My grim compulsion for all things death metal was initially born from a worship of the burgeoning Floridian and Swedish scenes, spawned originally as a continuation of my immortal love of thrash. I was immediately addicted to the genre’s inherent heaviness and dark theatricality, but it wasn’t until I eventually stumbled into the path of the New York acts, who heralded a denser, altogether heavier wave of death, that I would come into contact with Immolation, marking the first time I would be exposed to truly oppressive metal. It was unflinching, uneasy and threatening, and wholly without its brother’s tongue-in-cheek horror movie sensibility – in its place was a darkly brutal polemic of anti-religious, sociopolitical proportions. Now, continuing a rare trend of career-spanning quality, the band are preparing to drop tenth studio album Atonement, and with it eleven new tenets of warped and titanic Christ aversions.
2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy saw Immolation honing their sound into a faster and more typically aggressive model, and, although undeniably potent stuff, I wasn’t as enamored as I had been with predecessor Majesty and Decay, whose title summarized the record perfectly. Atonement, atoning for no musical sins at least, slows down the pace and sees the band returning to their more deliberate roots. Huge, tectonic riffs rumble through entire swarms of kinetic blasting, whilst lead guitarist, Robert Vigna, ever the master of the weft and warp of guitar dissonance, twists through a multitude of tremolo riffs and screaming leads. Opener, “The Distorting Light,” epitomizes the album and, by extension, the band, by showcasing their entire bag of tricks, vacillating between discordant guitar layers and colossal, mid-paced grooves.
Interestingly, in as much as Atonement exhibits the quintessential signatures that Immolation have been plying for the better part of three decades, it also introduces a few new concepts. Instead of the overwhelming chaos infamously wrought on Close to A World Below, Atonement instead sees Vigna incorporating chord progressions of an Eastern nature in his sporadic soloing, and even utilizing some black metal inspired picking. “When the Jackals Come,” “Thrown to the Fire” and, expressly, album closer “Epiphany” all host destructive, semi-cinematic guitar lines, spotted with fractured melodies that raise the band’s usual fare of amorphous and abrasive rhythms into deceptively memorable territory. Devastating riffs abound, but it’s not all about methodical desolation; “Rise the Heretics” and “Destructive Currents” employ vicious pacing and a furious sense of momentum compounded by Vigna’s trilling lead work. Despite the focus of the atonal guitars, I’ve always admired the band’s rhythm section for its disciplined ability to restrain, then accelerate on the head of a pin, something that drummer Steve Shalaty does with aplomb with his effortless blasting and adventurous runs.
It’s almost redundant to point out what a monolith Ross Dolan is. He sounds no different than when I first heard him thundering all over “Into Everlasting Fire” years ago. His voice remains stolid and intelligible, and although he doesn’t possess the most dexterous set of pipes in extreme metal, I’ve always felt his monotone delivery fit the calamity of the music perfectly. His vocals sit level with the guitars in what is, unsurprisingly, a fairly compressed production. Although the mix couldn’t possibly detract from the stellar material, I would have liked to have heard Dolan’s bass a little more upfront – as it is, it drowns in the cacophony, leaving Shalaty’s kick-drum to supply the low-end.
All the while, whilst listening to Atonement I kept snatching at a familiar notion in my head; an insistent element of something on each and every play-through. Eventually, I came to realize that what Immolation kept reminding me of was, in fact, Immolation themselves. A rigid sense of self resounds on this record, an identity that continuously enables the band to produce exemplary and unique death metal almost 30 years after their inception. As such, if you’re not already convinced, then this most certainly won’t be the album to change your mind. Atonement isn’t immediate; it’s esoteric and spatially awkward. But its also rich and monstrously vast, and finds the band in extraordinary form and perhaps at their most consummate. To quote the album: “Lower and lower, my soul is sinking lower,” but, by Lucifer, I fucking love it down here!