Artist: At The Gates
Album Title: The Nightmare Of Being
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 2 July 2021
I’m going to dispense with any smoke and mirrors or ambiguity right from the outset and declare that, without any doubt, ‘The Nightmare Of Being’ is easily the best album that At The Gates have released since the seminal ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’ back in 1995. There, I’ve said it, and I mean it. And that comes from a perspective obtained, not after a few cursory listens, but after listening incessantly and then returning to the record after an extended break.
What comes next, however, is a word of warning, because ‘The Nightmare Of Being’ is a significantly different beast to the aforementioned ‘classic’ and indeed, it’s different from everything that has been released prior or since. Like many, I was ecstatic to be able to hear new material from one of the most important and influential bands in the melodic death metal sphere once they fully returned from their self-imposed exile in 2014. One of the early originators of the ‘Gothenburg Sound’, I must admit to feeling just a pang of disappointment with both 2014’s ‘At War With Reality’ and ‘To Drink From The Night Itself’ released in 2018. At the time, I liked them well enough, but in reality I didn’t think either of them were as good as they could have been given their track record and I’ve not listened to either very much since. Neither was bad, but with the bar set so high by themselves, the lofty expectations were not quite met.
That all changes with ‘The Nightmare Of Being’. All of the trademark sounds you expect to hear from At The Gates are present and correct – strong, pummelling rhythms from drummer Adrian Erlandsson and bassist Jonas Björler, sharp, incisive riffing from Martin Larsson and Jonas Stålhammar, and on top, those familiar and much-loved raspy growls from Tomas Lindberg. However, ‘The Nightmare Of Being’ is a much more nuanced, varied, and mature affair all-round. Not exactly ‘experimental’, it does however play around with some different ideas throughout, to show that there is a future for At The Gates after all.
Opening track ‘Spectre Of Extinction’ is very much cut from the ‘classic’ At The Gates cloth. It begins with a quiet, melodic intro, albeit with a hint of the foreboding in the sounds that sit behind the gorgeous acoustic guitar picking. The heaviness explodes but continues with that same melody to create a captivating intro to the album. From there, we’re treated to the full-on At The Gates treatment – strong memorable riffs, energetic tempos, a certain groove, and Thomas Lindberg’s caustic growl, tackling the subject of our own mortality. It’s a thunderous start that has the makings of a grin emerging on my face.
‘The Paradox’ follows and with it, it maintains the frantic pace, albeit within a strong framework where the subtle melodies emerge. There’s a cool solo in the latter stages that stands out within a slightly extended instrumental section, complete with sinister whispers and orchestral grandiosity.
The title track then slows the pace, allowing the rumbling bass to take centre stage alongside a gorgeous melody. Erlandsson never misses a beat behind the kit, imbuing the song with a striking backbone, as it ebbs and flows between brooding subtlety and ferocious power, with yet more powerfully memorable guitar work, both fast-picked and chunky power chords.
My only real beef with this record emerges within the fourth song, ‘Garden Of Cyrus’. It is ostensibly an instrumental piece and, to begin with, I love it. It is laced with nice details, a fresh vibe, and the lead guitar work is precise, poignant, and wonderfully melodious. But then, just like every other band these days, they invite a saxophone to the party. I know it’s my own issue, but for the love of God, please will my favourite bands stop adding in brass instruments where they are not required? I can accept it if it has been an ingredient of the band since the very beginning, but when it is added as a new ingredient, I want to punch the wall. Why do it? I mean, if everyone sticks their head in an oven, do we follow suit? Of course, we don’t. It’s maddening.
Thankfully this is the only such aberration on ‘The Nightmare Of Being’ and even then, it doesn’t completely ruin what is a great song otherwise. ‘Touched By The White Hand Of Death’ plays around with a grandiose cinematic opening that works very well indeed, adding a touch of sophisticated gravitas to proceedings. The fact that the song then delivers one of my favourite riffs and choruses only makes that embryonic smile slightly more pronounced.
If anything, ‘The Fall Into Time’ takes the cinematic intro even further, complete with choral vocals and full-on orchestral sounds, from which hell is unleashed. Lindberg sounds almost demonic as he emerges, and the whole thing just works in my opinion. Admittedly, this isn’t overall my favourite track as it’s just a little too long and bloated, but there’s plenty within it to admire including the progressive-like breakdown in the second half which I really enjoy; I certainly don’t hit the skip button, that’s for sure.
One of my very favourite tracks on this impressive record emerges in the form of ‘Cult Of Salvation’. It carries with it much more of that old ‘Slaughter…’ vibe in the opening riff, reminding me of why At The Gates became so important to many of us back in the 90s. Those riffs are just so damn catchy and infectious, I love them. The piano break that then leads us down a slightly different, more introspective path, is nothing short of marvellous, before the song reverts to type to see us out.
More experimentation can be heard within the more stripped-back, bluesy ‘Cosmic Pessimism’. Not normally what I’d choose to listen to, I find myself pulled in by the sound of Tomas Lindberg simply talking his thoughts through the lyrics. “…the imprecise geometry of black volcanic sands” – what a strangely compelling line this is, but for the life of me, I don’t really know why. When the track ups the heaviness, the song begins to make sense, and I now really enjoy listening to it.
It may have taken several months to bring this review to you, but the benefit of my unscripted hiatus has meant that I’ve been able to ruminate on this album at some length, as well as allow it the time and distance to make its full impact. Returning to it after a few months of listening to almost no music at all, I can confirm that it still packs the same punch, raises the eyebrow in the same way, and ultimately delights me as strongly as it did at the outset. I therefore refer back to my opening statement and declare without a shadow of doubt, that ‘The Nightmare of Being’ is easily the best that At The Gates have sounded since the release of their seminal opus ‘Slaughter Of The Soul’. More varied, experimental and, arguably, more mature. But almost as good, and demonstrable proof that their reformation is in no way doomed to failure – quite the opposite in fact.
The Score of Much Metal: 94%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: