If recent times have taught us anything, it is that reality can be every bit as horrifying as the dark depths of our imaginations. Metal has long sought to explore the darkness, of course, but rarely has a band captured the unnerving spirit of any age with such artful skill as At The Gates, on their triumphant new album, The Nightmare Of Being.
Although by no means a product of the pandemic, the Swedes’ seventh studio record asks huge, probing questions about the very nature of human existence, and our collective and individual ability to weather life’s stormiest moments. At its core, The Nightmare Of Being is At The Gates’ frontman Tomas Lindberg Redant’s personal exploration of so-called pessimist philosophy: an obscure but radical school of thought that posits, amongst other unnerving revelations, that humankind is an absurdity. It’s safe to say that we are a world away from Hammer Smashed Face.
One of extreme metal’s most articulate figureheads, Tomas admits to discovering the world of philosophical pessimism almost by accident.
“When I started reading horror as a teenager, as you do as a metalhead, I got into Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, the classics, you know?” he says. “Lovecraft is always great because you can revisit all the short stories. I took those as inspiration for the first Lurking Fear [Tomas’s old- school death metal band] album. I was trying to construct the second record, and I didn’t want to repeat myself too much, so I was looking around for more current horror things, to see if there was something I could connect with. Then I stumbled across Ligotti.”
A contemporary legend of supernatural horror, Thomas Ligotti is best known for his short story collections Songs Of A Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, but it was the American author’s sole non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, that grabbed Tomas’s attention and set him on the path to writing the new At The Gates record. Effectively an exploration of pessimist ideas, and their connection to ideas explored in supernatural horror, it was exactly the guide book that he needed to get the lyrical ball rolling.
“I started reading it and it was something else. I didn’t know that much about pessimist philosophy, and here were all the different paths you could go down. So I started going down the rabbit hole. Ligotti makes loads of references to other writers, so I checked those out. Then I came across Eugene Thacker, again through Ligotti, and the whole thing went ‘Bang!’ in my head.”
At The Gates are no strangers to delving into lofty concepts for their albums. The band’s 2014 comeback record, At War With Reality, dealt with notions of, erm, reality. The follow-up, To Drink From The Night Itself, pondered the nature and value of art. This time, however, The Nightmare Of Being’s turbulent, thematic core is perfectly mirrored and equalled by the extraordinary depth and diversity of the music, as written by bassist Jonas Björler. Easily the darkest record the Swedes have made, it’s also an authentic musical journey, with countless startling surprises and some of the most ferocious and intense music of their careers.
“Jonas and I talked about words like ‘cinematic’ and ‘progressive’ and that we wanted to make a textured, layered record that stood above what we’d done before”, Tomas recalls. “Then we talked about how this concept would work with the music he’d written already. We had the time to go back to songs a lot on this record, and focus on the details. One of the things we talked about a lot was how different instruments carry a different emotional tone, and how could we use that to have even more emotional impact on the listener.”
Diehard At The Gates fans need not panic. The Nightmare Of Being features no detours into synthwave. But what it does contain are some of the most bold, adventurous and subversive songs the band have ever written. In particular, the overtly proggy Garden Of Cyrus is going to make a few death metal purists spit their tea across the room, not least due to its spiralling, woozy saxophone solo. Meanwhile, songs like the expansive, doom-laden The Fall Into Time and the skull-rattling krautrock rush of Cosmic Pessimism pull off the laudable trick of sounding utterly alien and recognisably the work of Gothenburg’s finest.
It’s a testament to the confidence that At The Gates are feeling right now. As Tomas explains, the band’s 2019 performance at Roadburn Festival, when they played a unique set full of strange cover versions and left-field guest appearances, provided confirmation that their plans for the new album were on the right track.
“We’d already talked a little bit about what we wanted to do, but then we saw the response to what was a pretty unusual set, with covers and strange instrumentation”, he notes.“ We were working with people like Jo Quail and Anna von Hausswolff and all of that, and people really appreciated it. It reaffirmed my belief in the At The Gates listeners, that they also are curious and have an eclectic music taste and want to be challenged. So why not go all the way? There’s enough weirdos out there to support us.”
As open-minded as their fanbase seems to be, At The Gates will probably always be known first and foremost as the band that made 1995’s Slaughter Of The Soul. After inspiring a whole generation of bands, both great and terrible, it remains an immaculate metal classic. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that Slaughter Of The Soul is by far the most one-dimensional record At The Gates have ever made, and that the imaginative squall of The Nightmare Of Being should come as no surprise to those who have fully embraced the band’s catalogue in its entirety.
“With the success of the comeback with At War With Reality, we’re in a more positive space when it comes to Slaughter...”, says Tomas. “We know that people appreciate what we do now, so we don’t have to think about it too much. I see Slaughter Of The Soul more and more as a concentration of the early period. Luckily we stopped there, because you can’t really condense it any more. That’s the end product! But there’s no need to make ‘Slaughter Of The Soul 2’. We have a broader emotional spectrum now, I guess.”
Arguably the key track on The Nightmare Of Being, Cosmic Pessimism is remarkable on at least two levels. Firstly, it is At The Gates’ first venture into the repetitive grooves of krautrock, as popularised by German bands such as Neu! and Faust in the early 70s, but with choking levels of death metal menace thrown in. Secondly, it is a collaboration with American philosopher and author Eugene Thacker, after whose 2015 tome the song is named. Tomas got in touch with the esteemed academic during his initial surge of pessimism-fuelled inspiration and was bowled over by the final outcome of his efforts.
“When we wrote the song, I suggested it should be a spoken piece, and that was around the time I’d contacted Eugene anyway. I wanted a bit of confirmation that I was on the right track with the whole concept, and not saying things that were totally wrong, you know? So I just threw it out there, that he might want to be involved in the record in some way, thinking he might give us a short quote for the liner notes. But he asked if I wanted to use something from Cosmic Pessimism, and he would approve it if it was to his liking, so that’s what we did. It’s all taken from his book.”
The most emotionally potent moment on The Nightmare Of Being comes during Cosmic Pessimism’s anthemic chorus, as Tomas bellows, ‘Pessimism! The last refuge of hope!’ Superficially, The Nightmare Of Being could be construed as a pointedly nihilistic and negative piece of work, such are the frequently unsettling themes it explores, and yet there is something triumphant and genuinely moving about that refrain.
“Yeah, that’s what I found interesting in this philosophy, is that it’s not negative. It’s not pessimistic, in that traditional sense. It’s about living with your eyes open and preparing for the worst, and that’s OK. The only fear we should have is the fear of fear itself, if you know what I mean. The fear is the worst part. So that’s the idea. It’s a way to embrace life a little bit, and give it a little glimmer of hope.”
Despite its oppressive, disturbing themes, The Nightmare Of Being is an album full of vitality and verve. That lengthy hiatus notwithstanding, At The Gates have been hacking away at the death metal coalface for over three decades now, and there is a strong sense that the new album represents a new blossoming of their collective talents. Everybody likes heavy music to be stupid from time to time, but there is something uniquely rewarding about an album with such musical, lyrical and emotional depths. Whether you choose to dive down the philosophical pessimism rabbit hole or not, there is no mistaking the sound of a legendary band on blistering, oddly life-affirming form.
“We probably couldn’t have even imagined a band like this back when we started,” Tomas concludes. “Our goal when we formed was just to record a demo and get it reviewed in a fanzine, you know? I know it’s a terrible cliché, but everything else really has been a bonus and we’re very humbled that we can still do this. To be able to be so creative and still be appreciated? That’s very rewarding.”
Published in Metal Hammer #351. The Nightmare Of Being is out now via Century Media.