Undisputed masters of Swedish death metal, AT THE GATES have always been a fearless force for creative thinking. Formed in Gothenburg in 1990, the band’s highly influential take on the burgeoning extreme metal formula swiftly thrust them to the forefront of the underground. Over the years that followed, they demonstrated an intensity and artistic hunger that few of their contemporaries could match. Their first two albums – The Red In The Sky Is Ours (1992) and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness (1993) – eschewed the straightforward, melodic approach of their home-town peers in favour of a dark and progressive strain of full-bore brutality, with artful atmospherics and an underlying sense of otherworldly unease. After sharpening up both their sound and their songwriting for 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease, AT THE GATES delivered the mother of all melo-death masterpieces in 1995. Slaughter Of The Soul remains a revered benchmark for both its creators and the metal scene in general, despite the premature dissolution of the band up shortly after its release. During the years that followed, AT THE GATES’ reputation grew and their influence on a generation of metal bands became abundantly apparent. A second chapter began in earnest in 2008, with a series of acclaimed reunion shows, before AT THE GATES made a full-scale comeback to action with fourth album At War With Reality in 2014: a sophisticated and intricate return to top form that also introduced numerous new weapons into the Swedes’ armoury. Faster and nastier than its predecessor, 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself provided further proof that the band’s 21st century incarnation was easily outstripping the musical achievements of the early years, and subsequent live shows were as intense and celebratory as any they have experienced. Fast forward to 2021, and AT THE GATES are poised to release what can only be described as the finest album of their careers to date. A concept album that explores the dark revelations contained in pessimist philosophy, The Nightmare Of Being unveils a newly liberated and adventurous AT THE GATES, via some of the bravest and most mesmerising material they have ever written. As vocalist and co-founder Tomas Lindberg Redant explains, the new album’s concept emerged from an intense period of reading and reflection. “I had just read something by Thomas Ligotti – he writes horror and there’s a lot of Lovecraft-like, dark philosophy in there, the philosophy of pessimism. Then I found Ligotti had written another book called The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, which is more a biography of pessimist thought. I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool…’ and when I started reading that, it was him defending his worldview and going into detail about other pessimistic writers that had come before and how they can sometimes be connected to the horror genre. He namedropped so many people in that book, that it became a starting point for finding all this other stuff, and then I knew where we wanted to go with this record.” Quite unlike anything AT THE GATES have released before, The Nightmare Of Being plumbs existential depths and conjures some profound questions for anyone bold enough to engage. Fittingly, it is also the most musically inventive and daring record the band have ever made, as Tomas’ brutally poetic lyrics collide with a wild hybrid of classic ATG trademarks, lysergic prog rock detours and moments of jaw-dropping grandeur. “I told Jonas (Björler) I wanted this to be a really dark record. The last one was dark but maybe more aggressive. It was more about struggle and resistance. This one is deeper, darker and more philosophical, so I told Jonas he could really go far with this one, with the ideas that we always had about putting the progressive stuff in there. Pretty early on he came out with the first sketches for Garden Of Cyrus which is the more King Crimson-like song on there. After that we knew that we could do this and there was nothing holding us back from where we want to go. Of course, it’s not the most commercial album, in that sense, but none of the albums are, and they’re all different.”
