Dark Tranquillity — The Gallery (1995)

This! This here is a good record.

The Gallery by Dark Tranquillity is a totally unique album in the canon of metal in general: a sequel to the beautiful but erratic Skydancer, The Gallery sees the band managing to tame the beast of their wild songwriting style from the first record just a little bit and make an epic, really almost “symphonic” sound that’s still limited to the death metal ensemble (two guitars, bassist, drums, vocalist), with a track list of diverse and dynamic compositions.

The album has a bright timbre that’s incredibly unique among Swedish death metal records from the 90’s, caused by the band tuning their guitars to a mere E flat, one half-step below concert pitch, which is significantly brighter than At the Gates B standard or In Flames who would drop from D standard to C standard going into 1996. While a relatively low and deep guitar tuning would become the predominant aesthetic choice in the genre going forward, the higher tuning here gives this album a connection to both the classic heavy metal that inspired it but also the black metal touches that seemed to touch all nordic extreme metal in the 90’s.

Not only that, but starting with opener “Punish My Heaven” and going forward throughout, guitarists Niklas Sundin and Fredrik Johansson would play not just on the higher strings but the higher frets, freely sliding up the fretboard along with bassist Martin Henrikkson without going back and adding low guitars in the background to fill the space. The result is a record where basically the band is shredding a lot of the time, but almost always in the shape of a diatonic scale and resulting in this really gorgeous upper register cacophony of sorts. You could almost make a comparison to a modern group like Inferi, but what DT does here is a little bit looser and less controlled. Once again, like Skydancer, this record feels like something ready to careen out of control and explode at any moment, and it constantly is, but there’s a stronger sense of connection between ideas giving the songs themselves more coherence. There’s barely anything at all that sounds like this.

Once again like Symbolic this is a record I like and that nearly every cut is well known, so we’re going to try and focus highlights here.

“Punish My Heaven” is the album opener and one of DT’s live standards to this very day, featuring a neoclasical opening guitar lead before cutting into a fast, melodic tremolo picking riff in a different key, and they modulate to another key for some really high pitched lead guitar work before dropping back to the verse key for something resembling a chorus. Vocally Mikael Staane is once again killing it, and this time the lyrics are really bringing the metal as he seems to predict the plot of Final Fantasy VII with a lyric that seems to definitely be about watching a meteor on its way to earth, blocking out the sun, etc:

The strangeness of awakening
In an oh so silent world
Breathlessly waiting
For the first proud beams of light
As the hours grow longer
And the shadows never fall
My sky has forsaken me
My desperation grows

And then

The charge of cosmos
Charging at us from unearthly distance
I challenge the universe
It’s the choice between heaven and hell

My soul bears all the weight of mountains
As mankind weaves its silent end
Can there be no forgiveness?
I curse the heaven above me
As the light sinks through
My outstretched fingers
Fading in my open arms

Once again, unlike the Dark Tranquillity most know today, this is a group that modulates key and tempo fairly rapidly, though they do less of the wild modulation than on Skydancer, resulting in songs that have a slightly easier structure to follow.

“Silence, and The Firmament Withdrew” is interesting as a much slower but also much shorter following track. The way this song modulates from its starting key and then how that evolves into a doomier, harmonized riff is extremely memorable. The songs brevity led me to previously take it as a breather track between two bookmarks but it contains significant ideas none the less. The lyrics are, what else should we yet expect, apocalyptic and gloomy, but their composition is wonderfully detailed just like the music:

Make all the cold trees mourn
Their branches frozen in sightless motion
Waving, reaching for the whipping rain

There was silence
And the firmament withdrew
Revealing all, shapelessly and swiftly
In carmine and crimson stood flaming the sky

Trees are bent from wind during some sort of catastrophic hurricane, unseen by human eyes due to the destruction of life, and when the skies open the blue skies have turned red. That’s some good lyricism and it’s also extremely metal. If we wanted to be incredibly direct we could make a comparison to landscape painting here: rather than any sort of direct emotion, Sundin and Staane portray this really grim vision of a world without human life with hints as to how it got that way. It’s covering an old-school metal song topic, but coming at it from an even more omniscient, more zoomed-out third-person perspective that comes off as less direct and maybe even slightly more abstract if only because the song isn’t bludgeoning you over the head directly with how to feel, just giving you the imagery and letting you do as you’d like with it. Combined with the aforementioned riffwork and transitions between sections this is a really big highlight from this record, check out this song if you want a taste of the overall vibe.

