Alf Svensson left At The Gates after the second full-length With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness. Under his stewardship – some might say leadership – At The Gates developed a nuanced, melodic complexity that hasn’t been rivaled since in underground metal. It bears taking stock of just how revolutionary At The Gates‘ sound on much of the first two albums was. Often lumped unfairly under the umbrella term “melodic death metal” with bands who they may have inspired but who really were Iron Maiden with harsh vocals and none of the poise of that legendary band, At The Gates were melodic only as much as all music should be melodic.
It is somewhat cliche to draw references to classical music, but at their peak, At The Gates developed a very distinct technique of incorporating multiple voices in their songwriting, not dissimilar to a simpler version of fugal counterpoint. Minor key melodies suffused the music on The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness, but At The Gates evolved beyond the use of the pentatonic scale and the atonal chromatics that heavy metal and death metal had mostly observed uptil that point, to make far more extensive use of modal interrelationships than any other extreme metal band before them, an approach and a larger palette of textures that aided them immeasurably in realising the heavily emotional music they were making.
Non-linear songwriting refers to an expansive, perpetually-unfolding take on constructing a song. As integral a part as hooks and repetition have played in all metal, they are some of the chief reasons that keep the genre tethered to its roots in rock music. Motifs are indispensable to a song, but when done with subtlety, occur as offshoots on a particular theme, capable of being discerned as variation on a familiar idea. At The Gates weren’t much for repeating the same riff four times over the course of a piece, instead opting for a centrifugal perspective that radiated outward continuously, embedding the notion of a narrative into the very fabric of the song. This was story-telling in the true sense, however, and not the thousand-note, gratuitous incoherence of modern tech-death bands.
When Alf Svensson left, At The Gates compromised this intricacy and ambition for a far more streamlined, thrash-oriented style with bouncing rhythm and down-picked riffs substituting the roving streams of tremolo-picked notes that characterized their style until then. The result, while commercially successful, lacked the instinctive songwriting and the emotional resonance of their greatest years; where, earlier, the band risked following its impulses, even somehow transforming misfires into glorious triumphs by dint of youthful intuition, the band’s later work resembled a cold weighing of pros and cons, with the scales skewed for maximum appeal. For a band once revered for its fiercely individualistic flair, this remains a fatal misstep for many fans.
After At The Gates, Alf Svensson formed Oxiplegatz in his spare time, a strange project centered around science-fiction. Different from At The Gates in many respects, it is still possible to identify the penchant for the unorthodox shared by the two bands. Sidereal Journey is a single forty-one minute long song, divided into numerous minor compartments, set against the backdrop of a tale of the survivors of a doomed planet who set out to find a new world for recolonization. Harsh death/black guitars occasionally pierce the mostly dreamlike atmosphere of the music as male and female voices relate the fate of the intrepid explorers. As in Svensson’s previous, ambidextrous work, multiple melodic threads across instruments come together seamlessly in consonance; the only aspect holding Sidereal Journey back is a monotonous hue to the music, which doesn’t quite flesh out the travails described in the story. Still, for an ambitious mix of equal parts Nocturnus, Dead Can Dance, Wagner, and renaissance fair, Sidereal Journey provides an interesting look into the mind of an under-appreciated metal hero.