Audibly driven by a wide-eyed lust for the new, The Nightmare Of Being is the result of a highly fertile creative period, wherein chief songwriter and bassist Jonas Björler enthusiastically embraced Tomas’ lyrical and conceptual perversities, shrugging off the shackles of expectation in the process. Although there is still plenty of balls-out death metal to be enjoyed on the band’s seventh full-length, there is also much evidence that AT THE GATES have evolved into a more imaginative and devastating beast than ever before. Songs like the twisted prog assault of Garden Of Cyrus and the malevolent krautrock battery of Cosmic Pessimism – a collaboration with American author and pessimist philosopher Eugene Thacker – bulge with jaw-dropping moments of skewed invention, while still delivering the expected thump to the ribcage. “Midway through the writing process we did our show at Roadburn 2019,” Tomas recalls. “It was the biggest project we’ve ever done and we felt that people were up for it. We opened with a King Crimson song and we did a Philip Glass cover and people didn’t flinch, and I guess that said to us that people might not think it’s too weird if we went all the way with this record. I guess a true follower would not be shocked by a saxophone. They will understand completely that we love Coltrane and Crimson, so this is logical. We had a violin on the first record, 30 years ago, you know what I mean?” Recorded in several different studios, The Nightmare Of Being sounds colossal but weirdly intimate and oppressive, in keeping with the album’s unsettling conceptual core. With esteemed studio guru Jens Bogren overseeing the recording of Adrian Erlandsson’s drums and legendary guitarist and producer Andy La Rocque manning the decks for guitars and bass, the album is very much a collaborative effort, with all the sonic richness and ingenuity that only the fizziest creative chemistry can achieve. “When we realised we were going all the way with all these weird arrangements and diving into these dark waters, we thought that maybe we should have a more natural and analogue feel to it all,” says Tomas. “But also crisp and clear so you hear all the small details. Jens did the drums, and he is so much into the details. But then we wanted to record all the guitars and bass with Andy (La Rocque) because he has a great ear, to bring out the riffs and the solos as clear as possible, because he’s another level of guitar player. Andy plays a solo again, on Spectre Of Extinction, which is great, of course.” With stunning, evocative artwork from artist Eva Nahon (a recent Roadburn collaborator who contributed to the presentation of Tomas’ festival curation in 2019), The Nightmare Of Being is an extraordinarily complete and cohesive piece of work from one of the truly great metal bands of the modern era. Authentically dark and disturbing and yet undeniably exhilarating from brooding start to epic finish, it’s every bit the equal of AT THE GATES’ early classics, while propelling the band ever further down that fascinating, left hand path that has served them so well. “Yes, for some people we are the band with just that one record from 1995,” Tomas concludes. “But really, Slaughter Of The Soul stands out in our career as the most one-dimensional record we ever did! [Laughs] So it’s kind of weird that we’re judged by that one, because all the other records are a lot more interesting, and this one is the most interesting of all. I think the maturity of being at it for 30 years might have something to do with it. We couldn’t have done this before. But we’re always moving forward.”
Whereas At War With Reality was, to some degree, the logical follow-up to Slaughter Of The Soul, AT THE GATES post-return aren’t tied down to the formula that produced such incredible tracks like ‘Death And The Labyrinth,’ ‘The Book Of Sand (The Abomination),’ ‘Heroes And Tombs,’ and ‘The Night Eternal.’ The proverbial prison in which AT THE GATES were subconsciously housed (as part of their comeback) had crumbled. For To Drink From The Night Itself, the Swedes were finally free of creative limitations, follow-up expectations, and invisible but all-too-real self-imposed restrictions. The Rubicon, as it were, was ready to be crossed and nothing—not even long-standing guitarist Anders Björler, who departed in March 2017—was going to hold AT THE GATES back.
“We’ve always been a hungry band,” vocalist Tomas Lindberg asserts. “We’re always searching for what’s true for us, the real essence of what we want to achieve. The last record is a comeback record after 19 years. To Drink From The Night Itself is a comeback record after Anders left. That kind of pressure keeps us alive and alert, creatively. No one wanted to stop touring for At War With Reality, but Anders was, at the time, done with metal, however. We had been living and breathing metal 24/7. But we didn’t want to force Anders to stay in the band, so we waited him out. When he finally said he definitely was leaving that was the spark that ignited us. We just didn’t want to stop doing AT THE GATES. So, Me and Jonas [Björler] started the To Drink From The Night Itself project. We’ve been completely dedicated to this project for the past eight months. It’s been an incredible ride.”
