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At The Gates - "At War With Reality" (CD)

At The Gates - "At War With Reality" CD cover image

"At War With Reality" track listing:

1. El Altar Del Dios Desconocido
2. Death And The Labyrinth
3. At War With Reality
4. The Circular Ruins
5. Heroes And Tombs
6. The Conspiracy Of The Blind
7. Order From Chaos
8. The Book Of Sand (The Abomination)
9. The Head Of The Hydra
10. City Of Mirrors
11. Eater Of Gods
12. Upon Pillars Of Dust
13. The Night Eternal

Reviewed by on October 27, 2014

"...does 'At War With Reality' scratch the melodic death metal itch? You bet it does."

Long-awaited but seemingly never in the cards, the announcement at the beginning of the year that Sweden's founding fathers in At The Gates were returning for new material was both well-received and unexpected. Following a host of other reformations and comebacks in recent years, the resurrection of At The Gates is arguably more of a big deal in death metal than the return of Carcass, and (for death metal fans anyway) even bigger than other huge name reunions like Black Sabbath and Slipknot. The moment of truth is now upon us: can these Swedes still slaughter our souls 19 years after the band's swansong release?

Featuring the same lineup as “Slaughter Of The Soul,” and dealing with a much-beloved band that hasn't been active in years, you've got a real catch-22 situation here: if it sounds exactly the same people won't be happy, but if it goes in a different direction people also won't be happy. There are big (nay, massive) expectations here and obviously they won't be able to overcome the power of nostalgia, so the deal is this – you've got to come into “At War With Reality” expecting competent and headbanging melodic death metal, not a renovation of the entire genre or a landmark album that will blow your mind. At worst your expectations will be met, and and at best you may be pleasantly surprised with the result.

On the first listen through, the real opening track “Death and The Labyrinth” (following a minute-long intro song) seems a little underwhelming, like the cough clearing the throat before the show kicks off. It'll grow on you with subsequent listens however, as the whole picture comes into focus. While there's no iconic scream of “Go!!!!” at the beginning of any of the songs, the “Slaughter Of The Soul” footprint can be found all over this disc. The hoarse cries of “a thousand lies!” on “The Conspiracy Of The Blind” for instance is pure “SOTS” material. The range and pitch on Tomas Lindberg's vocals have definitely changed quite a bit, but there's a clear kernel in there from the mythic days of yore.

Essentially without exception, the album sticks to a single mid-pace across all the tracks, hitting a balance between heaviness and melody that the band originally made famous. “Heroes and Tombs” has a great tone, mixing harsh and aggressive vocals with a melodic blend of heavy guitar work. “The Book Of Sand” also throws in a smooth guitar solo layered over backing guitars that sticks out amongst the disc's offerings, while “City Of Mirrors” is a great interlude track, creating an equilibrium between the atmospheric and heavy sides. Rounding out the whole release is the high quality production, where all the sounds are clearly audible and the vocals are in the perfect place in the mix so nothing gets overshadowed.

Now for the negatives: while there's nothing outright bad anywhere on this album, there's also nothing outright awe-inspiring. The entire album is typified by a “middle-of-the-road” approach. It's mid-paced instead of fast or slow, it's heavy without being extremely brutal, it's sonically interesting but doesn't go far into either the technical or atmospheric sides, and so on. The songs are all good, but the continuous pace and lack of distinguishing features make them blend together without any major standout tracks. When ending cut “The Night Eternal” finishes, what's left in the silence is this little nagging feeling that the album perhaps should have veered further one way or another. If it had been either a little more on the brutal side or a little more on the melodic side, or if they'd thrown in some influences from other genres, it would have been much more memorable.

That being said, does “At War With Reality” scratch the melodic death metal itch? You bet it does. 20 years on, “Slaughter of the Soul” is considered a classic album and one of the pioneering releases in the melodic death metal style. While it's hard to imagine that 20 years from today anyone will be saying the same about “At War With Reality,” that doesn't change the fact that it is a very solid album with exemplary musicianship and production that kindles a desire for more At The Gates in the coming years, just maybe with a little more boundary-pushing next time around.

Highs: The "Slaughter Of The Soul" lineup continues to make solid melodic death metal with excellent production and no major problems.

Lows: The constant mid-pace blurs the songs together, and overall the tracks are good but not amazing.

Bottom line: One of the most anticipated returns in death metal history is finally here, and the result is an all-around solid experience that will be welcome for fans of "Slaughter Of The Soul."

Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls
3.5 out of 5 skulls


Key
Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)