It’s unfortunate that the later career of At The Gates is overshadowed by the departure of lead guitarist Anders Björler, but it’s understandable. Björler’s riffs defined 30 years of metalcore and pretty much carried 2013’s At War with Reality (seriously, that album’s riffs make up for the boring drums just because they’re that great.) At The Gates entered a transitional period, which To Drink from the Night Itself proved to be rather awkward. While not a terrible record, it made the hole Björler left terribly visible. The album’s guitar licks and melodies simply didn’t hit, and the lineup sounded uncertain of itself. Perhaps the best part about The Nightmare of Being is how it avoids both of those potholes.
It’s much easier to recall the motifs of “Spectre Of Extinction” than anything off of Night Itself. Sure, the riffs don’t have Björler’s touch, but the song itself achieves At The Gates’ melo-death pedigree. From acoustic guitar to melodramatic electric leads and finally, to hyperspeed death-thrash, lead guitarist Jonas Stålhammar provides much catchier ideas over Martin Larsson’s crunchy rhythms. The song also brings back At The Gates’ sense of grimacing groove with a vengeance, as continued by “The Paradox.” Those triplet rhythms recall Slaughter of the Soul, but this track also introduces a diversified production value—with acoustic guitars and piano chimes commingling with the ferocity.
In fact, The Nightmare of Being makes a point to accent the classical roots of At The Gates. “The Fall Into Time” comes through with a bombastic tapestry of woodwinds, choirs, and tympanies, and the resulting atmosphere pervades once the metal kicks in. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for with harmonic density and nasty beats. To the same effect, the title track has the perfect combination of atmospheric meditation, agile fretwork, and hard-hitting heaviness. It also brings vocalist Tomas Lindberg’s emotive scream to the forefront. He has settled into a horse, throaty howl instead of the high-pitch rasps of his early career, but it actually suits his lyrical fusion of nihilistic philosophy and haunting societal appraisals. It’s a different sound for him, but who cares? He still gives it his all and it shows!
“Garden Of Cyrus” finds drummer Adrian Erlandsson and bassist Jonas Björler coming into their own as a tight, dynamic rhythm section. The former juggles a ⅞ time signature and some thumping half-time, offering an almost-jazz fusion vibe alongside the lines the latter lays down—and that’s not mentioning the scorching saxophone solo. These breaks from the familiar tumult show At The Gates’ adventurous chemistry, which might explain why “Touched By The White Hands Of Death” balances death-thrash riffage that’d make Björler proud with flute-driven classical intros and synth-laden, almost doomy breakdowns. The band’s musicality allows for curveballs while upholding the band’s sonic standard.
The Nightmare of Being draws from At The Gates’ storied discography without trying to cash in on nostalgia. It could be argued that “Cult Of Salvation” realizes a lot of the complexities within (very admirably, mind you) albums like The Red Sky Is Ours, whether it be a melodic counter meter or exhilarating rhythm changes. Even a cut like “The Abstract Enthroned,” which doesn’t have as many standout passages, maintains a compelling mood through its sweeping dynamic range—from break-neck speed to melancholy string arrangements.
The post-punky clean guitars of “Cosmic Pessimism” are certainly an odd choice, but it’s a credit to At The Gates that it doesn’t come off as forced. It’s hard to be dissatisfied with weird choices if they actually work well. Heck, even the universally lauded Slaughter of the Soul didn’t pull off the outro “The Flames of the End." The left-field stuff works, as does the straightforward riffage of closer “Eternal Winter Of Reason.” At the Gates wisely chooses to let the song breath, favoring haunting motifs, lumbering drums, and nasty syncopations over an overcompensating shred-fest.
At the end of the day, it’s really songwriting that sets the seminal work of At The Gates apart from the crowd. Their timeless tunes aren’t the flashiest or the most inventive, but they know just the right pocket to slip into… and when to slip out and try something new. More often than not, The Nightmare of Being rises to the occasion as a solid entry in At The Gates’ discography. It proves that this band has reoriented itself in a new era of its illustrious career.