At the Gates

Early death metal melodic composers, At the Gates invented a surface style ("Gothenburg") and an underlying, progressive, complex way of crafting songs of dextrous melodic fluidity and variation. Although their uneven output prevented them from inheriting the new terrain they conquered, it lived on first in progressive death metal and later, black metal, notably Transilvanian Hunger from Darkthrone.
flag of Sweden At the Gates - Gardens of Grief (1991)
At the Gates - The Red in the Sky is Ours (1991)
At the Gates - With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness (1993)
At the Gates - Terminal Spirit Disease (1994)
At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul (1996)
Gardens of Grief
Black Sun

Production: Sunlight Studios in a spacious sound with trebly guitars.

Review: A cryptic influence on the black metal to follow, At the Gates applied lead-picked melodies of single notes at a time in dark and fast morbid music, harmonizing in the style of Iron Maiden without the circular songwriting, creating the atmosphere of touring alien worlds where consciousness flows in sentential form in parallel with music. Although credited with launching the "Gothenburg melodic death metal" sound, on a structural level At the Gates resurrected progressive death metal from the rock ghetto of odd chord shapes and offtime rhythms, and instead directed it toward sculpting longer songs from interlocking melodies with an exacting sense of context producing enduring atmosphere.

At the Gates achieve two threads with this style of songwriting: vision, or song structures that follow a narrative of discovery, and atmosphere, which is the shifting complex of moods created by following melodies that silhouette rather than delineate a tonal shape. A parallel complex rhythmic technique, reminiscent of what Suffocation and Morbid Angel were attempting at the same time, expands the range of continuity accepted in variable strings of riffs inlaid sequentially to sustain the melodic inertia of granular and isolated dynamic fluctuations of consistency toward overall modal tendencies.

1. Souls of the Evil Departed (3:34) mp3 sample
2. At the Gates (5:22) mp3 sample
3. All Life Ends (6:10)
4. City of Screaming Statues (4:46) mp3 sample
Length: 19:52

at the gates gardens of grief swedish melodic technical death metal from 1991
Copyright © 1991 Black Sun

Like a sweeping rainfall, this vision of melody hides behind violent death metal riffs wedged between the simpler, "black metal" trademark tremelo lead riffing. Its rhythms break, not in a suspension but a crossover as they transfer energetic tension between driving and self-destroying, anti-motion forces. Streams of molten sound, presaging what Darkthrone would trademark on Transilvanian Hunger, escape the wash of noise generated by power chords, and instead stack melodies against one another in successive dialogues through neo-counterpoint techniques, creating an internal harmonic texture that asserted the contrast necessary to give dimensionality and thus the space for atmosphere to the music.

In this mystical sound, At the Gates layer reflections of not only darkness, but violence, with a sensitivity that suggests an understanding of the dark side of life through a sacred reverence for life itself, as if to say that without death life is meaningless. Variety marks these riffs through the difference of approach: some are fast falling, others unwinding, still others seeming to mimick natural sounds like the breaking of wood or stalking of a forest panther. Vocals, like guitars, are mid-range and treble more than bass, which was also a huge departure in death metal at the time and foreshadowed the ethereal production of black metal to come.

Vocals are a singed scream rather than the pugilistic cadenced barks of most contemporaries, allowing an imprecise vocal rhythm that escapes the kiddie music tendency of much metal to have vocals ranting the rhythm of riff interaction with drums. Signature guitar and bass instrumentalism lends texture to vigorously self-evident structures. In the hazy days of 1991, much of the forthcoming development of metal existed only as notes on mental napkins, but At the Gates seized the idea of delicate melody in sweeping neo-Wagnerian progressive death metal, and they executed it not only brilliantly but to the enrichment of the genre.

The Red in the Sky is Ours

Production: A somewhat thin and quiet sound gives this album the sense of having been performed in an isolated area.

Review: Pushing aside aesthetic contributions, what At the Gates gave to metal comes through on this album: a style that has left the rock paradigm of riding a chord and then using harmonic changes to advance a song behind, and instead drives the song forward through changes in motif in which the phrases of riffs complement each other and create contrast, which with the advanced harmonization and melodic neo-counterpoint used here, creates a style halfway between long-riff heavy metal like Black Sabbath and modernist classical like Bruckner or Wagner.

