Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rolling up their sleeves: Suffocation and the pleasures of death-metal conservatism

One of the chief constants throughout my listening life has been death metal. I first got into the style in roughly 1993, via Morbid Angel, whose masterpiece, Covenant, turns 20 in a few months. For a long time, I maintained a sort of mental hierarchy re: death metal as a whole, which went something like: "There's Morbid, and then there's everyone else." While I still adore that band, and worship their inspired, wildly erratic take on the subgenre, my perspective on death metal has changed a lot throughout the past two decades. These days, I seem to be more interested in consistency and longevity, a kind of dogged devotion to craft, than anything else. Bands that once seemed workmanlike now appear remarkable. Several times over the past few years, I've found myself off on one of my extreme listening jags, so immersed in, enamored of and acclimated to the work of a single death-metal band that I can barely stand to hear a note of anything else. In late 2011, it was all about first Obituary, then Immolation; last summer, it was Cannibal Corpse; currently, it's Suffocation.

I'm pretty sure I first heard this band on the 1993 Roadrunner comp At Death's Door II, a landmark purchase for me at the time, the album that introduced me to staples of my extreme-metal listening diet both then (Disincarnate, Fear Factory) and more recently (Cynic, Gorguts). I'm pretty sure, as well, that the Suffocation track in question ("Prelude to Repulsion," from their 1993 sophomore LP, Breeding the Spawn) didn't make much of an impression. It's only in recent years that I've developed an obsession with Suffocation. Blood Oath, from 2009, piqued my interest in a major way, but it's the brand-new Pinnacle of Bedlam that's really sent me over the top.

The MetalSucks review of this album is dead-on and highly recommended. I can definitely relate to the initial skepticism that Sammy O'Hagar cops to in that write-up. For those not up to speed, here's the gist: There's been a bit of drama/upheaval in the Suffocation camp over the past year or so. Drummer Mike Smith, a staple of the Long Island band's lineup since their 1990 demo (and a musician whom Heavy Metal Be-Bop readers might remember from the DamiĆ³n Reid installment), left the band on bad terms last year. Then, the news dropped that vocalist Frank Mullen, a charter member and one of death metal's most charismatic frontmen, would no longer be a permanent part of the band's touring incarnation. (Suffocation played with a fill-in growler at last summer's Obscene Extreme fest.)

That Pinnacle of Bedlam is extraordinarily good—one of the finest LPs, and maybe even the finest LP, that Suffocation has released—tells you something about the way this band operates, and tangentially about the M.O. shared by the truly great veteran death metal acts, including the aforementioned Immolation, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary. With help from Spotify, I've been binging on the Suffocation discography over the past week or so—seven full-lengths (including Pinnacle) and two EPs—and what really stands out is the steadiness, the determination with which this band has progressed. As with, say, Immolation, you won't find any wild departures in the Suffocation discography; you'll find a band laying out a primitive yet competent blueprint on its early releases—compare these two bands' seminal releases, Dawn of Possession and Human Waste, respectively, which came out within a few months of one another in 1991—and slowly but surely honing that into something truly fearsome, absolutely airtight. There are no accidents in the Suffocation discography, just a gradual perfection of a craft, namely death metal marked by fiendishly complex yet ever-headbangable riffage, assaultively growl-barked vocals and the juxtaposition of jackhammer blastbeats and churning, mosh-commanding breakdowns. It's a style so iconic that if one is showing up late to the Suffocation party, as I did, it can be easy to mistake them for a generic death-metal band. In reality, they wrote much of the blueprint for a certain subcategory of the genre and have proceeded to cling to that blueprint like Super Glue. Pinnacle of Bedlam is, then, simply their latest, greatest dispatch. There's no real need to play-by-play it (though, for those that might be concerned, I will specify that Smith's replacement, Dave Culross, absolutely smokes here); it's an effing Suffocation record, and it's worthy of their legacy, which is saying a ton. Overall, it feels a bit speedier, more technical, more straight-up overwhelming than its predecessor, Blood Oath, for those keeping track. From a more general perspective, though, this is the key takeaway: If you enjoy Suffocation as much as I do, Pinnacle of Bedlam will make you ridiculously happy, as it has me.

I mentioned Morbid Angel above, and they're relevant to this discussion mainly as a counterexample. In 1989's Altars of Madness, they released one of death metal's indisputable early benchmarks. The next two records saw the band straining against the style's essential underground-ness, seeing how far they could push the, for lack of a better term, professionalism of the style, and in the process, arriving at what I consider to be the single greatest death-metal album of all time (not to mention my favorite metal album, full stop): 1993's Covenant. But as anyone who read their interviews around that time could tell you, Morbid Angel was never content to be just a death metal band. They spoke with arrogant indifference re: "the scene," and in a way, they had earned the right to. Band mastermind Trey Azagthoth was, and as far as I'm concerned, still is, one of the great oddball visionaries of contemporary rock-based artistry, a guy who has seemed to draw more inspiration over the years from video games and motivational speakers than he has from other music, let alone from a narrowly defined subgenre such as death metal. It's that kind of outside-the-box thinking that makes possible a masterpiece like Covenant—and its flawed but still excellent follow-up, 1995's Domination—but that also breeds a kind of precarious eclecticism. Longtime DFSBP readers might recall me tying myself in knots trying to defend Morbid Angel's widely reviled, industrial-leaning 2011 comeback LP. As with any gonzo departure of that nature, the true test of its value is whether or not the record's allure outlasts the controversy that it incites, and the truth of the matter is that, for me, the record in question (Illud Divinum Insanus) has not measured up in that regard. After my initial flurry of probably meta-contrarian interest—i.e., born more out of hating on the haters than out of my own genuine positive feeling toward what I was hearing—I haven't felt the desire to spin the thing a single time.

