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The Red In the Sky Is Ours (1992)
 
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At the Gates rose from the ashes of Grotesque, a Satanic Swedish Black / Death Metal band from the late 80s. With the Gardens of Grief E.P. the band already showed a definitive shift from the sound of Grotesque to a heavier, more bottom-heavy sound more related to other bands of the time. The vocals were much deeper as well, for the most part, but the release showed promise.

The Red In the Sky Is Ours is the debut full-length from Sweden's At the Gates. This is truly a masterpiece of an album, and far surpasses anything the band would go on to release. The spirit of Grotesque lives on here, but in much different form. This is not typical Swedish Death Metal, at all. It is actually much more reminiscent of early Burzum. In many aspects, this album possesses a similar feel and the structures are quite more complicated than most Death Metal. However, it does feature some of the rhythmic structures of that subgenre.

Vocally, Tomas Lindberg's style is a terrible shriek, that fits alongside that of Varg Vikernes. It works brilliantly with the hauntingly miserable melodies of this album. It sounds much less controlled than on later releases and is one of the best aspects of this album.

"The Red In the Sky Is Ours / The Season To Come" starts off furiously with tortured screams, blasting drums and fast tremolo riffs. This album gives the impression that the band could have easily chosen to go down a different path. They could have made the transition to Black Metal, such as Darkthrone did, and been quite successful. One can even find minor similarities between this and Soulside Journey. It is a shame that At the Gates chose a simpler way, following this album. At the conclusion of the opening track, there is the sound of thunder and rain, accompanied by a violin. This seems to accentuate the atmosphere very well.

To explain the production, the sound is clear enough but not overdone. It's not exactly raw, either. To best describe it, one would have to compare it to the first two Burzum albums and even Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism from Immortal. The guitar is definitely audible, but not very sharp. Really, the album may have benefited from the guitars being a little bit louder in the mix, but this is a minor complaint. The drums drive the songs nearly as much as the guitars do, so it may not be right to bury them in the mix.

In some places, one can find doom-inspired riffs, maybe in the vein of Dissection's The Somberlain. There is definitely a dark and somber atmosphere being created with this work. "Through Gardens of Grief" is one of the best songs on here, and features brilliant harmonies. There is also another violin piece in this song, going further to add to the depressive feeling. The song is mostly fast-paced, but not entirely. The vocals really convey a deep hopelessness here.

The epic feeling continues on the next song, "Within." It begins with a doomy riff, yet manages to get up to full speed later on. There is even another violin passage that blends in, seamlessly. And it is at this point the listener must realize the pure genius of this record. Here, At the Gates have created an absolute masterpiece, yet it seems to have occurred naturally. Many bands try to achieve such lofty goals, only to fall short. They try too hard. On The Red In the Sky Is Ours, the members of At the Gates flawlessly executed their goal. They brought their vision to life, and it was only a coincidence that it turned out so brilliantly. It was an extension of their creativity, which seemed to have no boundaries at this point. Only later on would they appear to limit themselves and thus suffocate this brilliance.

As the album continues, "Windows" offers great melodies filled with tension and dread. "Neverwhere" is certainly one of the standout tracks on this album. The dark melodies, agonized vocals and lyrics flow together, perfectly.

"Life doesn't belong here."

"The Scar" seems to be more of an extension of the previous song. The mood is much the same, though the delivery is much more subdued. Though quite simple, the song does well in painting a very bleak picture.

"The end, it reaches out for me. My soul still calling to be free."

This short piece manages to, effectively, create a very bleak and hopeless feeling. As the album draws to a close, the pace picks back up, somewhat. We also get a new version of "City of Screaming Statues" which was originally released on the Gardens of Grief E.P. This song is blindingly fast, most of the way through, yet it is a fitting close to this monumental album. Such an achievement would never again be equaled by this band or any other that attempted to follow in its wake. This album represents that peak of creativity for At the Gates. If you have not yet heard this, then you do not truly know this band.
 
