Suffocation, with the help of one of YouTube’s original classics, was my key to understanding death metal. Watching a balding poindexter have the time of his life mock playing along to “Infecting the Crypts” helped me realize that death metal is just fucking fun, its vulgarity and brutality much more tongue and cheek than a layman would perceive at surface level. Long Island’s br00tal death pioneers have been having the time of their life for nearly three decades now, specializing in cutting-edge instrumentation and dramatic, crushing tempo changes to build one of the most impressively consistent discographies in all of death metal. But AMG’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™ was far overdue to rear its ugly mug, and I had a feeling that a half finished album title might be prophetic of a similarly underdeveloped record. Unfortunately, I was correct; …of the Dark Light is the band’s first major stumble in their storied career.
Though flawed, this album isn’t a betrayal of Suffocation‘s modern sound in any sense. The lurching tempos, stop-start riffing, and dynamic drum performances are all very much intact, an immediately identifiable style indicative of a band that’s spent decades honing their approach. All of the instrumentation on …of the Dark Light is as impressive as ever, and even with a couple of lineup changes since Pinnacle of Bedlam, the band’s ability to work in exact tandem is consistently impressive. This is especially true because the record showcases Suffocation at their most technical, with galloping double bass patterns fused to rapidly plucked riffs with mechanical precision. As a pure showcase of instrumental skill, …of the Dark Light is a decently enjoyable listen, delivering the goods as you’d expect from a band that tours heavily on the shoulders of technically demanding material.
Yet for all of its complex performances, OtDL’s songwriting is dishearteningly one-dimensional. The record lacks drama and brutality, especially when contrasted against past Suffocation releases. Aside from one decently bludgeoning breakdown in the title track, all of the tempo changes on this thing have no identifiable lead-ins; it took me several listens before I even registered that the instrumental breaks in “The Warmth Within the Dark” and “The Violation”1 were tempo changes and not transitions to new songs altogether. This confusion stems from a lack of track variety, as each arrangement suffers from a dearth of power chords and an overabundance of plinky, palm muted gallops devoid of personality and hooks. The lack of open-hand riffing gives the record a claustrophobic feel in the worst possible way, and I’m baffled that a group as influential as Suffocation would creatively box themselves in like this.
OtDL‘s production is hit or miss. The mix is well balanced despite the loud master; I’m thrilled that enough room was granted to allow for a perfectly audible bass guitar. The tones, however, are just as lacking in weight as the compositions. It’s as if the guitar sound was engineered to emphasize the sharpness of the palm muted riffs, so when the occasional power chord does crop up (see the grindcore influence on “Return to the Abyss,” which weakly emulates similar passages from Pinnacle of Bedlam), it sounds strangely anemic. The drum presence feels thin, with the kicks sounding like a fucking typewriter just like on every other modern death metal album. I suppose one could make the argument that the mechanical production is a good match for the staccato performances, but it just doesn’t deliver the pummeling peaks that help define my favorite death metal records. As for long-time vocalist Frank Mullens, he sounds particularly bored this go ’round, but at least his performance provides lyrical clarity.
I’ve always viewed Suffocation as death metal’s equivalent to Kreator; a hugely influential band with an extremely solid modern sound indicative of decades of experience. While …of the Dark Light isn’t an outright bad record, it’s an utterly boring one, and none of the generous number of spins I granted it revealed any hint at an inspired approach to these ears. At the time of this writing, I still have some hope that this record is merely a lone speed bump in an otherwise remarkably consistent career. As Suffocation fans typically have to wait at least four years between LPs, however, I’m not holding my breath.