Gothenburg, Sweden’s At the Gates need no introduction. Call them pioneers, call them forefathers, call them innovators – but there are few modern metal bands who haven’t been impacted by at least one of the death metal trailblazers’ albums, whether the avant-garde tech tendencies of their first two albums or the more accessible riff-factory approach of their later works. Simply, they’re one of the most important metal bands of the 90s, and their impact continues to ring true today in their well-received reforming. They’re the kind of band we love analyzing at the various points of their career, and for that reason, they’ve earned a place in this column. Welcome to the Nine Circles Ov… At the Gates.
“Kingdom Gone” (The Red in the Sky is Ours, 1992)
At the Gates’ debut was a curveball even for early 90s death metal. Swimming in a raw, dry production, Lindberg’s famous glass-gargling screams leapt from intricate, unorthodox and dissonant tremolo-picked riffs, and instead of offering the crushing rhythms of American death metal, it was a frenetic, shape-shifting beast. Despite its jumpy and fragmented feel, the band’s energy, fervor, and ear for madness was no better on display than on this classic track.
“Windows” (The Red in the Sky is Ours, 1992)
Even with the album’s firm aesthetic of drawing listeners into a mindset of red-hot insanity, there were some moments that planted seeds for what sounds they’d construct later in their career. This deep cut starts with dirgeful guitar harmonies before launching into a banging verse and, later, one of the best riffs the band ever constructed in the early part of their career. It’s far more melancholy than many of the other songs on the album and works wonderfully, with flourishes of ugly palm-muted chromatics serving as a foil.
“Primal Breath” (With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, 1993)
Each album by At the Gates has its own version of an “epic” that stretches longer in its running time than many of the remaining cuts on the album; The Red in the Sky is Ours has “Within,” and WFIKTBD has “Primal Breath,” a labyrinthine beast of a song.
“The Burning Darkness” (With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, 1993)
WFIKTBD is an album that simultaneously loved and loathed by many. On one hand, it boasts the most technically accomplished songs the band had written up to that point, but its production – not even close to remedied on subsequent remixes and remasters – is bizarre. Dry, muffled drums, trebly guitars, and nonexistent low end obscure a lot of the genius at work here, but the (sort of) title track, at just over two minutes, is fantastic with its distinct time signature (11/8, I think) and guitar lines that bounce off each other to create a strange blend of melody and dissonance.
“The Swarm” (Terminal Spirit Disease, 1994)
With guitarist Alf Svensson’s departure, the duo of Martin Larsson and Anders Björler set about creating a more rhythmic and melodic sound for At the Gates. This more straightforward approach culminated in my personal favorite album from ATG, Terminal Spirit Disease. Its opening track starts with surging violins before launching into infectious melodic guitar work that ups the tempo and intensity from previous works, and Lindberg’s vocals are in top form here.
“Forever Blind” (Terminal Spirit Disease, 1994)
Although it was barely long enough to qualify as a true full-length, Terminal Spirit Disease is essentially a bridge between the unorthodox nature of the band’s first works to the streamlined, go-for-the-jugular approach of Slaughter of the Soul. This track hints toward the type of interwoven melodic riffs that would become a staple on the following album while still maintaining the atmosphere of the band’s former works.
“Slaughter of the Soul” (Slaughter of the Soul, 1995)
“GO!” C’mon. You saw this coming. I won’t gobble the knob of SOTS (we have The Black Dahlia Murder for that), but this song is a pure adrenaline molotov cocktail bathed in flamethrowing fury. Adrian Erlandsson’s drumming is one of the tightest and most natural-sounding performances put to tape, and Larsson and Bjorler’s gridlocked riffs combine the melodic accessibility of early Maiden – galloping triplet rhythms and all – with the frenzy of hardcore and death metal, culminating in the well-known midsection of the song where the guitars drop out every few measure and let vocals take the helm. This is about as anthemic as it gets for melodic death metal.
“Suicide Nation” (Slaughter of the Soul, 1995)
This was my introductory song to At the Gates at the ripe age of 15, and all these years later, it’s still an absolute ripper. From the signature gun-cock that starts it to the relentless battery of Erlandsson’s drumming and the intricate guitar picking pattern, it is, simply, just a well-written song with a delivery that is the icing on the cake. Lindberg’s vocals and phrasing are particularly memorable with the oft-echoed, “JAWS! LOCKED AROUND YOUR SPINE!” taking this song over the top.
“All Life Ends” (Purgatory Unleashed – Live at Wacken 2008)
Go ahead and give me grief for not including a cut from At War With Reality, but I stand by this decision (I felt pretty “meh” about the album as a whole, honestly; it’s basically SOTS twenty years later.). While earlier live recordings of this particular song capture the energy and fever pitch intensity of ATG in their youth, this classic sounds no better than it does on the recording of the 2008 comeback appearance at Wacken. Executed with surgical precision but still keeping its grimy, dirty feel in the guitar tone, it just feels right and was a perfect foil to the SOTS-dominated setlist.
Like any of these columns, this is intended merely as a starting point. Those who are discovering ATG would be best served with this overview or maybe the Purgatory Unleashed record, and working backward from there. You know what to do.