There’s no way around it – At The Gates releasing their first new material in over 18 years was a big deal. We sent Pete Long along to find out from Tomas Lindberg, the band’s frontman, just why it took so long.
When Tomas Lindberg talks about the “One thousand, two thousand people” waiting for At War With Reality, it seems he might be selling himself a little short. It’s not that he’s unaware of the affection that Slaughter of the Soul is held in, it’s just that nobody in At The Gates is the type of guy to spend too much time thinking about the album’s legacy. Considering the effects that the level of expectation could have had on them, it’s probably just as well.
“Trying to second guess what all these people were expecting would have hindered the process enormously,” said Lindberg. “We just really looked at our back catalogue and looked at where we are now and said what is the next step. We started with Slaughter of the Soul and looked at what was missing from that; a lot of the melancholy and abstract arrangements of the earlier stuff. Right after we did [Slaughter…] we said it’s a bit too one dimensional and aggressive and that we were missing some of the stuff we learned on the earlier albums, so let’s bring a little of that back without losing any of the power and focus that was Slaughter… and building on top of those two elements.” The result has been an album that in Lindberg’s opinion “sounds like it should have been released between Terminal Spirit Disease and Slaughter of the Soul”.
The whole process of the latest At The Gates album appears to have been very considered in every element, from atmosphere to lyrics, from artwork to how they’d approach it. Nevermind the external pressure, the band would have to satisfy their own high expectations, “ten times higher than any listener ever would have.“ So they want back to Studio Fredman “because we really wanted to be comfortable and work with people we trusted and felt at home with.” They talked about the need for a relaxed, forgiving atmosphere in which creativity could thrive. Then they went and recorded for the first time in nearly 20 years, a process that Lindberg describes as “pretty natural.”
It’s a long time, time that the various members have used wisely to hone their skills even further. Lindberg talks about watching drummer Adrian Erlandsson when he was playing with Brujeria on a cruise ship to the Bahamas and being unable to take his eyes off of him, due to the power he was playing with, but they’ve all learned and Lindberg is “just grateful to play with all those people”. The time away has benefitted the band in other ways too. “I’d say all these years have made us a bit more secure. When we made this album the insecurity levels weren’t there. All the curiousness and intent and importance was there, the urgency was there, but not the negative nervousness. The urgency to create the best ever vocal take was still there but there was never the ‘I’m not going to make this’.”
The same urgency and intent is just as visible in Lindberg’s lyrics. The original plan had been to make the “most total Tomas Lindberg record lyric wise I could ever do. Bring everything I’ve learnt and know about politics, philosophy, religion and everything into that record and it should be perfect.” However, floundering under the enormity of his own expectations and the “pain and frustration” they were causing, he instead opted for a concept album based on the magical realism themes that originated with South American authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.
“It’s a very surrealistic, post-modern, post-structuralist way of writing, there’s a lot of different sub levels to the plot,” Lindberg explains. He saw it’s layered stories and questioning of reality as something that could work in a death metal environment. “There was such a relief when I found it. I knew it was going to be a long work, meticulously built, with a lot of detail and reference to other books and authors, myself… there’s even two songs on the album that are about the concept. So I thought its going to take a lot of work, a lot of effort, but at least it was inspiring me. And it came out exactly as I wanted.”
It seems likely though, that there are parts of that Tomas Lindberg record scattered through the various sub-levels of the lyrics. He singles out ‘The Night Eternal’, the album closer that he hopes to use to close the set with as well, as a song with particular emotional resonance for him. The song’s working title was ‘Russian Bathory’, due to its black metal vibe and weird Prokofiev-esque melodies. The lyrics were inspired by his interest in the Spanish civil war “because it was a period when all of this socialism and solidarity made sense.” In the song, Lindberg tried to get inside the mind of one of the foreign volunteers, from “under the eyelids”.
“All that conviction you had to feel to join in such a conflict without it being your conflict, with all the disillusion when you felt it was ending in the wrong way… [this track] is very emotional for me,” Lindberg admits. “If you look at it at first you can never understand it’s about this, but the way it ends with all this drama, it ends up on a high note. It’s kinda close to the point that I tried to make with The Red in the Sky Is Ours, the whole it’s never too late, the revolution can still happen, we have to believe even if it hurts. And that’s a song I really want to close the set with, a song I want to end with as it’s a very touching song for me.”
The artwork too reflects the themes. Throughout their history, At The Gates have often picked their album covers hastily, but not this time. They went to their friend Costin Chioreanu, who had worked on guitarist Andreas Björler’s solo album, and gave him the lyrics back in January. Chioreanu was so inspired decided to do a different painting for each song. It was the painting for the title track that was used on the cover in the end and it’s filled with symbolism. “The silhouettes in the hand, and the smoke coming out, and the occult symmetric pattern inside, a lot of solar eclipses, there’s a lot of meanings put into it. To see another artist put in so much for the sake of my lyrics is an extremely rewarding feeling.”
It becomes increasingly apparent through our interview that any complete Tomas Lindberg record would have contained all these different views on reality anyway. He describes himself as a post-structuralist who has to question everything every day, even if it is a challenge. He picks out the cover of With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, another artwork made up of patterns of hidden symbols, as his favourite amongst the old albums. Perhaps it’s this which has led to Lindberg’s career covering such a wide range of genres and bands. He’s still rehearsing with Disfear, who recently performed following the recruitment of a replacement for Henke Frykman, their bassist who succumbed to cancer in 2011.
Our interview went on twice as long as scheduled, fuelled mainly by Lindberg’s happiness with chatting about his latest piece of the art, and all the artists he has got to work with in the making of it. Nearly twenty years to wait between At The Gates albums is a long time to wait, even for the many fans who discovered metal long after that album. But, to paraphrase Lindberg, it is never too late and now it is here. Metal fans can be very happy now it finally is; just that Tomas Lindberg’s probably too humble to realise just how many. But that’s part of his charm and part of his success.