At the Gates Broaden the Horizon with 'The Nightmare of Being'
Seven years on from their recorded comeback with At War With Reality, At the Gates have carved out one of the greatest ever returns for a metal by not just proving that they can still live up to their game-changing and foundational material from the past, but increasingly chart new voyages beyond anything they have done before. This is a band with no concept of an albatross, a melodic death metal band famed for a moment of such speed and anthemic immediacy in Slaughter of the Soul turning more and more into a genuinely progressive band who can't be pigeonholed and easily predicted.
New album The Nightmare of Being, their seventh overall, marks their absolute dive into the prog pool, seemingly sealing their identity as an extreme metal band closer to forward-thinking luminaries like Enslaved, Opeth, Triptykon and Napalm Death in their fearlessness than an old reliable and demanding reassessment if that's where you put them. A conversation with vocalist Tomas Lindberg, possibly the nicest man in death metal as well as one of its most identifiable voices, spans progressive rock, an introduction to pessimistic philosophy, distinguishing themselves from their imitators, and their constant deviations from the metal template.
Listening to The Nightmare of Being comparing it to previous albums, To Drink from the Night Itself was an album with more sense for texture and melancholy atmosphere but now seems rather conservative in comparison, so did you come out of that record thinking that you could go far further than that?
Yeah, I think that was the whole idea. I think that if you look back there’s no At the Gates album that sounds the same, and we like that tradition. When you do challenging albums and you challenge yourself every time, you can’t just sit back and relax, you have to keep taking those steps, but while still maintaining the basic thing of it still sounding like At the Gates. That is the interesting challenge and why we are still here. Doing this at our age, it has to be important and it has to be fun, and so challenging ourselves doing these big projects is what makes us enjoy it. We noticed that it was really fun to do the orchestration parts and the different arrangements on To Drink from the Night Itself, and so we were more comfortable with it there and felt capable of pushing it in this direction. In the 90s we probably would have wanted to do something like this but wouldn’t have been able without the knowhow.
The orchestration back then probably would have been some very 90s keyboard rather than the real thing, right?
Yeah, either that or The Red In the Sky is Ours violin which is very naked and raw, which does have some kind of youthful obnoxious to it. You balance that because when you’re 20 you do that because you can’t do what we do now, and when you’re approaching 50 you can’t do that anymore because you know too much. We sat down and talked about that we really wanted to make this album cinematic with a lot of different textures, layers and details. We had some basic concepts and demos before the pandemic but we knew we were going into a writing period, and all of a sudden there were no distractions, so a song like Garden of Cyrus we made a demo and then were able to let it rest for two months and come back to it, which we never really did before.
With the album ranging from saxophone to krautrock to what sounds like a harpsichord, what were some of the most surprising or fulfilling things for you to end up on the album?
I think those really extreme avant-garde moments on the album we are of course proud of because we have never been there before, but those are obvious and I can turn it around I was thinking about a song like The Paradox, which people have said “Oh yeah, that’s classic At the Gates”. Put that back to back with any track on Slaughter of the Soul and it’s so much more. It has all these Mercyful Fate vibes in it, super harmonic solos, and is a very textured song for a brutal death metal song, and that’s where I think you can see the development clearest. Slaughter of the Soul is great in its simplicity, it’s very direct and to the point, but The Paradox would’ve been impossible for us to write as 20 year-olds.
When Spectre of Extinction was released as the first single it felt a lot more intricately structured and multi-faceted than some of the previous material but now as the first track on the album, it’s like a more direct entry point to reach these other weird places.
We really worked hard on the sequencing. The album has to be dynamic from start to finish, and that’s why it was so hard to choose singles, because that’s not how we work. The third single The Fall Into Time is the first song on the b-side of the record and that was a conscious choice to have Side B Track 1 as the epic one. That’s how we work since Slaughter of the Soul, we have to build the albums, but I think Spectre of Extinction is written like that where it has those recognisable parts but it’s more evolved and hints to where the rest might be going.
One thing interesting is that if you take the break up as the middle point, your career in At the Gates is almost like a mirror where for the early albums you were gradually condensing things climaxing at Slaughter of the Soul which is no fat, and then since coming back you have been going the other way becoming more explorative and wide-reaching with every album. What do you think that says about you as artists moving along that trajectory both then developing those early albums, and now going the other way?
