The absence of live music at the start of the pandemic made Swedish metal icons At the Gates especially nostalgic for some of their favorite concert moments.
Understandably, when lockdowns began ramping up in earnest around the spring of 2020, the quintet saw festival appearances booked for that summer go by the wayside – with makeup dates being pushed well off into the distance.
Since they weren’t stepping onstage any time soon, At the Gates used the downtime to write and record The Nightmare of Being, their third album since reforming in 2007, and seventh overall.
Naturally, it finds the band delivering the patented, high-speed grafting of neo-classical melodies, old-school death and NWOBHM-inspired guitar twinning – often referred to as the “Gothenburg sound”, after the Scandinavian city in which many of them grew up – that firmly cemented 1995 landmark release Slaughter of the Soul into the heavy metal hall of fame.
Some 30 years into their career, however, The Nightmare of Being is perhaps At the Gates’ most ambitious offering yet, emboldening that foundation with high-contrast elements of symphonic black metal (Touched by the White Hands of Death), decidedly chewier desert rock grooving (Cosmic Pessimism) and even moody, saxophone-wailing prog rock (Garden of Cyrus).
Pushing the perception of At the Gates was, in part, inspired by the act’s epic performance at Netherlands metal festival Roadburn in 2019. Though still centered on certified wreckers and deep cuts from their back catalog, the set was also marked by seemingly left-field covers, like a dive into the discordant funkiness of King Crimson’s Red, or by adapting the atmospheric, synth-and-chant arrangement of avant composer Philip Glass’s theme from early ’80s experimental film Koyaanisqatsi.
In terms of where it would eventually take them on this latest album, the concert was an eye-opener for At the Gates, and proof that they could broaden their sound without sacrificing any intensity.
“Roadburn [was] a perfect place to play those songs, and also to try different things,” longtime guitarist Martin Larsson explains over a Zoom call with Guitar World – bespectacled lead guitarist Jonas Stålhammar seated directly to his left, bassist and songwriter Jonas Björler connected to the chat through a separate video screen. “We tried to give the big picture of where we’re coming from [by] playing a few of our favorite songs that we grew up with.
“We did the Trouble song [The Tempter] for the metal influence, a Philip Glass song for the modern classical influence, and we did a King Crimson cover to show that part of what we’re about. Doing all that live proved – mostly to ourselves – that we could branch out even more. I think we’ve wanted to do that for quite a while.”
At the Gates formed in 1990 in Gothenburg while the group were still teenagers, with the music on their earliest records generally written by then-guitarists Alf Svensson and Björler’s twin brother, Anders – vocalist Tomas Lindberg handled lyrics. After releasing a pair of brutalizing, yet melodically melancholic full-lengths, Svensson left the band in 1993.
Anders Björler assumed the role of lead guitarist, while the band drafted local riffer Larsson into the lineup to jud out rhythms on the following year’s Terminal Spirit Disease.
Though the record was pivotal in the sense that it was the first At the Gates record to have the Björler brothers writing in tandem, the siblings fully canonized the group’s razor-sharp twist on melodic death metal through the ruthless, all-killer strafing of their next release, Slaughter of the Soul.
While, in retrospect, the band felt debut album The Red in the Sky Is Ours featured a few too many riff-stacking exercises – bassist Björler remarked in a 2007 interview that they tried “too hard to impress people with too many riffs and weird songwriting” – by the time they go to Slaughter, tracks like Blinded by Fear and the titular Slaughter of the Soul distilled At the Gates down to its essence: viciously lean thrash arrangements; finger-blistering tremolo sections; and hooky, Maiden-esque harmonies.
Lindberg, meanwhile, grittily got into social issues like gun violence, this in part inspired after viewing crime flicks like Reservoir Dogs and Menace II Society. On top of Larsson and Anders Björler’s feverish riffing, King Diamond guitarist Andy La Rocque seared out an especially fiery solo on the record’s Cold – a fate-sealing collaboration that continues between La Rocque and At the Gates.
Less than a year on from that iconic release, though, the band split up. The Björlers and At the Gates drummer Adrian Erlandsson would quickly form similarly minded outfit the Haunted (melodic death metal veterans in their own right, Erlandsson and Jonas Björler continue to play with the group), while Lindberg went off into a punkier, d-beat direction by joining Disfear in 1998.
Many years and outside efforts would pass before the Slaughter of the Soul lineup reunited in 2007 for live dates; it wasn’t until 2014 that the group delivered comeback LP At War with Reality.
It was a menacing return to form, but Anders Björler departed the group in 2017. Following his brother’s exit, the bass-playing Björler – with some reticence – took over full songwriting duties on both 2018’s To Drink from the Night Itself and The Nightmare of Being.
“It’s really hard when you do it yourself, but I like to have a really broad range of ideas when I’m going into an album – so we have fast, we have slow, we have heavy, we have melodic,” Björler says of his process. As hinted at by Larsson, some of At the Gates’ diverse Nightmare did indeed begin taking shape ahead of that eclectic outward display at Roadburn.
