Friday, March 11, 2011

At the Gates- The Red in the Sky is Ours (1992)

I know this post is about 10 years late--i.e. 10 years after "sounds like At the Gates" was a ubiquitous descriptor for every American emo and hardcore and metal act, when every bearded, drug-dealing bike-messaging cruster was raising their fists in the metal sky to the Slaughter of the Soul album... even a few years after their cash-in reunion in 2007. (At which time knuckle-dragging "metal fans" among my acquaintance were shocked at my lack of enthusiasm: "Y-y-you don't... g-g-uh.. like Slaughter of the Soul? But it fucking slaaaays, man!")

I confess, though, that Slaughter of the Soul made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in 2001: they made it sound so easy! And the narrative going around at that time was that, yes, At the Gates had other albums, but they were basically a prelude to this, their masterpiece. One listen to their earlier music confirmed this: uncatchy, full of diverging parts, badly-recorded, and lacking everything that made Slaughter of the Soul such a landmark: twin-guitar hooks, compelling choruses and audible lyrics, a style combining basically Iron Maiden and Slayer... Of course, you could squint and imagine that the earlier riffs were somehow aiming at the same thing, picking out a few seconds in a 6 minute song that "foreshadowed their later genius."

How wrong-headed this all seems now! Nothing has been more driven into the ground than the Slaughter of the Soul sound--its worst incarnation being in Victory Records screamo and metalcore appropriations--so that perhaps even someday we shall want to revisit *this* album as deserving and merely overshadowed by its influence. Still, it is a ludicrously front-loaded and monotonous record, far too easy to overplay.

On the other hand, At the Gates' debut, under consideration here, is positively fecund with inspiration, overflowing with cool parts, labyrinthine structures, and a precocious grasp of "technicality" in death metal (this was 1992!), while managing to avoid almost every trap of "sweetness" and pandering to be found in, say, Swedish compatriots Dark Tranquility.

Still, this record's reputation is in need of some burnishing! Here is the review:

Here's what Sweden's At the Gates told us with their first album, The Red in the Sky is Ours: they were from, er, Sweden; they were very upset about something -- probably their parents; they played extremely fast and furious; and they pretty much sounded like a "baby" Entombed, offering little in the way of innovation to the booming Gothenburg death metal scene. And that's pretty much it. Later on, their contributions would rank among the best death metal around, but, for now, only the title track and latter-day concert favorite "Kingdom Gone" show any inspiration. Everything else will barely interest even hardcore fans.

My response:
  • Doesn't sound like Entombed (except maybe the one song cited).
  • Erroneously perceived as a "entry" in "the booming Gothenburg scene," where in fact the album precedes the debuts of Dark Tranquility and In Flames.
  • Even assuming by "Gothenburg scene," the reviewer means unrelated bands such as Dismember, Entombed, Carnage, Grave, etc., At the Gates here are light years beyond those bands (still largely tied to a Discharge/crust influence); the ideas here still sound inventive and eccentric, not tied to an early 90s "scene."
  • If anything, one can read here a hidden influence on Norsecore, especially on Dark Funeral.
  • In any case, this is the worst kind of historical interpretation, deeming the album irrelevant only because it does not fall in with the development of the reviewer's favorite style.
The Red in the Sky is Ours, far from being "melodic" in the sense of ring-tone melodies and warmed-over Iron Maiden influence, is melodic in the true sense: the songs unfold according to a melodic understanding or logic. Instead of being a simple phrase or hook, melody here is the entire song's working-through. Add to this a bubbling technicality, a permeating but eccentric emotionality (so far from U.S. death metal's tone!), the occasional crazy use of a violin, and you have the exact opposite of Slaughter of the Soul: a record almost so overcharged with ideas as to pay off almost unlimited relistening.

My only criticism of this record, which is the flipside to its virtues: it is incredibly dense, and almost lacking dynamics. Many of the songs have the same feel.

Here is an album you can really get lost in; on the other hand, one almost has to do so, to get the most out of its depths. The surface is not pretty or easily approached.

1 comment:

  1. allmusic's old metal entries are AWFUL, clearly written by indie geeks who listened to like one song. the review for the first bathory album inaccurately conflates it with the viking era, implies that quorthon participated in the norwegian church burnings about ten years later, and mostly just indulges in pussy ranting about their bad, evil "fascistic ideas."