Day Twelve: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul

Earache Records ■  MOSH 143

Released November 14, 1995

Produced by Fredrik Nordstrom, Co-Produced by At the Gates

“We are blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born…”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Blinded by Fear
  2. Slaughter of the Soul
  3. Cold
  4. Under a Serpent Sun
  5. Into the Dead Sky
  1. Suicide Nation
  2. World of Lies
  3. Unto Others
  4. Nausea
  5. Need
  6. The Flames of the End

This is actually an interesting title to discuss, as it actually also puts me in the awkward place of talking about a classic album, which was something I intended to somewhat avoid by going through my own record collection instead of a set of albums pre-determined by history or anything of the kind. Naturally, I’m not defiant about classics and do own plenty (and far more if we look at my CD collection), but I’m occasionally peculiar about how I purchase vinyl in particular. 

However, this is a classic extreme metal album, which means that its reputation tends to hold up only in that particular “scene”. If you aren’t into death metal, you’ve probably never heard of this album. Indeed, the indirect inspiration for this, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, is, like many similar collections, very light on metal in general: there’s a single Judas Priest album, a Sepultura album, a Pantera album, two Megadeth albums [?!], 1 Slayer album, 1 Iron Maiden album, 1 Anthrax album, 3 Metallica albums [!], and 1 Venom album–and, the one concession to extreme metal, Napalm Death’s Scum, which receives the hilarious (but ultimately quite useless) review at the blog to which my own is also a response to (wherein the aforementioned 1001 albums are reviewed). This does indicate the one flaw in my approach: the genres I remain only hazily familiar with–jazz, though I own a reasonable amount, I’m an absolute novice with; classical, which I barely own any of, but do own on vinyl in a few instances; country, which resembles jazz as my collection goes; the music of other countries that is not heavily Western in nature; so on–as I approach music on the whole as something to understand as well as just appreciate and enjoy. Alas, I won’t have much in the way of revelation for myself to pass on to you, but this does allow me to attempt something else: conveying to the unfamiliar the value of genres and releases you may not be familiar with.

While it took me a while to get into death metal at all, I started from the more formative variety, leapt to from the metal inflected/influenced sound of “nu metal” in the late 1990s–Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are the Sick, which was released in 1991. Depending on who you are and how your tastes run, this is not the album I would suggest first, most likely. Slaughter of the Soul, on the other hand, leapt out at me immediately: it was recommended to me by a friend in college who acted as “mentor” to me on the subject of metal, having been involved with listening to it for a much longer time than I had. He unequivocally recommended this album, and I listened to it repeatedly on my first acquisition of it.

I bought this copy, on <a href="”&gt;heavyweight vinyl (220g!), as the first physical copy I owned, ordered directly from Earache (the label, in case you do not understand the notation I use at the beginning of each of these entries!) alongside Decapitated’s Nihility (which was also pressed on 220g vinyl at the time). It was my first experience with the whole idea of heavyweight, and is an exceptional example, as 180g is usually the ideal. I actually had some issues with the order–Earache is originally a British album, and I was ordering from the US store that, as I recall, insisted the album was out of stock. I actually ended up getting an e-mail from the label’s head, Digby Pearson, who is the first person thanked by the band on this album–who sorted things out and got me the albums.

The band and the album are some of the icons of a particular strain of death metal: melodic death metal, aka “melodeath”, aka “Swedish melodic death metal”, so named because the sound originates primarily in Sweden (if not exclusively). It’s actually interesting, as the pillars of this sound are Slaughter itself, In Flames’ The Jester Race, and Dark Tranquility’s The Gallery, all of which were recorded at Studio Fredman with Fredrik Nordstrom in Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden. Even more amazing, Slaughter and The Gallery were both released in November, 1995, separated by only two weeks. The Jester Race was recorded in that same month, too, though it was released three months later. The sound is easily identified, as it is recognizably death metal in terms of the distortion, aggression, volume, and growled vocals, but it is defined by guitars that carry clear and obvious melody. All three albums–and many successors and predecessors, both from those bands and others–also carry moments of folk-inflected acoustic passages and tracks. These elements tend to make the subgenre the most immediately accessible works of extreme metal.

Slaughter of the Soul opens with “Blinded by Fear”, which the band wrote as a deliberate opener for the album, and was the last track the band recorded a promotional music video for. It begins with the hum and buzz of amplifiers with nothing being played through them, cutting away to phased, metallic sounds that vocalist Tomas Lindberg speaks over: “We are blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born”. And then the guitars of Anders Björler and Martin Larsson drop in and the album takes off at–if you’ll pardon me–blinding speed. The video, though, is illustrative of Adrian Erlandsson’s, drummer, role in the album: he is an absolute machine in this recording(which Nordstrom confirmed as being defined by absolute perfectionism–exhausting on an analog recording!), and the video shows what that looks like: while the rest of the band bears the long hair that is so indicative of the look of metal–Lindberg with long locks of braided red hair and a full beard, Anders, Martin and Anders’ twin Jonas with the more standard straight hair swirling through the rhythmic headbanging the drive of the sound tends to induce–Adrian is both shaven and shirtless, his muscles coiled and tight, aggressive and loud hits forced by short distance from stick to drumhead to maintain absolute control over an extremely precise rhythm, one that is defined by the blast beats I mentioned in discussing Aborym’s Kali Yuga Bizarre: alternating bass drum and snare hits accented with matched cymbal hits. The signature double-kick bass drum sound (wherein two pedals are operated on the same or paired bass drums–in Erlandsson’s case, the same drum) of much of death metal–as well as thrash metal–appears only briefly as a fill (an exception to the basic rhythmic pattern of the song that adds more flavour to a drum performance). The apex is a twin-guitar solo that reminds us that the sound has strong roots in the work of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The song ends on one emphatic beat, leaving only the original amplifier buzz to bring us into the title track.

