The Link-Up Spell: The magic inside At The Gates’ At War With Reality

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Let’s revisit At War With Reality to focus on the hidden magic inside this album and prepare to enter the ‘magical realism’ zone.

The return of melodic icons, At The Gates in 2014 was well-received in sales, but opinions were mostly divided about the quality of the music.

In some ways, I can totally understand why. At War With Reality was not exactly a huge milestone to the genre as The Red In The Sky Is Ours or Slaughter of the Soul were, but some tags pasted directly to the album are mostly unforgiving, since the narrative of their last output is vastly superior to the older records.

Aesthetically, At The Gates stood for the most part of their career in the first-wave of melodic death style. Deeply introspective and conjuring melancholic vibes with cryptic environments, their core sound was crumbled down with the ferocity of Slaughter of the Soul, a record I still enjoy but find vastly different to their overall discography.

Circumstances and the state of the band at that time pushed them to forget for a while the cosmic flavor of their pioneering debut to seduce the fervent underground metal scene with a more direct impact. Deep traces of thrash metal, death metal and punk were injected into the dangerous cocktail, and there you go…  An instant hit into the scene that later influenced a good bunch of North American bands.

Modern purists dismiss the contributions of Slaughter of the Soul because of the unexpected explosion of the metalcore scene, but 1995 was a simpler time, and people consumed the album without fear of indigestion.

Then, they went into hiatus.

When At The Gates reformed for a couple of live shows, they were not that hesitant to hit the studios because there was some latent pressure of their last piece. But, they eventually did and the writing of At War With Reality begun.

Vocalist Tomas ‘Tompa’ Lindberg, a social courses teacher in his native Sweden, spent a lot of time in the punk and crust scene while he was vacationing, so the band’s extroverted style morphed once again into introspection aside from the mere sophistication of his allegorical writing style, mixing the social commentary with the fantastic metal versing.

And that is the magic I have found in At War With Reality: lyrical content.

With every dawn
Of hunger and thirst
The world deforms
To a pale uncertain ash

From “Death and the Labyrinth”

When the record was on point of release, I remember encountering a couple of interviews with the front man about what to expect of the album. Tompa mentioned in every single conversation I’ve found the ‘magical realism’ tag, and I was deeply interested in what these guys would do with that influence.

‘Magical realism’ is a deeply rooted Latin American literary style that spawned in the mid-XX Century. Scholars around the world praised this new school of narrative for its seductive subversive overtones instead of the standard fantasy of those times.

To understand better the ‘magical realism’ concept, the reader has to center itself in a world of despair and constant mind struggles, since nearly all of the main authors were politically inclined to the left and were posing several questionings about their societies on the poor south of the American continent.

There is that perennial cliché of the all-time festive and joyful Latino, but those are shallow perceptions; the reality is way more complex in the social aspects. And the magical realism literary style channels that entire socio-political history and infuses it into a concise bunch of monolithic titles.

At the gates of the void
Dark spirits rising
An ominous sun
Piercing the circular ruins

From “The Circular Ruins”

As a short summary, the best way to summarize this movement is to cite its best-known work: One Hundred Years of Solitude, from the Nobel-winner Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez, a long tale about the misfortunes of the seven-generation lineage of the Buendía family from the mystical lands of Macondo.

García Márquez, a renowned journalist and writer, was inspired by his poor rural hometown and the vicissitudes of his youth. In this book, both the historical reality from Colombia and the fictional world is constantly entwined. From a reader’s point of view, the intention of magical realism, in this and the other great titles from the Latin American style, is to reveal the constant societal struggles of the region through paranormal lenses and mystical glitches. This is done to the point of some kind of suspension in remote places in order to reinterpret the crude and violent reality of the region.

Magical realism is somehow compared with the oneiric fumes of surrealism, but the deep roots of the historical and political components printed on the text lines by the different writers of the movement are constantly repeated over and over again so the reader can engage the stories to blur the limits between fantasy and reality. Magical realism novellas and tales are somewhat cryptic and kind of difficult to follow sometimes, but the reward is there for the arcane seekers.

Like García Márquez, other interesting authors from different countries of the region engaged in this dreamy state of re-interpreting our lives through dark, honestly cryptic, emotive or reality-bending works. Artists like Alejo Carpentier, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato, Salvador Garmendia and Carlos Fuentes contributed with massive novellas and rich tales and anthologies to create a movement that was deeply connected to the Latino school of thought.

With At War With Reality, the band probably arranged the songs to the lyrical content, since Tompa employed numerous references to book titles, quotes and allegories to reinforce the main concept of their work.

Created needs – as tumors they grow
The swarming worms of a thousand lies

From “The Conspiracy of the Blind”

Kicking off with a spoken segment, entitled “El Altar Del Dios Desconocido”, we found an extract from the paranoid “Blind Report” chapter from one of my favorite books of all time, Of Heroes And Tombs, from the Argentinian writer Ernesto Sábato. The album sets off to channel the poetic and fatalistic magical realism overtones of the XXI century hyper-connected society.