(27 Mar. 2008)

 
With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness (1993)
 

In May 1993, At the Gates released their second full-length, With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. This album would be the one that planted the seeds of the change in sound that was to come. However, it still retained a great deal of creativity, placing it within the classic era of this band; i.e. the period before they dumbed-down their style in order to appeal to the mainstream metal fans.

"Beyond Good and Evil" is a fast-paced, intense song that works well to get things going. There are no eerie intros, here. There are still some riffs that would have worked within the context of Black Metal, but the song structures prevent that from being the case. Still, At the Gates was quite alone in possessing a unique style, at this point, especially when compared to the other Swedish Death Metal bands of the era.

The next song is the real highlight of the album. "Raped By the Light of Christ" starts out with a somber acoustic piece before the sorrowful main riff comes in, like a fresh razor slicing your throat and wrists. It circles around you, cutting into your feeble heart, leaving little behind. As on the previous album, Tomas gives an agonizing vocal performance, sounding like he's been gargling broken glass. At this point, the thrash riffs are only a small part of the proceedings, taking a back seat to the tremolo riffs. However, already they are a bit more present than on earlier releases.

"I have traveled through suns
And the darkness of the end
Now I surrender to the void
And join with the pulse of the universe"

With "The Break of Autumn", it becomes clear that the thrashier riffs mixing with the tortured tremolo melodies is more the work of Alf Svensson, than anyone else. For, in his absence, they truly went for a more simplified approach. Here, the dark art that they created was still worthy of high praise. During these years, Tomas Lindberg really was Sweden's answer to Varg Vikernes, having the most tormented screams east of Bergen. The solo, near the end, fits perfectly with the dismal mood of this recording.

Already, it seems that the sound is a bit more streamlined than on The Red in the Sky is Ours, also lacking the violin and cello parts. For some, this was a step in the right direction, though I remain in the minority. "Non-Divine" is one of the songs that go, largely, unaffected by this. The song features plenty of tempo changes and a lot of atmosphere. Really, the structure and drumming are the prime components that keep this from drifting into Black Metal territory (as well as lyrics). However, the aura created by the tremolo riffs and the torn throat of Tomas cannot be over-emphasized.

"Primal Breath" slowly fades in from the silence, with separate tremolo riffs coming together to form one cohesive melody. This is the longest song on the album, clocking in over seven minutes. The atmosphere, in the opening moments, is quite dismal and almost serves to drain your energy. Though the pace picks up, this feeling never goes away. Where this song really shines is during the slower sections, where the riffs are able to dig their icy claws into you, ripping all semblance of hope from your withered frame. This song bears an epic quality that places it among the best that this band ever recorded. It may be a little difficult for some to digest, at first (if you're a fan of the later work), but it is highly recommended that you give it repeated listens so that the darkness may consume you, completely. As the song reaches its conclusion, it simply fades out. Ending in the same way that it began, this almost gives the feeling that the song is endless, and that we only arrived to catch a small piece of that. Somewhere in the deeps of infinity, beyond time, these black sounds permeate other worlds and realities, ever-sprawling thoughout the great nothingness.

"The Architects" begins with a simpler approach, being more straight-forward and fast-paced. It is a rather brief song, making its placement on the album a wise move, giving the listener some sort of break after such a lengthy sonic journey.

This is followed by "Stardrowned", which takes a similar path. There's some odd feeling, in the opening moments, with strange timing and so on. Though the tempo is fairly steady and fast, the feeling is still a bit darker than on the previous song. Some of the melodies, here, would have been well served to have been drawn out a bit. The thrashier sections aren't as significant, in my view.

"Blood of the Sunsets" has a strange piece with vocals and drums, very briefly, without any guitars. One may get the sense that this song is the weakest link on here, as it takes a minute to really show any sign of being worthy. There are some really good riffs on this track, but they're thrown alongside others that I don't feel work so well within the context of the album. The brief vocal effect is rather useless, as well, hiding the natural sound that Tomas has achieved. But the tremolo melodies save this, maintaining the dark thread that runs throughout the entire album. This is the lasting impression, as the song fades away.

