(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Sweden’s At the Gates.)
Seriously… how am I supposed to even begin to review this album?
After all, the war between the forces of Hype and Anti-Hype began in earnest pretty much the moment At War With Reality was announced, and the back and forth antagonism has since churned the waters into an almost impenetrable mass of muck-raking and mud-slinging, making any attempt at clarity and objectivity a difficult prospect at best.
Think about it. How many people have you seen/heard claiming, with full confidence, that this is going to be “the best album of the year”, with little more than hope or blind faith as their main source of evidence? Probably quite a few. In fact, probably about as many people as you’ve seen stating, with arrogant superiority, that At The Gates “are shit”, and that this album “…is going to suck”, without even hearing a single note of music.
I mean, let’s face it, a lot of people will have made up their minds about At War With Reality long before they heard anything from it. The fanatics are preconditioned to love it even if it’s awful, and the elitists are predisposed to hate it even if it’s phenomenal. So really there’s not much I can say to either of those groups.
But maybe, just maybe, I can reassure some of you out there who don’t fall into either camp, and who might have their own (fully understandable) doubts about the return of At The Gates after all this time.
A quick admission from me, before we go any further – I am not the world’s biggest At The Gates fan, despite the fact that I’d probably say that Tomas Lindberg is one of my favourite vocalists. Oh, I am definitely a fan (I own all the albums and I’ve seen them absolutely crush it live on several occasions), but I’m not a rabid fan like so many are.
I acknowledge their seminal status, and agree with the well-documented and legendary influence attributed to Slaughter of the Soul. But you’d probably be surprised by how rarely I listen to that album, or any of their albums in fact.
I absolutely love them when I hear them. That’s undeniable. I really do think they’re that good. But I’m not obsessed with them. And I think that gives me a chance of being at least semi-objective about this album.
One thing that I am pretty certain about, after listening to At War With Reality several times over, is that no one does the At The Gates sound quite like At The Gates. For all you might hear about the band’s influence on the Death Metal, Melodic Death Metal, and Metalcore scenes, At War With Reality makes it clear – to me at least – how few other bands actually come close to sounding like the savage Swedes.
Even amongst a sea of their closest disciples, At The Gates will always stand out.
Exactly as the band previously stated, At War With Reality is a dark and angry album. An album at war with everything. At war with human nature. At war with false expectations. At war, in many ways, with the band’s own legacy.
If you’ve never been a fan of the band before, well, this album is unlikely to change your mind. They’ve not made any sudden or drastic shifts in their sound after all. And if you’re the type of fan who worships SotS and only SotS, then you might very well end up a little disappointed too, as although it’s very much a follow-up to the band’s landmark release in many ways, in others it’s also a very different album.
The comparisons made to Terminal Spirit Disease are pretty valid. The hooks on this album are still as razor-sharp as ever, but they aren’t as bold or as brazen as on its predecessor. The melodies are just that little bit more obscure, zigging where you expect them to zag, twisting and slithering out of your grasp just as you think you’ve got them figured out.
The guitar work is, of course, utterly fantastic throughout, Martin Larsson and the Björler brothers whipping up an absolute storm of choppy, chugging riffs and scything tremolo runs that effortlessly worm their way under your skin, itching with fury and feverish melody, while vocalist Tomas Lindberg is absolutely on fire, delivering perhaps his most vital, visceral, and utterly eviscerating performance yet.
But At War With Reality is an album made up of more than just individual pieces, it’s an album of songs.
Songs that trip switches in your brain and burrow their way into your subconscious.
Songs whose instantaneous impact disguises an insidious array of more subtle hooks and infectious melodies that will haunt you for days afterwards.
Songs that are both familiarly savage yet echoing with an eerie strangeness.
Songs that are perhaps some of the bleakest, and best, that the band have ever composed.
Is it “the best album of the year”? I think we’re all a bit too close to it right now to decide that. My gut tells me no… but it also tells me that’s not the point of this album.
It’s not trying to be the best album of the year.
In fact, I don’t think the band care at all about any of the artificial praise or meaningless distinctions that might be heaped upon them. Despite what others might tell you, this sounds like an album made by a band with nothing to prove to anyone but themselves.
At War With Reality is, at its heart, a singular distillation of the band’s sound and vision which simultaneously benefits from the band’s increased maturity yet sounds like they haven’t missed a day.
It’s also pretty much critic-proof… not just because of how difficult it is to analyse objectively, but also because it simply does not give a damn about what other people think.
This is At The Gates at their very best, and entirely on their own terms.
At War With Reality will be released by Century Media in North America on October 27. It’s available for pre-order here. Below you can hear both the title track and “Death and the Labyrinth”, which premiered earlier today in a video directed by Patric Ullaeus.