Immolation are one of the original death metal bands, rising to prominence in the late ’80s as part of the same East Coast scene as Cannibal Corpse, Incantation, and Suffocation. They’ve made 10 albums since 1988, and undergone their fair share of lineup changes, mostly in the drum chair, though founding guitarist Tom Wilkinson left in 2001. At this point, two founding members remain: bassist/vocalist Ross Dolan, and guitarist Robert Vigna. Bill Taylor, the band’s rhythm guitarist since 2001, has left, and been replaced by Alex Bouks, who’s also in the excellent new, but similarly old-school death metal band Ruinous. Steve Shalaty has been on drums since 2003.
Immolation have never made a bad album, because they’re committed to a particular aesthetic vision. Dolan’s vocals are low without being inhuman—he sounds like he’s about nine feet tall and weighs maybe six hundred pounds, but he’s always trying to make himself understood, so he enunciates and situates himself well in the mix. Vigna’s guitar work is fascinating; he’s as capable of high-speed riffing as crawling doom, and he throws weird, atmospheric tones in, too, giving the music an almost psychedelic sheen at times. Shalaty is a more primitive drummer than his predecessor, Alex Hernandez, but that only serves to give the music a jackhammering power. They sound like they’re digging holes in the earth, rather than speeding along a highway of bones.
Even given the baseline quality of their output, though, Immolation have been on a hot streak the past few years. Their releases over the past decade—2007’s Shadows in the Light, 2010’s Majesty and Decay, 2011’s Providence EP (a free giveaway from Scion AV), and 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy—have been some of their most bludgeoning. On Kingdom, they took an interesting lyrical turn, shifting from the somewhat generic anti-Christian/pro-evil stance ubiquitous in death metal to a dystopian political POV not unlike (but smarter than) that heard on recent Megadeth releases.
That trend continues on their latest album, Atonement (get it from Amazon). The first three songs—”The Distorting Light,” “When the Jackals Come,” and “Fostering the Divide”—all talk about leaders lying to their people, dividing them against each other, and sending them off to die in war. Basically, the same things metal bands have been decrying since Black Sabbath released “War Pigs” in 1970. The message is repeated on tracks like “Destructive Currents” and “Thrown to the Fire.”
A few songs are more interesting, from a lyrical standpoint. “Rise the Heretics” celebrates the idea of people turning away from organized religion; it opens with the lines “Massive hordes defecting/Dropping from God like flies/Wise to your temptation/Our strength turns us away from the light.”
“Lower” is even more unexpected; it’s a first-person depiction of greed, treachery, and self-loathing from someone who’s abandoned himself to materialism and can’t stop himself from descending into a pit of his own making. Death metal lyrics are usually embarrassingly dumb, either opting for rote anti-Christianity or adolescent gore fantasies. “Lower” isn’t. It’s damn close to poetry. There’s something else curious about the song, too: whether intentionally or not, it lifts its verse melody from the pre-chorus to Machine Head‘s “Now We Die.” You could actually play the two songs over the top of each other.
Most of the songs tend toward the doomier side, with occasional fast parts and guitar solos that erupt like lava bursting out of a crack in the earth. There’s also a really cool break at the exact midpoint of “Above All”; you’ll know it when you hear it. Bouks doesn’t appear on the album; it was recorded by the trio of Vigna, Dolan, and Shalaty, and produced by Paul Orofino, who’s been working with them since 1999’s Failures for Gods. That easy familiarity seeps into the music; it sounds like the work of four guys with many years’ experience together. Everyone involved knows exactly what an Immolation record should sound like, and they’ve made a really, really good one.
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