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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.

At the GatesApparently 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…

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There was a considerable turnover in the ranks of Cenotaph after “The Gloomy Reflections Of Our Hidden Sorrows” – and as such it isn’t very surprising to note that a change in style would occur reflecting that shift. Where “The Gloomy…” was an occult and dark sounding record in vein of Incantation and Asphyx, “Riding Our Black Oceans” is far more technical, abstract and Swedish in tone and delivery. The influence of “The Red In the Sky Is Ours” era At the Gates is obvious, and while the playing style is similar to that of the album that came before, the writing style is completely and utterly different. Even the cover photography is a far cry stylistically from that record released some two years previous. This was a wholly different band with a different artistic vision. The old Cenotaph sound might have been abandoned, but the rejuvenated and energetic approach with what Cenotaph attacks their new vision is equal, if not better.

cenotaph-ridingWhere “The Gloomy…” was a oppressive and tenebrous album laden with and drenched in reverb, Corchado’s unearthly grunts and spooky synthesizers, this record sounds a lot more open-ended and, for a lack of a better term, clear. That is not to say this record sounds happy, or even remotely upbeat. No, far from it. The long winding songs on this record permeate an aura of estrangement, hopelessness and cold uncaring. The instrumental title track has just an acoustic guitar and little else. The most known track from this session is ‘Soul Profundis’, a midtempo crusher that channels the best of early At the Gates and Dark Tranquillity. Like the preceding record there’s lively interaction between fast and slow sections, and Clorio’s drumming is as unrelenting as ever.

Highlights of the record include ‘Grief to Oscuro’, the hugely atmospheric instrumental title track and ‘Soul Profundis’. The last track deserves a special mention as it includes everything which makes melodic death metal so poignant and strong when done right. Fast passages segue into doom-like dirges, acoustics merge flawlessly with death metal and a passionate vocal performance and funky bass guitar playing add to the fireworks. If you decide to sample a track of this record, that one comes highly recommended.

The dry and somewhat clinical production is mostly similar to that of “The Gloomy…”, but on all fronts is it cleaner and less gritty. The guitar tone goes for the Sunlight Studio type sound, and the drum kit sounds more organic, full and warm this time around. There is more clarity, definition and bite to the guitars here, and especially the leads/solos benefit from this treatment. The bass guitar can be clearly heard popping and plucking away, while the record is not overly bass-heavy the kickdrums and bass guitar thankfully do add to the overall heaviness quota. The acoustics sound roomy, and never clash with the earthy production. That is not to say that there aren’t any faults with the production work. For one, there’s little low end to the whole – and it does tend to sound a bit processed and, well, too dry and lacking in crunch at times.

From the preceding record only Oscar Clorio (drums) and César Sánchez (guitars) remain. Julio Viterbo makes his debut on guitar here, and the riffing and use of unconventional melody is akin to that of Alf Svensson from At the Gates. The shouted shrieks of Edgardo González mostly ape Tompa Lindberg’s style on the aforementioned At the Gates record, and the bass guitar playing of Fernando Garcilazo is surprisingly vital to the compositions. It is a lot more adventurous than many of their contemporaries in North America and Europe. It is never wildly exotic or funky, but it does add a lot of flair to the riffs and the swirling and conflicting melodies.

There exist several pressings of this record. The original album was released by Cyber Music in 1994. In 1999 the album was re-issued by Mexican label Oz Records first in its original form. The same label re-released the album a second time, now adding 5 bonus tracks, of which 3 live tracks and two studio outtakes. The three live tracks are ‘Crying Frost’ and ‘Lorn Ends’ two tracks that would appear on Cenotaph’s next album “Epic Rites” and a live recording of ‘The Solitudes’. ‘As the Darkness Burns’ would appear on “Epic Rites” as well. ‘Everlasting Command’ would appear in its definitive form on the band’s final album “Saga Belica” from 2002.

If you like a different on the early sound of At the Gates then this album is certainly worthy of your consideration and time.