Their riffs use power chords as anchors to their wandering, lushly indulgent melodies, but for the most part are single notes tremolo picked in sequences that with protean rhythm adapt to what they express, coloring all of it in melancholy but through dynamic difference in riff shape, creating within that sensation a series of moods that together form an atmosphere. This poetic style of song construction allows the form of each song to adapt to the content, not the other way around as in most popular music, and gives it a flexible voice which like a story or verse is a narrative of changes between mental states leading to an evolution in awareness.

1. The Red In The Sky Is Ours - The Season To Come (4:41)
2. Kingdom Gone (4:40) mp3 sample
3. Through Gardens Of Grief (4:02)
4. Within (6:54)
5. Windows (3:53) mp3 sample
6. Claws Of Laughter Dead (4:02)
7. Neverwhere (5:41)
8. The Scar (2:00)
9. Night Comes, Blood Black (5:16) mp3 sample
10. City Of Screaming Statues (4:38)
Length: 45:47

At the Gates - The Red in the Sky is Ours: Death Metal 1991 Deaf/Grindcore
Copyright © 1991 Deaf/Grindcore

Like all good death metal, specifically the materpieces from Incantation (Onward to Golgotha) and Infester (To The Depths, In Degradation), the first At the Gates full-length leads the listener through labyrinthine constructions which uses the phrasal style of riff to create a constantly-expanding context, avoiding both linearity and circularity for a hybrid between the two that does not return the listener to an intellectual starting point; its precepts do not equal its conclusions, as they do in most popular music. Instead it is like a journey from an innocuous start through conflict and an exploration of alternate views of the same rough origin, presenting a brachiated traversal like crossing a mountain range in a snowstorm.

Instrumentally, this CD is precise as any from the progressive rock camp, with adroit drums following the lead rhythm guitars and vocals highlighting those through enunciations that stretch across beat and offbeat alike, avoiding the choppy sound of vocals synchronized to instrumental rhythms. Keeping with the quiet production, songs avoid being "busy" and are content to let a melody stand on its own, accompanied by subtle bass, periodic violin exploring harmonic possibilities, and of course in the Iron Maiden-inspired style, guitars harmonizing each other within power chord shapes. While most including later At the Gates albums imitated The Red in the Sky is Ours for its stylings, the essence of this album is its refreshingly multifaceted view of composition and as a result, elevation of death metal to an art not merely entertaining noise.

Production: Slightly compressed but good guitar tone preservation, louder than previous albums.

Review: The crux of change between death and black metal exploited one of the questions dating back to the origin of heavy metal: when to get heavy with thunderously chromatic chords within the few frets low enough to produce grainy, bassy power chords, and when to inject melody to give a sense of rising above the chaos? Heavy metal, like most Romanticist art, specializes in finding beauty in darkness and noise to bring transcendence to listeners by affirming the place of evil and destruction in a healthy normal life. With At the Gates, death metal found the pivotal ferment of its melodic concept.

Adroitly this band interleave melodic intervals with lush harmonies of power chords, extending to a range of chord shapes not seen since Voivod, balancing these figures over an understated version of the technical death metal drumming that infested the genre at the start of the 1990s. In a style derived from Iron Maiden, dual layers of lead playing establish a theme and highlight it with shifting melodic frames, creating an unraveling effect simultaneously checkmated by an increasingly rigid rhythm guitar. High-pitched whispery vocals, offtime like later black metal, blur distinctions between changing riffs and create the ultimate disorienting rhythm instrument, only serving through negative space to reinforce the solidity of dominant motifs.


