At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being Review

Swedish death metal and I have a bloody history. The Stockholm sound has always been my preferred space, while I’ve often butted heads with the Gothenburg bands. At The Gates are the only true exception. Their ability to mix melody without compromising creative riffing has ensured their reputation doesn’t go down in flames. However, when they reformed for 2014’s At War With Reality, I was unimpressed. Here was an album that attempted to forge new ground by plundering their own war chest. And the results were underwhelming. With the departure of guitarist and key songwriter Anders Björler, To Drink From the Night Itself continued down a similar, albeit more atmospheric path. Now, one of the most maligned yet mimicked bands in death metal are preparing to release seventh album The Nightmare of Being. And I have opinions…

After some time, I can safely say this is the best At The Gates album since Slaughter of the Soul. I spent most of At War With Reality pining for the band’s earlier albums, and the same again on To Drink From the Night Itself. I can’t in all honestly claim to feel any differently with The Nightmare of Being. But for the first time since 1995, I feel At The Gates are actively trying to experiment and even progress. Their riff-palette remains the same but the slight experimentation found in their modern output is much less of an afterthought, which bestows a certain quality on this new work.

In a rebellious subversion of AMG instruction, I’m going to get the bitching out of the way first. This album is too long. Or rather, it feels too long despite its 45-minute sweet spot. This seems to be endemic to metal in general at the moment but I’d have hoped a band as seasoned as At The Gates might be able to circumvent this. The songs just spend too much time trying to build gravitas to facilitate the album’s subject matter. The writing deals with the nature of mortality. To this end, a somber mood pervades. Sadly, the airy build-ups and introductory tremolo work often bloat the material. “The White Hands of Death” appears to end just as it finds itself, where as “Cult of Salvation” seems to hit the gothic mood in perfect pace. Cuts like the title-track cement the introspective nature early on but it’s all a little too self-indulgent. The worst part is, it’s nothing a little editing wouldn’t fix. There’s a depth to the construction that the band have been toying with for a decade and The Nightmare of Being finally acknowledges it in full. Jonas Björler’s writing remains highly-recognizable. “Spectre of Extinction’s” pristine melodies are born aloft on thrash-infused riffing. It never over-stays its welcome while “The Paradox is a tailor-made single. There’s a lot to like here. But a machine as well-established as At The Gates command’s high-expectations. And standards demand scrutiny.

I have long resented At The Gates’ attempts to move forward by revisiting their own tropes. The Nightmare of Being thankfully keeps the self-referential moments to a minimum and consciously tries to advance. The samples and key-work go a long way, but my absolute favorite track is “Garden of Cyrus.” This pseudo-instrumental clarifies the mission-statement with post-metal structures, elegiac riffs and plenty of sax in the bridge. This is the song that quantifies the sound At The Gates were aiming for. It’s also the only time the album ever truly defines it. Thankfully the entire record benefits from a much-improved production. To Drink From The Night Itself sounded thin and dull. The Nightmare of Being keeps Gothenburg’s infamous bombast alive with a rich master and generous mix. Unfortunately, there’s still nothing that can compensate for the clear lack of venom in Thomas Lindberg’s famous cadence and an indistinct second half.

It’s impossible to divorce a band from their classic works when reviewing new material. And nor should we. After all, such seminal records influence their creators as much as their admirers. At The Gates have always tried to test themselves. Atmosphere and riffing have long been a part of their arsenal and The Nightmare of Being illustrates that just as much as With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness or Slaughter of the Soul ever did. This seventh outing is a definitive grower. Only time will reveal the true weight of its contents. The only question is, will you give it said time or relapse into that terminal spirit disease and fall back on old, safer glories.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Century Media Records
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: July 2nd, 2021

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