Let it just be said for the record; I don’t hate melodic death metal as much as I say I do. A lot of it is soulless, factory-line metal, but every now and then a diamond emerges from the mediocrity to show what the genre is truly capable of with some imagination and willingness to experiment…and then on the other hand you’ve got albums like this. Their fourth LP, and the culmination of their increasingly streamlined and melodic style, Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates is one of the most influential metal records of the 90s – along with popularising and solidifying the Gothenburg sound, it also played a massive part in shaping the sound of metalcore by combining catchy yet heavily downtuned riffs with groovy rhythms – and at the same time it’s also one of the blandest metal albums of its time. Compared to their earlier LPs it’s a very scaled-back affair; Tomas Lindberg’s vocals are still pained and tortured as ever but unlike the demented shrieking from their first two albums, his screams now sound whiny and self-pitying instead, and the rest of the band goes from technical and wildly creative playing to something that sounds as though the label told them what to do and how to do it.
After some white noise and what sounds like a huge machine falling apart, a voice intones “we are blind to the worlds within us…waiting to be born” and Blinded by Fear roars into existence. Revolving around one of the most straightforward riffs in death metal and backed up with equally simple drumming (both a huge leap from the technical insanity that was found on their first two albums and a step down from the last one), the song makes itself unique by featuring a fantastic double-lead guitar solo and a ferocious ending – and then you have Slaughter of the Soul itself. Every part of this song has been mined in some way by metalcore bands for years and years after its release; the riff, the half-time drumming before the solo, the breakdown – which still beats almost every future one that was influenced by it – despite being one of the codifying melodeath albums and predating a good deal of the original bands in the genre, it’s arguably one of the best metalcore songs ever.
It’s at this point the album unfortunately begins to take a turn for the worse.
Cold starts off reasonably well, if not very similar to the last two songs, until things fall to pieces nearly two minutes in. A weirdly out of place bridge breaks the song up, throwing off the flow and atmosphere of the music massively as the guitars lose their distortion and go ever so slightly out of tune for ten seconds, shrugging it off with a solo that beats nearly all the others on the album (due to being performed by a guest musician) and the song seemingly starting again. Under the Serpent Sun starts off with a riff that sounds as though it could have been stolen from either one of a certain couple of fellow Swedish bands – and for the second song in a row the band brings out yet another off-putting clean bridge. The soullessly clean production adds to the effect, taking any element of grit or emotion out of the equation by polishing it until it shines, which even the producer seems to have regretted as his later works are sharper and less perfectionist. Starting off acoustic and then slowly building up with electric guitars and quiet drumming, Into the Dead Sky seems at first like it’s the intro to something truly epic, something bigger and better than the last few songs…and then it slowly fades out with about as much fanfare as it started with, even going as far as to have a couple seconds without sound to kill any excitement or anticipation the listener might have had.
The awkward silence gets broken up with a gun being cocked, introducing Suicide Nation which flickers back and forth between sticking rigidly to the formula and breaking free of it. Going for a more groove metal feel at times, the song sounds a lot like an extension of the title track – to the point where the “suicide…jaws locked around your spine!” bridge sounds eerily like the breakdown in said song. Once you notice the band seems to be taking specific sections and arranging them or leaving them out as needed – interesting intro riff, bland and noisy verse, vaguely sad sounding (pre)chorus, guitar solo after the second chorus, all of which sounding very similar to how it was in the song previous – then the album begins to collapse in on itself. Sticking to patterns isn’t a bad thing as such, a lot of bands and artists do it and not everything needs to be progressive/experimental, but the major issue here is that there’s no change in dynamics or sound at all. World of Lies goes even further down into groove metal with its chugging, monotonous riff, changing things up twice with an even more primitive one that thankfully doesn’t last too long. Of the next three songs only parts of two of them are worth mentioning due to how similar they all are to each other; the sudden acoustic guitar and double bass drumming break in Unto Others that not only shocks you out of the monotony for a little while, but reveals the limitations of Lindberg’s vocals, and the first 30 seconds of Nausea that manage to pack in a surprisingly heavy intro and verse…before the wimpy chorus drags it straight back down again. Finally, The Flames of the End finishes the album on a particularly low note with an almost entirely synthesised instrumental that sounds like it came from a PS1 game, obviously fake strings and all (which hurts even more considering they had actual violins on their debut), along with a few guitar chugs and feedback to make it sound like it came from a painfully edgy PS1 game.
Although its influence can’t be denied – bands such as Killswitch Engage, Avenged Sevenfold and All That Remains simply would not sound the way they do if this album never came out – it’s also aged like milk. Despite having more than a few good riffs and the occasional good idea, along with making a big and far-reaching impact, Slaughter of the Soul falls very far short of At the Gates’s previous greatness.
Genre… melodic death metal
Best tracks… Blinded by Fear, Slaughter of the Soul, Suicide Nation