Much like “Sacred Serenity” from Death’s Symbolic that same year I’d’ve never guessed the topic of “Edenspring” if Mikael Staane didn’t introduce the song live once by saying it was about drinking. There’s a very interestingly plucked bassline outlining a bass note and melody to introduce the song, always nice to hear a prominent role for the bass as DT had featured so far, before of course the guitar comes in outlining the same idea, but in this case the guitars come in just as high on the neck as the bass, so once again, pretty high tuning, high on the neck, when I talk about the “bright timbre” of early DT albums I’m really not kidding, they’re not at all afraid to be not heavy. My other general analysis besides “it slaps” is that this is also a great display of the power of using what diads that are not just the basic power chords. It’s the basis of most of the riffs here, but in particular there’s a classic one at 1:24 that shows how easy it is to get really good, catchy guitar riffs just by shifting around those two note shapes played through heavy distortion. They’re a gimmick in their own way like power chords but then again I guess everything in music becomes a gimmick after it’s repeated enough. The use of this trope plus all the blast beats as well shows off the black metal influence that I’ve always argued exists in MDM because doing two-finger melodic riffs was becoming the thing in black metal at the time. Anyway, the lyrics, once Mikael tells you they’re about alcohol they definitely make a lot more sense but uh, hey, buddy, got a question. The song is called “Edenspring” like, y’know, the fountain of Eden, the fountain of youth? Why does that dispense liquor? I guess that’s irony, but lines like “Tomorrow is no friend of mind” aren’t exactly as obvious as one might think when writing them. Or maybe I’m just really thick-skulled, it’s possible.

Just as a passing note, another funny thing about this album is that the guitarists love to do the really basic three finger tapping pattern arpeggios as a layer on these songs, which sounds shockingly primitive in a number of ways but it does actually make an effective way to do leads over uptempo blast beat sections without tremolo picking. This is a thing they only really did on this album if I recall correctly so the implementation isn’t great but obviously the idea of combining tapping with heavy riffs has become such a thing in the tech-death scene now, especially with more melodic groups, as well as gimmicky noise groups like Berried Alive, that hanging out in those facebook groups will make you feel like a crappy guitarist and I don’t recommend it.

“The Dividing Line” opens on some slightly weird time signatures and frankly I don’t get paid to do this so I didn’t bother counting them out but, suffice to say they’re not 4/4 and they’re not 6/8, at least not straightforwardly, though the song does ultimately settle into a more straightforward group. Perhaps the most notable element of this song is the big bluesy psuedo-Sabbath riff that they play with big austentatious chord voicings that really highlights the subtly massive amount of reverb that’s on this record. I’ve complained about reverb before but one of the things that slowly brought me into MDM was the Studio Fredman approach to reverb which at this period of time was a bit unlike any other studio, and I’m not even quite sure how to describe it. To make a comparison, while a record like Master of Puppets has massive guitar sound that reverberates through this huge space thanks to, duh, a massive amount of reverb, sometimes it also gets lost in the sauce. However, Fredrik Nordstrom contradicts my Nevermind-influenced brain that says “fuck reverb” and says that he who is without that sauce is lost, and found a way to make the guitars louder than the reverb itself while still making the reverberant space feel effective and large. It’s a magical thing that he would perfect by the year 2000. That big weird bluesy riff is contrasted by a more crusading 6/8 power metal riff that eventually gets dropped for a spacey tapping section and all of this is very catchy and memorable. On a larger scale I don’t know what the song is “about” but there are some lines here that seem to be pretty specifically about the wind and are also pretty specifically fucking dope:

For the tallest tree shall battle most
The wind it leaves the week behind
The storm that you’ve denied me
Shall force your world to fall
Your castles made to tremble
With foundations based upon a lie

The tall tree is the oldest tree, the one with greatest crust, that has withstood greatest damage over time, and therefore “shall battle most” while “the wind it leaves the week behind” I think is more a less a bad wordplay attempt that means to say “weak” while also conveying the passage of time, and how this tallest tree has survived that passage of time. Again, screaming about trees and shit and I’m very into it.

