May 14, 2018 At the Gates – To Drink from the Night Itself (Album Review)
Returning in late 2014 with their first studio album in 19 years, Sweden’s At the Gates are back sooner than later with To Drink from the Night Itself out on Friday, May 18, 2018 through Century Media Records.
Their sixth overall studio record, before going any further, let us discuss the extensive history of one of the Swedish Death Metal scene’s most important acts. Hailing from Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden, filled with just over a half-million people, somehow it has a strong (and strangle) hold on the production of Melodic Death Metal. The path laid forward by pioneers such as At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames have been traveled and trampled by dozens of acts since. Perhaps the foremost act, At the Gates, formed in 1990, parted ways just seven years later, at the precipice of true success.
Ten years passed, and the members dispersed to various projects including The Haunted, Cradle of Filth, and The Crown, among others. Then, in the late 2000s, the rumblings of a reunion began, and with a series of dates in 2007 and 2008, the band was back, at least in a live form. A new album was discussed only as a matter of course, and The Haunted continued their steady output, keeping ATG fans satiated. Come early 2014, the band began teasing a new album, confirmed as At War With Reality, released in late October that same year.
A headlining spot at the 2015 flavor of the Decibel Magazine Tour followed and At the Gates toured exhaustively in support of the new album, finishing their 2016 with some summer dates throughout Europe. A new album was soon rumored, but the next year started with a brisk March announcement that founding Guitarist Andres Björler, having already left The Haunted a few years earlier, was now departing At the Gates. In deference to the news, the band released plans to write and record a new album within the next year. As the writing process closed, Guitarist Jonas Stålhammar was tapped to join longtime Axeman Martin Larsson in the studio; this new, second Jonas was familiar to the band from three decades of friendship and his recent work within the more recently formed The Lurking Fear.
A smattering of European dates and a headlining appearance at the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest this past March announced the new lineup and the new album to the listening public. Which leads to present moment as To Drink from the Night Itself slots itself in exact pace with the band’s existing catalogue. Offering 12 new tracks, it is uncanny how fresh and innovative this band can sound, despite numerous factors: ten years of exhaustive touring, a scorecard full of side projects and guest appearances, a welcome parade of imitators and impostors co-opting their sound and flooding the market, and, perhaps most of all, the recent departure of a founding member in Andres Björler.
Yet, after the usual habit of an introduction instrumental track, “Der Widerstand,” German for the resistance, the band blisters into immediate aggression with the title-track. The band applies all of its hallmark techniques: clean and fast guitar picking, artful percussion, and raspy verses screamed over musical rests, done with a subtle groove that never allows the listener to sit still or lose focus. “A Stare Bound in Stone” hijacks the pace into a slightly slower groove, a technique furthered in “Palace of Lepers,” which emerges as a strong track early. Lindberg sounds brisk and alive here, his distinct voice always a full-time citizen of the overarching vibe rather than simply an additional instrument.
Moving on, “The Chasm” packs another brisk itinerary, and “Daggers of Black Haze” is the most diverse track, turning a lonely piano into technical aggression, tempered repeatedly by clean acoustic guitar and impressive bass work, before a strong guitar solo comes into focus.
During press interviews, Tomas Lindberg had hinted that the departure of Andres Björler, while mostly amicable, would lead to some expanded creativity with the band’s work. The second half of the album begins to stray from the band’s historical formula, but with decent results. Tracks like “In the Nameless Sleep” and “The Colours of the Beast” start breaking the thirty-year mold; the former introduces distant, almost watery vocal effects ahead of a traditional Thrash riff (supplied by the legendary Andy LaRocque, fellow Gothenburg native and longtime guitarist for King Diamond), while the latter employs an almost doomy guitar effect. The typical inflections of classic At the Gates are still present in these later tracks, but they are rammed through a new, raw prism that breathes life into a band that may have yet to appear stale, but also has the advantage of a decade-long respite and a seemingly endless supply of alternate musical outlets.
The only hitch on this otherwise excellent album is something that cropped up within At War with Reality: length. The rest of the band’s discography has generally hovered in the 40-minute range, and while this album slots into that timeframe, it also feels extended by a song or two. That in mind, “The Mirror Black” is a pleasantly plodding closer, but any one of the handful tracks preceding it could have been omitted (or added as inevitable bonus tracks) to give the overall album a tighter feel.
To Drink from the Night Itself sees At the Gates returning to, and fast outpacing, their prior form, and is a welcome addition to their work both pre-breakup and post-reformation. The title-track, “In the Nameless Sleep,” along with “Daggers of Black Haze” in particular are welcome additions to the live choices for the band. Amidst endless touring, countless side projects, and the loss of an original member, At the Gates have outdone themselves with To Drink from the Night Itself. CrypticRock is pleased to award this album 4.5 out of 5 stars.