At The Gates: The Red in the Sky is Ours
By Tate Bengston
I vividly remember the day that I first heard The Red in the Sky is Ours. It was 1992. The genre of death metal was exploding in popularity. As somebody with aspirations to become a metal journalist, I found myself swamped in more third-tier death metal than anybody needed to hear. Much to my chagrin, the sheer quantity of mediocre albums to which I had to subject myself was eroding my appreciation for the genre.
And then, I had the good fortune of receiving a promotional cassette of The Red in the Sky is Ours. This album immediately restored my faith that there was much still to be discovered within death metal. The Red in the Sky is Ours did not depart from the core tenets of the genre, but it did offer a vision of death metal that stood apart from its peers. Based on that singular vision, The Red in the Sky is Ours has not seen its power diminish with the passing of time; hence the reason that it deserves to be celebrated as a “classic.” At the same time, the album is rarely regarded as such; hence the reason why I felt that The Red in the Sky is Ours would be a particularly good fit for the Hellbound.ca “Classics” section, which is designed to honour the less-worshipped-but-no-less-deserving deities in the metal pantheon.
The album begins with a few quick hits of the cymbal before bursting forth with a bout of frenzied drumming and an edgy guitar tone which invests the tremelo-picked riffs with a sepulchral edge. Enter the title track. The song itself grows more furious by the moment, before finally collapsing with a gasping scream from Tomas Lindberg. A brief pause permits a respite before, of all things, a violin solo adds an unexpected touch of class and classicism to the proceedings. With this curious juxtaposition, At The Gates conjured an atmosphere that has never again been replicated in death metal.
The highlight of the album is “Kingdom Gone,” a virulent slab of panic-inducing death metal capped off by Lindberg’s tortured howls. Where most death metal vocalists belched out quasi-comical lyrics with an unintelligible and monotonous growl, Lindberg gave a frightening recitation of Baudelaire-inspired poetry laden with desperation. The song itself alternates between tense midtempo and aggressive fast sections, only to break into a haunting build-up just prior to the three-minute mark. Here, an urgent yet eerie guitar line is powered forward by an ominous bassline, the crescendo suddenly breaking into a fragmentary riff and off-kilter drum pattern.
While Lindberg’s dramatic delivery may have been the most obvious point of departure from At The Gates’ peers within the genre, it was but the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the way in which the guitar riffs and drum patterns are arranged is at the heart of this album’s oft-misunderstood brilliance. Ironically, this distinction not only serves as the source of The Red in the Sky is Ours’ uniqueness, but also its frequent neglect. At first blush, a song such as “Claws of Laughter Dead” sounds positively confused, with discombobulating shifts in tempo intersecting with abrupt riff shifts. However, subsequent exposure to this track (and all other songs on the album, fact) reveals an esoteric interior logic by which the song is guided. At The Gates purposely disturbs and distresses the listener by pushing right up to the limit of a given song’s sense of coherence. While this technique would later be revisited by tech-death bands, At The Gates’ approach was so powerful precisely because it knew how to write parts which were memorable and then arrange those parts into an agitated scramble that somehow managed to make sense. This balance between the structural sophistication of the song and the elegance of the individual parts allowed the album to achieve a precious balance between complexity and simplicity.
Meanwhile, “Windows” deserves mention for its harbinger status. As the most conventionally melodic track on the album, it hints at what At The Gates would become. While the track would fit in well on sophomore album With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, on The Red in the Sky is Ours it stands as an intriguing window (ahem) into the future. Following this with the manic depressive melodicism of “Neverwhere” and the pensive digression “The Scar” further demonstrates At The Gates’ diverse capabilities, although it is album closer “Night Comes, Blood Black” that manages to bring together the many strands of At The Gates into a grand finale. Here, the band alternates between a pleasing-if-innocuous gallop and changes in tempo and riffing which are among the most disconcerting heard on the album.
Concluding with a bonus cut, At The Gates’ remake of its own “City of Screaming Statues” (the original version appeared on the Gardens of Grief EP) serves as a tumultuous climax to the album. Blending the perplexing and the furious in equal measure, the song charms with a mid-song tangent in which the interplay between the guitars of the four and the six string varieties tantalize the mind with a bit of technicality that would not be out-of-place on an Atheist album.
At The Gates was not to continue down its current path. Band members would depart. The songwriting approach became more streamlined. The melodies became increasingly orthodox. Whether that shift was for better or for worse is a matter of debate, but At The Gates’ rapid musical development does hold one important advantage as it relates to The Red in the Sky is Ours: this album stands as an absolutely unique entity not only within At The Gates’ discography but within death metal at large.