Sunday, November 30, 2014

At Peace with Reality

[Or: With Resignation I Kiss the New At The Gates Album]

Through clandestine means, I heard an early leak of the new At the Gates album. In terms of style, it falls somewhere between the diet black of Terminal Spirit Disease and the circle pit baiting thrash on The Haunted Made Me Do It. Incidentally, do you know what else came right between those two albums? This:

I was 16 when I first heard Slaughter of the Soul; barely a year after that, the band broke up. Since then, the album's prestige only grew. It didn't take long after its release for critics to bestow upon it "instant classic" status. Metal Hammer gushed over it. Even Martin Popoff, who rarely has anything good to say about extreme metal, gave the album a respectable review. Perhaps the most prescient take on the album came from Ula Gehret (then on staff at Century Media, coincidentally ATG's current home), who wrote in a 1996 Guitar School article:

"Slaughter of the Soul signifies a landmark for At The Gates -- and a sound that death metal up-and-comers will hopefully embrace in coming years." 

[The name of the article? "A Guide to Essential Death Metal".]

And the sound was more than embraced. In the decades that followed, there were numerous attempts to cash in on it; every band between Finland to San Diego attempted to replicate its mix of melody and brutality. Best of the shameless plagiarists: Dimension Zero's Silent Night Fever, and Ebony Tears' A Handful of Nothing. Hell, even Darkest Hour were an acceptable, Tomas Lindberg-endorsed substitute during those years when it seemed there would never be another new At the Gates album. After 20 years and hundreds of bands trying to recreate Slaughter of the Soul, does anyone really need At War with Reality?

At the Gates clearly seemed to think so. In the lead up to the release, a typically effusive Tomas Lindberg promised "an album that I feel is pushing our own boundaries, and challenges our collective creative intellect". What we got, unfortunately, is anything but; At War With Reality is as safe and calculated a retread of past glories as one could imagine, with the title track being an update of "Terminal Spirit Disease", and "The Conspiracy of The Blind" built around direct lifts from "Suicide Nation". Elsewhere, "The Circular Ruins", "Eaters of God" and "Upon Pillars of Dust" sound like Haunted songs that the Bjorler brothers took with them as they walked out the door. 

The biggest problem with the album as a whole is it lacks the ingenuity of its predecessors, choosing instead to be safe and pander to its (admittedly sizable) following. Adrian Erlandsson in particular turns in a somnambulist performance that keeps things from getting too lively. This too, feels calculated: As if somewhere in the writing process the band decided that a leisurely 160 bpm would maximize its appeal.

The album received rapturous praise from people who got it in advance; as time went on, the reviews were less enthused.  Like the similarly hyped Surgical Steel, the excitement seemed incidental to the album's actual merits. Lacking anything out of the ordinary, the album becomes a blank canvas unto which fans can project their own feelings and biases. [No doubt a few people will complain that it doesn't sound like Gardens of Grief or The Red in the Sky is Ours; feel free to slap them, because they're idiots].

For me personally, Slaughter of the Soul has held up well these last two decades; Terminal Spirit Disease may have aged even better. I wonder if At War With Reality will have the same longevity, and if that's even a fair question since the high schooler who heard At the Gates pretty much loved every death metal album he heard, and the 35 year old writing this is almost exactly the opposite. The faithful have already fallen over themselves singing its praises. I know if this came out in high school I wouldn't be able to wait to get home, put it on, and headbang in front of my boombox for its entire duration. But these days I have better things to do. At War With Reality is the At The Gates album that I never asked for, didn't want, and got anyways.