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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.
“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

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At the Gates - To Drink From the Night Itself Music Album Reviews

At the Gates - To Drink From the Night Itself Music Album Reviews
The Swedish melodic death metal innovators crib from a career highlight, 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease, on their first reunion album that does justice to their legacy.

More than a decade after reuniting, Swedish melodic death metal innovators At the Gates have finally made a record worthy of the excitement their comeback created. Unlike 2014’s disappointing At War With Reality, their new album, To Drink From the Night Itself, marks a delayed reawakening of the band’s melodic sense. At the Gates are still drawing on their own past—that’s just standard procedure for any death metal act that’s been around for a couple of decades. But this time, they’re cribbing from a career highlight, 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease.

War was essentially a continuation of At the Gates’ Black Album, 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul, whose streamlined version of their sound catapulted the band to popularity. They broke up shortly after its release, but Slaughter lived on in 2000s metalcore, as acts like Killswitch Engage, the Black Dahlia Murder, and Darkest Hour further simplified the record’s sounds. By the time At the Gates reunited in 2007, the long-defunct Swedish group had become one of the most influential metal bands in America. Their subsequent tour was the ultimate “show ‘em how it’s done” affair—but when they finally released War, it read as a played-out rehash of the sound they’d created.

Drink goes deeper with its melodies, eschewing the shortcuts of War and Slaughter. Its title track almost mirrors that of Disease, weaving ’80s twin-guitar melodies into its thrashing rhythms. This interplay is At the Gates’ signature, and it’s far more prominent here than it was on War. The recent adjustment to their sound is, in part, the result of a changing of the guard: God Macabre’s Jonas Stålhammar replaced original guitarist Anders Björler in 2017, and the band’s other guitarist, Martin Larsson, first came on board with Disease.

Melodic death can sometimes border on AOR sappiness, but the melodies on Drink dazzle without becoming overbearing. The final passage of “Palace of Lepers” provides the most beautiful moment on the album, reveling in At the Gates’ most Romantic, Maiden-as-gospel urges. “The Chasm” is Drink’s oddball, a hybrid of the band’s own sound and the D-beat of Disfear, vocalist Tomas Lindberg’s other main group. It’s more direct than Disease, but in a way that doesn’t mimic Slaughter. Thrash and hardcore seem closer to Lindberg’s heart than melodic death metal, and it’s those influences that prevent Drink from sounding saccharine.

Although it’s a vast improvement over War, the album isn’t faultless. It loses steam over the last few tracks; as much of a relief as it is to see the band shake off the legacy of Slaughter, Drink could’ve used a galvanizing single like that record’s “Suicide Nation.” The strings are almost cinematic, and those embellishments come off as a false puff-up compared to Disease’s delicate chamber flourishes. At the Gates still don’t sound quite as confident as they did in their prime.

Death metal may not be the dominant mode of the metal underground (if there’s a drawback to diversity, it’s that there aren’t currently a lot of unifying bands or styles), but it has never been in a better place than the one it’s in now. Even as newer bands reanimate old sounds, great albums are flowing in from elder statesmen like At the Gates. It may have taken them too long to get here, but on To Drink From the Night Itself, they recapture their heyday while leaving their imitators in the rearview.

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