With the obvious exceptions of the likes of Sabbath, Maiden and Metallica, it’s difficult to think of another band that has had the same impact on the metal scene as At the Gates. Pioneers of the ‘Gothenburg Sound’ and one of the creators of melodic death metal, the nineteen years since their last full length has seen a seemingly endless parade of bands appropriating the classic At the Gates sound for their own ends. A slew of derivative melo-death acts emerged in the late 90s before the advent of metalcore in the early 00s saw the formula the five-piece had perfected on “Slaughter of the Soul” imitated and modified to within an inch of its life. With the odd exception, nothing produced in this period even came close to touching the perfection of that legendary 1995 opus.
After first reforming back in 2007 with the sole aim of playing live, the band have finally bowed to fan pressure and recorded a new full length; “At War with Reality.” Perhaps buoyed by the success of Carcass’s emphatic comeback last year where they finally made up for their lacklustre final album “Swansong”, 2014 sees At the Gates re-invigorated and eager to establish their name at the top of the genre they created, while ensuring that they avoid trading on former glories. That’s not to mention the tremendous hype and pressure on them to deliver the goods. So does “At War with Reality” cut the mustard or should the band have concentrated on preserving their legacy? For the most part, the answer is firmly in the former camp.
Those expecting a re-tread of “Slaughter of the Soul” may be disappointed. For while all the ingredients that made that album so wholly satisfying are in place; from the perfectly executed melo-death riffs, the precision drumming and the feral howl of Tomas Lindberg, the hooks and quasi-stadium rock posturing have mostly been dropped in favour of a darker, more challenging approach that has more in common with 1993’s “With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness.”
From the initial spoken word intro the band soon launch into the choppy riffs and stomping chorus of ‘Death and the Labyrinth’ and the heads-down melancholy of the title track which makes heavy use of palm mutes in order to create a disconcerting feel. ‘The Circular Ruins’ features a selection of snaking riffs including a subtle yet infectious solo that it’s impossible not to nod along to while the pace first slows on ‘Heroes and Tombs’ which chugs along at mid-pace, giving the other guitar time to play some discordant melodies in the background that again create an air of despondency.
The biting thrash that most fans have been craving returns in the venomous ‘The Conspiracy of the Blind’ while the driving darkness of ‘The Book of Sand (The Abomination)’ is the kind of furious melo-death perfection that has been copied so many times over the years. ‘The Head of the Hydra’ features some of the best riffing on the album; catchy, thunderously heavy and full of passion while the brief, chug-a-thon that is ‘Upon Pillars of Dust’ is tailor made for the live environment. Things finish on a high with the gnarly riffage of ‘The Night Eternal’ which uses a variety of tempos to paint a suitably grim picture of the end, although those Maiden-esque harmonies will leave a smile on more than a few faces.
Boosted by a full and clear production job and with each member at the top of their game, “At War With Reality” is worth the wait. Lindberg in particular sounds energised and just as abrasive as he was 20 years ago while Adrian Erlandsson proves yet again why he is one of the most versatile and solid drummers in metal. While there may be an initial sense of over familiarity in the riffs of Anders Björler and Martin Larsson, it’s only because they invented that style of play in the first place, and the tempestuous rhythms that power each song here are more relevant and deadly than a whole legion of imitators. While it’s certainly not “Slaughter of the Soul II”, “At War With Reality” is the album At the Gates needed to make, and one that will gain them a whole new legion of fans. Comeback of the year? Was there ever any doubt?