Earlier, when I reviewed Entombed’s Left Hand Path, I introduced the Stockholm style of playing death metal—raw, fast, and subterranean. Left Hand Path is a prime example of that sound. At the same time, bands in Gothenberg were engineering a second style of death metal, which would become melodic death metal. Melodic death metal strays a bit from other styles of death metal in that the riffs tend to be a bit more tuneful. What I mean by “tuneful” is that a key is chosen (usually minor) and very few notes fall outside that key. This means that successive notes are often consonant, and when they aren’t the release of the tension is intuitive…you can feel the center of a melody even on some of the unexpected notes and can expect the song to return to it. The opposite of tuneful is a melody that doesn’t have a clearly identifiable key, but uses most or all of the 12 half-tones…think about all those tight little chromatic progressions that Slayer uses, and you’ll get the picture.
Also, sometimes there is synth.
At the Gates is often cited as seminal in creating the Gothenberg sound. Slaughter of the Soul isn’t especially melodic. Nonetheless, it is a 53-minute masterpiece. If Left Hand Path was a plate of raw meat, this is a plate of…you know…fancy chef-meat. Like Beef Wellington with mashed parsnips and some kind of sauce. Or some kind of meat medallions. Hands have been all over it. Lots of decisions went into this recording, and painstaking care went into each song. You won’t hear a more carefully recorded or intentional album. Yet, it is nearly unyieldingly brutal. So imagine that the sauce is just blood.
Unlike bands of Stockholm that relied on the Boss Heavy Metal pedal turned to 11, there are many guitar tones used on this album. Certainly, the buzzsaw prevails, but sometimes guitars veer toward a black metal tone (no bottom, mids and treble torqued). There is a renaissance-like lute-like interval “Unto Others” that lasts all of six seconds, and an extended acoustic intro on “Into the Dead Sky”, which also features exactly one distorted bass note. The drums are heavily gated, meaning that every one of the lightning-fast strokes is distinct. There are a plethora of guitar solos, of varying tunefulness, and all over the tone spectrum. Vocals are not bog standard death growls, but rather a choked scream. Initially, I took this to reflect At The Gates’ early Black Metal dabblings…but there is something far more visceral and muscular about vocalist Thomas Lindberg’s wail. Its tortured and compelling, and fits Lindberg’s lyrical focus on the pain of human existence ( “kill yourself to live” is menacingly whispered at the end of “Need”)
Aside: most of the listening I do to these albums is on long plague walks, when there is little useful I can do with my mind other than listen to an album. Two weeks ago, I had a walk with this album on loop. My phone let me know that it was the fastest pace that I had averaged in some time. An anomaly? After a hiatus to let an injured toe heal, I walked the same route this morning with “Slaughter of the Soul” as the companion piece. My second highest pace. This album is clearly energizing. Yet, there is lots of variety here.
Highlights include Wagnerian tracks “Blinded by Fear” and “Cold”. I don’t use the term “Wagnerian” lightly. The first is a minor key Gothic tribute to all things cold and Germanic. The second is largely the same with a musically interesting interval, that leaves the center of the melody long enough to be bewildering…think the opening passages of Tristan and Isolde, which are unsettling in Wagner’s refusal to provide any solid melodic footing. The opening riff of “World of Lives” is almost Dimebag-level groovy, settling into a minor melodic riff that splits into two harmonically complementary riffs, that are dope AF. If you are into odd meters, there are riffs in “Serpent Sun” that are VERY hard to count, and yet sound coherent.
There is one stinker on the album. “Flames of the End” is some weird Goth Synth instrumental. It reminds me of the opera that Danzig wrote on his Casio.
At the Gates broke up shortly after the release of this album, but have gotten back together several times. Because being an extreme metal musician is trés-niche, Lindberg sometimes works as a social studies teacher in his down time. I don’t know why I think that’s so wonderful, but I do.
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