Following up the 1995 thrashterpiece that is Slaughter of the Soul was never going to be an easy feat for At the Gates. That's why it wasn't surprising to see the band split after touring commitments for that album were fulfilled. But after their 2007 reunion tour stretched out for a few years, on and off, the seeds were planted for At the Gates' eventual return to full-time status.
Not content to rest on their past laurels, the lineup that recorded SOTS got back into writing mode, signed to Century Media, and announced plans for their fifth studio album. After waiting close to two decades for new music from At the Gates, I'm happy to report that At War with Reality does not betray the group's godlike reputation within the heavy metal community.
"Awesome, but will it sound like Slaughter?," many metalheads asked themselves once the news was out about a new ATG album, and the answer is yes, it does. After an opening spoken word intro called "El Altar del Dios Desconocido," the album wastes no time getting to business with "Death and the Labyrinth," a melodic death metal workout that goes straight for the jugular. "At War with Reality" follows that, and its mix of speedy tempos and half-timed breakdowns brings to mind their previous album's title cut.
One of extreme metal's most revered frontmen, Tomas Lindberg turns in another set of masterful performances. His vocal attack on the faster moments on the album is expectedly potent, but when the band slows the speed up, Lindberg delivers his lyrics with menacing clarity. I've listened to AWWR 9 - 10 times so far, and as I write this review, "Eater of Gods" is probably my favorite Lindberg performance on the album. His phrasing and cadence is note-perfect on that one. His phrasing is also especially impressive on the aforementioned "Death and the Labyrinth."
On the guitar front, Anders Björler and Martin Larsson dole out what seems like 8 - 10 to-die-for riffs per track. I'll put the song "The Conspiracy of the Blind" up against any one of the hundreds of bands that aped At the Gates' sound in the last 20 years any day of the week. Just one song. Game over. And believe me, I can say that about the rest of the tracks on AWWR as well. The album is a beast.
I'm not going to lie here, I was one of the many people who doubted At the Gates could get out of the shadow of SOTS. I'll use the same example I laid out for a friend who asked me how the new album was. I told him to go back to when he first heard Slayer's South of Heaven album. You have to remember, the band was following up Reign in Blood, one of the most important albums in heavy metal history. I remember many of my friends being hugely disappointed by South of Heaven. Time has changed most of their minds about the album's overall quality, but it's still looked at like a below par follow-up to Reign in Blood.
I don't see that kind of reaction happening with At War with Reality. The album keeps too close to the musical ingredients that made Slaughter of the Soul so celebrated in metal circles. Sure, the album sees At the Gates working in more slower passages (and clean guitars!) into their arrangements, but by no means does the group pull the whole "we're maturing as songwriters and we wanted to explore a different side of our sound" bullshit on us. The thrash is brought!
Time will tell if At the Gates decide to make another studio album or not, but if the results are as good as At War with Reality, we should all start campaigning for it now.
- Century Media (CD)