At the Gates’ ascent into the popular mainstream metal conscious, and its subsequent descent into 90s crowd-pandering inanity and irrelevance is only offset by the band’s emotionally raw, atmospherically rich and utterly pummeling early catalogue that came before. The band’s posthumous elevation into the metal pantheon as the universally agreed-upon signpost/standard for American metalcore and Americanized Gothenburg death metal is a sad reminder that once again proves that an artist’s most popular work is seldom their best. What it does prove conclusively is that “Slaughter Of the Soul” is loved for all the wrong reasons. The swath of imitators this record spawned (on both sides of the Atlantic) in the early 2000s and in the decade that followed only further diludes from the fact that “Slaughter Of the Soul” is the death certificate of what once was Sweden’s most adventurous death metal band. That it is sometimes the only record known by today’s younger generation of metalheads makes its enduring (and grossly exaggerated) legacy as a modern day death metal masterpiece even more convoluted.
The production is the most concrete, crystal clear and crunchiest the band had ever experienced up to that point. It falsely lulls more impressionable listeners into thinking this record is actually heavy, which it is not. The pristine and entirely lifeless production merely distracts attention away from the thinly veiled pop music that the band is peddling here. Stripped of everything that used to make this band fantastic, the songs here are fast-paced groove metal songs that do well in the live setting, but don’t hold up to close scrutiny. This record is the embodiment of defeatist attitude. Why even raise an effort, when you just can throw a few riffs together, call it a song and watch all the mindless kids whip themselves into retardation in the moshpit? This record has exactly two things: big riffs for small minds, and full grooves for empty heads.
Apparently Slayer (and “Reign In Blood”) served as a major inspiration for this particular offering, but the comparison doesn’t really hold up. Slayer had changed with every album from “Show No Mercy” onward, but they stayed within the same style and upheld the same basic identifiers while making different creative choices with each subsequent album they did. The stunt that At the Gates pulls on this record is fundamentally altering its style to capitalize on the emergent groove metal sound popularized by the likes Machine Head, Pantera and Sepultura. If this sounds a lot like “Chaos AD” or “Far Beyond Driven” to you, that probably means that it is. Everything that once made At the Gates the most accomplished Swedish death metal band is curiously absent here, and not for the better. Really, throwing a couple of admittedly catchy (but very thin) thrash metal riffs together and shouting the name of song a couple of times on top of that as a chorus might be simple and effective in getting a moshpit started, but good songwriting it is not. Even Slayer’s immensely lackluster “Divine Intervention” had more soul than this vapid of excuse of a “death metal” record. For a record called “Slaughter Of the Soul” it is also notably upbeat and happy sounding.
Like any pop oriented record the songs are vocal oriented affairs that put all emphasis on frontman Tompa Lindberg, who makes a complete and utter fool of himself here. Instead of spouting his usual esoteric, anti-religious and internal world lyrics, here he tackles socio-political and abstract philosophical nonsense with overcooked infernal imagery and religious inversion that was done far better on the early records of American death metal bands as, for example, Immolation, Vital Remains and Incantation. To further emphasize how much of a pop record this truly is, there’s a fixation with stop-words, and apparently Lindberg has to continually shriek “yeah!”, “do it!”, “go!” or “come on!” through out a number of the songs present to keep the listener’s attention. To say that this is infantile would be an understatement. If this is a record about modern day philosophy, angst and urban decay, why then the senseless pandering to the lowest common denominator? Shouldn’t the subject be able to sell the record on its own terms?
