Sound — 8
Strange how even in the face of overwhelming acclaim, a band is still susceptible to break up like any other. While it took At The Gates a couple years to get things right as a band, the latter-half of their catalog, "Terminal Spirit Disease" and the iconic "Slaughter of the Soul," would cement the band as one of the founders of the Gothenburg melodic death metal scene. Of course, the well-known history is after the peaking success of "Slaughter of the Soul," the Bjorler brothers would leave the band to create The Haunted (drummer Adrian Erlandsson would also join them), and At The Gates would cease to exist, much to the chagrin of metalheads worldwide.
It would take years before everyone was back on friendlier terms, and by 2008, they were laying siege upon stages again to much fanfare. But despite the joyous landmark of their reunion, At The Gates were staunchly against recording a new album, expressing the sentiment that it would only be a disappointment, which is a real possibility with cases like that and a fair concern to keep one's band from besmirching a classic catalog (Tom Morello feels the exact same way about Rage Against The Machine recording again). However, as the band continued touring throughout the years, their desire to create something new started to bud - by 2012, "no" became "perhaps," and at the turn of this year, "perhaps" became a concrete "yes." So after nearly twenty years, At The Gates would finally release the follow-up to their magnum opus, "At War With Reality."
Right after the intro narration track, At The Gates waste no time getting themselves and the listeners reacquainted with their compositional repertoire. Amongst the myriad of their calling-card melodeath riffs, they dust off the "Terminal Spirit Disease"-era tremolo riffs for "Death and the Labyrinth," warm up the "Slaughter of the Soul"-era galloping riffs in "At War With Reality" and "The Circular Ruins," and conjure the doom and gloom atmosphere with the ominous melodies in "Heroes and Tombs." But if the first five tracks are the point in the "welcome back" party where everyone's sipping on champagne flutes, the latter half of the album is when the whiskey shots start lining up to turn the party into a rager. "The Conspiracy of the Blind" hits a great stride for the middle section of the album, with furious gallops, choruses stocked with great guitar layering, a nice guitar solo as well as a great bassline for a sidekick; Erlandsson finally does more than the staple 1/8th note blastbeat drumlines by throwing in frenetic drum-fills in "The Book of Sand (The Abomination)" and the tracks following; lead guitarist Anders Bjorler kicks into top gear with his guitar solo in "Eater of Gods"; and the penultimate "Upon Pillars of Dust" has At The Gates hitting peak thrash before the ending track "The Night Eternal" closes the album with a slow-burning goth-rocker.
Unfortunately, there isn't much organic instrumentation found in "At War With Reality"; not a second of the album is graced with an acoustic guitar, and the only sections where strings are found are the opening swells in "Order From Chaos" and briefly in the ending of "The Night Eternal." And if there's any other complaint to be filed against the album, the tremolo and galloping riffs recur perhaps too often, but with the majority of the tracks clocking in under four minutes, At The Gates do a good job including what they want in their songs without overloading them or having them run on longer than they need to - the melodeath riffs are hearty and abundant, and the album as a whole runs well the entire way.
Lyrics — 8
Primarily in the lyrics of "Slaughter of the Soul," At The Gates were anticipating the coming Armageddon upon the world, whether by divine and supernatural causes or for reasons self-inflicted upon by humanity. "At War With Reality" plays a sequel role in that subject matter, where the lyrics describe the aftermath of the downfall of man and the crumbling of society. With the opening narration of "El Altar Del Dios Desconocido" giving a preamble about how God won't and/or can't help remedy the turmoil on Earth, frontman Tomas Lindberg goes into describing the ruins that remain of the world throughout the album and essentially articulating it like a this-worldly version of Hell. Lindberg associates the destruction being a natural process by the earth in "Death and the Labyrinth," quickly following it with the mass denial from the people still alive in "At War With Reality," and further paints the portrait of denial in "Order From Chaos," which shows the religious clamoring to compose their faith in the midst of their temples that have been reduced to ashes. Plenty of occult themes are still included as well, primarily in "The Circular Ruins," "Eater of Gods," and the Hellscaping journey of "The Night Eternal"; even the mention of "the hive of the serpent" in "Death and the Labyrinth" is likely to be a relative callback to the "Slaughter of the Soul" song "Under a Serpent Sun."
Overall Impression — 8
With "Slaughter of the Soul" having such a legendary spot in metal history, it's essentially impossible for "A War With Reality" to be able to top it; but in all other cases, "A War With Reality" is a great return-to-form album for At The Gates. As the first three At The Gates albums banked on tremolo riffs like any other death metal band, and "Slaughter of the Soul" was the moment in which the band showed everyone how to make damn great death metal riffs without the bludgeoning power of tremolo, "A War With Reality" threads the needle between the two, incorporating nearly everything they've done prior, which, at face value, is the most one could have hoped for with their fifth album. But duly important is the fact that "A War With Reality" doesn't sound tired nor desperate. Much like how they felt the timing was just right when they reformed seven years ago, they got the timing right again to finally record a new album, and with the daunting task of having to follow up a masterpiece of an album, "A War With Reality" does not disappoint.