This story was originally published in 2006.
Master of Puppets. Reign in Blood. Vulgar Display of Power. These are albums that almost any metalhead will speak of with reverence — records that not only defined a time and a place but also inspired the generations that followed. And so it is with At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul. The time the album defined? 1995. The place? Gothenburg, Sweden. And the generations inspired? Let's just say that without AtG's landmark record, the entire New Wave of Swedish Death Metal — bands like In Flames, Soilwork and Arch Enemy — wouldn't be the same, and modern American metalcore (everyone from As I Lay Dying and Killswitch Engage to All That Remains and the Black Dahlia Murder) wouldn't even exist.
It took At the Gates, who formed in 1990, three full-lengths and an EP to perfect their sound — a mix of blackened shrieks, thrashy death-metal riffage and Maidenesque melodies and harmonies — and then capture it in a masterpiece as heavy as any extreme metal before but with a hell of a lot more hooks. Slaughter of the Soul went on to be nominated for a Swedish Grammy, and the video for lead track "Blinded by Fear," complete with a very topless vocalist Tomas Lindberg and a literally hot blond chick power-grinding sparks off of herself, was one of the original Headbangers Ball's most-played and -requested clips. AtG performed in the U.S. for the first time with two stateside tours in support of Slaughter of the Soul, and then, at the peak of their creative abilities and international stardom, the band broke up less than a year after the release of their magnum opus. It was a move that shocked the metal world — and propelled AtG's swansong into the realm of legend.
"Like every band, when we made any album, we liked to think it was special," says Lindberg of the hallowed status of his former group's final disc. "But over the years, Slaughter of the Soul has gotten a life of its own. I'd like to think that bands cite its importance for the right reasons and not to be trendy. However, that's probably not the case. Once a record gets that sort of attention, a lot of musicians feel they need to be seen as into it.
"What was the secret? Simple," he continues. "We set out to make an album as good as Bonded by Blood from Exodus or Slayer's Reign in Blood. We never expected to get even close but thought that if this was our aim, then we might get about halfway. There were loads of death-metal bands around at the same time, but they were all happy to make mediocre records. We never saw this as an option. At the Gates wanted to test ourselves up against the giants."
Before switching to Earache Records in July 1995, At the Gates were on Peaceville, and their experiences with the U.K.-based label would prove highly influential in Soul's development, says Lindberg.
"I'm not gonna knock Peaceville, but they didn't have the budget available to allow us to develop," he recalls. "The final straw came when we were stranded in England for about a week after a tour, because the label didn't have the money to get us home. We were very angry, and I think you can hear this in the lyrics I wrote for Slaughter of the Soul.
"When Earache came along," the singer continues, "it was like being saved! They already had a good reputation for signing classic death metal [this was the label that had already brought the world Napalm Death, Carcass and Morbid Angel, among others], so we felt right at home."
Earache immediately gave the fearsome fivesome — Lindberg, guitarists Anders Björler and Martin Larsson, bassist Jonas Björler (Anders' twin brother), and drummer Adrian Erlandsson — a lot more freedom and control over the way they recorded and how long they took to do so, a crucial step toward liberating the band creatively. "In the past, we'd been used to getting two or perhaps three weeks in total to get a record done," says Lindberg. "Now we had double that! It helped that we'd carefully prepared the songs in advance. A lot of time had gone into getting the material exactly the way it should be. There wasn't a lot of preproduction but more a case of working things out in rehearsals."
Though Earache was vital to the band's growth, At the Gates were already on the path to greatness while still at Peaceville, having begun to retool their approach to making music after a number of technically complex releases. "The musicianship sometimes got in the way," Lindberg says of the band's early work. So for 1994's Terminal Spirit Disease (the last album they made for Peaceville), they adopted a simpler, more straightforward style.
"Now, to some people, this might seem like going backwards, but for us, it was a case of not cluttering up the music with a lot of unnecessary baggage," he explains. "We wanted to be more direct, to be more brutal. Terminal Spirit Disease started the process. It was the embryo from which we gave birth to Slaughter of the Soul."
