At the Gates — Slaughter of The Soul (1995)

Ok, so we have a lot to talk about.

The funny thing about At the Gates over time is that even though they were theoretically late to the party on MDM by as many as five years, their direct influence upon New Wave of American/Metalcore, especially prior to 2010, is incredibly pronounced. Basically, although Slaughter of The Soul is identified as the original melodic death metal album, and is usually categorized as the best, its sound is still totally distinct from the MDM that precedes it, and not always in ways that I prefer.

While the amps and recording equipment sound basically the same as on Terminal Spirit Disease, the production is more full, with a massive, booming, dark low end that would become one of the signature elements of the Studio Fredman/Fredrik Nordstrom production, though this album is also graciously lacking any excess reverb.

To get this out of the way: this isn’t the “first” melodic death metal album but it might as well be because it was the first many heard that has what I consider the essential element of the sound: whereas previous ATG albums merely had brief moments of melodicism (a feature also shown by some of the Stockholm bands, notably Dismember), 90% or more or the riffs on Slaughter are “melodic” riffs based on the natural minor scale from which most classic/traditional metal riffs are also derived. Many death metal bands had used this type of riff before, or even written whole songs in the style, but it was Slaughter that canonized focusing on those riffs as the approach.

Slaughter of the Soul was 10–15 years ago the album you name-dropped on forums to get a dig in at all the supposedly derivative metalcore acts that followed in its wake (in reality most metalcore actually doesn’t sound very much like ATG despite being an acknowledged influence), and in the past decade went from being merely that to acknowledged as one of the all-time great metal records. Perhaps it is the rarified air around a reputation like that that makes me hesitant to speak on it, but it is also the fact that it represents a significant shift in what At The Gates was perceived to be.

ATG’s first two records, The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, were not, despite whatever you will ever hear, “Melodic Death Metal” albums. Although moments like the intro to “Windows” as well as the title track of the latter record are indeed sad and memorable in the way that would come to define their sound, these first two albums take the tuning and guitar tone of Entombed and marry it to the extreme metal tradition of a group like Celtic Frost: grim, unwelcoming, and avant-garde, and usually not particularly tuneful. The first two ATG albums are genuinely weird in a way that their material hence simply is not, and according to Tomas Lindberg that earned them some love among the few genuine extreme metal fans there were in Sweden at the beginning of the 90’s.

And yet, as I mentioned when discussing Terminal Spirit Disease, I don’t think they were ever weird, unwelcoming, or avant-garde in a way that was really striking or memorable, except for the times when it was painfully funny. Perhaps it’s unfair to make a comparison like this, but whereas Slaughter is obviously one of the most influential metal albums of the past 25 years, (probably the most, in fact) I don’t see Altar of Plagues coming out to say that The Red In The Sky is Ours was a massive influence on their music. Quite frankly, the smaller sample size of post-metal and avant-garde metal compared to metalcore makes it even easier to see the general lack of impact those records have had, even after ATG was discovered by so many. Shit, even old-school death metal people don’t talk about those records. And why would you when there were so many beloved bands, Grave, Dismember, and some of them even doing a few catchy melodic riffs? All of that is to say: in a historical context At the Gates first two records are pretty forgettable, even if Burning Darkness is growing on me.

Speaking on Terminal Spirit Disease and today’s subject, members of the group have referred to these records as being “focused” rather than being an alteration of their sound. To be honest, it’s hard to take that as meaning anything other than that either they or their audience had become enamored with the melodies they heard on a song like “Burning Darkness” and decided to then “focus” their sound on those ideas, which before had been used only as brief interludes or interruptions, or as in the case of “Burning Darkness”, to make that track stand out in the pack.

Perhaps what I’m feeling is some sense that, instead of becoming the band that would record something like Monotheist, they became the band that would inspire countless to make records like, well, Slaughter of The Soul, and the sad truth is that in less than ten years after this record comes out at least two or three really crappy records try to recreate its magic, a magic already captured to some degree on Terminal Spirit Disease with songs that I think have aged better over time. At the Gates became way too “focused.”

