Uncommon transitions on The Red In The Sky Is Ours

TRISTIO

The Red In The Sky Is Ours is rightly acknowledged as one of the  greatest accomplishments in metal. Few albums…scratch that, no album in memory comes close to rivaling its delicate experiments in balancing technique, contrapuntal composition, and explosive feeling.

Many words have already been written on the subject. What is acknowledged to a lesser degree, however, are the many “awkward” transitions present on TRITSIO. I use scare quotes on purpose, to cautiously qualify the use of awkward. Certainly not as a criticism in At The Gate‘s case. The album, taken as a whole after two decades of retrospection and familiarity, has nothing of the awkward about it. It feels seamless in concept and execution, and relentlessly forces the listener to ask himself, ” Just how did they write that?” It’s an unanswerable question and better for it.

But once those fully-warranted disclaimers are out of the way, and we’ve choked the devil’s advocate whispering in our ears with righteous zeal, we can return with easier breathing and a fan’s interest to conjecture on how At The Gates wove those seemingly incongruent parts into such a coherent musical tapestry.

These parts are not just any placeholder but act as very real segues that take the song to a new level, changing mood out of all proportion with what has gone before. Perhaps “changing” is the wrong word to use here, for that would indicate a rupture in continuity; what serves better is a “deepening”, an “intensifying”, or a “quickening” of mood to full ripeness. Given what At The Gates were doing at this stage of their careers, it is always a melancholically incremental escalation in mood, too.

Take for instance ‘Within‘, maybe the best example of this phenomenon. Fans of the album will instantly recognize which section I hint at; it begins at 5:30, first as precursor and then as harmonic accompaniment to the violin, a segment that ushers the song out in a gut-wrenching display of emotional sincerity.

Windows‘ reveals its hand at the outset; the minor key motif is placed as introduction, and variations from the same theme occur at different intervals through the song, interspersed with a more jagged attack. But those variations remain the most memorable aspects of this song, appearing as they do with no fanfare in the middle of a more rampant section. When I say they are derived from the announcing motif, it is in some intangible manner far more intricate than Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, bless them, playing harmonies an octave apart from each other. Sure, the notes belong to the same key, but beyond that common bunching, there is little to connect the two. And yet there is…something.

The fan of TRITSIO will get where this is headed; ‘Through Garden Of Grief‘ and ‘Neverwhere‘ are other obvious nominees for the same treatment, but nearly everything on this album has the ability to erupt on the unsuspecting or indeed the longtime listener in unexpected ways and with great feeling. And it doesn’t always have the overtly melodic edge of the songs mentioned here, either (‘Night Comes, Blood Black‘).

No one can claim to know the mind of a musician as fiercely individualistic as main songwriter Alf Svensson, but he strikes me as an emblem of the ‘inspiration first-arrangement to follow‘ school of thought. The incongruency I have alluded to can then be seen as a tendency on Svensson’s part to see certain path-breaking ideas that his instinct generates as being too good to be passed up for fear of ruining petty considerations like flow and musical trajectory.

But that’s what genius does, doesn’t it? It has absolute faith in its instincts, it bets the house on them, and flips the finger to commoner preoccupations. Svensson seems to have sensed that these iconoclastic parts were backloaded with so much emotional density that they would not only paper over any apparent incongruency with what had occurred previously, but in fact pull the past into orbit around it as a satellite. In other words, they would force continuity on the song through sheer creative power of will.

What an album. On different days, the very best that metal has to offer.

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