Björler confirms that he’d started sculpting full-bore bangers like The Paradox and album opener Spectre of Extinction, in particular, while At the Gates were on a fall 2018 U.S. tour with Behemoth – and with the latter in mind, the intro was fit with a riff the bassist had found on an old hard drive of ideas from about a half-decade earlier.
The impressive acoustic section that leads Spectre of Extinction, however, wasn’t performed on the LP by Larsson or Stålhammar, but rather by guest musician Gunnar Hjorth, a classically trained player Björler knows from his neighborhood. The band eventually ramps up into a metal-style variation of the theme, with Larsson and Stålhammar jovially bending out their guitarmonies.
Lindberg has explained that the record revolves around themes of pessimism, but musically this is arguably At the Gates at their peppiest. Larsson and Stålhammar explain that the anthemic Spectre of Extinction appeals to their shared affinity for classic Judas Priest – a true Tipton and Downing moment, at least until the song darts off into a detuned, nitro-fueled death-thrash hybrid.
Though Stålhammar joined the band in 2017, he’d been in At the Gates general sphere for years. Funnily enough, at one point in the late ’00s he was the vocalist for the Crown, a band Lindberg had fronted a few years earlier. By 2016, both musicians, along with drummer Erlandsson, linked up for the Lurking Fear project, with Stålhammar on guitar and Lindberg on the mic.
Standing as somewhat of a test run of his abilities, the speedy, clear-cut pummeling of the Lurking Fear’s 2017 debut, Out of the Voiceless Grave, was released just one month before Stålhammar officially entered At the Gates; the band’s latest terror-thrashing album, Death, Madness, Horror, Decay, was released this past fall.
“I’ve been playing metal just as long as everyone else in the band, but I’ve always played a more meat-and-potatoes kind of metal – simpler; more straightforward,” Stålhammar says. “At the same time, I can do weird stuff. I love progressive rock more than I love metal – it’s always been more inspirational to me.
“Playing this kind of metal was more or less completely new to me [when I joined At the Gates]. It’s not like relearning how to play guitar again, because you more or less know the basics… but joining the band pushed me.”
While At the Gates would eventually take Stålhammar’s technique into a new direction, the grand majority of 2018’s To Drink from the Night Itself was pretty well demoed and charted out by the time he entered the lineup. Though he’s on the recordings, the guitarist’s leads had already been composed by principal songwriter Björler. The bassist likewise demoed out solo ideas for The Nightmare of Being, but this time around Stålhammar had a more active role in sculpting the end result.
“Jonas was bouncing ideas off of me when it came to the solos,” Stålhammar says. “It was more collaborative.”
The bassist and lead guitarist point to the spacious, evocative hammer-ons and classic, ascending runs that Stålhammar brings to The Paradox as a particularly inspired collaboration of theirs. Stålhammar also says another favorite passage of his is on The Abstract Enthroned, where a series of doom-laden trills and big bends cast a gloriously gloomy pall on the track ahead of a timeless fadeout (“It’s so sad and dark, yet hopeful at the same time,” he says).
While the studio trick gives the song an unearthly, never-ending ambiance, Björler confesses that he wasn’t entirely on board with this particular mixing decision.
“That’s like a compromise, to me, when you fade out of a song,” Björler says. Without missing a beat, Stålhammar comically quips, “some of the best parts come after the fade,” which only rankles the bassist further. “You could easily have added a few more bars [in the mix]… but it’s OK.”
Some leads, meanwhile, managed to run longer as the sessions went on. Take the aforementioned Spectre of Extinction, which once again features Andy La Rocque ripping out high-velocity runs alongside At the Gates.
It’s become a recurring theme for the band to turn to one of their closest collaborators and heavy metal heroes for a lead. In addition to his solo on Slaughter of the Soul standout Cold, La Rocque was also brought aboard to wail over To Drink from the Night Itself’s hard-swung In Nameless Sleep.
When it came time to lay down the lead for Spectre of Extinction, the Swedish hard rocker’s mellifluous fretboarding was apparently too good to keep confined to just a few bars. Björler explains: “We actually doubled the length of the solo, because it was so good. He added five to 10 seconds more. It’s cool!”
While At the Gates were adjusting on the fly to harness happy accidents such as these, there were still some logistical challenges to making The Nightmare of Being.
The pandemic definitely didn’t help, resulting in the band rarely being in any one studio at the same time. Instead, La Rocque was tasked with tracking guitars and bass about 45 miles south of Gothenburg at Varberg, Sweden’s Sonic Train Studio. Lindberg laid down vocals in Gothenburg’s Welfare Sounds with Per Stålberg.
In the case of Erlandsson, who resides in London, travel measures and pandemic-era safety protocols made it so that the drummer wasn’t able to fly out to Stockholm’s Studio Gröndal to record with engineer/mixer Jens Bogren until late November 2020. That he even made it out of England just then was a miracle in and of itself.
“It was between the second and the third wave of the pandemic,” Björler says. “They eased off the lockdown thing in the UK, so he managed to get over [in the fall]. When he got back, they started to have a serious lockdown again. We were lucky to get him over and do the drums.”
