Thursday, December 22, 2011
Immolation: a b(r)and I can trust
Over the past three days, I've run down my favorite new releases of 2011. I've come up with a pretty exhaustive catalog, but it's still incomplete—reason being that I haven't taken into account music that isn't new, but that's new to me.
While I'm at the office, I'm often listening in work mode, i.e., doing background research for a piece or simply rummaging through the mail (or e-mail), sampling the many records I receive each week. But when I'm at home or commuting, I'm usually listening for pure pleasure, and a fair amount of the time, that means schooling myself on older music.
In 2011, especially the latter part of the year, "older music" almost invariably meant death metal, typically by veteran bands who have been around more or less since the genre's late-’80s inception, or at least its early-’90s heyday. I've had a blast reacquainting myself with Obituary, a band I loved in high school but hadn't paid much mind to since. Incantation is another band that's magnetized me this year. I started delving into their catalog after falling under the spell of Disma (see No. 8 here), whose frontman, Craig Pillard, made his name in Incantation in the early-to-mid ’90s. I can't recommend their second full-length, 1994's Mortal Throne of Nazarene, highly enough. It's one of the most enveloping, dread-filled metal releases I know, with beautifully ornate riffage hidden under a layer of pure seething chaos—a true classic. (Check out "Emaciated Holy Figure" for a taste.) But the band that's held my attention longest, and most unwaveringly, is definitely Immolation.
I didn't know much about these guys before 2011. I knew they were from New York (Yonkers, to be exact) and that they'd been around forever (since 1986 or 1988, depending on which source you trust), but I'd always taken them for a capable yet second-rate death-metal band. For a long time, my fanaticism re: Morbid Angel, specifically my fixation on their fascinating idiosyncrasies, blinded me to a lot of what was going on in the trenches, i.e., those bands who were executing death metal in less blatantly progressive or convention-flouting ways. Now, for whatever reason, I'm more attracted by these types of bands, the ones who dig in, mark their territory and just produce and produce and produce. As I discussed in my tribute to Obituary, I'm realizing that evolution isn't always what I want out of music, or out of art in general; sometimes I just want a brand I can trust, and Immolation is exactly that.
After flipping (way late) for the band's 2010 LP, Majesty and Decay, I began a backward chronological trip through their discography. Over the past few weeks, amid various sidetrackings and mini tangents, I've worked my way (so far) through the five prior Immolation full-lengths (from 2007's Shadows in the Light through 1999's Failures for Gods). I've noted subtle differences along the way (the departure of drummer Alex Hernandez, and his replacement by current kit man Steve Shalaty, after 2002's Unholy Cult, brought about a significant shift), but overall, I've been awed by this band's consistent greatness, the way they've established clear parameters for their art—the linchpin elements being (1) Ross Dolan's sub-(or super-?)human growl, (2) chief songwriter Bob Vigna's tirelessly inventive guitar concept, which places equal weight on gnarled, chunky riffs as it does on spidery, floating texture, with constant sudden flashes of pure, out-of-the-blue derangement and (3) a staunchly diverse approach to tempo and rhythmic feel, wherein power-drill blast beats alternate with perversely lurching asymmetrical grooves—and reveled in that tightly defined creative space over so many years. You'll often hear people praise, say, Slayer for their brute single-mindedness, their refusal to stray from what works for them—I remember reading a variation of this in D.X. Ferris's 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood—but even given my spotty knowledge of Slayer's stranger, more unrepresentative works (1998's Diabolus in Musica, e.g.), I can say that no other metal catalog I could name rivals Immolation's for this quality of head-down, "don't mess with the formula but somehow manage to avoid stagnation" persistence. This band is simply a machine.
Maybe you could say the same for an outfit like Motörhead, but what I'm guessing you couldn't say for Lemmy & Co. is that their current work is arguably their best. I'd argue that Immolation was at their most intense on Unholy Cult; the precision and power of that record is awe-inspiring, bordering on psychotic, owing plenty to the performances but also to a production job that's among the finest I've ever heard in death metal. Unholy Cult's immediate predecessor, 2000's Close to a World Below, is nearly as deadly. After the arrival of Shalaty, a less pummeling, virtuosic drummer than Hernandez—who deserves to be inducted into the Death Metal Hall of Fame (when/if it's built, it's gotta be in Tampa, FL) for his performances on Unholy Cult and Close to a World Below—the band struggled a bit to maintain quite the same intensity level (cases in point: Shadows in the Light and 2005's Harnessing Ruin, both fine records—especially the latter, which contains some of Vigna's most brilliantly demented inventions—but not quite as juggernaut-ish as the Hernandez discs).
Something clicked into place on Majesty and Decay, though. The production job isn't stellar—to me, the drums sound particularly weak, lacking any real bottom or punch—but the songwriting took a quantum leap. This record is absolutely crammed with memorable riffs, compositions that loop incessantly in your brain. At this stage, Immolation's writing is as catchy as it is admirably unrelenting; if I had to choose a favorite album of theirs (and bear in mind, I haven't spent good time with the first two, 1991's Dawn of Possession and 1996's Here in After), I'd have to choose Majesty. Before this record, it would've been hard to imagine Immolation releasing a bona fide single, complete with video, but they did just that this past July ("A Glorious Epoch" is the track in question), and it makes perfect sense. And with the help of that "No one can quite figure out exactly why they're doing it, but what's the use in complaining when the results are this awesome?" car company/metal patron Scion, Dolan, Vigna & Co. have continued to roll forward, recently issuing Providence, a free-on-the-internet EP of brand new material that's as strong as what you hear on Majesty.
Two-plus decades into its existence, Immolation is still adding meaningfully to its rock-solid legacy, and not by tweaking the formula, but, in a way, by becoming more and more itself, drawing ever nearer to its most essential statement yet—without rendering its back catalog obsolete. Each version of Immolation we've heard, over so many albums, has represented its own kind of state-of-the-art; despite the little inconsistencies, there's not really a true transitional album among them. Each one is confident, complete. The highest compliment I could pay each of these records is that it's fit to stand beside all the other ones; it's hard to name an apex, but it's downright impossible to name a nadir. There simply isn't one, and that's why Immolation means so much to me. As much as I've loved getting to know all the new sounds of 2011, I'm not sure another listening experience has meant more to me this year than waking up to this sturdiest, most trustworthy of extreme-metal brands.
Here's half a dozen tracks to get you started. (I'm really starting to loathe the sound quality of YouTube streams, so if you like what you hear, go buy the records in question.)
"A Glorious Epoch" from Majesty and Decay (2010)
"The Rapture of Ghosts" from Majesty and Decay
"Our Savior Sleeps" from Harnessing Ruin (2005)
"Unholy Cult" from Unholy Cult (2002)
"Unpardonable Sin" from Close to a World Below (2000)
"Your Angel Died" from Failures for Gods (1999)