In the build-up to the release of At The Gates’ sixth full-length, To Drink From The Night Itself, there appeared to be a clear split within the community. On the one hand we had the ‘fuck yeah, new At The Gates!’ crowd, and on the other hand, we had the Slaughter of the Soul exists, why are you still making new music?’ group. What the latter seem to have ignored is just how good 2014’s At War With Reality really was. It was a comeback album of Traced In Air proportions; following up arguably the greatest album in the genre with an incredible record that managed to stay in keeping with their history without retreading too much old ground. With a clarity of production that simply wasn’t possible in their first coming, At War With Reality was replete with bangers such as “The Circular Ruins”, “Eater of Gods” and “Upon Pillars of Dust” as it showcased their razor-sharp riffs, trademark aggression and excellent songwriting. Given the 19 years between albums it was quite a feat, and after a comparatively short four-year wait we have a new full-length to dive into – so let’s do just that.
We kick off with a short intro track in which melancholic acoustic guitars and chilling female vocals precede epic orchestrations that give a sense of hopeful despair. Despite the #bantheintrotrack movement, this does a good job of setting the scene for what’s to come, and the fact strings reappear at a couple of points throughout the record shows they are more than just an afterthought. We then kick off the record proper with the title track. One of the best songs on the record, we get exactly what we want from an At The Gates song. A heavy, memorable main riff that can carry a song, a dark, quasi-industrial atmosphere and Tomas Lindberg’s signature bark and lyrical style. We also get our first real taste of the record’s production on this track, and this is where we start to hit some speed bumps. The clarity of At War With Reality has been forsaken in favour of a grittier production that’s raw and has loud, fuzzy bass. The latter is something you expect in a stoner album, not death metal, and it begs the question of why they shifted styles from their previous record. They don’t need raw production to sound menacing, and the slightly muddled mix leaves the guitars lacking their usual punch.
Back to the music and “A Star Bound In Stone” picks up from where we left off. Another strong track, we get a great main riff accompanied by a driving rhythm section, occasional tremolos and a nice shift in tempo during the bridge. Unfortunately, things start to go downhill from there. “Palace of Lepers” is a solid track in its own right, perhaps even good, but it feels like we’ve heard it all before. It sounds like an amalgamation of the previous track together with some riffs recycled from the editing room floor of their last record. Worse still, this issue goes on to plague the remainder of the album, with songs blending into one another and losing the distinct characteristics which have made At The Gates the powerhouse name they are today. Each song is strong enough on its own merits when listened to in isolation; however, when combined to form an album the whole is less than the sum of its parts. When observing the whole we find that the same parts can be found in different places, some of them old and reused, others clumsily duplicated, too few pieces thoughtfully crafted to be fit for purpose.
When accounting for context, To Drink From The Night Itself looms as the weakest entry in At The Gates’ mighty discography. In some cases, the band departs from things which worked so well in the past, such as their production, while in others, they lean too heavily on what they’ve done before. That’s not to say this is a bad album, for it has its moments, but when measured against the lofty standards At The Gates have created for themselves it can only be seen as a disappointment. Their first record without principal songwriter Anders Björler, one has to wonder whether we have another In Flames on the cards. Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte wrote most of In Flames’ iconic songs between them, but upon the former’s departure, the quality of the band’s output has fallen dramatically, despite Björn’s obvious abilities. Similarly, twin brothers Anders and Jonas Björler co-wrote around half of At The Gates’ last two albums, but with Anders writing the other half alone, one has to wonder if Jonas is up to the task of single-handedly righting this ship. For everyone’s sake let’s hope that he can, or that Anders returns to the fold. Until such a time that we can find out, at least we have their back catalog to listen to.