On Slaughter of The Soul, At the Gates gave birth to an album archetype that would come to be worshipped by the scene surrounding it to such a degree that by the year 2000, both In Flames and Dark Tranquillity became razor sharp groups focused on concise and functional songwriting and had shed much of their old-world folk and classical influences, reshaping melodic death metal into the configuration it is best known for historically. As already mentioned, a number of bands would within the decade make albums that blatantly try to ape this album’s specific Thrash-or-Die approach, and did I mention that there would be at least three of these albums recorded in Sweden alone before we ever consider the metalcore movement in the US?

And since I already said it, let’s just get it out of the way, what’s wrong with thrash-or-die, weren’t you an 80’s thrash stan in high school? You bet your ass I was, but as a result of that you know what really stood out to me when I finally started getting into this MDM stuff? The dynamics. The relaxation. The lack of desire to impress me with how heavy they are. I called that article I wrote “Melodic Death Metal before Slaughter” because this album fundamentally changed the approach to the genre even for the top two bands in the genre who were doing this before At the Gates ever wised up to the idea, and while In Flames and Dark Tranquillity have both found ways to make their music more dynamic in different ways, to get where they are today they had to shed the folk and classical influences that were apparent in their sound, that gave spiritual and conceptual lyrics a powerful space to come alive in, giving them the sort of genuine sound of “spirituality” if you want to call it that, also captured in the Viking Metal records of Bathory, which is something that for me today’s folk and viking metal bands are just absolutely horrific at projecting through walls of artificial production. Slaughter in the long run didn’t even necessarily make Melodic Death Metal worse, but it made it different without necessarily making it better either, because there’s absolutely 100% a vibe that is captured on the mid and late-90’s records by Dark Tranquillity and In Flames that is virtually gone for good by the year 2001. And that does make me a little bit sad.

“Blinded By Fear” opens the record in iconic fashion with one of the easiest and catchiest heavy metal riffs of all time, followed by a crushing staccato turnaround, a mild mood shift of a bridge, a simplistic and memorable guitar solo, also one of the easiest ever to play. Hearteningly, after 22 minutes of shuffle time at the same tempo on Terminal Spirit Disease, it seems the band has rediscovered how to play in 4/4. (This is a joke.) Of note as well are the lyrics that seem to describe some sort of undead creature that creates or participates in the apocalypse. The way it’s described as a creature falling from reality I get big Raziel from Soul Reaver vibes although this record predates that game by four years. Likely more memorable than the lyrics themselves is Lindberg’s energy in delivering them, but still many of these ideas begin to bore into your brain:

I cast aside my chains
Fall from reality
Suicidal disease
The face of all your fears
Now covered with sores
Humanity exiled
Purgatory unleashed
Now burn the face of the earth

Then that iconic opener is over and this, of course, is where the issues start. The title track is of course the most iconic and well known. It’s also in the exact same shuffle time and tempo as all of the original material on the previous EP. That’s not a problem yet, as these are some really tasty shuffle riffs that history have proven to be iconic, but just wait. But ok, you write one song that kinda sounds like the record you did last year? Cool, fine. For a while I found the lyrics a bit strange, and I severely dislike that it took the selection from the inspiration text, Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man to make them make sense, but still, it does give good context.

‘Men must attempt to develop in themselves and their children
liberation from the sense of self…men must be free from boundaries, patterns and consistencies in order to be free to think, feel and create in new ways’

To that end, “Slaughter of The Soul” describes an act intended to liberate one from the sense of “self” as described, while contextualized through verses that describe an exhaustion towards, theoretically, viewpoints that would oppose this one:

Always the same
My tired eyes have seen enough
Of all your lies
My hate is blind

Slaughter of the soul
Suicidal final art
Children — born of sin
Tear your soul apart

To “tear your soul apart” seems to be a method to create “liberation from the sense of self.” Obviously a classic.

