Disposable Heroes: At the Gates’ “Slaughter of the Soul”

There’s little more annoying on this planet than the immoral majority telling you how essential, transcendent and (huh-huh) seminal a particular extreme album is, when you know that it’s overrated as fuck. Hence, our new Wednesday morning column, “Disposable Heroes,” in which one brave soul sails against the current to inform all you clones why you can’t spell classic without “ass.” For this week’s inaugural installment, Kevin Stewart-Panko calls indifference on At the Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul.
When the Deciblog’s editor-at-large proposed the new “Disposable Heroes” column, I immediately thought about how I could easily ramble on about all the albums the metal world holds in such high regard, and how they are little more to my ears than steamy skunk roadkill resting upon piles of cowshit. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh and dramatic, but fuck, I took a quick scan at our Hall of Fame list and easily found myself in double digits when it comes to the number of albums I could speak negatively of. It’s like Frank Costanza used to say during Festivus’ Airing of Grievances, “I got a lot of problems with you people. And now, you’re gonna hear about it.” Too bad ol’ Jerry Stiller wasn’t talking about some of the most overrated albums ever to emerge from the metal underground.

I figured one of the challenges facing myself and any one of my colleagues in doing this column on a regular basis is remembering what ticked you off about the work in question in the first place. I’m going to wager that, despite our differences, that you’re like me and don’t keep albums you don’t like hanging around the house. As far as I’m concerned, unwanted slabs either get traded, sold to welcoming used record stores (if you’re ever looking for a bunch of my unwanted metal, check out The Beat Goes On in Hamilton, Ontario) or given to friends, acquaintances or strangers. Basically, albums I don’t like are found a better home than the one I could or would provide. The difference here is that since Slaughter of the Soul’s release, I have bought and been given, sold and traded copies of this album on various editions and formats numerous times in numerous attempts to get into it and understand just what has transfixed metal land’s majority share. I have owned this album on cassette, CD, CD reissue, have sat through The Flames of the End three-disc DVD release, and have seen the band live a couple times in an endeavor to figure out what I might be missing as my musical tastes ebb and flow. Again, just to make sure, Fearless Leader Mudrian, the same fellow who referred to At the Gates as “the greatest death metal band ever” on the cover of issue #41, sent me a ZIP file of the album. Another format. Another whirl go ’round. And still, another bout of not understanding what the fuck has gotten you people so excited.

SOTS cover

When Slaughter was initially released by Earache in 1995, I was editing and pumping out issues of a popular underground fanzine. Because this was back before email correspondence was de rigueur, any editor of a somewhat prominent (i.e., one that was legible and actually released more than one issue every two years) fanzine could generally expect a handful of daily phone calls from label reps and press people. They’d chat me up about the latest promos they sent out, asking what I thought about so-and-so’s new album, if I could get so-and-so some review space and possibly a feature interview. Things ran on a lot more of a personal basis back then; you actually spoke to people and developed relationships with label employees. This meant one had to consider the reactions of people you were somewhat engaged with when slagging something in print (something I’d usually fail to consider and generally find myself getting bitched at about). One also had to be tactful, and learn how to choose and use measured words when delivering unfavorable opinions over the phone when some label character asked the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

“It’s alright. Reminds me a lot of Kreator,” I remember saying about Slaughter of the Soul to Earache’s then-North American press dude (who coincidentally is still a good friend to this day). Now, like most people with their heads screwed on straight, I’m a big fan of Kreator’s first four albums. So, it’s not like I considered that an insult; just an indication of where I thought the album was coming from and that it didn’t blow my ass out of the water. To this day, it’s not like I’m of the opinion that Slaughter of the Soul is a terrible pile of musical AIDS; it’s just that I don’t see the big deal. Of course, the album has since been recognized as the jumping point for the whole melodic death metal movement—along with Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery and In Flames’ The Jester Race—and I would be a bitter denial fiend to claim there weren’t any classic riffs/songs to be had here. The main riff to “Blinded by Fear” will bang any head that doesn’t bang. The first part of the title track—fucking awesome! The first couple of riffs to “Suicide Nation” are pure Swedish gristly dirtiness. “Nausea” is probably the best example of how to execute the melding of melody and death.

But what I find often happens with the majority of Slaughter of the Soul’s songs is that they start off all powerful and mighty, but that initial forward thrust usually ends up being surrounded, drowned and consumed by other sections, sequences and riffs lacking in similar impact. A perfect example is “World of Lies.” It commences with that mid-paced shuffle riff and the almost tribal beat beneath it before degenerating into a series of speedy melodic death metal riffs that not only lack similar punch or distinction, but are often unmemorable and sound too much like the album’s other melodic death metal parts. Not to mention that totally uncalled for little spoken word part. “Under a Serpent Sun” cherry-picks from a swath of Swedish death and thrash influences, but stitches it together without any lack of real direction. Then, there’s “Cold,” which is just terrible from beginning to end. Granted, there are decent attempts at intra-song dynamics with the continual swing from mid-paced to faster parts, but one of the issues I’ve always had with this album is how it was unable to maintain a consistent thrust from the beginning to the end of a song. And as the album goes on, I find more and more that songs start out perfectly decently, but soon find themselves spinning down a drain of mediocrity.

There are other incidental reasons to hold Slaughter of the Soul in the light of displeasure. Could my ongoing lack of love for the album be rooted in what it eventually created? There’s no denying the record became the posthumous gateway drug for so many bands consisting of hardcore kids with star tattoos and lobe spacers to borrow and steal from throughout the 2000s. Am I angry Slaughter of the Soul inadvertently transformed what the world once understood as metalcore to a collection of their riffs re-jigged or stolen outright and cobbled together with breakdowns? Am I pissed—like some people I know still are—because bands like Darkest Hour and the Black Dahlia Murder took the Slaughter blueprint and ran with it while their obvious influence toiled in relative obscurity for years? Nah, that ain’t it. I’m still fine owning and loving Metallica’s first-decade Metallica as I am Diamond Head. You can’t blame At the Gates for what they wrought—why hate the creator (pun intended) for what he spawned? The simple fact of the matter is, try as I might, I just can’t get into this album.