In the eyes of many, At the Gates did it all perfectly. They rose out of a fruitful, creative scene in the very early 90s, gradually honing their cold, malevolent form of melodic death metal into the efficient, thrash-dominated, and genre-defining work that was Slaughter of the Soul. And then they promptly went away, cashing in their chips when they were way up on the house.
This exiting-on-top route holds a certain kind of artistic perfection. In splitting up after their creative and critical zenith, At the Gates took away their ability to screw it all up. They all went on to do stuff ranging from the very strong (The Haunted, Tomas Lindberg’s work with The Crown, etc.) to quite weak (uh… The Haunted), finally yielding to reunion show demands in 2007.
Reunion shows are one thing, but a new album? With the release of At War with Reality, At the Gates must surely be killing the mythical aura that surrounded their original run in the 90s. Now they’re screwing it all up, right? Right?!
Wrong. Total rubbish. Even when it’s terrible, new material from legendary bands has no effect on the classics. The release of At War with Reality can no more affect Slaughter of the Soul than Illud Divinum Insanus hurt Altars of Madness. The classic is still in place, it’s just that At the Gates have sat back down at the slots, nearly 20 years after they hit the jackpot with Slaughter.
That timespan is the most important thing to consider when listening to At War with Reality. The scene has changed, the band has changed, and (likely) you have changed. The best approach, therefore, is not to try to make any grand statements about what At War with Reality means for metal as a whole, or even for At the Gates’ legacy, but merely to just listen.
Once “Death and the Labyrinth” really kicks in, anyone with a passing familiarity with either Terminal Spirit Disease or Slaughter of the Soul will feel right at home. Most notably, the Björler/Larsson riffage is as recognizable as ever, and Tomas “Tompa” Lindberg’s screeching, throat-shredding vocals remain as singular, dominating, and likely dividing as they were in the 90s. Like the music of Terminal and Slaughter, there is a huge thrash influence intermingling with the band’s melodic death metal. But much in the way that no single At the Gates album of the 90s sounded exactly like another, At War with Reality also lacks a direct twin, even if it is closest to those final two releases of the 90s.
Compared to Slaughter, At War with Reality feels ever-so-slightly subdued, but that statement is to be taken lightly, particularly when thinking of the vocals. Mostly, the new material isn’t always boasting a violent urgency. As heard in the title track, melodies are often free to develop and play out in a fashion similar to Terminal Spirit Disease, but the prominence of thumping, oft-grooving thrash removes these songs from that album as well.
In fact, the band’s refusal to constantly go for the jugular or reinvest completely in their melodic roots works to the benefit of the album. At the Gates just seems comfortable, but in no way is this the sound of a band that has settled, nor one that is merely making a new album just for the sake of doing so. If anything, At War with Reality sounds like an album that At the Gates needed to make, but nonetheless came together naturally.
As such, it should feel like welcoming back an old friend for longtime fans, even if you know your new times together will never create quite the memories as the old days. Still, At War with Reality has more than its fair share of highlights and big moments, and there is nary a clunker to be found. The vaguely Opethian “Heroes and Tombs” is an early sign of the subtle dynamics at play , while late album track “Eater of Gods” likewise swells from something ordinary into a killer finish, again with Tompa offering the chill.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that anything on At War with Reality feels particularly fresh, and not just because it is no longer 1995. At the Gates is likely the most pilfered band of the last two decades, with everyone from American melodic metalcore bands and other melodeath acts to the band’s members themselves all pulling from what was accomplished all those years ago. As a result, At War with Reality can’t help but feel familiar even if it doesn’t directly ape any single album.
But in the hands of these five guys, it works. Considering how “The Conspiracy of the Blind” seems to recycle some riffs from The Haunted Made Me Do It, it should feel like a toss off, but because it boasts a great chorus and killer vocal performance, it becomes a highlight. Similarly, it’s impossible to not hear the solo from “Cold” in the lead of “The Book of Sand (The Abomination),” but the track’s second half is so deftly constructed that it quickly becomes its own beast.
This sort of comparison only further underlines the iconic status of Slaughter of the Soul. Countless fans have dissected every second of that album for the last 19 years to the point that anything even remotely similar is taken as plagiarism. Never mind the fact that these are the same musicians—for some, it will be hard to separate. But let At War with Reality stand on its own, and it takes hold. Forget everything about comebacks and legacies and artistic statements and influences and perceived integrity and what this album will mean in a decade. Just listen. You’ll have yourself a damn good time.
A win for band and fans alike.