the monotony, which is shameful because the metal listener should never crave a guitar solo, and a good one should arrive naturally and communicate something at a point in the song where nothing else could. Craving adornments to barren arrangements is hoping for an aesthetically pleasing skin on a rotten skeleton, and showcases an irredeemable flaw in composition.
The band has further acquired knowledge in how to manipulate the listener through musical language as evidenced in the album’s progression: minor scale progressions communicate a depressing mood and major scales can exude triumph. At what closest resembles climaxes in various tracks here, both of these tropes are utilized in their most pedestrian forms as choruses attempt to humanize the musicians to the audience. These moments are hamfistedly dictated, and moments later either the song in each case fades out or abruptly ends, showcasing a clear lack of artistic holistic vision. When the need to sound like At the Gates resurfaces, pedal tone palm muted roots once again shift around steadfast melodies to ground the audience into captive familiarity.
At the Gates has promised a more sinister melodicism in this record prior to release, and their musical education at this point has provided them with chromatic and tritone intervals to allow this idea to be sponged up by a salivating audience. These moments allow the record to be less saccharine than their previous efforts, but only serve to contrast with the pathos of each pandering chorus in an effort to convince the listener that a varied and mature record is being digested. The melodic ideas that provide these contrasts are characterless, and are presented as exercises in tonal coloring rather than as enhancements to the message present in authoritative melodic narration.
When the band wants to exhibit a sense of dread, they have figured out how to delve into the plague of abstraction that is crippling modern metal currently, as most songs have moments of toneless arpeggios whining over a minor progression to placate the listener with vibe over substantial melody. This is a communicative element that you can hear but not constructively listen to, and while some bands make entire careers out of this idea (Ulcerate comes to mind), few have utilized it to enhance their message rather than let it cannibalize every other creative faculty in the songwriting process. Here, these moments are a nuisance and seem to be placed so the audience can say, “At the Gates has really developed and has way more to say than what Slaughter of the Soul hinted at!” Neither of these statements are true.
The greatest offense a band late in its career can show is a lack of passion while still utilizing the genre of metal to release a record. At the Gates seems fixated on being sure the audience doesn’t think they are going through the motions in that we don’t have a rehash here of any of their particular records or a culmination of their efforts to date either. What we do have is something that wants to express a multitude of emotions as apparent in a midlife crisis but in the process only uses the most basic musical understanding of formulas to express these messages, which is utterly criminal given the innovation present in At the Gates’ earliest efforts. Obviously age and member shifts aren’t going to allow the band to achieve what they had in the past, but this seems to be another case of a band not knowing what made them great, as all of the things this record is trying to accomplish through abstract manipulation of vibe and obvious shifts in tonality could be achieved through a more concrete representation of melodic ideas and greater focus on structural coherence. Everything learned and utilized by the band on this release is a transparent sleight-of-hand parlor trick used to mask a glaring omission of integral artistic spirit. In finding every new way to say something to their audience on To Drink from the Night Itself, At the Gates has unfortunately said nothing at all.