“Cold” opens in ¾ time at a slower tempo, on one of the nastiest riffs ever actually. but then quickly shifts back up to the same tempo as the previous song. There’s a lovely clean arpeggio break before the guitar solo, both at the opening tempo, but it still returns to that same tempo as “Slaughter” and TSD. Still, an utterly gloomy and brutal verse riff carries things along. Interestingly, “Cold” has at least a few lines that carry on from the title track, whereas the title track describes the commitment to the act, “Cold” describes the act.

To rid the earth of the filth
To rid the earth of the lies
The will to rise above
Tearing my insides out
I feel my soul go cold
Only the dead are smiling

And then the particularly well-known:

22 years of pain
And I can feel it closing in
The will to rise above
Tearing my insides out

The first minute of “Under A Serpent Sun” opens in 4/4 and in a different tempo . . . before cutting back to that same shuffle and same tempo. At this point I am trolling a little bit as it’s really the back half of the record when this gets annoying, but still. This song however might be the best on the record, as it takes that 4/4 intro riff and then recontextualizes it into the brutal meat-grinder shuffle, giving a clever key modulation between the post-chorus and the verse, making the, once again, gloomy, apocalyptic verse riff feel all the more heavy every time we get slapped with it. The solo is particularly gorgeous with the guitars laying down simple, buzzing, nasty notes that just happen to be the right notes to make the harmonized solo on top feel oh so tragic, and then the song cuts into this sweet spooky guitar interlude. I’d love to conclusively say what the song is about but I’m gonna give you my best shot: it’s a vaguely satanic thing? In the bible of course the snake represents Satan, and this song seems to describe some sort of satanic uh . . . “cleansing” I think is the most politically appropriate thing to call this. Let’s give the lyrics their space:

Web of corruption thick with deceit
The language of destruction, the slaughter of the meek

Under a serpent sun — we shall all live as one

No rest for the wicked, the children of god
The final retribution, the final curtain torn
Within us — the flames of the end
Survival of the fittest, the hunt for the sacred game

You can see the projected vibes of Satan’s Serpent Warriors razing and pillaging though yeah? Or am I off my ass on this one? Still, I enjoy the amount of relative continuity here.

“Into The Dead Sky” finally comes in and offers respite from the repetitive tendencies with some calmer gloominess. It is utterly lovely, an instrumental whose aesthetic matches its imagery, sharp clean guitar tones creating a melodic and harmonic basis for the track to develop. It’s nice that in the 90’s these sorts of interludes stopped being guitar-focused showoff spots. The drums affected with the phaser effect are a particularly nice touch. The song has no vocals but in the lyric book they drop a quote from the 13th Floor Elevators endorsing the use of psychedelics, so I guess the idea is the song is taking you on a trip to the dead sky. (I hear if you eat a mushroom, put on Iron Maiden’s video for “Flight of Icarus”, mute the video, and put on this track, and everything’ll line up perfectly.)

Then “Suicide Nation” comes in at . . . the exact same time signature and tempo. Granted the feel has changed since this time they come in with a slightly more DnR/blues-rock riff, which is actually a nice touch at this point, but it isn’t long before that minor scale comes back, which wouldn’t bother me as much if it wasn’t the same time signature and tempo. Metallica are not this bad about this! Doesn’t help that this is the most lyrically redundant track so far. Pulling from the William S. Burroughs quote (yes, I know) “The face of evil is always the face of total need,” the lyrics seem to convey some extremely basic concepts about how society drives our idea of “need,” but there’s absolutely zero material or revolutionary insight here to go with the lack of good imagery so this is the first track that’s basically getting a “fuck off” from me.

This is when it gets funny. “World of Lies” (which opens on a riff that’s so bad it’s funny, so funny it’s bad, whatever, it makes me laugh every time) is actually in 4/4, but after the song speeds up, the tempo is exactly the same as the shuffle they’ve been using, so it’s the same bouncing drum beat just organized differently. And then they just go and use the shuffle time anyway. It’s a different feel, kinda, but we’re still ⅔ of the way through this album and the vast majority of it has been in the same tempo and time signature. You’ve probably heard the album, so I didn’t even mention bothering that also these songs are all in the same key so far except for the interlude. The homogeneity here is, in retrospect? Stunning. Utterly stunning. Pulling once again from The Dice Man the song is also repetitive in its covering of themes that have now been hammered for two straight tracks previously: evil society. Despite actually introducing a different time signature between goofy riffs and redundant lyrics, this might be the worst track on the album. I was annoyed by “Suicide Nation” but this song is like one of the more caveman-type songs from their first two records.

