Gothenburg Showdown: Analysis of the Genre Innovators

 

In Flames 
The Jester Race

Dark Tranquillity 
The Gallery

At the Gates  
Slaughter of the Soul

Breakdown

Year: 1996
Running Time: 40:16
Anders Fridén: Vocals Jesper Strömblad: guitars; keyboards
Glenn Ljungström: Guitars Johan Larsson: Bass
Björn Gelotte: Drums; guitars
Year: 1995
Running Time: 47:49
Mikael Stanne: Vocals
Niklas Sundin: Guitar
Frederik Johansson: Guitar
Martin Henriksson: Bass
Anders Jivarp : Drums
Year: 1995
Running Time: 34:13
Anders Björler: Guitars Jonas Björler: Bass
Adrian Erlandsson: Drums
Martin Lardsson: Guitar

Tomas Lindberg: Vocals

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Ah, the famous, or in some cases, infamous, three landmark albums that would be accredited for the creation of a subgenre, leaving a swathe of imitators in their wake. Like them or hate them, In Flames' The Jester Race, Dark Tranquillity's The Gallery, and At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul are revered by many in metal circles as not only the magnum opus albums of their respective band's careers, but the progenitors of the subgenre of death metal known as Gothenburg, or melodic death metal.

A Little History
As the name would imply, the term Gothenburg comes from a city in Sweden that all of the above three bands hail from:Gothenburg. Critics have traditionally always had a tendency to compare In Flames and Dark Tranquillity (as opposed to either of said bands to At the Gates) not just for their status as countrymen, but because the bands have actually shared members. Having both been friends since their earlier days, In Flames and Dark Tranquillity actually did a flip-flop of singers between their first and second albums. Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity) agreed to act as studio vocalist for In Flames' first record, Lunar Strain, and Anders Friden (In Flames) did the vocal tracks for Dark Tranquillity's first album Skydancer. One thing to note is that Mikael Stanne was never actually in In Flames, but rather, was doing his friends a favor when they needed a vocalist for Lunar Strain, and that, in fact, Mikael Stanne was actually also present in Dark Tranquillity at that time as their guitarist. From their second records (The Jester Race and The Gallery) onward, the two men would provide vocals for the rest of their respective band's releases (as of this writing). That being said, it is difficult not to directly compare Dark Tranquillity and In Flames' styles, when in fact they are two very different approaches to the same subgenre.

The General 'Feel'
Conveniently, the albums can be grouped into a logical progression of three feelings: 'Acquired', 'Moderate', and 'Straightforward'.

On the one end of the spectrum is The Gallery, which seems to be the hardest to get into upon first listen. I've had to relisten to this particular record many times over the course of about two and a half years since buying it twice (once in a Korean import and then again as a deluxe edition reissue), having a more mature taste in metal each time. It is a far more subtle album than the other two and requires a more tuned ear to appreciate its nuances. The Gallery is a more progressive, dark listen that is definitely an acquired taste.

Slaughter of the Soul straddles the gap between the albums in terms of accessibility. While on the one hand, it is the most brutal of the three, it is also the most straightforward. Slaughter of the Soul follows a more traditional death/thrash metal approach with songs hovering around three minutes a piece and a standard, "chunk-beat" feel to most of the songs. At times, the record is reminiscent of Entombed's own classic Wolverine Blues, containing sections of groove-based, almost bluesy guitars (see the title track for this). Slaughter of the Soul, while containing a few extremely catchy solos (see around 1:55 in Cold), clean sections, and even a folky instrumental, definitely appeals more to crowds appreciating 80's thrash and death metal.

The Jester Race is definitely the most palatable of the  three albums. In Flames' philosophy has always been one that did not play around with much subtlety and always brought the hooks right up front. The Jester Race's songs aren't ones that make you wait to get to that really catchy riff or lead break; they are presented there for the listener right from the onset. This album contains the most abundance of catchy leadwork and even the occasional synth-disguised-as-a-guitar. Of the three, The Jester Race is probably the most unabashed in wearing its influences on its sleeve in the form Iron Maiden-esque dual harmonized leads, something that would become a staple of the genre. The album probably has the catchiest songwriting (read: not most technical) out of the three, at times treading closer to a power metal sound than death metal. However, despite its accessibility, The Jester Race remains just as ,if not more than, heavy as its contemporaries.

The Guitars
Both The Jester Race and Slaughter of the Soul rely heavily on the down-tuned, palm-muted riffing and often follow a more straight-forward "chugging" feel by the rhythm guitars. The Gallery tends to not be as "in-your-face" and has a bit of a noodling, 'tweedle-tweedle' sound to it. Its guitars rarely rely on simple power chord riffing during verses and choruses, opting for more of a clean, tremolo-picked feel, although all three use this technique at some point or another. The Jester Race and The Gallery both employ use of clean and/or acoustic passages and songs that evoke a kind of 'foresty', folky feel when needed. One thing I noticed that is prevalent among older melodic death metal, is that the guitars sound very 'tweedely', almost annoying at times. I don't know how to better describe this other than that the scales used sound very minor, I suppose.