1. Beyond good and evil (2:42)
2. Raped by the light of christ (2:58) mp3 sample
3. The break of autumn (4:59)
4. Non-divine (4:42)
5. Primal breath (7:23) mp3 sample
6. The architects (3:30)
7. Stardrowned (4:01)
8. Blood of the sunsets (4:33)
9. The burning darkness (2:16) mp3 sample
10. Ever-opening flower (4:59)
11. Through the red (3:26)
Length: 45:29

At the Gates With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness 1993 peaceville
Copyright © 1993 Peaceville

Unfortunately, like the career of this band, With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness presents an uneven balance between the theoretical and its practical realization. Songs of the inspired first half spring from longer melodies that unfold over the course of a song in two pairs of complementary patterns, deriving their inspiration not from conflict but a sense of musical space, like the involuntary thrill that occurs when leaving a forest to find oneself on the bank of a cliff, looking down over a sudden distance that re-frames perspective on self and reality. Like much of Northern European art, these tracks are meditative, eschewing vast gestures for a sense of enfolding. Beauty emerges slowly from darkness, and by balancing itself against that darkness, demonstrates a continuity between the two seeming opposites.

In this the triumph of art rises over the petty dynamics of personal fear and struggle, calming the mind into an acceptance of light and darkness as equals. After this initial thrust, the style shifts to a speed metal style, where a single chord is emphasized in rhythmic and harmonic fills around an unaltering tonal presence, and as a result, song structures cannot be driven by change in melodic figure, and require a constant application of rigorous tonal motion against contravailing rhythmic transit. By rumor this marks the departure from songwriting by the Bjorler twins and Alf Svensson, and shows the dominance of vocalist and drummer instead. This change impoverishes the music as now it is very mundane but dressed up in a deliberate attempt to be clever and "progressive," meaning that standard song structures are interrupted by blocks of deliberate but self-symbolic musical motion (a technique Gorguts later mastered on Obscura by fitting motion to narrative) which creates a hollow, echoing sense of self-reliant vacuity.

Terminal Spirit Disease

Production: Crisp, clear, compressed digital sound.

Review: Where the first album created their style in full, and the second album tried to bridge toward other successful styles, the third album came after other bands (Dark Tranquility, Sentenced, Dissection, Sacramentum, Unanimated) had already differentiated the melodic metal style that would become standardized as "Gothenburg," and carved out an audience for it, and so tried to be both groundbreakingly progressive and dramatic heavy metal that would appeal to an audience who liked sentimental, technical, but very pop-oriented guitar music.

The result is a tendency to work very hard to disguise standard circular, verse/chorus pop song structures with adornments that are harmonically apt but artistically discontiguous, and simultaneously, to simplify the music and make it pander to the ears of an audience who want to hear what they already know and not have doubt injected into their worldview. Consequently, most of this album shuttles between "good cop" and "bad cop" riffs: a jaunty offbeat, expectation-driven verse riff and then a more freely-flowing, uptempo chorus riff with a smooth melodic integration of past notes into a continuity with the root note. In this, Terminal Spirit Disease is the inverse of nu-metal or Opeth style composition, which feature mellow verses and angry choruses.

1. The Swarm (3:26) mp3 sample
2. Terminal Spirit Disease (3:40)
3. And the World Returned (3:06)
4. Forever Blind (3:58)
5. The Fevered Circle (4:11)
6. The Beautiful Wound (3:52) mp3 sample
7. All Life Ends (Live) (5:16)
8. The Burning Darkness (Live) (2:13) mp3 sample
9. Kingdom Gone (Live) (3:03)
Length: 32:45

At the Gates - Terminal Spirit Disease: Death Metal 1994 Futurist
Copyright © 1994 Futurist

Nothing here is poorly composed but it is directed at simple targets where the precepts equal the conclusions so it passes, like a meaningless pretty landscape, and the attempts to use harsh vocals and faster tangential riffs sounds more like a fetish than a commitment to exploring a darker side of life. Like the more commercial album to follow, much of the riffing here follows a speed metal model in which death metal riffing is used for fills or interludes, but forms little of the basis of the music. Much like later Iron Maiden, these songs are so much technique and so little challenge to their own assumptions that they feel very much like jingles, and the choice of happy rock pocket drumming to accompany sentimental melodic riffs gives the album a sing-song, kiddie feel.

The inclusion of an acoustic guitar piece does not dissipate this sense of bad meta-atmosphere, in which there is no sense of exploring life beneath the surface, because "And the World Returned" reflects a postcard view of the emotions it analyzes. The three earlier songs played live survive way through a simplification that bestows coherence, but feel out of place with the other material on what is essentially an EP. While it is hard to find fault with any one element, as a whole this album is a decay of the At the Gates concept to a bite-sized, historically repetitive travesty.

