Reunions are a mixed bag. When a band leaves the scene and returns after a long lay-off, an unhealthy set of expectations arrive with them; rose-colored prescription-strength glasses are adorned, pedestals are painstakingly crafted, and we all expect said band to simultaneously grow and yet stay the same. Case in point: At The Gates, Gothenburg’s godfathers of one of the most influential scenes of the mid-nineties, regrouped in 2007 after twelve years of inactivity and released 2014’s At War With Reality, an album that suffered from not being a logical follow-up to 1995’s wildly influential Slaughter of the Soul, and yet was undeniably At The Gates to its core. The change was so drastic that AMG Himself didn’t even review the album. Now, with founding lead guitarist Anders Björler out of the music scene almost entirely, what does the follow-up, To Drink From The Night Itself, have in store?
In short, TDFTNI feels like a continuation of At War With Reality, but diving into deeper atmospheric moods that were prevalent in The Red in the Sky is Ours and With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. Yet, at the same time, At The Gates keep their gears mostly stuck in Slaughter of the Soul Mode. After a moody instrumental in “Der Widerstand,” the title track launches forth, sounding a little too close to comfort to “Blinded By Fear” for my liking, only without a solo. Adrian Erlandsson’s trademark D-beat drumming remains intact with the added benefit of some good fills during the song’s chorus. Tomas Lindberg’s howls and screams sound as acidic and potent as ever. Still, despite the near facsimile, I dug the fuck out of the energy and urgency here, and anticipated growth to go along with the energy.
Well, the energy runs rampant throughout TDFTNI, but I feel like the band keeps looking back on successful formulas instead of looking forward and growing. That kills me because, when the band dips their collective toe into atmospheric waters, the results are straight-up massive. The build-up in the middle of “A Stare Bound in Stone” leads to a colossal second half that flat-out devastates. Album standout “The Colours of the Beast” showcases At The Gates at their moodiest, opening with a monstrous opening tremolo riff, but slowing things to a powerful, almost doom-like lurch, allowing for new guitarist Jonas Stålhammar’s (The Lurking Fear, Crippled Black Phoenix) guitar melodies to breathe and shine a bit more. In fact, while the first half of the album is steeped in nostalgia, the second half shows an intriguing eye towards progression, and it’s simultaneously an engrossing and frustrating listen.
Part of the frustration lies in Russ Russell’s production. While both Stålhammar and fellow guitarist Martin Larsson sound incredible, Lindberg’s voice blends a little too much in the music. Jonas Björler’s bass doesn’t punch as hard as it should, but worse still is Erlandsson’s drum sound. The bass drum especially sounds muffled and punchless. But the bigger frustration lies in the actual songwriting. I can’t fault the band for this entirely, as At The Gates have built up an unmistakable sound over the last two decades. Yet, the subtle changes made here sound so intriguing that it feels like the band is afraid to go all-in on their newfound atmospheric dalliances. I know Stålhammar was added after all writing was completed, but I am curious to hear how his contributions will sound from here on out.
But please don’t let my review dissuade you into thinking To Drink From The Night Itself is in any way a bad album, as that’s far from the case. It just suffers from being a good album that could have been great. Like Carcass before them, I’m happy to see At The Gates acknowledge the impact of their music, and yet grow and evolve. I’m just wanting that growth and evolution to be a bit more prevalent.