The loss of Anders wasn’t the death knell of AT THE GATES. Rather, the departure of six-stringer reinforced Tomas Lindberg and Jonas Björler’s resolve to reimagine and reshape the band musically. Certainly, Lindberg, drummer Adrian Erlandsson, and new guitarist Jonas Stålhammar’s other band, The Lurking Fear, could’ve filled the dark gulf had AT THE GATES unceremoniously folded a second time. But, according to Lindberg, there’s room for both. Sating one craving doesn’t always fulfil the next. While The Lurking Fear’s debut album, Out Of The Voiceless Grave, was rummaging through fog covered cemeteries in the dark, Lindberg and Jonas [Björler] already had four new AT THE GATES songs in the can. The march toward To Drink From The Night Itself was on and the road forward inspired.
“The Lurking Fear started as AT THE GATES was finishing the At War With Reality tour,” says Lindberg. “We knew there would be a creative vacuum that we would want to fill. And we did that with The Lurking Fear. We have a thirst or hunger to express ourselves within the death metal genre. It’s like a deep well. Never dry. It’s hard to stop. With AT THE GATES, the new songs came on really fast. We felt we had something special, so rather than quit, we pushed ourselves really hard. I mean, we’ve always been a boundless band. We want to be creative in the death metal genre. The limits are what keep us alive. We wanted to push those limits on To Drink from The Night Itself. This is a big album, we had to pursue it.”
Written by Jonas [Björler] and Lindberg together, To Drink From The Night Itself emerged out of very productive and energized song and lyric-writing sessions. Jonas would influence Lindberg and Lindberg would inform Jonas. The dynamic duo were on fire. After all, Jonas was a key force in the songwriting for both Slaughter Of The Soul and Terminal Spirit Disease. For AT THE GATES’ sixth album, Jonas ensured AT THE GATES’ sonic fingerprint would endure unweathered, while Lindberg’s trademark roars and studious lyrics would continue the band’s erudite message through desperate bouts of aggression. To wit, tracks like ‘A Stare Bound In Stone,’ ‘Daggers Of Black Haze,’ ‘In Nameless Sleep,’ featuring King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque, and the title track are definitively AT THE GATES yet they convey so much more.
“A lot of people think the lead guitar player will write all the material and that the bass player is just this other guy,” Lindberg laughs. “Well, that’s just not true with Jonas. Me and Anders worked the hardest on the arrangements and stuff for At War With Reality, but what most people don’t realize is that Jonas wrote 40 percent of At War With Reality. He also wrote 40 percent of Slaughter Of The Soul and Terminal Spirit Disease. He’s been a primary songwriter in AT THE GATES for a long time. Anders said to me once, ‘Jonas always writes the best stuff!’ The way we worked on this album was pretty free, no holds barred. There was total creativity, total fluidity in the songwriting. We wanted to prove ourselves.”
As for the other Jonas [Stålhammar], he officially replaced Anders in September 2017, late in the songwriting process. But Jonas didn’t come in blind. The members of AT THE GATES have known Jonas for nearly 30 years. His addition to AT THE GATES was a no-brainer. Like Lindberg and Jonas [Björler], Jonas was part of Sweden’s death metal domination in the early ‘90s, playing significant roles in underground legends like God Macabre, Utumno, and Abhoth. Today, he moonlights in Bombs of Hades, Crippled Black Phoenix, and The Lurking Fear, while serving as AT THE GATES’ lead guitarist.
“He’s the only guy we tried out,” says Lindberg. “We wanted someone who understood AT THE GATES from the early days, where the band comes from. We also wanted someone who was aware of where we wanted to take AT THE GATES. Jonas has all the same musical reference points as we do—from death metal and prog rock to krautrock and hardcore/punk—so we knew he’d be the right fit. The only thing we needed to shake out was, ‘Can he technically pull it off?’ After the first rehearsal, we asked him, ‘Do you want to join?’”
