In Stereogum’s latest edition of The Black Market (aka the best metal column on the web), Ian Chainey broke down all of the thoughts and natural reactions that long time fans have to new material from bands that had been gone for ages. These comeback albums have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, and in many cases, the waits have been long. Sleep, Chainey’s reason for his essay, took 15 years between Dopesmoker and The Sciences (or a full 20 between Jerusalem and the new one); Carcass and Atheist each took 17 years between albums; and At the Gates, our subject here, took a whopping 19 years between Slaughter of the Soul and At War with Reality.
The reactions ranged from enthusiastically welcoming to downright fan fever, particularly right after each was released. In discussing why he enjoys The Sciences so much, Chainey wrote what could easily be applied to any of the above albums:
It’s undeniable that The Sciences sounds like Sleep to me and that’s kind of why I like it.
He of course wrote many more things that flesh out his argument, and you should read it all, because it says a whole lot about what it means to be a music fan and to process art in general. But that one line really captures the above albums. I really liked At War with Reality (still do) because I like At the Gates and it sounded like At the Gates. Sure, Jupiter was extra sassy and The Sciences maybe includes a little Om, but for the most part each band played it safe in their returns, despite having tacked on the years since their first runs. The point was to please fans without hurting their legacy; basically, don’t swing and miss. But by doing very little if anything new, each album may end up being little more than a pleasant footnote in each band’s history when all is said and done.
Well it’s now 2018, and after years of headlining festivals and generally getting paid handsomely for past achievements, some of these bands are coming back for more, turning the comebacks into full second eras. Atheist and Carcass both have new albums planned for later in the year, but At the Gates is striking first with To Drink from the Night Itself, and putting the ever-so-slightest bit of pressure on other such legacy acts by thinking ever-so-slightly out of the box. Whereas At War with Reality was basically Slaughter of the Soul Part 2 (minus some of the grit), To Drink sees the band breaking free somewhat of their most famous album’s formula. It still sounds 100 percent like At the Gates, but they’ve lowered the thrash element, upped the early 90s riff vibe, and delivered the moodiest album of their career.
It’s on these tracks where At the Gates sounds downright fresh for the first time in 23 years. The shifts really begin during “Palace of Lepers,” where a great bridge gives way to a coda full of tremolo melodies, opening the album up for a big highlight in “Daggers of Black Haze.” The latter rides a mid-paced tempo, tense chord progressions, touches of classical guitar, an understated solo, and a great chorus of ascending tremolo riffs and Tompa’s screech to some truly chilling results.
Elsewhere, “The Colours of the Beast” is the closest the band has ever come to doom/death, while “A Labyrinth of Tombs” manages to keep some of the thrash without sacrificing the re-emphasis on emotive delivery (the leads are the star here). A few songs even have brushes with real texture and atmosphere, albeit filtered through a modern, delightfully rumble-friendly production (don’t expect anything to sound like The Red in the Sky is Ours, in other words). Of the brushes with atmosphere, “The Mirror Black” is chief, using a combination of harrowing tremolo melodies, Tompa’s tortured screams, and an extended outro of orchestral music to become the most successful album closer of At the Gates’ career. It’s almost the direct opposite of the earlier title track, both bringing the band’s slight transformation to its fullest conclusion while mirroring the dramatic intro.
These songs and moments elevate the far more predictable parts of To Drink, something that At War with Reality admittedly struggled to do at times. (The two albums are almost identical in run time, but To Drink feels far more efficient.) Because of this, those that found At War with Reality a tad too safe are advised to come back and give the new one a try. It isn’t some paradigm shift, but it’s a really good album that edges its predecessor while getting the band back to doing something they used to be known for: never quite doing the exact same thing twice.
When discussing why some people were disappointed by the new Sleep, Chainey had this to say:
While The Sciences sounds very Sleep to me, it’s clear that it doesn’t for others who are disappointed. For them, this isn’t the same Sleep. But those people also aren’t the same “them” from 20 years ago, either.
This sentence might even be more apt for each band’s second album of their new eras, especially if they add little tweaks as At the Gates did here. Not only are we the fans not the same humans we were all those years ago when these bands first etched their places in our personal halls of fame, but the people in the bands are different too. To expect any band to not change some in a later era of life would be foolish, particularly a band that was as restless in youth as was At the Gates. While the subtle changes on To Drink from the Night Itself aren’t anywhere near what they exhibited in the 90s (Gardens of Grief and Slaughter of the Soul were only five years apart!), there are signs here that the band is older and wiser. They’re still making sure to meet the expectations of fans – you’ll likely still enjoy it purely because it sounds like At the Gates – but doing enough to prevent burnout, all without putting a smear on their legacy.
For these reasons alone, To Drink from the Night Itself should end up as more than just a pleasant footnote.