Martin Larsson has said that his favourite riff on the album–an album defined by riffs–is that of “Slaughter of the Soul”, which begins with a single guitar playing a riff from the left with emphases from Erlandsson before it is cut short for a momentary pause, notoriously released with Tomas’ cry of “GO!” which brings back the riff, expands Erlandsson’s drumming to its full usage, adds the second guitar as well as the bass. While riffs define metal in general, or at least characterize much of it, the melodic element of the Swedish sound is heavy on tremolo picking and the use of bends and single strings to bring unmistakable melodies to the aggressive riffing of distorted guitars. Martin and Anders have fingers dancing from fret to fret to accent the riffs of this song, which contains the only “breakdown”–a moment where the tempo drops to a minimum and is heavily emphasized on-beat, in this case, Erlandsson giving a steady 1, 2 from bass to snare–on the album, which acts as the opening to the song’s solo. The song contains the phrase which titled their “best of” collection: “Suicidal final art”, and ends with two hits from Erlandsson to stop the song short, a technique used throughout to actually maintain the energy and forward drive of a primarily relentless album.
“Cold” was one of the songs that inspired a rather silly short story I wrote in the throes of admiration for the album, and has a distinct climbing guitar line as Lindberg calls out, “I feel my soul go cold/Only the dead are smiling”. At its second appearance, it gives way to a new riff which falls back to a clean and pretty moment of slowly ascending notes that lead in to the album’s guest guitar solo from King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque, which makes unusual and fascinating use of the tremolo arm for some wavering notes in the middle, before turning to the rapid “tapping” technique that defines the most impressive histrionics of metal soloing, but here feels less showy than appropriate. Lindberg’s vocals are let ring out clearly for just a moment as the guitars disappear, his voice intoning “22 years of pain/And I can feel it closing in/The will to rise above/Tearing my insides out”. Extended squalls of feedback carry the song outward, and bring us to “Under the Serpent Sun”.
Seeming to start almost in the middle of itself–despite the lead-in from light cymbals by Erlandsson–“Under the Serpent Sun” brings some of the meatier, bassier riffs to the album, rolling and thundering along as Tomas yells out his first appearance nonverbally, before a moment of showier druming from Erlandsson that brings the song back to the higher notes that define much of the melodic elements of the band. Rapid picking defines one of my favourite twin-guitar solos on the album, while the song is allowed to stop short for a more ominous, still distorted break that lets Tomas let loose another spoken line: “Sweetfleshed hellbent creature/Artist of the fevered soul/Heavenly, venomous rapture”, which he ends with a sudden return to his death metal stylings: “Sickened on by fear I fall!” Another sudden ending lets us reach the one full-fledged island in the album.
“Into the Dead Sky” is a beautiful, primarily acoustic piece–even the electric parts are primarily clean, the drums are left alone but for a bit of studio-phased background beat (played by Anders due to schedule conflicts). The sound of the guitar strings, especially with two of them playing together and Jonas’ bass only momentarily moving past a downtempo beat, sound as if they cannot still or move together, dancing around each other and sliding from note to note in a moment that can be appreciated, I should think, by nearly anyone.
The transition to “Suicide Nation” is brilliant: a sample of a pistol slide chambering a bullet from “Reservoir Dogs” plays in isolation, the implied violence immediately contrasting with the beauty of the prior track and allowing the guitar riff that follows to feel natural and appropriate, well-introduced. The title is at least in part a reference to the alleged status of Sweden as the country with the highest suicide rate (a fact Lindberg has later said he’s unsure of, but that helped to inspire the song nonetheless). Erlandsson is finally allowed to let loose with the double kick, much of the song already sounding like a stampede of weighty animals, but further emphasized by the more spacious moments under Tomas’ refrain of “Control, control!” that leads into the crescendo of “Suicide, suicide” that was apparently achieved by literally running at the microphone screaming the word. One of the more emotive solos leads into the most distinct rhythmic portion of the song, which finally closes with the full force of the song’s various parts.
“World of Lies” has a fantastic descending riff to open it, spiralling downward until the tribalistic drumming of the intro brings it to the second fantastic riff of the song, which seems to answer its own lower notes with higher ones. A thrashy break underscores the first verse, while the chorus is the most brightly melodic portion of the song–until the bridge. Oh, that bridge! Chunky, muted riffing brings us back to that call-and-answer riff, until Tomas begins singing: “Final psychotic eclipse/Painted in the colours of war”, and the song lets free of its restrained rhythm, Erlandsson allowing space for the guitars to waver and hang on notes, Tomas finishing the lines with the musical change emphasizing his rhythm and words: “Final psychotic eclipse/A world drenched in blood”. A quote from the book Tomas says inspired the album (The Dice Man by Luke Rhineheart–aka George Cockroft) is spoken, “And it’s his illusions about what constitutes the real world which are inhibiting him…His reality, his reason, his society…these are what must be destroyed.” The bridge returns and it is even more breath-taking, with Tomas modifying the final line to match the rhythm even more closely: “Final psychotic eclipse/A world drenched in the blood of the innocent”.
