In many cases, pessimists’ glass-half-empty outlook is actually an attempt to reject false hopes, given how often our species’ progress is encumbered by our tendency to (at best) shoot ourselves in the foot. There’s joy to be found in lowered expectations: Would you rather be disappointed by leaders and institutions that fall short of their lofty promise, or pleasantly surprised when they clear a low bar?
Even among pessimists, Detroit-born horror author Thomas Ligotti (also known for his musical collaborations with David Tibet and Current 93) skews bleak. In his 2010 nonfiction book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, he opines that our consciousness is the “parent of all horrors,” an evolutionary defect that has doomed us to a futile search for meaning while our survival hinges on the response to pain, the fear of death, and the instinct to procreate. Awareness of this absurdity pushes us to shut it out, trapping us on a proverbial hamster wheel where we busy ourselves with whatever will keep those thoughts away–religion, hedonism, even the distractions of art and music.
Rather than choose escapism, At the Gates use Ligotti’s dire ruminations as fuel on their new seventh album, The Nightmare of Being (Century Media). The legendary Gothenburg melodic death-metal band formed in 1990 and released four full-lengths, including 1995’s landmark Slaughter of the Soul, before parting ways in ’96. Nightmare is their third full-length since reuniting for 2014’s At War With Reality, and unsurprisingly (considering its inspiration) it delves into some of the darkest depths of their career.
Opener “Spectre of Extinction” uses a reverential instrumental intro to pull you into a world where humankind’s mutually agreed-upon demise is its only hope of liberation. The record has monolithic ragers to satisfy your death-metal cravings (“The Paradox,” “The Abstract Enthroned”), with varied dynamics and stylistic adventures that boost their power. The motorik chugging of “Cosmic Pessimism” underlines its message that despite our best attempts, our destiny is out of our control: “We do not live, we are lived,” sings front man Tomas Lindberg Redant. “Pessimism, the last refuge of hope.” The sleek, cinematic “Garden of Cyrus,” one of the album’s most unexpected twists, detours into prog territory with a majestic saxophone melody by Anders Gabrielsson that dances around somber spoken-word vocals.
The Nightmare of Being is multidimensional, revealing more on repeat listenings, and proves that At the Gates still have plenty to say and explore after three decades. For their fans, that can only be a good thing. If pain and death are the only certainties, then I want to distract myself with as much good music as possible. v
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