Back in 1996, on the heels of their career-defining Slaughter Of The Soul, Gothenburg, Sweden’s At The Gates suddenly called it quits. Band members persisted through the 2000s in heavy outfits like Skitsystem, Cradle Of Filth and The Haunted. Then the entire classic lineup of At The Gates reformed for 2014’s dark and twisting At War With Reality. To Drink From The Night Itself followed in 2018 and was well-received by heavy metal enthusiasts.
Poised as one of the triumphant comeback artists of the 2010s, At The Gates return with their third album since reuniting. The Nightmare Of Being delivers intensity on 10 songs. But the record goes beyond death metal to achieve its extremes. While this should come as no surprise to fans of these dynamic masters of composition, Nightmare takes At The Gates’ previous experimentation a step further.
For one thing, the instrumentation takes a turn toward the indulgent. Orchestrated intros with string sections frame several songs in an epic context. Cellos groan and evoke images of fraught, cavernous journeys. A brief harmonized classical guitar piece starts the record, fusing Iron Maiden and Albeniz in what amounts to a punchy melo-death trope.
At The Gates explores unusual choices on “Garden Of Cyrus.” A straightforward indie progression quickly turns sour. Melodic dissonance develops like a floral wine. Soon after, borne-on-the-wind saxophone rocks out, mullet-and-leather-pants-like. One of the best riffs of the year rides in on a convincing and original doom detour. A satisfying departure, “Garden Of Cyrus” mirrors the hard-prog contortions of At The Gates’ heroes King Crimson.
All this points to a certain ambitiousness. At The Gates have always sounded aspirational, wringing emotional resonance out of struggle and resistance. Indeed, this aesthetic forms the foundation of their sound, and the element isn’t lost on The Nightmare Of Being. Constant tension results from menacing dissonance and Tomas Lindberg’s literary lyrics. The instrumentalists attack in athletic synchronicity, with fearsome stamina.
Yet while their sound is recognizable, here the band’s ambition is diverted further into the realm of composition. “The Abstract Enthroned” highlights bassist Jonas Bjorler’s unconventional approach to songwriting. Rapid, constant changes to key and tempo somehow morph organically. Piercing guitar solos lance in like bit-part antagonists. The band is locked in on timing and specificity, manifesting its progressive intentions.
Still, At The Gates jam-pack their proggy stylings into manageable pieces. Only “The Fall Into Time” exceeds the six-minute mark, casting off with a brooding orchestral intro. A heavy, dour movement with bells and strings recalls the grandiosity of Bathory’s viking-metal mid-period. Moments of axe-driven hope take flight, but waves of anguish rage below. “Fall” represents the band at its most cinematic and tortured, fathoming majesty in the darkness.
Meanwhile, the guitar mastery of Martin Larsson and Jonas Stalhammer sets At The Gates apart from their numerous acolytes. (Founding guitarist Anders Bjorler left the group in 2017.) Few aggressive guitar bands delve as deeply into claustrophobic modes and tension-building chord patterns. Lindberg writhes in gruesome vocal expurgation, cleaning himself up only for the occasional spoken-word interlude.
Some may lament a decreased level of brutality. Not as fast as earlier material, The Nightmare Of Being emphasizes forceful mid-tempo riffs that allow interlocking guitars to emerge gloriously. The title track and “Spectre Of Extinction,” among others, explore At The Gates’ career-long obsession with pitting dissonance against melody. Songs advance with natural fluidity, synergizing disparate riffs and drum patterns.
Songs are distinct while paying homage to the band’s classic sounds, yet thankfully the experiments do not overwhelm the songs. Unconventional but appealing elements are brought in tastefully, clearing the path for baroque tragedy and stormy ruination. Another step forward for At The Gates, The Nightmare Of Being glowers like an ember of truth in dark atmospheres of the mind.