In grand metal tradition, the two most ambitious tracks on the album are the closer, and the title track. When we spin on in to track four, “The Gallery,” we open up an a really lovely acoustic guitar accompanied by some very saturated, buttery, clean lead guitar playing before the bass joins in and once again gives us the hook and mood before the guitars come in, I really love this, and we establish our subject, the owner of this gallery of art:

Come and dance through my vanity’s halls
Welcome to my exhibition

A bit obvious, but still, we immediately get the idea that this is not some grand collection to be celebrated immediately before the song shifts into 6/8 mode, via this chilling and memorable drop where we get, once again, bass guitar arpeggios accompanied by some sweet harmonized clean lead playing on top. These few seconds are some of my favorite on the record, and they establish the structure for the song where the guitars are actually making a rhythmic bridge between the melodic bass part and the drums. The mixing of course prioritizes the guitars, but the harmonic mix you get of these things interacting is gorgeous. Staane rejoins us as things get loud again:

Ornaments fall
The fate of my art, condemned
And the creative seed
That grows to the tune of the harvest song
Embody my lifelong passion
Intertwine with the structures of my art
Those empty frames staring at me

The gallery as it were is apparently all of original art, but much of it has been left to decay and has been destroyed. Alternatively the next lines could be trying to convey that this is a gallery of largely blank canvasses except for one. As the volume drops again and we get a largely acoustic arrangement again, we get a single guitar playing a simple linear melody before being joined by guest singer (who completely nails it) Eva-Marie Larsson who tells the tale of, well:

One lonely portrait covers the lovestarved canvas
In honour of the birthless rebellion within me

Every picture holds a tale
Every shade tells of a thousand words

I will say it’s almost inherently cheesy to evoke the “every picture is worth a thousand words” cliche but hey, at least you did a clever job conveying the idea of what the phrase is supposed to mean by linking the story of the artist to the art. (Might even be possible that the cliche itself was the inspiration, but that’s speculation.) Having invited this sort of thing to happen, the decayed artwork begins to burn up, the cause of which the listener can only speculate upon, and Staane narrates as such . . .

The artistry of living chaos
Is pictured in the poets tears
Because everything burns

. . . before we get the tragic, balladic guitar solo that maybe doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should, and then as we return to some verse riff ideas from earlier the artist seems to curse the destruction of their art while seeming to even writhe in that even watching their own art burn does not seem to be providing inspiration for the next work.

Be gone, you foul enchantress of decay!
My thoughts and words will come to right
In my chamber where chaos conveys
Kneel down to my desire

Deep in the vaults of my carnal agony
Emptiness! Orchestration through colours

The gallery

To never return to my guidance
Burning my art

As a track, even if the narrative concept (if that’s even what it’s supposed to be,) isn’t 100% clear, the band is now fully accomplishing what Skydancer set out to do, which is to violently manipulate song dynamics through otherwise typical metal riffs and to accompany with that with some really grand visual tragedy, and it is oh-so delicious.

“The One Brooding Warning” is lyrically mid but catchy thrash riffing carries it. What it lacks in conceptual vision it makes up for by restarting this album’s engine after the end of the epic title track, and so it does, giving a good transition to “Midway Through Infinity” which ramps up the intensity even more, turning the dial from thrash metal to death metal with an intense tremolo-picked opening and verse that eventually gives way to one of the most memorable choruses, riff and lyric, in the MDM canon:

Grave to cradle
Cradle to grave
So infinity clash

Grave to cradle
Cradle to grave
In twofold matter

The song seems to depict creatures that exist between life and death, and have therefore become unstuck in time.