The often covered (and imitated) ‘Blinded By Fear’ is the biggest strike against the record, and patient zero in terms of the ills that form the downfall for this record, and the band that wrote it. After random noise, and a spoken word the song kicks in with a punchy Slayer-by-way-of-Gothenburg riff, and it is downhill from there. There appear to be exactly two riffs in this song, and the watered down solo (if you can call it that) sounds even less convincing than the riffing it is supposed to support. These riffs are crunchy and visceral, no doubt – but they are also stale and kind of annoying. The drumming holds down the beat, but offers no interesting fills. The bass guitar is supposedly in there somewhere too, but it isn’t doing anything worth remembering. The straightforward pop/rock formatting of these songs doesn’t help matters in the slightest. What is so rebellious about trying to imitate a pop/rock band? Aren’t metal bands supposed to be the antidote to that very thing? There are still plenty of saccharine melodic solos, but don’t be deceived by the sweet nothings they provide. The old At the Gates solos were chaotic and full of raw emotion – these are not. These are soulless imitations of what others were doing, in Sweden and elsewhere. Most of this record is a formerly great band full of itself. “Slaughter Of the Soul” reeks of complacency and laziness.
‘Into the Dead Sky’, the mid album acoustic guitar instrumental, is a hold-over from this band’s better days, but it is tucked in between two of the album’s worst songs (‘Under A Serpent Sun’ and ‘Suicide Nation’ respectively). It also does nothing in particular, and it passes by without the listener realizing it. Which is either its strong point, or its weak point, depending how you look at it. Closing track ‘The Flames Of the End’ is the highlight of this questionable album, on the mere fact that it thrives off this band’s previous adventurous and experimental spirit. As charismatic and soulful as At the Gates were in their earlier days, here they appear utterly lobotomized, with songs that are sanitized, streamlined and pre-packaged in an exciting gimmick (“it’s death metal for your Pantera friends!”) that was infecting the global metal scene when this record came out. Even the highly individual and somewhat chaotic At the Gates was now desperate, poor and pretty vacant enough to sell their souls for the lure of the almighty dollar.
I’ll concur that the album is catchy, and it has hooks – but are we trying to appeal to the mainstream here? The riffs, once At the Gates most formidable weapon, are reduced to stale groove riffs, and the toothless songwriting choices only expose the weak points in the overall architecture of said songs, and the album as a whole, further. These are the kind of instantly headbangable riffs that every honest metalhead should come to loathe. This record thrives on the realization that nothing is something – and it is so unashamed that it asks the listener to hear them repeat the same trick for about ten times. There is some Dismember influence in terms of riffing, but it is minor in the grand scheme of things. The less instantly catchy songs, or those who do not immediately conform to the structural decline this record so heavily and proudly capitalizes on, are conveniently put near the end of the record. Pop music at least has the decency to make no qualms about what it is, our Swedish friends not only insult your intelligence by assuming you are too dense for songs that you can’t instantly sing along to – but they also want you to believe that they are still very much an extreme metal group, and actually musically relevant at this point. Neither of which is remotely true, this album is an insult to anybody that seriously loves death metal, and what it is truly about. This is a travesty. What a crock.
Who is fooling who here exactly?
Sepultura released the uniformly awful “Chaos AD” in 1993, while in the United Kingdom former goregrinders (and medical jargon jokers) Carcass reinvented themselves in a similar (and equally questionable) fashion with the absolutely dreadful “Heartwork”. This record was released in 1995, coming to the world one year after Obituary inhumed themselves creatively with “World Demise”, the chugging hardcore/groove variant of their death metal sound that was filled with urban angst in instead of subjects of ghastly horror. The very same year (in 1995, that is) Morbid Angel, once the gold standard to which all things death metal were measured, released its own statement of irrelevance with “Domination”, which capitalized on the exact same merits (if you can call them that) as this record does. Sure, it was recorded at Studio Fredman, and has guest contributions from Andy LaRocque – but what does that mean here exactly? This record is still the same pile of festering cancer, even with the sparkly solos on top. Like the Brits of Carcass, At the Gates toyed briefly with mainstream acceptance - and in an ironic twist of fate both bands would go on hiatus after their most populist work. After the usual reunion tours and festival appearances both bands resuscitated their careers and have new records out after a lengthy hiatus. Nobody ever claimed metal bands had integrity, and the lure of money always wins over artistic excellence.
It will never cease to amaze me why exactly this record is held to such high regard…