I think it has a lot to do with what keeps us interested. Terminal Spirit Disease and Slaughter of the Soul were very interesting records to write coming after the previous records, knowing we were doing this super experimental weird death metal, but wondering if we could write just strong songs and condense them as you said. We refined that to the point to the point that we couldn’t go any further, like the Spinal Tap moment of how much more black could you be, and that’s why we probably shouldn’t have released a record straight after Slaughter of the Soul because that for us would have been a very hard record to write at that point. Coming back so much later with a lot more experience and ability to talk to each other and compromise and work together, we could create an album that was a follow-up to Slaughter of the Soul but had a lot of other elements in it as well. That was successful and so now we feel free to explore anything, and To Drink from the Night Itself being the first one without Anders Björler felt like sticking our heads out as well. This is the first one since the reunion with one stable line-up from the last one, and so that has also helped us to be daring enough to go further. I think as I said it comes to that point where it has to be important to us and that means more than selling records.
With you saying about the difference between writing this kind of record now and back in the earlier days, something like With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness is one of the all time great “how did they write this?” death metal albums in terms of the song structures and how riffs progress being so unpredictable. The new album is similarly progressive, but feels a lot more careful and logically constructed. Do you relate to the idea of some musicians looking back at how they wrote music when they were much younger and not being sure how you really did it so erratically?
Definitely! That youthful obnoxious naivety, without that those records wouldn’t exist. That was the only thing we knew at that point. We really tried to be progressive and we probably were in a really weird way, but we weren’t thinking about music theory or anything and that’s why some of those songs are almost impossible to play now. From With Fear I think we’ve played Raped by the Light of Christ, The Burning Darkness, and Primal Breath live since the reunion, and we tried to play The Break of Autumn in the rehearsal room trying to figure it out and if we play that song “right” it doesn’t sound the same! On the album it speeds up and slows down and timings are off here and there, and that’s the charm, but if we were to play it right then it wouldn’t be the same song. That’s what we learned along the way, and as I said because we don’t as 48 year-olds have that youthful obnoxiousness and pretentiousness anymore, we have to look at what we actually know and thankfully have learned enough along the way to actually write this kind of album properly now. I think it’s some kind of security within ourselves that we know so much about what At the Gates is and what is central to it that we can dare to go further without losing that.
With especially a lot of the orchestral touches and introductions to songs like Touched by the White Hands of Death and The Fall Into Time, were you aiming to create this almost Dante's Inferno-like atmosphere where as well as being an aggressive death metal band At the Gates seems to be becoming more and more about having that gothic feel and mood?
Everything has to fit together, the challenge is fitting the At the Gates core with those things within those frames. What we want is a song like Garden of Cyrus, if you play that song to your metalhead friend who hasn’t heard it yet, is for them to still know the feel that yeah it feels like At the Gates, even if it doesn’t have the triplet guitars or the Slayer beat on the drums. As I said we wanted the album to be super cinematic and layered. With the artwork I was talking to Eva Nahon about that, to project that feeling of being in a different world where you step into the album totally, music, lyrics, and artwork, and for us that’s been important since the early days cause we grew up with records like that.
Even with the last two records having different cover artists, there is a shared feeling and colour palette going through them and feels quite recognisable. Do you feel like in 2021 you’ve got the general look and feel of the band totally nailed at this stage?
I think that artistically, we were maybe more on target with the first albums. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness is one of my favourite covers, but Terminal Spirit Disease not so much, and Slaughter of the Soul is a good metal cover but it’s very 90s. If you look at the albums we’re releasing now, they connect more artistically with the earliest period of the band, and we wanted to find that emotional feeling of At the Gates and have it included everywhere. The desperation and the melancholy, that’s what At the Gates is to us and it has to carry that emotional weight over to the listener.
You’ve been talking around this album about it lyrically specifically dialling in on pessimistic philosophies, so for anyone not familiar, what would you say as a general pitch for the album acting as an introduction to those ideas?
I would say that I didn’t know much more about pessimism than any amateur did, vaguely just a negative outlook on life, and when I started reading about it I found it very interesting. I never adhere to one -ism or another, I piece together my own reality as I go along and the only thing I’ve learned since being a teenager is that I don’t know everything. I wanted this album to first be an introduction but also be a kind of mirror of what I emotionally learned while researching this. The thing with pessimism is that it’s not negative. Some things are pretty far out there but a lot of the things make sense and I can use some of those tools that I learned in my everyday life, and live life a little bit fuller. With every philosophy and every -ism you can say “I agree with this part, and I don’t agree with this part”. I think the thing that I found most interesting is that this Norwegian philosopher Zapffe spoke about these defence mechanisms that we carry around, which of course starts with consciousness and the knowledge of our own mortality, the fear of death and all that. To cope with surviving as humans in this world, we almost act inhuman in inventing stuff like religion, different -isms, art for example, to protect us and distract us from the thought of death and the suffering of the human soul basically. He said that the first step is to be aware of those self-defence mechanisms, and you don’t have to take those away if you don’t want to, but if you are aware of them and know why you do things a certain way, that will make you look upon life in a more prepared way. We did a concept album about art on the last one and if you see art as a defence mechanism and a distraction for our consciousness, that’s of course what we do as a band, and if I am aware that I sometimes use my art to protect myself and escape into it when life gets too hard, I can control the situation better.
