The expectations surrounding At the Gates’ first new record in 19 years were insurmountable, inescapable, and downright unfair. I say insurmountable because no Death Metal band short of Carcass can (or should be able to) just flip the switch and pick up where they left off two decades ago. I say inescapable because these Gothenburg OGs seem to be unanimously beloved by the Extremiverse —myself included— and justifiably so. I say downright unfair because the 1995 LP they just so happen to be following up is heralded by said countless minions as the single greatest album in the history of human existence. I’ve been waiting a long time and am psyched to finally be able to proclaim with assuredness: IT IS NOT!! Don’t get me wrong, I do love Slaughter of the Soul. I wore out the cassette in less than a year’s time. But it is not the best Death Metal album of all time. It isn’t even the best Swedish Death Metal album of all time. It’s not even the best At the Gates album of all time! (Take your pick of the first three. The Red in the Sky is mine.) It was probably the best Death Metal album of 1995… but it’s a little too front-loaded (yeah, constantly rewinding Side A is how that aforementioned cassette got worn out so quickly) for that #1 ranking. I think the main reason for its widespread success —aside from those first four songs— was that it was a safe Death Metal record for US teens from Jesus-plagued homes. No Satan, no gore, just razor-sharp angst. Angst that would resonate with those teens who would go on to form 600,201 Metalcore bands from 2000-2005. But that’s another discussion entirely (and another I’m in the minority on). Enough talk of the past. Let’s focus on the gift of a new At the Gates record in 2014. The good news — it sounds like an At the Gates record. They haven’t tampered with the formula one iota, and who could blame them? It literally sounds like the album that would have come out immediately after Slaughter of the Soul. The bad news — it literally sounds like an album that would have come out… in 1997. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. After all, the ’90s did mark the last time I was actually happy. The problem is this move presumes that the last 20 years of overwhelmingly brutal rape of the At the Gates sound hasn’t occurred yet. And holy fuck has it ever. This isn’t entirely the band’s fault. Who copycats their style is totally beyond their control. But At War with Reality suffers from an uneventful sameness. It doesn’t provide enough separation between the students and the masters. Of course, the students don’t have the real Tomas Lindberg, and his voice sounds as ear-piercingly perfect as ever, but somehow the album is still a chore to sit through. Case in point: on Mondays I get to do deliveries for my employer, and the work truck has a CD player (hail Satan!). When this baby came out, I listened to it for my entire route. It must’ve played half a dozen times or more. That night/the next morning — not a single note stuck in my head. Repeated spins since then have been slightly more rewarding. The album does have a handful of “hits,” so to speak. “Death and the Labyrinth” is a solid high-energy opener, while slow-burning standard edition closer “The Night Eternal” has pre-encore set-ending potential. The title track is unequivocally the best overall song, with melody-rich “The Circular Ruins” and headbangably anthemic “The Head of the Hydra” taking silver and bronze. Unfortunately, much of the in-between can only fall under the category of filler by AtG standards.
Look, living up to this hype would’ve been impossible, and just making this comeback after hanging it up on such a high note took a lotta god damn guts and I applaud these legends for it. I have a feeling the best is yet to come concerning the second chapter of this illustrious career.
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