By the time “Unto Others” rolls around I hope you’ll not be shocked to learn that hey, guess what? Same tempo, same time signature, same key. Different scales though, more diminished. At this point a welcome variation, but the weird direction that the riff travels in makes it a rhythmically awkward verse for Lindberg to rip over. Thankfully though we finally get a new song topic, and we benefit greatly for it: after spending the beginning of the album establishing an iconoclastic mood, and a hatred for society, Lindberg is finally able to get specific. I could quote the whole song but we get a great thesis statement for an opening:

You hold high the banner of self-deceit
Encaged in the dogmas of life, you join the elite

Not to mention, right when the record needed it, like mana from Nietzsche I was gifted the riff that drops at 1:30 with this horrifically beautiful voicing of Gm9 that, especially back when I would just vibe on this whole record, this riff would just get me going wanting to destroy, right before another climactic solo that drops out intis acoustic breakdown with Lindberg screaming over it and then another amazing riff at 2:08 to bring it all back home. This track starts off a bit unconvincing but ends up being one of the record’s best.

“Nausea” opens on the most different note of the record so far and actually opens with a straightforward thrash metal riff in 4/4 and E minor (exact same tempo as “World of Lies”, still), but when it’s time for a key change back to B minor, the shuffle is re-introduced. That being said, this is yet another pretty fucking iconic track between the riffs and lyrics. “Nausea” pulls a quote from Bukowski like many others demonstrating the failure of the nuclear family unit, but in the structure of the record it avoids feeling the same as some of the earlier “Society Bad” songs as it feels like there’s another perspective coming to terms with the disgusting world they’re now beginning to perceive:

Release me from your world of lies
I cannot bear this pain
Degenerate machinery
The monsters we create
The monsters we create

Nausea, oh sweet nausea

The thrash riff that opened the song carries the verses, meaning the gloomy minor riff gets to come back in for the chorus and here we get another standout riffs with the two guitars counterpointing each other: one laying down a single chord note while the other dances around it in arpeggiation as Lindberg rips through the chorus. Other than that the song has the most weaksauce guitar solo on the album but in fairness, this band is not known for their guitar solos, they don’t have to be, and whatever, drop a bad guitar solo if you want to, it’s your record.

“Need” uses the same tempo that every other 4/4 riff or song has used on this album, but I’ll spare it, as it has some herky-jerky tempo shifting and angular off-time riff endings to be spared not to mention its opening riff is just another classic headbanger, followed by another, and then the last shuffling chorus of the record, which by now has already become a cliche by repetition. Its ending on dark synth tones that I think the kids these days call “dungeon synth” make for a great transition to the ending, something that encapsulates all the great (and lame) riffs on the record into something that goes into a cold night as it fades out. Unfortunately as a lyrical ending it’s not very empowering for a record that leaves one wanting to level buildings. Its suicidal imagery is not cheesy or cringey, but it does seem like a missed opportunity on this record that quotes all this edgy shit not to drop Nietzsche or Sartre at the end and tell people about the will to power. Perhaps this is the purpose of the quote attached to the ending instrumental, “The Flames of The End.”

Humanity — the living end, a walking disease
Beyond good and evil, the flesh that never rests

The flames of the end inside us rest

“The Flames of The End”, finally, is of course something totally different, a song originally intended to be the theme for a low-budget horror film that makes a fine denouement for a ridiculously fast half-hour of music. It also comes as, in my opinion, a deeply needed palette cleanse, giving an intense thrash-paced album a reflective and almost-introspective ending.