Without a doubt, The Jester Race contains the flashiest, most obvious lead work. Every song has multiple extremely catchy lead breaks and extended, memorable solos. All three showcase the harmonized leads mentioned earlier, its just that The Jester Race seems to use them most liberally. Dark Tranquillity seems to use a lot of tremolo-picked solos and dissonant chords,  using them to greater atmospheric effect as a means of a evoking a dark, almost medieval soundscape. Additionally, it would seem that Dark Tranquillity's use of tremolo-picked riffs and leads  on The Gallery allow for a more articulated, technical sound, lending to its more complex passages versus The Jester Race and Slaughter of the Souls largely riff-centric appeal.

The Drums
There's not a whole lot of variation in drumming in metal genres to begin with (sans the progressive variety), so its difficult to really give any insightful commentary (even more so with bass, which is why it's left out entirely). If I'd have to rate it, I would say that The Jester Race's drumming is likely the most simple, and most un-death metal of the trio. Does it have typical blast beats? Yes, at times. However, most of the time the rhythms could be played with a single bass drum or are simple 16th note double bass patterns under  4/4 backbeats. Not to say that there's anything wrong with that; I actually find the simplicity somewhat refreshing in a genre usually dominated by unmusical speed. It could be said that the reason for this is due to then-drummer Björn Gelotte being a guitarist at heart.

Slaughter of the Soul, while not anymore complex in the percussion department than The Jester Race, is a bit more brutal. By this I meant that the use of blast beats, backbeat on every "and", are far more prevalent. The drumming errs closer to the more traditional thrash/early death metal beats of the 80s. The tempo is also more driving than either of the other two records.

The Gallery contains likely the most diverse and technical drumming of the batch to match the intricate guitars. Are there the aforementioned meat beats? Certainly. Actually, that very fact is one of the reasons I was initially turned off to this album. However, upon closer inspection, the said beats are varied in tempo, time signature, and execution within the more complex song structures weaved within The Gallery. Because of it is less of a bludgeoning album and more one of finesse, the drumming on The Gallery isn't always par for typical melo/death metal drumming. Oftentimes the ride cymbal can be heard keeping time by its lonesome in an almost jazz-like way. Other times, dynamics are provided by the use of cross-sticking the snare drum (a.k.a the "wood block" sound) in more delicate sections. Overall , The Gallery  contains the most complex, varied drumming of the trio.

The Vocals
Okay, what can be said about death metal vocals that isn't fairly obvious to the casual listener? Simply put, all albums contain similar cookie-monster growls. However, there are a fewer finer points.  Mikael Stanne's work on The Gallery is arguably the most dynamic and varied, giving the songs more of an epic feel than the other two albums. Tomas Lindberg and Anders Friden's work on Slaughter of the Soul and The Jester Race, respectively, are comparable. Both growl in roughly the same tone and pitch for the duration of their albums and, unlike Stanne, don't ever really sound like they're strained to hit certain notes. As well, the vocals are accessible enough to where you can actually understand a good portion of both singer's lyrics.

Production
It's difficult to tell what the actual production of each of these albums actually sounded like. My reference copy of The Gallery and Slaughter of the Soul are both deluxe reissues, and, at least in The Gallery's case,  have been remastered. My Jester Race copy is also a reissue containing The Black Ash Inheritance EP, which may or may not have been remastered.

Even in their current forums, the production of all the albums, for the year they were made, seems a little low. It's not like its the 80s where analog technology produced soft, crackly recordings. Of the three, The Gallery sounds the best. I didn't have to adjust my volume and the drums were especially clear compared to the rest of the multi-layered guitars. However, in terms of production and getting the final tracking "perfect" sounding, The Gallery lacked in that department slightly. Oftentimes, it seemed that the beats and the fills were marginally off time with the rest of the instrumentation. Second comes The Jester Race. The album is a little quiet due to what I assume is an all analog production process, however, the overall tone is much warmer and more natural sounding, which I happen to like. Slaughter of the Soul probably has the worst production out of the three, but not much below The Jester Race. I found myself having to turn my volume up quite a bit. The guitars, whether by design or not, also seemed to have a less articulated, fuzz-tone quality to them. At any rate, none of said records are truly badly produced and unlistenable; they are just perhaps not up to the jaded, modern standard of digital sterility, which may or mat not your thing.

... In Conclusion
I don't know if it can be said that the above three albums deserve the hype they have gotten. "What did he say? Blasphemy!" I'm not saying that The Gallery, Slaughter of the Soul and The Jester Race aren't good, even great albums. No, quite the opposite. What I am saying is that, at least in the context of today's music, I would just consider the albums that: "great". Perhaps it's wrong to judge these pieces of art through a modern lens. I'm sure that there weren't any records quite mixing melody and death metal like this at that time. However, at least in In Flames and Dark Tranquility's cases, these bands have produced the same or greater caliber records later in their career.  Without a doubt, theses albums are a very quality, enjoyable listen,  The Jester Race
ranking among my top three favorite albums of all time. And yes, these albums have most definitely been at least partly responsible for influencing a sound and generations of new bands later. However, I have certainly heard much more enjoyable and, in my opinion, 'better' albums than The Gallery and Slaughter of the Soul. The only album that comes close to deserving the reputation as a 'classic' it has gotten is, in my view, In Flames' The Jester Race. Perhaps that's just my opinion, however, if a record is one that I don't get into on the first or second listen; if it's a record I have to work at, then chances are it is not meeting the criteria for "masterpiece."