While AtG streamlined their musicianship all the more on Slaughter — even taking influence from spare stoner-rock bands like the Obsessed and Trouble on the song "World of Lies" — they also added industrial textures and samples into the mix, giving their music an extra grittiness and their riffs more space to breathe. Such soundtrack-ish elements came naturally to the band members who were self-proclaimed "film freaks": the sound of a gun cocking that opens "Suicide Nation," for instance, was taken from Quentin Tarantino's 1992 movie, Reservoir Dogs, and ambient album closer "The Flames of the End," which Lindberg describes as the band's "first (and last) experiment with drum machines and keyboards," was originally created for Day of Blood, one of the ultra-low-budget horror movies that Anders made for fun.
Complementing the band's starker, more straight-ahead music, Lindberg's lyrics became increasingly astringent and less fanciful, addressing themes such as societal decay ("Cold," the words to which were written after Lindberg watched the 1993 Hughes Brothers' movie, Menace II Society) and organized religion ("Unto Others"). "There was something a lot more hardcore about what I wrote as compared to before. All mention of dragons and Vikings went out. I concentrated on real life and social issues. It was more down to earth and less mythical."
With their more stripped-down approach, At the Gates worked themselves to the bone to get every detail perfect, striving for a clinical, machine-like precision to the musicianship and just the right tone for every instrument, including the vocals. "I think I'm right in saying that we spent about three weeks getting the rhythm guitar sounding the way it should," Lindberg recalls. "That might seem crazy, but we all knew how much the record would be judged on the guitars."
The singer, meanwhile, had only three, very intense days to record his vocals. Just the shout of "Go!" that introduces the main riff of the album's title track took over 40 takes before the band and coproducer Fredrik Nordström were satisfied. "It was pressurized," says Lindberg, "but worth it."
The bandmates chose just one local musician to guest on the album, and they chose wisely. Big fans of Mercyful Fate and King Diamond, they were thrilled to learn that Andy LaRocque, King Diamond's guitarist, was employed by a local music shop where Nordström also occasionally worked. The producer persuaded LaRocque to come down to the studio, where the guitarist "did a brilliant solo on 'Cold.' It was a true pleasure to hear him shred away on top of one of our riffs," recalls Lindberg. "We never thought about getting anyone else in at all. The five of us were so locked into making the record that nothing outside seemed to exist."
Slaughter of the Soul was released in November 1995 and quickly won over metal fans and critics worldwide. "I remember there was a huge buzz about the album," recalls Lindberg. "It sold really well, at least when compared to what we'd done before. And things were going so well. We toured Britain, Europe and America and were set up for the next record."
And then Anders announced he was quitting, stunning his bandmates. "Anders couldn't deal with the pressure — it was as simple as that," says Lindberg. "We tried to persuade him to change his mind, but everything just got on top of him. The success of the album had lifted us to a new level, but it also brought its own problems. Everything came at once, five tours in a row, all this attention. Earache were really nagging us to go back into the studio, and Anders cracked. With hindsight, perhaps we should have looked to replace him and carry on, but we were all still very young [Lindberg, the eldest member of the band, was just 23] and weren't in the mood to do that. And Anders wrote so much of the music that it would have been unfair to continue without him."
And so, astonishingly, just 10 months after the release of the album, At the Gates stopped. No conflict, no arguments. They simply pulled the plug.
"I guess in one way, I regret that decision because it can be said we were on the way to even bigger things," says Lindberg. "But perhaps Slaughter of the Soul was always gonna be our high point. And how many bands do you know who should have quit after their finest record, yet insist on going on, way beyond their sell-by date? So we all know that At the Gates stopped on an amazing high."
Recently, though, there have been rumors of a planned reunion, ones that Lindberg does not flatly deny. "I have to be careful here, because you should never say never. But, honestly, nothing's being planned. I think the rumors started because the five of us now meet up socially and get on well. We don't hide that — we're good friends. But I have to ask whether getting back together would be sensible. The idea actually scares me.
"Look at some of those who've re-formed," the singer continues. "They're fat and gray and aren't doing it for the right reasons. All they do is tarnish the reputation, and I wouldn't want to see this happen to At the Gates."