At The Gates – ‘To Drink From The Night Itself’

By James Lee

On the list of bands who you’d be fairly confident would never get back together, At The Gates used to be pretty high. Following a rigorous and destructive tour on the back of their masterpiece album, ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’, the band fell to pieces quite spectacularly, cutting short a career that was, at the time, on course to become one of the most important in all of death metal. Despite renewed interest in that album in the early ’00s, thanks to countless American metalcore bands basically straight up stealing from its very well stocked riff-pantry, the members of the band stayed firm in their decision to let sleeping dogs lie. After all, pretty much every member had found great success in their follow-up projects, from the Bjorler brothers’ thrash titans The Haunted to Adrian Erlandsson’s tenure behind the kit for Cradle Of Filth among others, to Tomas Lindberg’s frankly intimidating list of killer bands (Disfear, Skitsystem, The Great Deceiver, etc etc).

Then, in 2008, At The Gates finally found themselves back together for one last glorious rampage around the globe, serving as both a celebration of the band’s enduring legacy, and as the fitting send-off they’d never allowed themselves in the mid-90’s. They destroyed Wacken. They shook the USA, bringing along for the ride Municipal Waste and Darkest Hour, the latter of whom are arguably the American band who’ve most closely adhered to the ‘Slaughter…’ playbook. They made a stirring and in-depth documentary about the jaunt, dropped it out in a bumper 3xDVD set, and that was it. Done. The End. Right?

Ten years on, At The Gates have not only gone back on their initial promise that ‘The Flames Of The End’ tour would be the definitive full-stop to their career, they’ve written and released not one, but two albums, the latest of which, ‘To Drink From The Night Itself’, is released this month by Century Media. 2014’s ‘At War With Reality’ had the unenviable task of not only schooling 18 years worth of imitators and disciples, but also acting as a follow-up to one of the most iconic melodic death metal records of all time. As such, it felt at times like the band played it safe, dialling into the same mix of Slayer-esque aggression and epic riffing that ‘Slaughter…’ excelled in, without straying too far from that template. It was a good album, but couldn’t hold a candle to its elder sibling – though what could, really? ‘At War…’s most important job, however, was ushering the band back into the public eye, and with that out of the way, At The Gates have now earned the freedom to even further step out of ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’s shadow. So, have they managed it?

Following the instrumental mood setter ‘Der Widerstand’, the album begins in earnest with its title track, a straight up ripper shaped in the same mould as ‘Blinded By Fear’. It’s a strong and heavy track, but feels a little like At The Gates treading water. Second track ‘A Stare Bound In Stone’ fares better, switching pace whilst still being underpinned by a classic melodeath riff. It’s still pretty standard fare for the band, but the quality level is high enough that it doesn’t bore. It’s on ‘Palace Of Lepers’, however, where ‘To Drink…’ really starts to separate itself from the past and forge a new path. Sure, the components appear familiar on the surface, but the song’s expansive riffs are unlike anything At The Gates have done before, its latter half especially feeling fresh and epic in a way the band weren’t on ‘At War With Reality’.

From there on out, the album switches readily between more ponderous and proggy numbers (‘Daggers Of Black Haze’, ‘The Colours Of The Beast’) to some of their most furious and aggressive material to date (‘In Nameless Sleep’, ‘In Death They Shall Burn’, the absolutely savage ‘A Labyrinth Of Tombs’), whilst managing the delicate balancing act of flowing coherently as an album. Kudos must be served to the band’s new guitar player Jonas Stalhammar, who stepped in to replace departing founding member Anders Bjorler just before the band entered the studio to record the album. Though he wasn’t involved with the writing process, Stalhammar’s playing is as tight and pulverising as Bjorler’s, and not one iota of the band’s sound has suffered as a result. In fact, ‘To Drink…’ features some of the band’s strongest lead guitar playing ever, and though At The Gates never over-indulge in solos, the ones featured are tasteful and enhance their songs without taking over. The album also sounds better than its immediate predecessor, though rather than adding extra polish, it feels like producer Russ Russell has actively stripped it away, leaving a more raw and gritty feel than ‘At War…’, which definitely works in the band’s favour.

Though it’s hard to imagine At The Gates will ever write another album as impactful or well loved as ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’, it could very justifiably argued that ‘To Drink From The Night Itself’ is every bit as good as its more famous older brother. A far more varied record, it offers more light and shade than any other album in the band’s catalogue, and unlike ‘At War With Reality’, it genuinely feels like, rather than trying to recreate past glories, At The Gates are now pushing forward and reinventing their sound for the present.

JAMES LEE

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