Two forces gone full circle
Never shall one of the other grow fond
Join me, the time is upon us
He spoke and in fury we flew
Far beyond the limits of time
Disown the borders of life itself
Crafted and moulded all in one form
Split up and scattered in the world that we own

Once again: Fucking Metal, and the journey these characters go on is matched by soaring riffwork that toys with tempo and key-center modulation, a song that covers seemingly much more territory than it’s 3:30 runtime would indicate.

“Lethe” is probably my favorite track on the record. Now whereas “Edenspring” is a song I’d’ve needed a few cracks to say was about drinking, “Lethe” is obvious:

Hold me near, my one friend and guide
As I drown through your fingers
Drown through your love
For you are the life I hate
You are my (you are my)

“Lethe” is a river in Greek mythology located in Hades, which funny enough is known to originate around the cave that is the home of Hypnos. (A character we’ll be revisiting later.) Those who drank from the river suffered forgetfulness. Hypnos is the god of sleep. It’s a metaphor for booze.

For you are my blade and my rope
You are my (you are my)

In this case as well, because drinking is a method of self-harm here, “Lethe” also carries a sort of double meaning of being “a lethal object” which is what a blade and a rope are. So, in translation, homeboy has a drinking problem that is slowly killing him. Pure conjecture, but given that this album features two tragic songs about drinking I’m gonna hazard a guess that members of this band were drinking a lot of liquor around this time, though thankfully it doesn’t seem to have been a lasting concerned.

In any case the lyrics and music are well-matched: we open on a lonely, haunting set of bass arpeggios. Forgive me for a moment as I go total music theorist, if nothing else this has to tell you the versatility of chord progressions: we start in Ab minor, with an outline of the i-VI-VII progression that’s probably best known to many as the chords from “Aces High”, before some noodling around the i and then switches to i-iv-i-v which is a basic blues progression but is also just a basic progression in general that here carries a very folky and especially balladic cadence thanks to the minor chord. Once again, bassist Martin Henriksson, can we give this dude an applause for the bass playing whilst also helping compose a lot of the music on this album, including a songwriting credit on each of these final four here starting with “Lethe” which he composed by himself and the closer which was also a solo act.

Maybe moreso than any other track here, “Lethe” is a masterwork of the early MDM aesthetic: a gloomy lyric matched to a composition whose roots go deeper than the 20th century in some shape or form, blended with the power of crushing riffs to not only add some stomp to the proceedings but also connect it back through to modernity. The early MDM concept is at this point this channeling of older musical ideas through new-world aesthetics.

I’m gonna make this a recurring thing as well but let’s also talk album sequencing. “Lethe” would be a fine closer on more modest albums, but given it cannot serve that role it is placed very well on the album, right at the end of the two most similar tracks, “Lethe” sorta closes the window, pulls down the shades, changes the dynamic a little bit, but it also begins what I’ve always perceived as like this closing arc to this record.

The 6/8 bass arpeggios that first appear in “Lethe” recur in the next track, “The Emptiness From Which I Fed” at almost the exact same tempo, which also has a few experimental moments as well as the vibe of an aggressive, “Damage Inc” style closer before said bass arpeggios appear to break everything down before a really, honestly kind of tiring triplet lead guitar segment, but that is a mere collection of seconds in an otherwise really great song with probably my favorite single riff, the one they drop at 0:42 and that comes back at the end. “Emptiness” as well brings back the records themes of narcissism and self-destruction that haunted the title track and “Lethe”. I could quote many good lines from this song, but Staane seems to have a knack for opening stanzas and I’ll let him speak:

Silence in shivering solitude
Obligations pressure for all to bear
All the pitiful answers, the innocent lies
Can mere words fill
The emptiness from which I fed?

Once again, this track would also make a great closer. But then we get a pretty genuinely epic two-part finale in the brief instrumental “Mine Is The Grandeur . . .” followed by our actual closer “. . . of Melancholy Burning”, because sure while we’re mixing up all the metal tropes just throw Megadeth album title scheming in there with it. (Kidding.) But in all seriousness, obviously what was a single epic was broken into two tracks, most likely so anxious headbangers can skip the instrumental intro, which is entirely acoustic guitars vamping in Eb minor over (under?) some fairly loud percussion before the segue into “Burning.”

