At the Gates — Terminal Spirit Disease (EP -1994)

Have you heard Slaughter of The Soul? Well this is like a rawer version of that that’s shorter. It’s good stuff.

“The Swarm” opens on a mournful violin melody that quickly fades into tremolo guitars driving out the same said melody, as though we’re being accelerated from an older representation of melancholy to this angrier modern vision of that same despair. While the verses of the song are already in the style that would populate much of Slaughter, it’s the riff starting at 1:15 that really establishes what At The Gates signature sound would become: a 6/8 riff in the B minor scale in near the exact tempo as ATG would often employ in songs like this from here on out, followed by an even better 4/4 chorus riff with nice sus2 chord voicings.

At the Gates is distinct from the death metal traditions of bands like Cannibal Corpse that depict body horror, or the dark satanism of early Entombed, in that their lyrical focus, which became consistent throughout the MDM sound, was on a personal, spiritual anguish. (Hence the title of the record.) On their first two albums, the awesomely titled The Red in The Sky Is Ours followed by With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness (ATG is really good at naming their records), the band’s expression of despair came through tortured, abstract, often nonsensical song structures full of angular, impenetrable riffs. (An important exception is the title track to Burning Darkness which is easily one of the best ATG songs of all time and would be an amazing track or title track for either TSD or SoTS.) As well, while I understand why this was the way it was, the band was often pushing themselves to play riffs they could barely play at times, and were plagued with production issues that, even with the positives of lo-fi recording considered, totally lack any sort of real teeth or heaviness.

Washing all of that away is the immediate sense of sadness and anger that is evident in how this band employs the minor scale like a dangerous weapon on guitar, aided greatly by the production of Fredrik Nordstrom at Studio Fredman that makes previously small, anemic guitars feel massive and overbearing, an effect enhanced on Slaughter. To me it’s simple: “melody” came to death metal to express a type of personal sorrow that death metal itself, as it was, was not capable of really displaying. Ultimately, the sound of the minor scale played on a downtuned guitar, through heavy distortion, is the sound of gloom. Such was already the basis of doom metal, and to a lesser extent, black metal. That gloom makes the perfect accompaniment for Tomas Linderbg to repeatedly ask us this question:

What is evil but good
tortured by its own hunger and thirst?

Hey, did you like “The Swarm”? Here’s some more. The title track here is, even moreso than “The Swarm”, the type of song that would become famous on Slaughter, carried by ridiculous speed and memorable, gloomy riffs, once again in shuffle time. I mentioned it before, but these guys really did make a signature sound out of the 6/8 time signature, which is pretty astounding when you look at the entire history of heavy metal being so dependent on 4/4. The only band I can think of that made a point to use it so often was Megadeth, but even they didn’t use it this much. And whereas “The Swarm” was vaguely apocalyptic as a medium to communicate an idea of personal misery, “Terminal Spirit Disease” attacks that exact theme with precision and clarity:

Do you feel the pain I feel?
I’ve lost all sense of what is realI’m lost in a world I detest.

That and:

Pain, the highest order
scorching the inside of my skin
Terminal Spirit Disease
an itch of thirst twitching my tortured nerves

“And The World Returned” shows some of the classical music influence that we would see explored even further by Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery and the early releases by Arch Enemy. Usually interludes like this are very brief, but it gets a full three minutes here to develop and allow the listener to be absorbed in it before cutting back to heavy riffs again on “Forever Blind”. I’ll say that I generally enjoy brief interludes like this to give an album structure beyond songs in a random order, as the placing of the interlude itself forces pacing the record may not otherwise have.

To that point, “Forever Blind” seems to be the point when the band have now fully embraced a new identity as a “melodic” death metal band and are reveling in its glories. It was when I heard “Forever Blind” again that I started to wonder if this EP is better than the album that followed it. There’s some utterly awesome riffs on this song, and all the energy and anger to pull it through. Lindberg drops this one at the end:

My desire clenches itself in a hungry fist
And welcomes my soul to the thirst of dying
Mother of all, come take your revenge
The sun shall never greet my eyes again

I keep going back to lyrics because not only do I feel that lyrics are actually an underrated and important part of the melodic death metal genre, but also because Lindberg is often an exceptional lyricist who uses clear, evocative imagery to communicate a feeling, but as stated before can also attack an idea directly if he so desires with purpose. Lindberg is also a master death metal vocalist who, while having an aggressive middle voice that suits nearly anything, knows when to push things upward, when to hold a syllable, and most importantly of all, simply how to drop the words he’s written into a clever, and by itself memorable structure that fits into the rhythm of the song itself. I could write a lot about the important and underrated role the vocalist/lyricist plays in melodic death metal, but suffice to say that Tomas Lindberg, and his “descendants” Mikael Staane of Dark Tranquillity and Anders Friden of In Flames are each icons and masters of the form.

“The Fevered Circle” starts at a doomier pace, as Linbderg serenades us with the following: “Each day a mournful pity/Life looks upon you with scorn/Hopes flee, visions elude/As your feeble breath is turn.[sic]” The first minute and half reminds me to some degree of an uptempo My Dying Bride track, then for the “chorus” of sorts the band goes into a tritone riff I was just about to call a little stiff until they threw in some really cool harmonies over it that color it fantastically. The song plays herky jerk between these two sections for the remainder, and it adds just a little bit of variety (arguably needed variety) to the mix.

The EP ends on “The Beautiful Wound”, which opens on one of the best riffs on the record, and more or less maintains that pace. The lyrics are an interesting ending to this angry, bitter record. Lindberg, having played the sullen doomer the whole record, now speaks to someone else:

My veins they are open

And yours to fill

The beast of my sins

Ain’t easy to kill

Drowning in love, by bitterness warped

We sleep in different nights

Ugly and drugged, rotten to the core

But I just can’t let this die

In some ways we see an awareness of how this constant anxiety and pessimism in itself damages his ability to make positive connections to others, or to keep them positive once established while combating his own damage.

Conclusion: Having heard it again for the first time in a while, this EP is just incredible. While some lament the loss of the stranger elements of ATG’s first two albums, I can’t say that I really have. The result of At The Gates focusing their songs on gloomy, melodic riffs, is a heavy, irresistible sound, backed up by a bleak and clearly stated vision. At barely 20 minutes of original material it’s only a taste of what’s to come from At the Gates and Studio Fredman, but suffice to say there are some utterly awesome riffs on this record, and songs that have aged better than some of the deeper cuts on Slaughter in my opinion. Absolutely check this one out.

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