At the Gates: At War with Reality

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At the Gates: At War with Reality
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At The Gates: At War With Reality
Melodic Death Metal
Century Media Records
October 27th, 2014
Release length: 44:25
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When you discuss Melodic Death Metal, and even the Gothenburg style, there’s plenty of names that come to mind. However, the one that tops both of those lists of pioneers is the Gothenburg, Sweden group At the Gates. The entity was initially activated in 1990, unleashing their Gardens of Grief demo in 1991. This led to their debut The Red in the Sky is Ours through Deaf Records in 1992, and With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness a year later through the same label. Their dark and brooding momentum had begun, but it wasn’t until 1994’s Terminal Spirit Disease through Peaceville Records that they started to take the form we know them as today, ending their career in 1995 with Slaughter of the Soul, the band’s career defining recording. It wasn’t until 2007 when At The Gates reunited for a number of shows and live recordings, then called it a day again in 2008. But, 2010 saw them reactivate once more, and thanks to the positive reaction from fans, the first new album in nineteen years was announced in January of 2014 with the Slaughter of the Soul line-up. The end result is the conceptional (and long overdue) fifth full-length At War With Reality. But is this really the next chapter in the group’s lineage, or is this nothing more than rehashed material that “was never released”?

First of all, this is a conceptual album, and it is something that probably should be addressed. At War with Reality is based on the concept of an ever changing reality, referred to as “magic realism”. This doesn’t seem to be reflected in the music other than in the more obvious ways [at least that I can tell at this point]. One minute you get Slaughter of the Soul style material, and a little while later take in a far more Progressive approach before spiralling into a much darker perception of this musical world. The main place to discover this element would be within the lyrics, which can sometimes have more than one interpretation to them in a story driven manner.

You could also look at the concept of At War with Reality as the band’s own personal “magic realism” in rediscovering themselves within their very own reality. Intentionally or not, this is a fun way to look at the album as you travel through the two generations of At the Gates. Given the line-up in place, there was no denying that there would be a heavy Slaughter of the Soul and even Terminal Spirit Disease presence to the recording, but, at the same time, the dark atmospheric tones of The Red in the Sky is Ours and With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness are present as well. Both of these seem to eventually intertwine before the recording starts to take on a glimmer of a unique sound to separate it from the previous four outings.

While most of this may cause you to expect another collection of unused material like the recent reunion album Surgical Steel from Carcass, it simply is not that. In fact, this feels like the most natural musical progression from the group, expanding on where they left off by meshing the two worlds together and exploring them further through their work outside the group, maturity as individuals, and even bringing a level of intelligence to the mix that makes one think about the material being presented instead of just mindlessly banging your head along to one hook after another. Put simply: At the Gates as they were in 1995 simply wouldn’t cut it in today’s world, and this album pretty much acknowledges that they needed to do something more to prove they can adapt and become more than what they helped pioneer.

But, what you are probably worried about the most right now would be the music itself, correct? Well, At War with Reality is definitely a far darker album than what this band ended their career on, and with it comes an additional sense of hostility. It’s been acknowledged At the Gates tackled this release as an analog recording, and you can definitely feel its presence in the abrasive guitars, bass, and crisp drum kit. All of the instruments simply sound full with enough of a blunt edge to convey the exact emotions intended, whether it be thanks to thick distortions or haunting echoes from unplugged chords or resonating off certain parts of the drum kit.

“Death and the Labyrinth” explodes forth immediately with hooks that sound as though structured similarly to “Blinded by Fear”. There’s just enough changed in certain parts of the bridges and chorus to make it a new composition, but fans will more than likely be screaming those lyrics along instead. Even the title track “At War with Reality” sounds as though it were ripped ly from their last album to where the darker moments end up the only truly unique aspect of this otherwise infectious performance. But “The Circular Ruin” is where the darker tendencies of the band really do start to mingle with their later sound. There are plenty of groove heavy riffs and some solid hooks utilized, but the melody in the chorus, some bridges, as well as incredibly depressing conclusion start to show a more melancholic side than the prior two carried (not including the introductory spoken word “El Altar Del Dios Desconocido”), making the dive into this new world easier to take in.

And then there’s the small cluster starting with “The Conspiracy of the Blind”. This is another more traditional track for the band, but later on there is an interesting twist in the riffs that seem to take on a bit of a Sludge Metal structure that is as notably different as it is a welcome change of pace. “Order from Chaos”, however, takes a Progressive turn. The clean leads create an out of body style environment that lifts you away with what rays of light exist, then have you crashing down when the somewhat ritualistic drum patterns kick in around the two minute mark, ushering the darkness back into the mix once more.

But it’s “The Book of Sand (The Abomination)” that presents a truly burdening experience, living right up to the title’s name. The bass line is fairly simple at times, especially heading into the chorus, but the loud twang is enough to turn even the most hopeful environments against you into a distorted, unsettling aural landscape through minimalistic means, unlike the main verses and their far more intricate chords. From here on out, it’s essentially a trip into absolute misery and madness. “City of Mirrors” is a depressing little instrumental piece that sets the tone before approaching the maddening “Eater of Gods” and the hints of aggression, closing with “The Night Eternal” and its inner-self reflective passages that hold a dismal Black Metal atmosphere to your skull like a loaded gun itching to go off.

When it comes to reunion albums, the road to success is always a fairly sketchy one that is based solely on your fanbase and what they have come to expect from you. In this case, At the Gates have heard the cries for a successor to Slaughter of the Soul and have managed to pull it off quite well. Not only does it pick up where the band left off, but it throws back to their early days without trying to pander to both crowds in a vain “Hey, we’re here again, like us” mentality many bands carry with their long overdue albums upon reactivation. There’s no question some of the outside influences ranging from Paradise Lost and The Haunted (which was essentially the spiritual successor to the band in general) and incorporated in here as well, showing off a great deal of growth in musical skills and intellectual integrity that didn’t exist those nineteen years ago. No, At War with Reality isn’t going to be any real game changer to the Melodic Death Metal genre as a whole, but it definitely makes a solid entry into the ever changing field. If you’ve been one of the many anxiously awaiting a kick ass new album from these Swedish titans, the wait is finally over. At War with Reality is an album you need to hear, and a sign of great things to come if At the Gates decide to stick around.

01. El Altar Del Dios Desconocido – 1:06
02. Death and the Labyrinth – 2:33
03. At War with Reality – 3:09
04. The Circular Ruins – 4:28
05. Heroes and Tombs – 3:59
06. The Conspiracy of the Blind – 3:19
07. Order From Chaos – 3:26
08. The Book of Sand (The Abomination) – 4:28
09. The Head of the Hydra – 3:38
10. City of Mirrors – 2:06
11. Eater of Gods – 3:51
12. Upon Pillars of Dust – 2:39
13. The Night Eternal – 5:43
Initial Pressing Score: 8.5/10

At The Gates
At The Gates

Digital review copy of this release provided by Century Media Records.