While “Lethe” is my favorite, “Mine is The Grandeur of Melancholy Burning” in its totality as a closing statement is undeniable as the albums greatest achievement, a musical journey that covers a lot of range without ever having to resort to any really abrupt shifts, invoking classic metal ideas aplenty and kinda going off instrumentally. (I notice now I haven’t said anything nice about Anders Jivarp but keeping up with the rest of these guys, especially your bassist who has simply abandoned you to do as he pleases, is an achievement.) Eva-Marie Larsson returns and she’s as good as she was the first time: excellent.

But especially in a lyrical sense, this song represented in these two tracks brings it all together. First of all, title. Sweet title. Not only is his suffering this sort of epic tragedy to take in, but it’s also a work that the melancholy burning man can claim for his own. We’ve covered death anxiety, apocalyptic anxiety, self-harm, and general narcissism, which is specifically reintroduced in these opening lines:

Jackal, aches for pain beyond me
Bestiality* beckons — The anger set free
For there is no pain greater than thine
For there is no gain but the fury inside

(*Google tells me, for what its worth, that animal-fucking is this word’s secondary meaning, and that its primary meaning is in fact “savagely cruel or depraved behavior.”)

But we haven’t quite exactly delved into self-hatred, and that’s what this song really covers.

Frailty, thy name is weakness
Vengeance, thy name is pain
Storm through the still glowing night
Ember eyes beyond reason shall see

Flee from the safety of the sheltering sky
See all but logic, so vengeance shall be mine
The grandeur of melancholy burning… oh burning
Charge into uncertainty’s promised land

Our narrator openly admits they have cast aside reason to chase vengeance, presumably to fix a flaw of weakness that was proven by the act that requires vengeance, and seems to believe (“Oh sweet revenge heal me”) that revenge will indeed heal him, but the ending of the song seems to indicate he will indeed fall to this Jackal that the song consistently refers to as “the nail,” the source of this narrators woes. In classical fashion, that desire for revenge seems to be the protagonists undoing at the end since we never see beyond their fateful reunion with said jackal. Whereas I previously referred to Chuck Schuldiner’s lyric for “Symbolic” as “some Tom Petty shit” this lyric will now get the moniker “some Moby Dick” shit.

Good lord this was a tiring record to write about for some reason, but that’s probably because like Skydancer it’s less-than-fifty minutes of music can still be really dense and have a lot of ideas to take in and a lot of good riffs to repeat for yourself. I will admit as well though here at the end: I gotta say I’m not a fan of this guitar tone, like at all. I want to blame the guitar tuning because at the end of the day something feels a little off about it, (the band used Eb standard, as described near the beginning) but there’s also something wrong with the guitar tone. It’s just saturated in all the wrong places, and as a result we get a lot of thick distortion in the palm muted notes that actually sound like they were picked a little bit softly, in a way that unlike Symbolic doesn’t really jive with the tone. This is exactly the kind of guitar tone a recording engineer probably loves to death but it really doesn’t excite me, thankfully the playing and songwriting as we’ve gone over is exceptional.

Conclusion: Damn, we hit the classics and we hit the classics hard. This record is still holding up. A deeply and mercilessly executed version of its own MDM aesthetic. The band makes good on the promises of their first record while pretty much erasing its flaws, making an album that, as I’ve said before, hits all of the basic buttons of matching consistent songwriting with solid recording. In a world where Dark Tranquillity doesn’t really sound like this anymore this record stands the test of time for being a flawless presentation of its own inimitable concept. The record matches its neo-baroque flights of fancy with songs filled with apocalyptic visions and grand fantasized presentations of personal struggles. While not a “concept album” The Gallery is a record full of extremely conceptual songs from a band that at this point in time seems like an endless font of interesting ideas. Highly recommended, even and especially for fans with no patience for modern extreme metal. Classic.

He/They. Musician and Writer (Videogames, music, bit of sports for fun.) You can support me by buying my book at durante-p.itch.io/book-preview