The significance of At The Gates in the history of death metal is massive, if undersold in comparison to that of their North American counterparts—and even some of their fellow Swedish neighbors. The Swedish band helped to popularize the Gothenburg-style of melodic death metal, and where American death metal bands built their house on relentless riffs, At The Gates introduced the deceptively simple element of melody. That crucial component brought a new layer to the death metal sound, further expanding upon the genre’s musical template.
With an accessible intensity and melodic brutality, At The Gates caught the ears of listeners with classics like 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul. Then, after a nearly two-decade hiatus, the band released At War With Reality in 2014 and To Drink From The Night Itself in 2018. And though they arrived much later on, both albums still contain the band’s iconic sound and style. As the band continue their second act with the strength of songwriting and energy of their first, At The Gates present their seventh studio album, The Nightmare Of Being.
“Specter of Extinction” opens the album with serene-sounding guitars, teasing a sense of something epic to come, all before the band rushes in at full force to unleash a ferocious bombardment of instrumentation. This riveting rush of an opener bleeds into “The Paradox” without missing a beat, the guitar work and drumming taking the lead in carrying that instrumental extremity. The band’s chemistry is top-notch, each component flowing well and working off one another. Drummer Adrian Erlandsson, bassist Jonas Bjorler and guitarists Martin Larsson and Jonas Stalhammar bringing exhilarating performances to this outstanding opening pair of tracks.
The Nightmare Of Being is an exploration into nihilism, pessimistic philosophies and mortality. Tomas Lindberg’s lyrics possess an abstract nature, which elicits chilling imagery. Lindberg delivers a spoken opening to “Garden of Cyrus” against an instrumental arrangement that shifts between minimalist and aggressive: “The nameless shapes/ That poison the world/ A Chaos at feast/ In eternal return/ The vertigo of freedom/ That nests in the shadows/ The all-devouring dead/ In the fires of unbecoming.” And though it’s by no means a radical direction to provide more moments of quiet and nuance, At The Gates only round out their sonics with a greater degree of diversity in doing so.
There’s an electrifying heaviness and ominous melancholy to much of the material here, each track dialed in and delivered at full throttle. That said, there aren’t too many drastic changes or surprises in their approach as the record plays on. At The Gates very much stick to their chosen aesthetic—and they do it well—but they rarely set foot outside of that aesthetic. What the album lacks in experimentation, however, it more than makes up for in the power of the band’s performances. “The Fall into Time” rings with a grandiose air, with ferociously pounding drums and lightning-speed riffs (even with a little bit of funk for good measure—OK, that part was surprising). One of the most interesting songs here by far is “Cosmic Pessimism,” taking on a minimal rock-funk tone and twisting it into a fascinating death metal composition. There’s a relatively relaxed presence to the arrangement—intensifying at just the right moments—that sets it apart from the rest of the album, the rarity of a song of its kind only further emphasizing it as a standout moment.
At The Gates remain masters of death metal on the third album of their second wave, and though they’d have nothing to lose by shaking up the formula, there is no denying the thrilling force of The Nightmare Of Being. In the three decades as a band, At The Gates have never held back. They’re driven to unleash music that’s physical in nature, yet harbors introspection and insight beyond death metal’s stereotypical ghoulishness. That they’re still capable of something that hits this hard is a triumph unto itself.
Label: Century Media
A graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program, Michael Pementel is a published music journalist, specializing in metal and its numerous subgenres. Along with his work for Treble and Bloody Disgusting, he has also written for Consequence of Sound, Metal Injection, Dread Central, Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Funimation blog.