Immolation have never made a bad album. Like all the great, pioneering death metal bands — Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Incantation, Obituary and Suffocation — they play to their strengths and rarely experiment. (Lots of people disagree with me, but I believe their willingness, even eagerness to experiment, which many people place high value on, is what keeps Morbid Angel from true greatness.) Just over 30 years after their debut, 1991’s Dawn of Possession, Immolation have released their 11th album, Acts of God, and despite numerous lineup changes, you could play the brand new songs side by side with the old classics without blinking. And that’s the point. Immolation are an institution.
The Immolation sound is built around a kind of density and heaviness that not all death metal achieves, despite the broad use of extremely downtuned guitars. A lot of that has to do with founding guitarist Robert Vigna‘s use of dissonance and weird, atmospheric tones that can verge on the psychedelic at times. He clearly comes out of classic rock and early metal and takes things like tone and leaving space in the music very seriously. As a result, his solos are often stunningly beautiful. Second guitarist Alex Bouks has been in the band since 2016, but he didn’t play on the band’s last album, 2017’s Atonement. This time out, he’s a full presence, and the contrast between their styles is both evident and welcome. One is often going high while the other goes low, creating a harmonic contrast not unlike the off-kilter relationship between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo in Sonic Youth.
Drummer Steve Shalaty, who’s been with the band almost 20 years at this point, has a rumbling style that punctuates the riffs with fills rather than sticking to simple metronomic timekeeping; it’s almost a Rashied Ali-esque “pulse” approach at times. And when he lets those downtuned guitars float in the air, harmonizing eerily, and offers nothing but a softly tapped hi-hat to indicate his lurking presence (check out “Noose of Thorns” for a great example of this), it’s one of the most dramatic and suspenseful effects in metal.
Bassist, vocalist and co-founder (with Vigna) Ross Dolan‘s vocals can seem utilitarian at first; he doesn’t have the wide vocal range of Cannibal Corpse‘s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher or the unhinged yawp of Obituary‘s John Tardy. He’s a guttural, bearish roarer, not that different from Amon Amarth‘s Johan Hegg. And like Hegg, he enunciates clearly, making sure the listener catches every word. On the band’s last two albums, 2015’s Kingdom of Conspiracy and 2017’s Atonement, that was a plus, because the songs were dark and perceptive, delving into politics and social critique with surprising subtlety (read: smarter than Dave Mustaine). This time, they’re back to the somewhat rote anti-Christianity that was their stock in trade for most of their career, and it’s less exciting than it could have been.
The album’s also a little long. All of their previous releases have had between eight and 12 tracks, and run 40-45 minutes. Acts of God has 15 tracks (including the instrumental intro “Abandoned” and the short interstitial piece “And the Flames Wept”) and runs nearly 53 minutes. There are no bad songs, just too many that are good in pretty much the same way, and cutting two or three (plus the two instrumentals, cool as they are) would have made it hit harder. Still, it’s Immolation, which means it’s about as good as death metal gets. If you’re already a fan, you’ll be very happy, and if you haven’t yet explored their catalog, you could very easily start here and work your way backward.