At the Gates’ first two albums, both released in the early 1990s, were generic black-metal releases, with the same silly lyrics and abortive stabs at classical influences as many other bands in the nascent genre. By their fourth album, however, the group’s sound changed into a tighter, cleaner, thrash-influenced form of melodic death metal that became a surprise hit in Europe, where death-metal acts have long found more commercial success than in the U.S. That disc, Slaughter of the Soul, turned out to be the band’s last before a nineteen-year hiatus, one which saw some of its members form The Haunted, a harsher, less melodic extreme-metal act. The same lineup from Slaughter of the Soul reunited a few years ago to tour, and their first album since 1995, At War with Reality, dropped on October 28th … and feels just like the band never broke up at all.
At the Gates’ style remains straightforward and, as death-metal goes, relatively accessible. Of the thirteen songs on At War With Reality, only one, the closer “Night Eternal,” goes past four and a half minutes. There’s no blast-beat drumming, no indecipherably fast riffing, and lead vocalist Tomas Lindberg scream-growls the words (as opposed to the Cookie Monster death grunt style) so that you can understand most of what he said. The real appeal of the music for me is that the riffs are so distinct, more reminiscent of the “death-and-roll” sound of Entombed than of other leading lights in the Gothenburg death-metal scene who rely more on machine-gun riffs and higher-gain distortion.
“Heroes and Tombs” begins with a decoy lick, a series of arpeggiated chords that seemed to nod to peak Slayer (Seasons in the Abyss or South of Heaven era) with round, muscular power chords through the verse before the drawn-out lead guitar line separates itself above the chorus – a technique At the Gates uses several times to introduce that melodic element to songs that would otherwise sound like early speed-metal with growled lyrics. Both “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Labyrinth” lean toward the same end of the metal spectrum; you’ll think Slayer and Testament but also Wolverine Blues-era Entombed and even hints of Carcass’ Heartwork. “Upon Pillars of Dust” has an opening riff that would make Rust in Peace adherents proud before shifting into the fastest tempo of anything on the disc for the verses – but one that downshifts for the chorus for some real contrast wrapped up in a song that clocks in under two minutes. There’s a similarly quick staccato opening riff to “Conspiracy of the Blind,” a counterpoint to the slow lead guitar line on top of it, although we lose that contrast in the verses because the drums never vary – but as a fan of fast-picked rhythm guitar this was my favorite riff on the album.
Even better death-metal albums tend to wear on the listener if they run too long, as there’s an inherent sameness in a dozen songs that all have the same tempo, the same vocal style, and the same detuned guitars. At the Gates probably could have kept At War with Reality even a little tighter than its 44 minutes, as the album becomes repetitive near the end. The main pedal-point riff in “Eater of Gods” sounded a little familiar, and the best bit of the song is the interlude at 2:30 where we get one undistorted guitar, allowing the second guitar to play the main riff more clearly than at any other point on the track. (Then the third line comes in, borrowing so heavily from Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” that I started singing “Thiiiiis world is/spinning around me” in the car.) I imagine the members of At the Gates generated a lot of material after a nineteen-year layoff from working together, so I’ll forgive them some overexuberance on what is still one of the best metal albums of 2014.