Let’s face it. At the Gates is one of the biggest names in the history of metal, so it is tough to do a review without this fact towering over you. They disappeared for 19 years, and now they are back with At War with Reality.
I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past several weeks trying to think of something I could say and not get ostracized from the community. I still haven’t come around on this one. I did like With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness.
It seems unfair to say that they aren’t as experimental or boundary pushing as back in the day. There are good albums that are neither of those things. But I think it is fair to say that this new album lacks the detail and complexity of their older stuff.
Take the first two tracks (after the intro). Everything they play fits into a basic, almost pop-like, chord progression. The drumming is simple and almost never changes from the beat it starts with. Each song is formulaic with its different sections. The sections allow changes to happen. So many of the songs fit this pattern that at the end it is hard to think of the differences; the songs all blend together.
Overall, I think my main criticism can be summarized by saying that there is so much sameness: tempo, chords, melodic material, dynamics, song structure, … that the material is hard to engage with as a listener. Bands shouldn’t have to compete for a listener’s attention by intentional putting stuff in that will surprise the listener, but there does need to be something to engage with.
By no means do I want to say that this album is bad. I would say it is a solid, standard sounding melodeath album. The playing is polished and well-produced. It has some solid grooves at parts. I referred to the first two tracks above, and there is no question that some of the later tracks have better distinguishing features and more complicated, original material.
The problem is that I’m not sure what distinguishes this album from any of the other solid melodeath albums from the past few years. Next year I will have forgotten what any of this sounds like just like this year I’ve already forgotten what any of those from the previous year sounded like.
I’ve read the praise reviews, and they haven’t been able to point me to anything interesting about the album. The reviews point out At the Gates’ influence. They point out how addictive the album is (we’ve addressed that this is the pop chord progression and straightforward grooves and drumming which causes this). But these are not reasons to give an album a 9 or 10 like they do.
There are certainly very good individual songs: Order from Chaos, for example, brings back some of their neo-baroque counterpoint ideas that I loved in their earlier material. But a few standout tracks do not make an album. I’ll admit that the second half of the album in general is a step above the first half.
Overall, I’ll give this a 7/10. It is solid, but there isn’t enough to elevate it above the many other similar sounding albums. Here’s a sample: