In the vacant and easily forgotten world of television the most compelling trope is by far when a program ‘jumps the shark’. This involves making an attempt to re-frame the long-running popularity of a series with modern tonality and hails the coming decline of quality. The most clear example is The Simpsons. This is applicable to just about any form of media where continuity is expected, and no greater thirst for continuity exists than in the world of heavy metal where the divide between critical reception and sales is often surprising. What sells best is obvious, brand familiarity, and second is the band’s ability to create hooks and emotional connection. Where familiarity (read: nostalgia) collides with emotional connection is when the expected becomes self-parody and the songwriter is no longer sure where to make a connection with their expectant, tedious audience.
I believe this was the great mountain to climb in the early talks of resurrecting unanimously hailed Swedish melodic death metal progenitors At the Gates. If you came to virility in the 90’s and remain rooted in those sensibilities, avoiding trend and cliches further, it might not completely sink in that At the Gates played a serious role in shaping the world’s approach to playing the guitar with as much influence as Jeff Hanneman or Tony Iommi condensed into fewer decades. ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ in particular is the culprit that expanded the minds of musicians responsible for wave after wave of melodic death metal, melodic black metal, melodic metalcore, modern thrash metal, and served as the ultimate punctuation for their career. The dead artist appears most profound and legendary for the discovery-bound listener and At the Gates‘ end elevated their status.
With fifteen years off amidst nigh constant pleas for more, despite much greater success in other projects, the band reformed with intent to record an album around 2010. It was an exceptional album that saw Anders Björler reclaim his guitar god status with songwriting that avoided parody on an almost self-conscious level with some of his most expressive and monstrous guitar work to date. Of course it was the band’s return but Björler‘s writing is what carried the thread from ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ into a modern melodic death metal record that still sounded like At the Gates but did not pander it’s references into parody. I would strongly suggest that without Anders’ careful ear the guitar work on ‘To Drink From the Night Itself’ is so self-referential throughout that parody has unfortunately been achieved despite divergent song structure.
Like so many others who thrived and developed within the extreme metal cacophony of the 90’s At the Gates wasn’t an eventual buzzword for a teenage MySpace profile but rather an important shock-wave in the Swedish metal scene that helped popularized an underground extreme metal movement on the level of the NWOBHM. So, with decades to explore, re-evaluate, and analyze the band’s output across five years and six major releases the consensus in hindsight is quite publically that ‘Terminal Spirit Disease’ was an impetus for the more grand explosion of melodic death metal. Whether or not you agree with that statement, it was a major label release that garnered ridiculous amount of praise and likewise it was a point of regret for the musicians involved in terms of artistry and being funneled down the record industry grinder.
The great pandering disturbance of ‘To Drink From the Night Itself’ comes with the first three notes of the title track. If you don’t recognize that riff they’ve already published by all means return to the greater joy, heaviness, and refinement of their previous discography. In place of intelligent structure are collages of ‘filler’ guitar work draped over re-imagined riffs of the past. ‘To Drink From the Night Itself’ isn’t necessarily a greatest hits rehashed but Jonas Björler‘s writing always benefits strongly from his brother’s input. All is not lost without Anders but there is a certain lack of detail and structure that is a huge part of At the Gates signature beyond their sound. The sound is a no-brainer and something that only this band can nail despite so many imitations existing. In this sense the album sounds perfectly like At the Gates but has sixty percent of the substantive elegance.
The production and performances are some amount of savoir for the lacking guitar compositions, though. Each member, old and new, comes with a resume a mile long and a concurrent project of equal interest. Even if “Daggers of a Black Haze”, “In Death They Shall Burn” and the title track too closely revisit old songwriting the experience is appropriate in it’s regal, melodramatic sourness that only the Swedish can achieve with such convincing performance. The riffs are huge, dramatic, and have some of the same chaos magic that made ‘At War With Reality’ a special record in 2014. In mulling over ‘To Drink From the Night Itself’ I found myself twisted within mental gymnastics of optimism, disgust, adoration, and ultimately defeat. For every positive, nourishing drop I can squeeze from the turnip it is still a drink of slightly bitter vegetable juice. Though I enjoyed the full listen several times, and I’m generally impressed with the experience, it is too self-referential. I think it is pronounced in a way that might have worked for Motörhead because of constant iteration but doesn’t work for such a calculated discography.
I think longtime fans will be pleased with some casual absorption of this record. Nostalgia is bristling and fun initially but I think if you were impressed with the differentiating aspects of ‘At War With Reality’ this will feel like an odd shift in focus towards crowd-pleasing art rather than a greater vision beyond reputation. The greater oeuvre and detail of the hallowed discography is missing and I guarantee you will feel it once the adrenaline wears off. With more time to bake and perhaps some greater chances taken ‘To Drink From the Night Itself’ could have been an interesting and weird entry, instead At the Gates merely microwaves the freezer-burnt leftovers from ‘Terminal Spirit Disease’. The only connection it can hope to make is nostalgia.
|Released||May 18, 2018|
|Listen on Spotify||Follow At the Gates on Facebook|
The thirst of dying. 3.0/5.0
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