AT THE GATES - THE NIGHTMARE OF BEING
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
SWEDISH MELODEATH OVERLORDS TURN TO GOTHIC WEIRDNESS IN THEIR BOLDEST STEP YET.
At The Gates are, inescapably – and whether anyone likes it or not, stapled to their celebrated, timeless classic Slaughter of the Soul (1995). It was the band’s creative apogee and a Reign In Blood-type transformative event for the death metal genre. With no fillers or flab, the album packed in eleven tightly harnessed, savage tracks, each one a short, sharp killer blow. It was a sublime combination of laser precision musicianship, excoriating violent metal, and soaring melodic twin-lead harmonies. With an embarrassment of riches when it came to riffs and hooklines, Slaughter of the Soul was a high-tide mark for melodeath and set a standard against which both the band, and many other acts, were subsequently measured. Yet it was not only deft songcraft that elevated ATG, but their music created a unique atmosphere that had a furnace-like apocalyptic aesthetic of finality. It was this idiosyncratic chemistry and HR Giger-esque sound that no others could replicate, but one that ATG have dabbled with over the years, particularly since their reformation in 2011. At War With Reality (2014) and To Drink From The Night Itself (2017) were attempts at a nexus between the vintage mid-1990s era with current expectations by experimenting – though not dramatically - in modifications of their sound. Allegedly inspired by nihilistic and pessimistic philosophical thought and modern horror literature, The Nightmare of Being presents ATG’s boldest evolution to date and the most impressive work since Slaughter of the Soul.
The first three songs sound like a conventional – but brilliant – extension of previous work. Spectre of Extinction is simply ripping vintage ATG at their most tight and caustic with those distinctive twin melodies interplaying with urgent, furious riff-work. It is up there with the best on their setlists. Equally, The Paradox and the slightly slower, nightmarish vibe of the title track compliment the band’s legacy sound with streamlined riffs and focussed energy. It is seething melodic death metal played at its most intense and invigorating. The band’s famous engine is as finely tuned and gutsy as it ever was and the unmistakeable Gothenburg sound is not only intact but this is a salutary example of how to do it.
But, wait. Though ATG have a classy and successful formula, The Nightmare of Being is most indubitably not a revision of a proven and repeatable template. The experimental notions - only subtly trialled in the last two albums - have now been given far wider freedom with unexpected and remarkable. The first real surprise is Garden of Cyrus, a slower, atmospheric track that twists thought various passages from dreamy, soothing prog to bursts of freestyle saxophone, and gravelly spoken word verses. It is an audacious manoeuvre that could have been gone hideously wrong, but it is instead pulled off brilliantly by fully integrating the experimental elements rather than simply lacing them on top of the song. By eschewing screaming or blastbeats, ATG's characteristic bleakness is given a modern nouveau iteration.
The Nightmare of Being is also markedly more bombastic, more ornate and gothic in style than any of the band’s previous output. Touched by the White Hands of Death begins with a richly grandiose introduction that might have been found opening a Cradle of Filth opus. With a developing palpable sense of dread, the song soon crashes into quintessential harsh melodeath that retains those vintage uplifting melodies before bookending with horror-inspired organs. Similar gothic orchestration heralds The Fall Into Time, a theatrical and pompous seven minutes with textured voice effects and an unexpected jazzy breakdown. Meanwhile, Cult of Salvation is an odd composite of conventional ATG metallic belligerence augmented by creepy tinkling keys and an unsettling gothic chill - yet it is all inflated and given a larger dimension by whimsical prog widdling. Even what seems like a straightforward ATG rager, The Abstract Enthroned – pummelling and acerbic – is spiked with opulent gothic epic enormity and synths. A red herring appears at one late point with Cosmic Pessimism, jazzy, agitated alt-rock with muttered vocals that centre on existential futility. Hardly heavy in a death metal context, it is more art rock and perhaps the lightest song the band have committed.
So what to make of all this? The musicianship is invariably top-notch and ATG are, as always, infallibly well-calibrated. The riffing is both imaginative and razor-like and they can still play fast, precisely, and tightly. The signature sound is undiminished too and you can tell it is ATG from several blocks away. Tomas Lindberg’s vocals have, arguably, toiled here and there in recent years. While his vocal delivery here is wheezier than in years gone by, here he puts in a hell of a savage, committed performance. But make no mistake, The Nightmare of Being is a huge stylistic step and ATG should be saluted for their courage in taking a well-managed risk and being prepared to advance even this late into their careers. The album feels longer than its’ 45 minute runtime, though, and the second half of the record is slower. The lush, atmospheric introductions and passages - which add that crucial horror and cosmic intellectual layering - can slightly clock up the minutes too. This is, however, a minor criticism given the boldness of what this album attempts. While elements of The Nightmare of Being might only become apparent over the longer-term, this is still easily the best ATG album since they re-united and, indeed, since 1995.