Conceptually, To Drink From The Night Itself originated with German writer Peter Weiss and his novel, The Aesthetics Of Resistance. The idea was to capture the desperation of a struggle or resistance, where victory is unachievable yet the fight presses on. Lindberg also was enlivened by Weiss’ discussion of art—all forms—via his characters and its various uses, either as a weapon of oppression or as a signal of opposition. As witnessed throughout history, art has been and will be labeled unfairly decadent or ridiculously triumphant or secretly obstructionist.
“We’re not a political band, but it’s a very left-wing book,” Lindberg affirms. “Basically, this book is a real brick. Well over 1,000 pages. No chapters, just words and more words. He goes through the whole history of the Resistance in Europe during the ‘30s and ‘40s on different levels. His main characters are these art students, typical left-wing people. There’s discussion about art and how it can be used as a tool for oppression or revolution or resistance. I’m very intrigued by the whole essence of it. To Drink From The Night Itself, for me, stands for that. To live through art. Make it mean something. Not to look back. Just make art. Our art means a lot to us. It’s the reason why we get up in the morning. So, we drink from the night itself. And I think our fans do too. The night is a metaphor for the essence of pure art.”
To Drink From The Night Itself was recorded at three studios. The vocals were captured by Per Stålberg and Olle Björk at Welfare Studios in Gothenburg over a three-week period, while the rest of the music—drums, bass, and guitar—were recorded by producer Russ Russell at Parlour Recording Studios in the UK over a two-week session. The strings—cello, violin, and double bass—were then tracked by Martin Jacobson at Rovljud Studios in Örebro. The entire effort was produced by Jonas [Björler], Lindberg, and Russell over three weeks, with Russell taking an additional two weeks to mix and master.
“We had a clear vision where we wanted to take the album musically,” says Lindberg. “We wanted strong metal songs. We’re all fans of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and old school metal in general. We wanted to take that into the death metal genre, our home turf, so to say, made grittier, more brutal. We also wanted to take the progressive elements of the band and make them into good, solid, songs. We didn’t want them to be hard to listen to but rather easy, as part of a good song. Russ understands all that. He understands where we come from. I mean, if we told him we wanted a really brutal sound, that’s what we’d get from Russ. He wouldn’t try to over-produce it, to make it cleaner. He’s got a lot of heart and energy. It was a real pleasure working with him. The sessions were straight forward. We went in with the idea to make a brutal if dynamic death metal record and that’s what we ended up with.”
For the cover art, AT THE GATES rehired Romanian artist Costin Chioreanu. AT THE GATES wanted a very different cover and design from At War With Reality, so they tasked Chioreanu with a multi-format, single-color concept. That is, different but related art for each format—CD, vinyl—including the 7-inchs and bonus CDs, which feature album songs with different guest vocalists, like Rob Miller from Amebix/Tau Cross, Per Boder from God Macabre, and Mikael Nox Pettersson from Craft. With this design in mind, Chioreanu’s art, using Lindberg’s literary ideas, ensured that all facets of To Drink From The Night Itself were encased in art.
“We wanted to work with Costin again,” Lindberg says. “He understands the band. Costin has a very distinct style. We wanted him to try different things this time around. I was heavily involved in the art direction, but I will say Costin exceeded himself. He’s done so much art for this record that we don’t really know how to fit it all in. For the different formats, there will be different covers. Thematically, they’re similar and it’s all very red. Redder than The Red In The Sky is Ours.”
As for what’s next, Lindberg is hopeful that a freer, more enterprising, and more savage AT THE GATES will resonate. The frontman and the rest of AT THE GATES are preparing for the shock and awe of tracks like ‘Palace Of Lepers,’ ‘The Chasm,’ ‘The Colours Of The Beast,’ and closing epic ‘The Mirror Black.’ But most of all, AT THE GATES are eager to get out on the road to play To Drink From The Night Itself for fans the world over. Resistance is, after all, not futile.