It’s been 19 years since At the Gates released Slaughter of the Soul, one of the best, most innovative, and most influential metal albums of the ’90s. Maybe it was a little too influential—because now that Slaughter’s “will-it-ever-come?” follow-up, At War With Reality, has arrived, it’s got a big cross to bear. The Gothenburg death-metal titans have reconvened at a time when their precise, abrasively melodic sound has been repurposed—and re-repurposed—by about a zillion mediocre melodeath and metalcore outfits. That shouldn’t have any bearing on At War With Reality, but it does: Any seminal band that resurfaces after so long an absence are prone to be called on the carpet not only for their own accomplishments, but for the zeitgeist they’ve unleashed, better or worse. Luckily for At the Gates, they don’t seem to care one way or the other. Though maybe they should have.
Heavy bands making stunning comebacks has become nearly routine over the past few years; look no further than Amebix’s Sonic Mass, Carcass’ Surgical Steel, or Godflesh’s A World Lit Only by Fire. At the Gates have earned a spot on the ladder, but on a lower rung; At War With Reality is crisp, concise, and tastefully technical, but it isn’t tear-your-head-off incredible. The production, for one, is miles better, with a fuller, fleshier attack, and frontman Tomas Lindberg’s feral rasp has been coarsened even more by his tenure with his resurrected d-beat group Disfear. On “Order from Chaos”, a simmering, tribal rhythm augments his apparent attempt to throw up his own lungs; lead guitarist Anders Björler installs atmospheric melodies and nearly gothic arpeggios. It’s one of the few glimpses of dynamism to the album. Mostly it sticks to a clipped, cold, chunky groove that might as well be a melodeath plug-in.
The lack of highs and lows aside, At War With Reality sticks to a solidly savage middle. “Eater of Gods” and “The Conspiracy of the Blind” are meaty, marauding, and righteously irate. Too bad they’re also practically interchangeable. At times, they sound more like the Haunted, the long-running outfit that’s been a halfway house of sorts to various members of At the Gates following their 1996 breakup. That’s not always a good thing, as the Haunted ran out of steam and ideas years ago; At War With Reality tracks like “Heroes and Tombs” seethe and shred, but they might as well be Haunted tunes with a few more flourishes (and a lot less cartoonishness). At a time when At the Gates should be doing everything it can to set itself apart from the pack, it’s leaned on the most obvious—and most insular—signifiers imaginable.
At War With Reality unquestionably rocks with fury and passion, and that’s its saving grace. What doesn’t work is the album’s concept—in essence, an homage to the elliptical, magic-realist short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Basically, the concept involves shuffling around various Borges motifs—labyrinths, mirrors, mysterious cities—and making a patchwork of them. It’s a shallow approach to one of literature’s greatest writers, and while Lindberg should get credit for not, say, being yet another metal band singing about H. P. Lovecraft, the opportunity to rise above feels squandered. Not only does Lindberg directly, lazily lift the titles of two Borges stories wholesale—for the songs “The Circular Ruin” and “The Book of Sand”—the music doesn’t in any way connect with or evoke the otherworldliness of the author’s work (aside from the shadowy, sumptuous instrumental “City of Mirrors”). It’s funny that one of Borges’ primary themes is self-reference—because At War With Reality is, above all else, an At the Gates album that feels like a pastiche of At the Gates. At least it’s a spirited one.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1yM9W1T