There’s something so beautifully pure about the band that breaks up immediately after releasing its best album. It’s a romantic idea: these people who have been spending years of their lives working toward realizing some grand vision, then calling it quits immediately afterward, realizing they’ll never quite be able to top it. It’s a legacy-building move and a kiss goodbye. It’s Michael Jordan retiring immediately after the 1998 Finals. Usually, the bands who do this, whether we’re talking about Refused or At The Drive-In or whoever, have their own issues; they’re not simply concerned with eliminating the downward-slide part of their career. But whatever their reasons for doing it, it always makes for a stunning exclamation point — at least until these bands inevitably reach their Jordan-on-the-Wizards moment and release their extremely whatever reunion albums.
At The Gates are not following this arc. Between 1990 and 1996, the Swedish band inspired a whole new sound — a triumphant, soaring take on death metal. That sound kept all the seething atmospheric violence of, say, Morbid Angel while injecting it with a glorious, canyon-spanning melodic sensibility. (God bless Sweden, a place where the national facility for tight, memorable hooks extends all the way from ABBA and Max Martin through to the grimiest underground metal hammerheads.) At The Gates inspired a whole scene, the Gothenburg Sound, that was still going plenty strong when the band finally got back together in 2007.
All you need to know about the first iteration of At The Gates is in the way singer Tomas Lindberg barks the word “Go!” during the opening seconds of “Slaughter Of The Soul,” the title track of their 1996 masterpiece. It’s pure adrenal force — Lindberg willing this riff-monster of a song into being, urging it forward. I’ve never heard anyone else put that level of feeling or technique into screaming that one single word. Lindberg is an all-time great metal screamer, strained and fervent and weirdly godlike, and he’s so in control of his technique that you can sometimes understand the words he’s forming without a lyric sheet. That makes him an outlier of an outlier in death metal.
Lindberg left At The Gates after Slaughter Of The Soul — possibly because he was bored with death metal, possibly because he didn’t think he could outdo it — and the band broke up in his wake. Among other things, Lindberg went on to join the great Swedish D-beat hardcore band Disfear. With them, he recorded 2008’s Live The Storm, an utter monster of a record and one that I love even more than Slaughter Of The Soul. Live The Storm remains probably my favorite heavy-music album of this century. They still haven’t followed it up, though that probably has more to do with bassist Henke Frykman’s 2011 death of cancer than with any fears of being unable to equal a classic album.
At The Gates got back together, of course. At this point, the bands that don’t get back together are the unicorns. But when At The Gates returned with 2014’s At War With Reality, it was immediately clear that this was not the lame post-breakup follow-up, the band’s equivalent to Refused’s Freedom or At The Drive-In’s in•tera•li•a. At War With Reality is a vivid and feverish and deeply committed metal record, a rare example of a band getting together and finding itself near the peak of its strength. Now, with their second post-reunion album To Drink From The Night Itself, they’ve outdone that past album, coming up with a metal album of rare force and grandeur. It feels insane to even bring up the possibility that the new album is as good as or better than Slaughter Of The Soul, and yet the case can be made.
This isn’t Jordan coming back with the Wizards. This is Jordan returning to the Bulls after his brief exile in minor-league baseball — older but harder, tougher, more controlled. There’s fire there, but it’s not youthful fire anymore. To Drink From The Night Itself is the work of a band fully in command of its own powers, one who knows exactly how far to push itself. At times, they can be dizzy in their ferocity. But they also understand and respect their own legend.
Slaughter Of The Soul was, in its way, an epic album, but it achieved epic status mostly from how focused and righteous its wrath was. To Drink From The Night Itself is epic in different ways. The first sound we hear on the album is a soft, fluttery acoustic guitar. The album begins and ends with choral, orchestral instrumental interludes, and they’re strung, in quiet moments, throughout the album. Those interludes somehow feed directly into what the band does. They don’t feel like stunts. Partly, that’s because the band members know grandeur now; they’re confident in how to incorporate these different ideas without overstretching themselves. But one of the reasons the orchestral bits fit in so seamlessly is in how effortlessly complex the band’s music is. They’re not showing off, throwing in mathy breakdowns or anything. Instead, even when they’re playing at full speed, they’re finding space for all these sideways riffs and counter-melodies. This is grand, satisfying neck-snap music, played as straight as it needs to be, but it still has layers.
Lindberg’s growl is more ragged than it’s ever been, but it’s also stronger, more intuitive. Lindberg is still apt to sing about stuff that sounds both cool and evil, the stuff that gets teenagers sold on metal in the first place — “the lingering presence of inescapable death,” that sort of thing. But if I’m reading him right, he’s writing more than ever about the pervasive and ever-growing divisions in society, in the structures that rich people put in place to make sure that they and their kin will always come out on top. Lindberg’s phrasing is, of course, pure metal, but the ideas are there: “An ideology solidified / The fragments lost in time / From within inaccessible walls / Their elitism starves us blind.” And he also sings about the way it’s always been like this, about how ancient statues show the same bullshit occurring all through human history.
A new At The Gates album isn’t going to topple society or anything, despite whatever we might wish. But Lindberg sounds committed. He’s got things to get off his chest. And the band sounds reinvigorated, full of whatever uncharted airborne chemical reaction happens when a group of musicians fully locks in with one another. As far as reunions go, this is closer to the Dinosaur Jr. model than anything else — the old pros figuring out how great they were together, then making a series of records that honor that greatness and maybe even surpass it. But Dinosaur Jr. are making mellow, headblown stoner jams. At The Gates are making monumental end-times music. Appreciate them. Salute them.
To Drink From The Night Itself is out 5/18 on Century Media.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Courtney Barnett’s pleasant guitar-rock zone-out Tell Me How You Really Feel.
• Parquet Courts’ crunchy, tuneful Wide Awake!.
• Ryley Walker’s post-rock-influenced Chicago folk journey Deafman Glance.
• Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks’ clever choogle Sparkle Hard.
• Now, Now’s intense neon synthpopper Saved.
• Big Ups’ ruminative post-hardcore clanger Two Parts Together.
• GAS’ intense ambient opus Rausch.
• Frog Eyes’ complex indie-rock goodbye Violet Psalms.
• Remember Sports’ fuzzy, laid-back Slow Buzz.
• Wussy’s sludgy alt-folker What Heaven Is Like.
• Mary Lattimore’s harp-assisted internal journey Hundreds Of Days.
• Michael Rault’s tunefully trippy It’s A New Day Tonight.
• Matthew Sweet’s seasoned power-popper Tomorrow’s Daughter.
• The Sidekicks’ polished guitar-popper Happiness Hours.
• The Internet member Patrick Paige II’s solo debut Letters Of Irrelevance.
• Coliseum side project Fotocrime’s brooding post-punker Principle Of Pain.
• Warpaint side project TT’s debut LoveLaws.
• Big Thief side project Buck Meek’s self-titled debut.
• Beach Slang side project Quiet Slang’s acoustic experiment Everything Matters But No One Is Listening.
• Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly’s collaborative album Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music.
• Amorphis’ melodic death-metaller Queen Of Time.
• John Maus’ companion-piece album Addendum.
• MC Paul Barman’s nerd-rap comeback (((echo chamber))).
• Forest Swords’ DJ-Kicks compilation.
• The Deadpool 2 soundtrack.
• Ric Wilson’s BANBA EP.