There's something to be said for going out on top. It's a feat that few bands pull off, and if they do, it's usually for the wrong reasons—someone overdoses or dies in a car accident or the band members wind up hating each other's guts too much to go on any longer.
Sweden's At the Gates definitely went out at their creative peak. Their final album, 1995's Slaughter of the Soul (Earache), remains not only their best release, but one of the all-time classic death-metal albums, period. Countless bands have tried to emulate it in the years since. Decibel magazine ranked it third in an April 2006 "Top 20 Greatest Death Metal Albums of All Time" list. Earache has given it the deluxe reissue treatment several times already, including a recent CD-DVD package that is part of the label's new "classic series."
The band split up the year after Slaughter's release, but unlike, say, the Eagles' breakup or the Van Halen–David Lee Roth schism, there was no major fallout, no bad blood. And nobody died. As guitarist Anders Björler describes it via e-mail, "There were some minor tensions, but mainly it was due to inexperience." He cites a combination of youth—they were still in their 20s at the time—and the strain of relentless touring as the main factors. "Also," he admits, "the excessive amounts of alcohol."
Slaughter of the Soul marked the end of an evolution in the band's sound that started with their earliest recordings. There are hints of things to come in the self-conscious experimentation of their 1991 debut, The Red in the Sky Is Ours—with its violin flourishes and lurching odd-time rhythms—and in 1993's dense, difficult With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. However, it's not until 1994's leaner, more direct Terminal Spirit Disease (on UK label Peaceville, like its predecessors) that things really start coming together.
Björler calls Terminal his favorite ATG album. To these ears, though, it's still no match for Slaughter, on which they finally nail every aspect of their death-metal sound. The production is hard and modern, but not slick; the guitar riffs are epic and unforgettably catchy, but still deceptively complex; the combination of Tomas Lindberg's tormented lyrics and inimitable vocal shriek gives the album an emotional punch that's too rare in death metal. The album clocks in at just over half an hour, but it stands as a towering statement all the same.
For better or worse, the album had a huge influence on the subsequent generation of thrash, metalcore, and so-called melodic death-metal bands. This includes good, respectable acts such as Darkest Hour (one of the opening bands on the current ATG tour), Lamb of God, and others, but also plenty of rotten hardcore and emo bands who would add their own unsavory twists to the At the Gates template—too many to name.
Regarding the band's many imitators, Björler says, "It's an honor, in a way, that they pay tribute to our style of music. I don't mind at all. I haven't heard all the bands that copy us, so I haven't had the chance to get tired [of them] yet."
The lineup on the current tour features all five members of the Slaughter-era band: Björler and Martin Larsson on guitar, Tomas Lindberg on vocals, Jonas Björler on bass, and Adrian Erlandsson on drums. The Björler brothers still play together in the Haunted, a thrash- oriented band they formed after ATG broke up, and they took an extended break in that band's touring and recording schedule to finally make time for a reunion tour. Besides, Björler admits, "We are getting older. We didn't want to do this reunion when we turn 50 years old."
To set the record straight, the tour doesn't mean they're getting back together. The guitarist describes it as "sort of a 'farewell,' 'last chance to see us' thing."
They're not planning any new recordings, either. "It's 13 years ago we recorded [Slaughter of the Soul]," he explains. "So making an album now would just be weird. I think we ended it with a classic album. It would be hard to top." Indeed.