Going back to the musical side of the album, it was mixed by Jens Bogren who did At War With Reality after Russ Russell did To Drink from the Night Itself. What made you go back to him after switching on the last record?
Russ and Jens are basically my two favourite producers. Going back to At War With Reality, we actually had a bit of a blind test there where we sent out a demo version of Eater of Gods to eight producers, and Anders was the only one who knew which was which. We had to vote and Russ and Jens ended up with almost the same amount of points, so much further ahead of everybody else. Russ wasn’t available in the time-frame for At War With Reality, and I would say that Jens just mixed it really rather than recording it. To Drink from the Night Itself was a conscious reaction against the more modern sound of At War With Reality, and Russ probably would’ve produced it clearer on his own but we wanted it to be gritty and dirty. Both Russ and Jens are very capable, it’s just a case for what we want on each record, because now with this record Jens was involved with the whole process in the different studios recording everything and mixing everything, we had more of a discussion with him. He is very meticulous and detail-focused, and we knew this was a large, large album with a lot of layers so we needed someone like that to oversee the whole project. The mixing process was arduous for him I think but he enjoys the challenge as much as we do.
When you guys are seen as one of the most influential, ripped off bands of that classic Gothenburg sound and so many after you lifted that one specific thing, do you feel like it's becoming increasingly important for At the Gates to incorporate the wide breadth of influences and tastes that you have as people where it can span everything from progressive rock to crust punk and become increasingly hard to replicate?
I would think that we don’t really look so much at the people who are possibly influenced by At the Gates as a threat or anything like that. Someone asked me how many clone bands I know of, and I don’t know, but I do know that haven’t yet heard one band that precisely sounds like At the Gates. Every band has to have their own identity, and the curiosity and the interest in challenging ourselves is us being ourselves.
For a band who are so influential on some huge mainstream metal bands and who have an album that is as iconic and formative as Slaughter of the Soul, it must be fulfilling though to go out there and do these other albums that are such long-form wandering journeys. Do you ever get people who maybe only know that record being taken aback by how broad the At the Gates sound has become?
I think that since the comeback we’ve kinda cultivated a listener-base that is as curious as we are. I really think that if we would release an album that sounds kinda the same, people would probably like that in a familiar way but a lot of them would want something more from At the Gates, something that makes them question it the first time but the more they listen the more they understand it. They have an emotional connection already built to those records so if we were to duplicate, even if we did it in our minds better, it still wouldn’t be the same. I really think that the listener-base is a curious one who will be intrigued by a record like this, and I like that.
With continuing to stay in touch with the cutting edge of progressive extreme music, where you’ve toured with Morbus Chron and other similarly adventurous bands, do you feel inspired by what’s around you to keep pushing at those boundaries?
Yeah, those are the kind of newer bands that I enjoy. I love generic old school death metal, but I have Slaughter, Sadus, Possessed, Autopsy. For newer bands I get into those kind of bands like Morbus Chron and Sweven now, and bands from the US like Rebel Wizard I am blown away by, something that makes me go “what is this?” but still has strong songwriting. There are still bands that are surprising me in metal music. There’s still stuff you can do with it. I always look at a band like Voivod, who could mash up four weird influences and put them in a metal framework and sound like a totally new band. You just have to be curious and try out things.
Outside of At the Gates, you've just rejoined Lock Up and have a record coming soon, and have been active with Disfear just before lockdown along with being involved with any other projects. To close off is there much news for those of us wishing for new material from any others of these?
Yeah, Disfear in London and Holland were the last shows I played before lockdown. Lock Up is coming out at the end of the year. The second Lurking Fear album is recorded and also coming out somewhere in the autumn. Disfear has an album’s worth of material, we just have to figure out where and when we’re going to record it basically. I had hopes of getting four albums out this year but it might be three, and Disfear might come early next year. What can you do when you can’t play shows, you need to be creative right?
The Nightmare of Being from At The Gates arrives July 2nd via Century Media Records. Pre-order the album - HERE