The Anton Reisenegger (from the Chilean thrash band Criminal) speech on the intro is precisely the beginning of the end and what would engrave the dark introspection of the whole record. Dealing about seven possibilities of what happened to God and the consequences of his probable disappearance from mankind. “God exists, but sometimes he sleeps. His nightmares are our existence,” claims the narrator like an ominous fortune teller.

Then “Death and the Labyrinth” begins the metal assault, but the sentiment is the same. Talking about plain and juvenile nihilism is a disservice to Lindberg’s lines. The poetry behind At War With Reality is directly embedded to his literary influences and it is a work of social reconstruction in a world that spins so fast and violent that we still cannot grasp what would happen next decade, except for a tragic doom.

We run like rats – along the walls
Rising higher – around solitary lives

From “The Book of Sand (The Abomination)”

Instead of pessimism, Tompa accuses and describes with dissecting literacy. He does not constrain himself to drinking wine with Borges and Sábato and explain to them, in their dead language, what happened to the societies in the Internet era. Inequalities, diseases, wars, vulgar enrichment and the intellectual illiteracy towards the fragility of mankind are constantly portrayed with accessible allegories that transport the listener to the magical reality where individuals are helpless towards the grinding system that crushes us all.

It seems humankind still cannot grasp the concept of immortality through actions. Rather than building a “better world for the next generations” we are just marching blind towards the slaughterhouse without watching backwards, according to songs like “Heroes and Tombs” or “The Book of Sand (The Abomination)” (based on a Jorge Luis Borges’ supreme writing).

Constant references to long-dated architectures and ruins, as well as “parasites”, “dreams” and “language” plague the record as an exercise of both homage and poetic precision, but those recurrences are not fortuitous. Hearing At War With Reality entirely with lyrics at hand puts the listener through a deeply contemplative state about what we think is our reality, our lives, and, instead of just resorting to vane pessimism, Tompa and his band mates created a concise work of art that ends, always, in a circular glorification of death as a suspension from the bitterness and decay of life.

Perhaps, that is the “magic” behind all of these authors. We all find comfort in something magical to await for our final rest, to liberate us from the oppression of others and release ourselves from the pain we all have built in society and perpetuating an unbalanced system.

Where the land has been drinkin’
All our blood & regret
Our words are like quicksand!
Against the endless sky

From “The Night Eternal”


Remember to follow the legendary At The Gates on Facebook and Twitter. The album is out under the Century Media Records banner.


The Link-Up Spell is a weekly Toilet ov Hell column about music, movies, books, retro video games and guaranteed Elfic nonsense. If you want to contact the author to send your material, mail us at toiletovhell [at] gmail.com with the subject “The Link-Up Spell” or message him on social media.

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  • Dr. K

    Very cool, Link. This is a topic I’ve meant to write on for a long time, but my shaky Spanish meant it would be hard to provide the depth of analysis I really wanted to. Anyway, thanks for exploring this really interesting connection.

    • Thanks to you, Dr. K. Your insight is highly valuable to me.

  • Joaquin Stick

    Thoughtful stuff Link. Great read!

  • tigeraid

    Quality stuff as always, my elven friend. I’m not a gigantic fan of ATG, but this album always worked for me.

  • Dubby Fresh

    I love Borges and think ATG’s lyrics are near, even if AWWR didn’t do much for me at the time. Great article

  • Wow, cool article, you definitely put a lot of thought into this. I honestly pay almost zero attention to lyrics in general, mostly because I can’t understand them in a lot of the metal I like, so it’s cool to see that some bands do more than just moon/June/spoon or random descriptions of gory shit.

    • i like when bands incorporate sci-fi themes into thrash

    • Max

      I second this. I had no idea ATG had drawn so much inspiration from a specific literary tradition for At War With Reality.

    • Thanks, mr. Brain! I try to check metal that employs a good and concise narrative, most of the time, so when I checked they were writing about ‘magical realism’ I had great expectatives and they all were met with the lyrics.

  • I am in a hurry today. But, thank you very much for all the good comments today. I really appreciate all the good feedback you all make.

    I also wanted to add this. Here are some great ‘magical realism’ books I have read and I truly recommend to you, if you have the opportunity to find them in your native language:

    Jorge Luis Borges: Fictions and Labyrinths.
    Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo.
    Ernesto Sábato: the trilogy of The Tunnel, Of Heroes and Tombs and Abbadon the Exterminator.
    Carlos Fuentes: Aura.

    • Poseur Diposeur

      In a week I am about to start my Master’s in Spanish Literature. I find this post to be very well timed and inspiring. The short story Talpa by Juan Rulfo is one of my all time favorites.

      • Juan Rulfo was a true master. I’m really glad you are going to explore this side of world, Spanish is a very rich language and I know you will deeply enjoy your studies. I am not that versed into literature, I’m a “poser”, but anytime you need something from me, I’m over here!

        • Poseur Diposeur

          If you are serious I might seriously ask you for advice. My written grammar is not always that strong. I have been in Colombia all summer. Not far from you!

          • Totally serious! You can search for me on the ToH main group and message me, or mail me.

            Noice, Colombia is super rad, jajaja. If you come to Maracaibo, just let me know, too!

