It’s time for another retro review, yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on consistently doing this series.
I would say that At the Gates needs no introduction, but actually, when reviewing albums over 10 years old, it is probably a good idea to remind people of the context. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness came out in 1993 as their second full length album (they also had an EP Gardens of Grief). At the Gates were pioneers in death metal, but a good deal of “mainstream” acts had produced a lot of material by this point.
In fact, At the Gates were still pretty unknown on Peaceville records at this point. Founding member and guitarist Alf Svensson was still playing on it. Their critical success and signing to Earache didn’t come until later.
I have to admit that at first I didn’t get this album. There were things that really annoyed me. Some of the songs seemed to just cut off in the middle of something. By this I mean that an idea would start right near the end, and start to build, but then the music would stop with no traditional closure. This was so abrasive the first time that I actually checked for other versions to see if I just had a sample album or something.
Also, there were parts where the playing seemed really muddy. It was almost as if the band messed up while recording or something and just left it in. I couldn’t really follow the song structure which seemed to just keep flipping around all sorts of unrelated ideas. I was having a really hard time with this album.
Two weeks ago I was about to write a review explaining all of this. Now I’m really glad I didn’t. Let’s look at how wrong I was.
The first track is the one where I thought the playing had some mistakes in it. The main opening riff that gets developed throughout the song has a strange ending, but in retrospect it clearly isn’t bad playing. It is just complicated time and rhythm. You can tell, because everyone in the band does it together. Once you’ve heard it a few times it doesn’t even sound that weird anymore.
Speaking of the first song, I think modern death metal bands should study it. It is masterfully constructed. The whole thing is based around 2 main riffs. If you listen to them, you’ll find that they establish an implied harmonic motion, they have interesting melodic motion, and use a variety of rhythmic ideas. In other words, they are suitable melodies to develop over the course of a song. Too often I think some bands just throw down a bunch of notes without thinking about it (no implied harmony, no rhythmic variety) and make a song around it.
The riffs then break off into variants once they’ve been firmly established. The main idea can still be heard, but the variants keep it interesting. They keep the ABAB idea going until the song has built in intensity enough that it explodes into a short climactic guitar solo. There is no excessive wankery. The song needed it at that point, so it happened and didn’t last longer than necessary.
The song is short, but expertly constructed. I’m rather embarrassed that originally I didn’t follow the structure when clearly a lot of thought and work went into making it very structured. This is part of what makes this album so good. On the surface, the songs give a feeling and sense of chaos, muddy playing, and unstructured interruption. This is what death metal should do. Underneath the surface, the songs are orderly, tightly played, and well constructed.
The next two songs are ones that I felt cut off right as they were getting started. The second song has now become one of my favorites. The comments from the first song still apply, but at the start it is quieter and more reflective. There’s probably some black metal influences here.
The ideas that I thought started near the end actually appear several times throughout each of the songs. Each time it appears corresponds to some angry sentiments in the lyrics. Each time it gets more and more intense. At the end it appears in its fullest most angry form.
If I had written the song, then I probably would have let this go on to a big climactic ending. But I have to say, their idea to cut it off works well. It is a great way to musically imitate the sense of annoyance, unfinished business, and anger. If the end developed into a climax with a satisfying traditional ending, then it would leave the listener feeling the exact opposite of what the song is trying to do.
Another fascinating aspect to this album is how the two guitars play off each other. Sometimes they are playing together in unison, but then they break apart into contrasting motion for a bit before coming back together. I said that ideas seemed unrelated at first, but you can hear that the different parts of the song or different riffs are constructed to be able to lay on top of each other. They may seem unrelated, but they fit together.
One of my favorite examples of this is in Primal Breath when the guitars are playing in unison. Then one of them holds the last note which becomes the first note of the other idea and the two ideas get played together. This type of thing is all over the album.
We could keep going through this album song-by-song, but I would keep writing the same thing. At the Gates had the skill and ability to create yet another noisy, speedy, and technical album that was all the rage. Instead, they decided to take a more reflective approach and carefully construct a work of art that would bring out the emotions in the listener that the lyrics were saying.
Overall, this is an absolutely excellent album. I highly recommend it to anyone out there, but give it a chance. It may take a lot of time to digest. There’s a lot of stuff on here that may feel wrong at first, but it is there for a reason. You will come to love those moments.