The next song was an early favorite of mine, for some reason. "The Burning Darkness" is the shortest song on here, kind of reminding me of "The Scar", in the sense that it seems more like a part of the whole, rather than something that could stand on its own. The tortured feeling from the vocals chills your bones, and the riffs work to support this. It, definitely, could have been expanded, but it may be that it worked better this way.

"Ever-Opening Flower" features guest vocals from Matti Kärki, of Dismember. There's a strange contrast between the two vocalists. It is strange enough, as the sound that At the Gates would later adopt owes much more to Dismember than to their own back-catalog. As for this song, there are still those bleak and miserable melodies that reach into your chest to stop your heart from beating. However, those are sparsely mixed in with the thrashier riffs, taking away some of the effect.

The album ends with "Through the Red", which is more of a straight-forward, fast-paced song. Actually, this is the shortest one on the album, as the track consists of this song and a 'hidden' Discharge cover. All in all, this is a rather useless way to close out the record.

With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness is a few steps below the debut L.P. while still being far above the material that followed it. There is a brilliance on display, here, that was lost in later years. I will credit this to Alf Svensson, as this album marks his last one with the band. At any rate, if you don't already possess this album, see to it that you rectify the situation.
 
(1 Aug. 2009)

 
Terminal Spirit Disease (1994)
 

The third full-length from At the Gates is sort of a mixed bag. On this album, you can hear hints of the band's previous sound, as well as definite clues to the direction that they were headed toward. The prime reason for the change was the departure of guitarist and songwriter, Alf Svensson, who left the band after With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. The result was that the overall style became very simplified and the thrash element began to dominate. Released in July 1994, Terminal Spirit Disease was a setp down from the previous output of At the Gates, but it still retained some semblance of the familiar atmosphere that their fans had come to expect.

The cello and violin, found in the intro to "The Swarm", was enough to get one's hopes up. However, the mournful guitar melody that flows from this manages to fade into oblivion, being replaced by less inspired riffs. The music still bears a somber feeling, owing quite a bit to the shredded-throat vocals of Tomas Lindberg.

As the title track gets underway, it gives a false impression. The darkness of this betrayal is soon illuminated, as the song shifts gears, riff-wise, to the dismay of the listener. This is not to say that the song is bad, but that it had the potential to be much better. That seems to be something that plagues the entire recording.

"And the World Returned" is a peaceful, yet sorrowful, instrumental. It's not nearly as bleak as "The Scar"; however, I don't think that was their intention. Either way, it is pleasant enough and serves as a good lead-in to the next song. The nature of the song is introspective enough to get you thinking of something sad, but not so miserable that you slice your throat.

The vibe is carried over into "Forever Blind", which relies too much on the thrash riffs and not enough on fleshing out these ideas and creating something remarkable. The feeling is kind of there, but there's quite a bit of room for improvement. With that said, the vocals still possess a tortured quality that can be appreciated.

Clocking in a little over four minutes, "The Fevered Circle" is the longest song on the album. This one shows a little promise, hearkening back to the previous albums. Ironically, this is the only song featuring any input from Svensson, prior to his departure. Unfortunately, he may have run out of ideas as this isn't even the best song on here.

"The Beautiful Wound" opens with a rather bleak melody, but the dominance of thrash riffs soon obliterates this. As the song progresses, there are more depressive melodies, despite the fact that they're not fully developed.

The three live tracks aren't really worth mention, as it's useless to include live songs on a full-length. This seems more like filler, to me. As for the studio tracks, they were recorded in Studio Fredman but the album does not have the over-produced sound that is present on the following album. In other words, the sound hadn't totally been raped yet.

Terminable Spirit Disease is an album with a lot of potential; unfortunately, it is never realized. There is still a mournful atmosphere, for the most part, but this release displays but a mere shadow of this band's potential. It's a shame that they didn't call it quits with this one. The album isn't a complete loss, but I'd only ever recommend picking it up if you can do so at a serious discount.
 