The sad part especially is that with all the ridiculous “gun and fire” aesthetics, the use of the color red, plus the album’s general discontent with the modern state of affairs, there should be a revolutionary consciousness here and there isn’t. “Austin, that seems kind of arbitrary.” Well here’s the thing: on a good day when the repetitive nature of the album becomes something closer to a black metal flow, you can get sucked into the album’s ceaseless fuel tank of energy, but then lyrically the album doesn’t really give you anywhere to go with that, anywhere to put that energy. “The Flames of The End” could very well be a new beginning if this album knew where to put its intellectual curiosities. Especially disappointing given the early album theme that the “Slaughter of the Soul” is the destruction of the self. What is the self being replaced with? Have you broken up with self-serving despair so that community anger can become your new best friend? Maybe the whole “unity” vibe hadn’t hit the hardcore scene yet. At this point in history In Flames and Dark Tranquillity both have some pretty big stoner vibes, they like abstract and fantasy imagery as a way of communicating mood. At the Gates here is at least attempting to talk about some “real” shit by contrast, but the inability to coalesce their anger into something that feels empowering is a massive failure, something this genre continues to be bad at, and given that Tomas Lindberg is probably the most vocally well-read person in the Gothenburg metal scene that’s something I’m going to hold his feet to the fire about.

Terminal Spirit Disease benefits greatly from being even shorter than a full-length album in terms of original material because, much like this record, there’s a lot of homogeneity between the songs. The difference is ultimately about 12 minutes.

In the interest of being positive, because I did at some point really love this record: every single song on Slaughter of The Soul has an all-time classic riff, at least one. A particular favorite of mine is this weird arpeggio turnaround they show off starting at 1:30 on “Unto Others”, a slightly weird and really beautiful riff, but there’s nothing stopping that riff from being on “Slaughter of the Soul” itself. You could’ve easily compiled this record in the fashion that St. Anger was by recording riffs into pro-tools and editing them appropriately. Obviously making-of docs have shown that that wasn’t the case and that the robotically perfect performances were the results of rigorous retakes.

The riffs, the playing, the production, all of that plus the gloriously brief 34-minute runtime make this a great record, and it’s also the lack of weirdness compared to those other two that probably made it speak so clearly to those who heard it. However, I also suspect in part that the reputation of this record grew since At the Gates broke up before ever “selling out” like In Flames and Dark Tranquillity supposedly did, two groups who have now lost a significant amount of credit they deserve to regain with interest.

What’s worse is that by making an album so stuck in one gear, it created a wave of albums that worship specifically at the altar of this one, because this is the more “extreme” or “death metal” way to do it, which homogenized the sound in the long run. Maybe for fans of death metal that is the proper thing to do, to only play fast, always, but even the black metal bands that pioneered blast beats knew when to lay down a chunky, yes, midtempo downpicking riff. Bathory’s Requiem is a half-hour of technical thrash mostly at the same tempo and key signature, but there are at least three tracks that represent enough of a shift for things not to become tiring and repetitive. I really can’t emphasize this enough, virtually every song on this record is the same key, same tempo, same time signature. Credit where it’s due: almost every single track on the record is a killer, but frankly I think it says bad things about heavy metal on the whole when the record most celebrated among the three classic MDM albums that dropped between 95 and 96 is the one that is least dynamic and therefore least offensive to metal sensibilities.

Conclusion: Slaughter of The Soul is a stone-cold all-time classic but a lot more in the realm of an. . . and Justice for All “stone withered by time” sense where everything you remember is great and everything you may not remember is a very mixed bag. While it may have been previously viewed as perfect it could never be that to me with such a limited compositional vision. This is absolutely not the best melodic death metal record by the stretch of my imagination. It veers wildly between being one of the most cutting-edge records of the 90’s and then at times an already-stale version of itself. It is sandwiched between better albums by better bands, and even as the style grew, changed, and ultimately became stale itself in different ways, the consistency of tempo and timbre on this record aged it in a different fashion. A lot of people probably like the relentless Slayer-ness of it, and I just doooooon’t. All this being said if you’ve never heard it it could be life-changing, and I do not take back that the album is still one of the all-timers that you have to hear.

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