Despite the scattered recording schedule, At the Gates’ latest is confidently executed from start to finish. Fans clamoring for that classic At the Gates sound will get annihilated by speed-forward pieces like The Paradox. Touched by the White Hands of Death likewise affixes a familiar triplet swing to the band’s drilled-down riffs, but the song begins with a fanciful, if slightly frightening symphony of woodwinds, brass and bowed strings.
While not orchestral in a traditional sense, Björler modeled the creepy, competing tremolo picking patterns that begin The Abstract Enthroned on the unsettling, spiraling sounds of 20th-century Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
“I was listening to a lot of Shostakovich, the Russian composer – he’s out of the box, really dark stuff,” the bassist says. “He has no mould; he progresses at a half a tone or semitone; doesn’t follow any rules. I wanted to do something like that [for the intro of The Abstract Enthroned, but] when it goes over to the thrashy verses, it picks up into a normal At the Gates kind of thing.”
In terms of Nightmare’s other outside-the-box moments, the dissonant crunging of early King Crimson can be felt on Garden of Cyprus, a prog-textured piece that finds Stålhammar employing an evocative and eerie, low-gain style to his brief lead section before making space for guest saxophonist Anders Gabrielsson to blow through a passionate solo of his own.
Even while Björler is At the Gates’ principal songwriter, it’s clear his bandmates and The Nightmare of Being’s many outside collaborators are nevertheless integral to the record’s overall aesthetic. For another example, take Cosmic Pessimism, perhaps the boldest pivot from At the Gates’ traditionally savage, bpm-pushing death metal.
The idea for the track had first come from vocalist Lindberg, after spinning some vintage Krautrock tunes for Björler. The bassist, meanwhile, felt he could take the overall feel of the genre’s cosmic grooves in a more metal direction. “Inspiration comes from anything, so I am not turning any idea down… unless somebody in the band tells me it sucks,” the bassist says with a laugh.
To wit, you can hear a bit of early ’70s motorik rhythm-making in the way Erlandsson locks into the track’s tight and hypnotic mid-tempo groove. To the guitarists, though, the song’s ultra-loose and unfurled, clean channel riffing conjures the stoniest moments of Kyuss; Björler thinks there’s a bit of Thin Lizzy in there, too.
As with much of the album, Larsson and Stålhammar tracked Cosmic Pessimism with their Solar ATG series baritone guitars, both men yielding an especially dense, bottom-heavy hum by toggling the alder-body instrument toward the top humbucker.
“For some of the rhythm parts we used the neck pickup for a smoother, bassier sound,” Larsson says of Cosmic Pessimism, adding, “Other than that, we used an Ibanez baritone for some parts, and we borrowed Andy’s guitar with a true temperament fretboard for a melody part that kept sounding out of key. I never caught what brand of guitar it was, though.”
Larsson and Stålhammar initially pushed their respective parts through an ENGL Powerball at Sonic Train, though everything was later re-amped through both a Diezel head and a vintage Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier going through Mesa oversized cabs with V30 speakers. Björler’s bass tone is just as meaty throughout the 10-song collection.
As he had on his early demos, Björler basically ran his Warwick Corvette Standard bass directly into Devin Townsend’s Heavy Bass plug-in – though he suspects Bogren may have done some additional EQ’ing while mixing and mastering The Nightmare of Being at Örebro, Sweden’s Fascination Street Studios.
Slaughter of the Soul is an unimpeachable death metal classic, but it’s fair to say that At the Gates’ early masterpiece also worked within a limited scope. It’s wall-to-wall rippers by design, with the band having intentionally scaled down their arrangements back then to harness something spectacularly raw.
As At the Gates move into their fourth decade of activity, though, they’ve fully mastered the balance between simple, brute force and elegiac metal complexity. Whereas The Red in the Sky Is Ours may have been ambitious but unstructured, the grand scale epic-ness that ebbs and flows through Nightmare is seamless.
Though it showcases some of the band’s wildest musical moments, Björler employed a simple method for making The Nightmare of Being a well-rounded, though cohesive experience: key changes. “Some songs are E, some songs are G#. Slaughter of the Soul is only in B minor – it’s almost boring,” Björler says. “This record has everything.”
Slaughter of the Soul could have preserved the band in amber – 26 years later, it’s still a benchmark for melodic death metal – but three albums into the reunion phase, The Nightmare of Being finds the quintet addressing their legacy while pushing off into even more brutal horizons. Larsson anticipates how each album cycle seems to find Björler upping bandmates’ games.
“There’s always one riff on a new album that Jonas writes that pushes me. [This time] it’s the ending to Touched by the White Hands of Death, the really thrashy part,” Larsson says. “I had to learn a new technique. I’m 90 percent there with the alternating triplets – it’s too fast to start from the upstroke. For Anders, the old guitar player, that was his style. I never had a reason to learn that [kind of technique back then], but I do now. I appreciate that, though, getting pushed like that.”
“Wait ’til you hear the new stuff,” Björler quips ahead of a round of laughter from all three riffers.
A nightmare to learn, perhaps, but the band and their fans are no doubt sweetly dreaming of whatever At the Gates think up next.
- The Nightmare of Being is out now via Century Media.