This is the second part of my look at 2021. My picks 2 through 10 of 2021 albums can be found here.
As 2021 draws to a close it’s time to pick an album of the year. I haven’t really picked an AOTY in many years, 11 at least, so it’s a bit weird to be doing so again. And while I had a bit of deliberation over a few albums that were clawing at my top spot, the answer was fairly clear to me in the second half of the year.
It was a bit tough to figure as the year wore on – I have gotten into several new sounds I wasn’t familiar with before the year. My favorite band released a new album. Plenty of albums from my generally favorite overall genre came out from bands old and new, something reflected on my top ten list. I’ve been more receptive to music than I have been in a long time, perhaps owing to the long-term crush of the pandemic, I don’t know.
But in the end I have my album of the year. It’s from one of my favorite acts and it made an immediate impact on me when I first heard it. It received good critical reviews on release though met with mixed reactions across the fanbase. I’ve seen it on several year-end lists from others, but none that I saw have it pegged near the top and certainly not on it.
None of that matters much though – it’s time to reveal my 2021 Album of the Year.
At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being
Released on July 2, 2021 via Century Media Records
My Favorite Tracks – The Fall Into Time, Spectre Of Extinction, The Nightmare Of Being
This album, the third of ATG’s reunion stint, continues in the path that its predecessors set forth. The band did not get back together to pay perpetual tribute to their 1995 masterpiece Slaughter Of The Soul – rather they came back to explore new territories and push boundaries in extreme metal.
The Nightmare Of Being explores the thematic concept of pessimism. It is far more involved than a simple chant of “life sucks, now here’s some fat riffs.” Both the music and lyrics delve into a greater contemplation of what a negative outlook means. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg composed lyrics that offer a deep dive into the philosophical concept, rather than simply venting about stuff that could be aired on a therapist’s couch.
The music mostly fits well in the present-day lineage of the band, often piggybacking off of work done on prior effort To Drink From The Night Itself. Album opener Spectre Of Extinction certainly sounds like it could fit on either of the band’s other reunion-era records.
At The Gates introduce more layers of sound and arrangement as the record wears on. The Gardens Of Cyrus is especially notable for both being a piece of movements rather than a standard verse/chorus construct. The song also features a saxophone, an uncommon element in metal for anyone not in studio with Ishahn. The accompaniment works well on the song, which seems to twist the album and thus the listener down further into a spiral of philosophical agony. The Fall Into Time also goes into non-conventional metal territory for its melodies and stands as a greater work for it.
The album lyrically is more layered and opaque than a cursory rundown of misanthropy and negativity, long standards of heavy metal subject matter. Instead, the song The Abstract Enthroned probably sums up the album the best – this album is abstract, requiring a deeper sense of exploration than surface-level headbanging enjoyment would provide. The Nightmare Of Being does require something of the listener in order for the album to be processed, it won’t just come with a casual spin or two.
Songs like The Paradox, Touched By The White Hands Of Death and Cult Of Salvation continue to walk a line between between the signature At The Gates sound and the need to explore other soundscapes in order to deliver the concept better. There are dense, atmospheric layers to a lot of the songs that add to the complexity the lyrics deliver but also fit well with the band’s style. This may be an extension of more experimental parts of the band but this isn’t a departure – the band was always going to do stuff like this, almost as if they were interrupted by their melodic death magnum opus in the mid 90’s rather than working toward it as a goal.
Several people have made one criticism of the album – the vocal delivery of Tomas Lindberg. It is a raspy bark as opposed to the ferocious sneer often associated with melodic death metal. Of course Lindberg is no spring chicken, having been a part of many a project over the past 30 years. But also, his somewhat worn delivery works very well with the album’s theme. This isn’t some feeble old man trying to hang with the music – instead it’s someone singing in keeping with the album’s lyrical fare. And also – listen to The Red In The Sky Is Ours again and then tell me what Lindberg is supposed to sound like.
It was a fine day when The Nightmare Of Being released and delivered on its promise of a deep exploration of pessimistic themes. Such fare is dark, sure, but is also very fitting in these present times. It is another master stroke in the catalog of the Swedish pioneers of melodic death metal. No one could blame At The Gates for resting on their laurels and simply touring a nostalgia package centered around Slaughter… that bore influence in so many areas of heavy metal. Instead, the band pushed their own boundaries when they reunited and have now offered this complex, opaque and demanding record. It may not be for casual listening and perhaps is not easily enjoyed, but the true weight and beauty of the album is there to be found.
Here again is the first part of my Top 10 of 2021 list. On Wednesday I’ll wrap up the year in review with some thoughts and the Song of the Year.