          • Poseur Diposeur

            ImI. Hermanos metaleros!

    • Dubby Fresh

      I back labyrinths. There’s a very good English translation out there.

      • Labyrinths is great and Ficciones was a breakthrough for the movement. You should find The Aleph, too. Hope you do.

        I think Borges and Sábato were the writers Tompa used most for this record, btw. So they are the central figures of all the article and my favorite of the bunch with the Pedro Páramo book 😉

    • Howard Dean

      Will definitely need to give Fictions and Labyrinths a shot. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in school and absolutely loved it. I read a lot more nonfiction nowadays, but need to branch out a bit.

      • Like I said, these Latin American writers didn’t did only fiction, they used them to explain the poverty and the bad times of our people, so I know you will really enjoy those connections.

        Borges is amazing. Argentinians are still salty that he couldn’t make a Nobel Prize because he was a radical leftist. But, the guy had a super interesting persona and you will enjoy those books too. A true visionary, with a splendid writing.

        Thanks for passing by, HD.

        • Howard Dean

          Thanks for writing this killer article, Link!

    • killvps

      Thanks for the recommendations Link! I’ve read a lot of Gabo’s work and One Hundred Years is a book I’ve re-read numerous times. I’ll also give this album a re-listen.

      • Thanks to you. I deeply recommend Gabo’s short stories and his journalism work, he is still a referent into the journalism on Latin América!

  • Kyle Reese

    If you’ll allow me to really gringo up this comments section, I’d appreciate anyone’s take on this writer – Christopher Moore. In one of my favorite books, Coyote Blue, he brings the trickster of Native American lore, the coyote, to life to bring an American Indian boy turned white-collar insurance salesman back to his roots. Is this a bad example of magical realism? It is certainly not the weighty literature you are describing, but it blends realism and the mystical.

    Also, I’m struggling to see how At the Gates is mixing the magical and realistic. I’m almost there, but the lyrics are so short that it’s hard to make the connection. His educational and vocational background make it impossible to dispute the link (see what I did there?), but I’m trying to understand what you’re saying.

    Finally, since you’re all old, if you have a kid that has to write an English paper (or Spanish lit), get them to read just a little bit about the life of the author. Those factoids and anecdotes can help to explain what an author is dealing with or thinking about when they write – which makes the ever elusive “thesis” that much easier to grasp. Or at least some solid ground to bullshit from.

    • Grab my words with a grain of salt, like you say, since I haven’t read anything from Christopher Moore (and that description of the book is very interesting! hope I can read the whole thing).

      As far as I know, Magical realism is a regional term, it’s a latin american writing movement, and it is mostly an style. Like I said, these authors tried to explain the bad situation in their countries, like poverty and exclusion, through a mystique and abstract writing.

      Check the definiton of the Enciclopedia Britannica about it, if I am not making it clear: https://www.britannica.com/art/magic-realism

      And you’re super right. I have discovered so much about art through the life of the authors. That is an on-point recommendation!

      Thanks for passing by and comment. Really appreciate it!

      • Kyle Reese

        I totally see what you’re saying in terms of the definition of magical realism. Here’s a hypothetical: the ghost of Pablo Escobar comes alive in Medellin and the police have to partner with some voodoo priests to stop him before he accumulates enough cocaine to revive his buried body ala the monster of Frankenstein. Set in South America. Totally realistic except for the ghost/voodoo priests. And probably encompassing some of the problems that Colombia is facing present day or recently.

        I appreciate what you’re saying about the literary style. Here’s the quibble. If you’re willing to expand that interpretation to At the Gates and their melodic death metal, why not to writings that make magic realistic in other cultures? Just interested in this discussion.

        As I understand, Ud. vive en Venezuela? Por favor, ensename como usar “el keyboard” a poner las letras como el ~ y otros accentos. Es tan dificil y cambia en cual programma se usa. No trato a ofenderte, pero necosito mejorar mi espanol para obtener un trabajo en la industria legal en tejas. If I’m gonna practice immigration law, my spanish needs to be better. Obvi.

        • From the books I have read, these authors employed a more ambient or oniric effect rather than influencing the story with plot hooks. I really recommend to you to read, at least a couple of short tales from Borges or the Blind Report chapter from Of Heroes and Tombs to catch the drill of what I am trying to explain. There is some sort of ghastly ambient in the stories, that makes you think they are stranded in another place, but the characters are still real.

          Also, this was a Latin American movement altogether, and I don’t know if it applied to authors of other regions.

          Yeah, I live in Vzla. I found these shortcuts so you don’t have to exchange languages in your keyboard:

          á = Alt + 0225

          é = Alt + 0233

          í = Alt + 0237

          ó = Alt + 0243

          ú = Alt + 0250

          ñ = Alt + 0241

          ü = Alt + 0252

          ¡ = Alt + 0161

          ¿ = Alt + 0191

          Source: http://www.spanishdict.com/answers/282262/how-to-type-spanish-letters-and-accents-from-paralee

          Like I said to Poser Disposeur above, if you need help you can find me at social media! I can help,I think 😛