Tomas has described “Unto Others” as the song’s “inevitable” rant against organized religion. “You’ve got to have at least one, right?” he says–and it’s a common theme in much of death metal, the defining aspect, indeed, of some bands. It has one of the most peculiar moments on the album though: while an acoustic break is not entirely unexpected at this point, that it is met with Tomas’ growls of “You walk through what is me/Stare blind–cannot see/Your thoughts flee to a different land/They are free, but you are bound” and not the more “normal” spoken approach he uses previously makes for a very interesting juxtaposition. Lest you think that they operate on a notion similar to some segments of the populace regarding this, the expressed anger comes through most clearly with one pair of lines: “You mock the weak for not giving you their trust/In your world of make believe, where statues turn to dust”.
“Nausea” is defined by a buzzing guitar sound reminiscent of musical attempts to represent the flight of insects through a scattered mix of notes whirling around itself, and is probably the track I find least remarkable in all the album–which is less a knock against it and more an indicator of how good the rest of it is. 
“Need” follows it, however, and is the most explicit expression of Tomas’ misanthropic, not-even-vaguely suicidal thoughts: “Open me, with your kiss of steel/End my pain-set me free/For we are enslaved, forever enslaved”. Cascades of drum fill define transitions between riffs, and sound utterly exhausting in an album Erlandsson has described as exactly that. The climbing tremolo riffs that are a large part of the At the Gates sound appear again as well, with strong lead lines from Anders coming out more distinctly than in previous tracks. Horror movie-esque keys end the song with a light melody played on bells (the kind that resembles a xylophone, not the kind one rings), which is only appropriate as it brings us to the close: “The Flames of the End”. The second largely instrumental track, as well as the second to drop the majority of the aggression, this is actually a heavily electronic (keyboard) track that was originally part of the soundtrack to Anders’ homemade horror movie Day of Blood (which the band discusses as incredibly terrible on numerous occasions), though it is layered over with slippery, wandering distortion on guitars that whine in and eventually take over the entire track, even when simple, martial riffing is added as well, nothing can compete with those squealing sounds, which finally turn to absolute chaos.
This album holds up to repeated listens in rapid succession, at great distances, and is often thought of as the absolute apex of At the Gates’ career: indeed, when they reunited a few years ago, they emphatically said they would not record new material (though they’ve softened a bit, it’s more to avoid being to absolutist about it) as it would just be “disappointing” so long after an album that was effectively enshrined. At the Gates regularly follows At the Drive-In in any music collection I have–at least, it did before I began to split off a handful of genres, including metal. Both were bands that reached what was considered a peak, by the public, by their respective scenes, managing to bring together popularity with now audiences and recognition from their own existing audiences as a general rule–and then broke up, neither giving even a hint that, ten years later on both counts, they would reunite and play live, forswearing new studio recordings. 
Like At the Drive-In’s swansong, Relationship of Command, Slaughter of the Soul very much serves as the collective experience of an established career filtered into a single work: while original second guitarist Alf Svensson and his more artistic bent was long lost since his exit after their second album, With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, allowing a more concise, controlled sort of sound to define Terminal Spirit Disease and Slaughter. Like Vaya, Terminal Spirit Disease was a shorter release (22 minutes and 6 tracks, though 3 lives tracks were appended to the original issue) and contained more scattered experimentation–“And the World Returned” may be At the Gates’ most beautiful acoustic piece, but it brought with it a small string section, fitting in its place there, but odd in the totality of their work. Slaughter introduced the briefest of electronic moments, but it was almost more defining: the album as a whole is lyrically misanthropic, depressed, vaguely nihilistic and socially condemnatory: violence is seen as both indication of the reckless descent of man and as inevitable in light of that. The machinistic drumming of Erlandsson, while impressive and excellent, is also thematically appropriate. Society is represented as a controlling influence and a soul-crushing one; the cover melds a subdued palette of brown, orange, and yellow to the concrete lines of the schematics of weapons, bones, and chains to the distressed, faded, ripped image of a messianic figure, most likely Jesus. And it is encapsulated in “The Flames of the End”, which technically contains lyrics, ones which close a song, an album, and a studio career: “Humanity–the living end, a walking disease/Beyond good and evil, the flesh that never rests/The flames of the end inside us rest”.

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