There was a time, maybe two decades ago, when a subgenre called melodic death metal would have been considered a ridiculous oxymoron on par with something like smooth industrial or powerNew Age. These days it’s possible to look back on this mid-1990s development as the source of that decade’s most enduring metal as well as the unwitting inspiration for some of this decade’s worst.
Ground zero for this unofficial movement was Gothenburg, Sweden, home to In Flames, Dissection, and At the Gates, whose 1995 swan song, Slaughter of the Soul (Earache), is probably the quintessential melodic death metal album and one of the greatest so-called extreme metal albums of all time, period.
It’s not just my opinion: there are also the countless bands Shadows Fall, Darkest Hour, the Black Dahlia Murder, and seemingly hundreds of others who have tried to imitate At the Gates in the years since. There was a time several years ago when every other new metal release especially if it was American and had any sort of hardcore or metalcore slant to it paid a degree of unspoken homage to the Gothenburg sound that At the Gates helped put on the map. Some of these bands have achieved reasonable commercial success, playing the Ozzfest’s second stage or getting airplay on whatever stations there are that play music videos anymore.
The thing is, none of those other hacks is ever going to match Slaughter, an inspired, magical album made by a bunch of desperate-sounding, beer-gulping Scandinavian twentysomethings.
"We wanted to make a short, intense, and to-the-point kinda album," explains guitarist Anders Björler via e-mail in May. "We had [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood as a reference somehow."
Slaughter was the band’s fourth and final album in a brief career that covered the first half of the 1990s they broke up in 1996. Their earlier albums were a sometimes-confusing mix of guttural thrash, classical-tinged riffs, lopsided time signatures, and even the occasional violin interlude. By the time of Slaughter, though, they had streamlined their sound into something leaner and more direct. The breakneck thrash tempos and strategically placed tempo shifts may owe a debt to speed-metal bands like Slayer and Kreator, but there’s a heroic classical tinge to their guitar riffs that adds another, more epic dimension.
Then there are Tomas Lindberg’s tortured lyrics and vocals, which further distinguished ATG from their peers. Other bands growled and grunted about Satan, dead bodies, or the evils of multinational corporations. Lindberg’s strangled shriek, on the other hand, conveys a genuine sense of psychological torment. His sudden "aaaoooohhhh" during the intro to "Suicide Nation" is priceless.
"I think some of the hype came after we split up," writes Björler of the album’s reputation. Possibly, but there’s also the fact that they went out on top, without subjecting fans to a slow decline or gradual sellout à la their peers In Flames, who smelled a crossover market in the wake of bands like Slipknot’s success and watered their sound down accordingly.
After ATG split, Björler and his brother, bassist Jonas, went on to form the Haunted who are still active but currently taking a break in between recording and touring. That partly explains the timing of their current reunion tour. Writes Björler, "We didn’t want to do this reunion when we turn 50 years old."
Instead, he continues, "it feels nice with a short reunion to say farewell in a proper way," aware that they broke up suddenly the first time around. "It’s only this tour, and it’s a sort of ‘farewell, last chance’ to see us thing. I think we ended it with a classic album. It would be hard to top."
AT THE GATES
With Municipal Waste, Darkest Hour, and Repulsion
Fri/25, 8 p.m., $27.50
1805 Geary, SF