I never saw At the Gates "back in the day," so to speak, so I can't compare last night's show at Irving Plaza to what the band might have sounded like when they last played here 12 years ago. In 1996 I was barely keeping up with what was new in metal at all, and certainly hadn't heard that a group from Gothenburg, Sweden, of all places, had helped to invent a new strain of death metal by introducing -- believe it or not -- catchy melodies and sing-along choruses.
Between 1990 and 1995 At the Gates recorded an EP and four full-length albums, each more proficient and catchier than the last, culminating in Slaughter of the Soul, the band's sole release on the fabled Earache label and an album pretty much unanimously hailed as a benchmark of the genre. Wider recognition, even mainstream success, were probably within grasp.
Instead, At the Gates broke up in a storm of acrimony. Three members -- sibling guitarist and bassist Anders and Jonas Björler and drummer Adrian Erlandsson (briefly) -- went on to form tough-as-nails metalcore band the Haunted, which I caught twice in 2001 at CBGB and Limelight -- both times with a fledgling Lamb of God. Martin Larsson, the other guitarist, took up with another Swedish band, Fifth Reason. And frontman Tomas Lindberg (pictured above in a photograph taken by Matthias Westfalk at a Tokyo show in May, from the official At the Gates website) became a journeyman vocalist, working with bands like the Crown, the Great Deceiver, Lock Up and most recently Disfear.
In the years since At the Gates split, most of the other seminal Gothenburg bands (primarily In Flames and Dark Tranquility) veered closer and closer to commercial acceptability, but lost the essential ferocity of their early work. The Gothenburg sound, meanwhile, was vastly influential, with American acts like the Black Dahlia Murder, Darkest Hour and the hugely successful Killswitch Engage picking up where At the Gates left off.
Just what brought At the Gates back together this year is unclear; according to various interviews, talk of a reunion had been afloat for some time now, but this was the first time that all the pieces fell into place. No new material was written; no new album is planned. Basically, the "Suicidal Final Tour" is five old friends patching up burnt bridges and reaping the benefits of a sterling reputation that was never blighted by commercial compromise or diminishing inspiration.
I got to Irving Plaza too late to see Municipal Waste, a rowdy thrash-metal band from Richmond, VA, or the aforementioned Darkest Hour, a charismatic group I caught at Ozzfest in 2004. At the Gates took the stage at 9:55pm sharp, and blazed its way through a tight set that leaned heavily on songs from Slaughter of the Soul, with tracks from all of its earlier records thrown in for the true believers.
I'd have to guess that new fans outnumbered old ones two-to-one. Still, so many audience members sang along that from my perspective up in the balcony, it sounded something like a massed football chant. Lindberg was a gregarious frontman, and there was a merciful lack of dead time between songs in the fast-paced, well-oiled presentation.
Irving Plaza was steamy like Bangkok and as rank as a post-game gym locker. The floor erupted into mosh pits constantly, with an especially dramatic whirlpool whooshing around in the dark to the pre-recorded industrial noise track that prefaced the first song of the band's encore: "Blinded by Fear," the ripping opener from Slaughter of the Soul. Lindberg, always addressing himself to the "ladies and gentlemen" present, repeatedly expressed the band's appreciation at the warm welcome. At one point he confessed to having goosebumps -- not especially metal, but endearingly honest.
The first of the summer's two least likely metal reunions, then, was a complete success and a joyous occasion, one I feel privileged to have attended. And on a purely personal note, if you've noticed a crabby tension in certain politically motivated posts (to which it was probably unfair to subject you) during the last week or so, you can surely understand why bouncing and buckling in place to just over an hour's worth of slamming death metal with sing-along choruses was exactly what I needed.
And now, the summer's other least likely reunion -- the mighty Carcass -- can't arrive soon enough.
Setlist: Slaughter of the Soul / Cold / Terminal Spirit Disease / Raped by the Light of Christ / Under a Serpent Sun / Windows / World of Lies / The Burning Darkness / The Swarm / Forever Blind / Nausea / The Beautiful Wound / Suicide Nation / All Life Ends / Need // Encore: Blinded by Fear / Kingdom Gone
Miley Cyrus - Breakout (Hollywood, out July 22)
Entombed - Left Hand Path (Earache)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - A London Symphony; Sinfonia Antartica; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis - London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (EMI Classics)
Carcass - Symphonies of Sickness (Earache)
Joan Jeanrenaud - Strange Toys (Talking House)
Tangerine Dream - Nebulous Dawn (The Early Years) (Castle) and Rockface: Tangerine Dream Live in Berkeley 1988 (TDI download)
At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul (Earache)
Caroline Herring - Lantana (Signature Sounds)