Being one of the genre’s founding fathers, At the Gates played a huge role in shaping the subgenre in the early 90s, preliminarily breaking up in ‘95 after they basically laid down the perfect blueprint for a melodic death metal album with their fourth release entitled Slaughter of the Soul.
In February of this year the band then announced that they will release a new album this fall. Now, At the Gates’ fifth album At War with Reality is out and I’ve given it a few listens. This was probably my most anticipated album of this year and when the title track was released some time ago, I was sure that At the Gates still had it in them.
During my first listen of the album, though, I was horrified at what I heard. Most songs on this album seemed absolutely unremarkable and it just didn’t sound like At the Gates to me anymore.
However, I didn’t want to give up on this album so easily and gave it more and more listens. Now that I think that I listened to it enough to form a proper opinion on it, I have to say that it has grown on me a little.
So let’s get to the nitty gritty now. The album starts off with an audio clip in spanish that carries strong 80s horror movie vibe for me. I can’t comment on what is being said since I don’t speak spanish, but it seems to be about the devil.
Anyway, the first actual song on the album is Death and the Labyrinth, which was also the second track to be released prior to the official album release. I didn’t really enjoy it back then, but now it has turned out to be one of the better songs off of the album. Despite not carrying any of the atmospheric qualities that former At the Gates albums used to have, it still has character and drive.
Next up is the title track, which is easily the best song off of this album. The band hits it hard. The old, typical At the Gates atmosphere starts to well up. Vicious melodies and the twisted sense of despair that really made At the Gates what they are show up and make this song a captivating piece of music.
After that we have a two song long valley of bland, unremarkable run of the mill melodic death metal. Those two songs also showcase one of my biggest gripes with this album. The drumming. On my first listen, I really couldn’t stand how uninspired and repetitive the drumming on this record can be. The double bass is almost always played at the same two speeds. After I listened to the album a bit more it became less apparent and I got used to it, but on my first listen it was tiring to listen to it sometimes.
Moving on to the next track, we have The Conspiracy of the Blind. A decent track that almost catches up to the title track. The band actually gets a bit ambitious on this track, breaking out a short progressive section reminiscent of something you’d hear on some of Opeth’s later releases. A nice touch to the song, but also a bit out of place for a band like At the Gates.
Order from Chaos, which is the title of the next track, features a soft, atmospheric and losely played guitar intro. The whole track sounds like you’re wandering through the aftermath of a great disaster only to be haunted by the memories of what happened when the aggressive riffing in the second part kicks in.
I could go over the rest of the album in the same way, but I’d start to repeat myself. The remaining tracks are the same back and forth between some of the old glory shimmering through and songs just being bland and unremarkable.
Generally speaking, most of the atmosphere I mentioned before has vanished. At the Gates used to evoke a feeling of absolute, final despair, caused by demonic, vicious riffing and Tomas emotional, dirty and gritty vocals. The very first albums also used to feature very dynamic, chaotic drumming, pummeling you from start to finish. But since that was toned down a bit throughout their career I can understand that it doesn’t celebrate a return on here.
Another thing that I’d like to mention is that a lot of albums nowadays suffer from strong overproducing. The production on Slaughter of the Soul, for example, was a lot rougher and dirtier. The sound made you grit your teeth and really made you feel the anger and the passion that the band carried into their playing, which was one of the great things about it.
At War with Reality still has the abstract lyricism and also carries a bit of the old spirit, but the production this time around seems to keep the music on a leash. The sinisterness of the music can’t quite come through when it’s all so clean and crisp.
The last point I want to address is that Tomas’ vocals lost just a bit of quality. I can understand that he can’t hit the higher notes like he did in the 90s and I miss that. I also miss the long, drawn out screams he used to use on a lot of songs on Slaughter of the Soul.
In the end, this album turned out to be a little better than what my first impression made it seem like, but this still isn’t the glorious return it is made out to be or that I wished for. It seriously could have been Slaughter of the Soul 2.0 and I would’ve been more than satisfied with it. While it isn’t their best album, in my opinion, I still enjoyed Slaughter of the Soul a lot, not to mention that it was highly acclaimed.
I can enjoy At War with Reality, but a lot of tracks still don’t stick with me and feel unremarkable, even after listening to them numerous times, so I just can’t help but to feel a little underwhelmed by this album.