(8 Aug. 2009)

Slaughter of the Soul (1995)
 

Typically, the early albums from any given band best represent their vision and tend to be the best ones; those fueled by a passion to create. Often, the debut album from a band will be the most thought-out, since the band usually has a few years to perfect their music before getting signed and releasing a full-length. In many cases, bands will progress and improve, over time. At the Gates is a curious anomaly, as they seem to have regressed as they went along. Stylistically, Slaughter of the Soul is a very simplistic, stripped-down album. When compared to the absolute brilliance of their debut, The Red in the Sky is Ours, it seems quite childish. The members of At the Gates were never able to recreate the genius that was so prominently displayed on that album. There were hints of it, but nothing that ever came close. As time passed, they descended deeper into the murky swamp of mediocrity. However, when this album was released in November 1995, it was met with great praise. Truth be told, I was a fan of this album when I first heard it.

My first exposure to this band came when I heard their cover of Slayer's "Captor of Sin", late one night, on a college radio program. My friend picked up a copy of Slaughter of the Soul, not too long after, and I recorded it onto a cassette and listened to it quite a bit, prior to tracking down the CD. After several months, I'd grown tired of it and spent more time listening to Dissections' Storm of the Light's Bane, which I'd also gotten around this time. Some time later, I decided to pay attention to At the Gates again, but I was bored. I ran across a copy of Terminal Spirit Disease and my interest was rekindled. As average as that album is, it still showed a lot more promise than the one that followed it. As I continued digging back into the discography of At the Gates, I grew to respect them a lot more, while becoming even more disappointed with their swansong. I couldn't figure out how or why a band could possibly be capable of such brilliance, only to throw it away in order to seek out mass appeal.

There's no need for an in-depth analysis of each track. This album features several brief Thrash songs and a semi-atmospheric outro that wasn't even intended for use on an album. The production is overdone, sounding too slick and polished. There's also something grating about the sound, in a sense. There's some decent riffs, here and there, but nothing that hasn't been done before. Worse yet, this is all far below what these musicians were capable of doing. This is an extremely dumbed-down version of At the Gates. Somehow, they managed to take the riffing style of Dismember (which they had adopted earlier in their career, only utilized to a lesser extent) and to simplify it even more in an attempt to make the music accessible to every metalhead under the sun (or "Under A Serpent Sun"). Hey, a lame album deserves a lame joke.

The vocals are very much streamlined, possessing very little of the feeling that was present on their earlier albums. There are brief moments where you are reminded of the old days, though the band was so intent on creating another Reign In Blood (yet one more album that saw a great band trading artistic integrity for the almighty dollar) that they never expand upon the few decent ideas that appear, here. The longest song is just under four minutes, which is a departure from the ways of old. Oddly, the lengthiest song on here is the aforementioned "Under A Serpent Sun", which shows some faint signs of their previous style, though the production ruins it. These guys really lost their soul when Alf Svensson left the band. Personally, the only worthwhile song on here is "Need". This one still manages to maintaint he miserable atmosphere from the past, though it's far too short. However, it has some realy dismal guitar melodies and an eerie whispered section, at the end.

"Now let the final darkness fall"

Slaughter of the Soul is an album for those that want instant gratification, without having to put much (or any) thought into what they are listening to. It's simple music for simple-minded people. It's constructed in such a way as to appeal to all Metal fans. However, its effects are temporary. It's an album that you either love or hate, though many love it at first and then grow to hate it. It's definitely overhyped and inferior to the rest of the band's discography. If you truly want the At the Gates experience, seek out The Red in the Sky is Ours. It is the pinnacle of their careers, regardless of what other bands they've been involved in (yes, putting it just a notch above Grotesque). As for Slaughter of the Soul, it's decent if all you ask of your music is to give you something to mindlessly bang your head to, but you'll get bored with it over time. If you must purchase it, do yourself a favour and look for it in the $1 bin.
 
(7 Sept. 2009)

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