At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul
1. Blinded By Fear (3:11)
2. Slaughter Of The Soul (3:02) mp3 sample
3. Cold (3:27)
4. Under A Serpent Sun (3:58)
5. Into The Dead Sky (2:12)
6. Suicide Nation (3:35) mp3 sample
7. World Of Lies (3:35)
8. Unto Others (3:11)
9. Nausea (2:23) mp3 sample
10. Need (2:36)
11. The Flames Of The End (2:57)
Length: 34:07

Slaughter of the Soul (Earache,1996)
Despite the sleek package and amazing production, this is the At the Gates sellout album. It has not fallen to the depths of later Carcass or post-1992 Metallica, but it has dropped the progressive underpinnings in favor of speed metal adorned with a technical flair but mostly, through its rough permutations and basic sense of pentatonic harmonics, it remains dressed-up heavy metal as a sad coda to the career of the Gothenburg band. The same self-unravelling harmonizing riffs, liquid solos and strong sense of color of sound are here, but each is a condiment to a main course of standard rock fare, and has gone through a sanitizing process to be brought closer to mainstream music, demonstrating that the technique layer is far from what constitutes the artistic content of each song. In particular, it sounds like Metallica attempting ...And Justice For All in a stylistic mashup between Iron Maiden and Judas Priest during Painkiller, but this album is not even that competent, as the slaphappy graceless catchy choruses repeated ad nauseam demonstrate. For most At the Gates listeners, this album will seem a favorite until they hear it ten years from now in the context of other At the Gates works, when it will stand revealed as a transparent commercial album made to pander to the segment of the metal audience who want the predictable disguised as the unique for the sake of fashion.


At The Gates formed in late 1990 and recorded their Gardens of Grief EP for the Dolores label, with a line up of Tomas Lindberg (vocals), Anders Bjorler (guitars), Adrian Erlandsson (drums), Jonas Bjorler (bass) and Alf Svensson (guitars). Following prolonged Swedish touring with the likes of Dismember, Bolt Thrower, Massacre and Immolation, At The Gates attracted the attention of Peaceville Records and after signing soon produced their debut album The Red in the Sky is Ours.

Released in November 1991, the album proved a hit with fans of the burgeoning death metal scene. European touring with My Dying Bride surrounded the release, and before long the band issued their follow up, With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness in August 1993. Replacing Alf with new guitarist Martin Larsson, they had by now built up a reputation for being a hard working touring act, and this was further enhanced by their debut UK show at Nottingham Rock City which was filmed for an MTV Headbangers special. This was followed by a short UK tour with Anathema and Cradle of Filth.

During May 1994, the band unleashed Terminal Spirit Disease, an album which saw the band gain widespread acclaim. Kerrang! magazine hailed them as the natural successors to countrymen Entombed, although in truth the sound of the album had more in keeping with contemporary Carcass. More UK gigs followed, then European dates again with My Dying Bride and Anathema, before the band finally headlined Europe on their own with Seance and Ancient Rites.

In July 1995, the band were snapped up by Earache Records and immediately entered Studio Fredman in Sweden to record their debut for their new label, Slaughter of the Soul. Taking the melodic edge further, but returning to the songwriting of the melodic late speed metal era, the band delivered a record that became a fan favorite.

The band embarked on lengthy touring, beginning with a European jaunt with fellow Swedes Unleashed, and continuing into '96 with a nine date UK headline tour. They also hit the States for the first time with two full American tours, firstly with Morbid Angel, then with Napalm Death, interrupted by a five week European jaunt with Napalm Death and Crowbar, further establishing them as a major live force.

Then, the unthinkable happened -- five tours in under a year took their toll as a split developed in the band, culminating with the writing force of the Bjorler twins opting to leave. Feeling unable to carry the true spirit of At the Gates without its core members, the band called it a day. Currently, vocalist Tomas Lindberg sings for crustcore/d-beat band Disfear while the Bjorler twins Anders and Jonas, together with drummer Adrian have formed The Haunted.

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