I've meandered way off course here, but I promise there's a Suffocation-related point mixed in with all this. And that point is this: There is no Covenant in the Suffocation discography—no genre-transcending ultra-masterpiece—but by the same token, there is also no Illud Divinum Insanus—no pointlessly baffling head-scratcher. As with the Immolation catalog, what you get listening to the Suffocation oeuvre front-to-back is a respectable but not-quite-there early phase followed by an unbroken string of staggering rippers. In other words, once these bands have found their respective zones, they've stayed right dead in the center of them, making small tweaks but not seeming to feel any great need to change up the formula, to attempt experiments or departures—hence what I said above re: workmanlike-ness, a certain humble craftsmanship that, in my listening experience anyway, seems to thrive as strongly in death metal as it does anywhere else in contemporary music. (To my ears, Suffocation really hit its stride, which persists to this day, on its third LP, 1995's Pierced from Within; my recall of the Immolation catalog isn't super-fresh at the moment, but I seem to remember that their own third LP, 1999's Failures for Gods, marked the beginning of their all-killer phase.)

Sure, there's deviation within the Suffocation catalog from 1995 until now. Some of that has to do with personnel. Much like Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation has shuffled members frequently over a 25-year existence. Among the current lineup, Mullen is the only consistent original member, with guitarist Terrance Hobbs coming in a close second; as far as I know, only these two have appeared on every Suffocation release. Guitarist Guy Marchais apparently cofounded the band, but he had departed by the time of the demo and wouldn't record with them until 2004's Souls to Deny (an LP that marked the band's return after a five-year hiatus); Smith, meanwhile, didn't play on Pierced from Within or the next Suffocation release, ’98's Despise the Sun EP. All this is inside baseball, though. For the non–nerdily obsessive, the point is that Suffocation has maintained a certain monolithic quality level for the better part of the past two decades. To these ears, the Cannibal Corpse discography has been spottier—I'd maintain that they peaked on 1994's The Bleeding and then again with 2006's Kill, and haven't looked back—but the principle is the same: In a sense these bands are tried-and-true brands as much as they are artistic entities. Personnel changes; production styles change (you can especially hear that in the Suffocation discography; spin Pierced from Within alongside Suffocation's absolutely massive-sounding self-titled 2006 record for a quick lesson in how drastically the recorded presentation of extreme metal has shifted over time). But the core aesthetic is unwavering. Fans of bands like Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse and Immolation don't need to worry about their heroes fancying a surprise, an experiment, a departure. Sure, you'll get the odd quasi-curveball: an instrumental track from Cannibal, the occasional clean-toned guitar passage / whispered-not-growled vocal from Immolation, a ballad-like intro from Suffocation (e.g., on the mindblowingly good "Sullen Days" from Pinnacle of Bedlam). But what you won't get is the album-length WTF moment.

On paper, this might seem tedious, but in practice, speaking from a fan's perspective, it's actually pretty damn delightful. You know these bands are going to slay, both on record and onstage. (I haven't caught Immolation yet—can't wait for this in June—though I can vouch for the live awesomeness of both Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation, the latter of whom I saw at Maryland Deathfest last year.) In that sense, they're critic-proof. An outsider might roll their eyes at yet another Cannibal Corpse, Immolation or Suffocation record, but as long as these bands are recording, there will never come a time when the die-hards will not rabidly swarm one of these releases, record-industry downfall be damned. It seems like a silly stat to point out, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the whopping 56 Amazon reviews, most of them raves, for Suffocation's Souls to Deny. What that number tells you is that there is a real audience for this stuff, that fans appreciate consistency, that so-called artistic evolution can sometimes be overrated. Sometimes, you just want a band that delivers. There's something touching about this sort of closed-circuit artist-audience relationship. I'm sure it exists in other subgenres too—perhaps in the jam-band scene, another sphere regarded by "the outside world" with indifference or outright scorn, but one that enjoys serious, unwavering fan support.

It's this relationship, upheld year-in, year-out—and in the case of veteran bands like Suffocation, decade-in, decade-out—that keeps me coming back to death metal, 20 years after I first discovered it. The kind of longevity these bands embody isn't an empty one; it isn't mere "hanging around." Sure, just like any other genre, death metal has its wild aberrances—those acts like, say, Gorguts or Death, who successfully attempt some insanely ambitious stylistic makeover, as well as your Morbid Angels, who clip the hurdle as they're attempting to leap over it—much as it has its sticks-in-the-mud. I won't name names, but I can think of a handful of death-metal bands who have been around just about as long as Suffocation and who don't interest me in the slightest. Yes, Suffocation may be reading from a recipe at this point, but the recipe yields something absolutely delicious—it's no longer novel, but nor, if you have a taste for it, does it ever really get old. Death metal may not embody the media-friendly sexiness of black metal—the latter's often tedious trappings of supposed real-life anguish, its absurd/enthralling pageantry, its deliberately taxing lo-fi-ness/experimentalism; as is probably clear, I've never really warmed up to that subgenre. But what death metal offers, at its best, is the rolling up of sleeves. Vein-popping virtuosity applied to pure baroque artistry. Hyper-ambitiousness within a formally conservative framework. Craft. Sweat. Head-down devotion. It makes me so happy.


Here's a quick Suffocation sampler, touching on all five albums from the new Pinnacle of Bedlam back through 1995's Pierced from Within. If you like what you hear, I recommend giving each of these records a good, concerted listen. Effigy of the Forgotten and Breeding the Spawn—from ’91 and ’93, respectively—have their primitive charms as well. (Interestingly, the band has made a habit of re-recording tracks from the subpar-sounding Breeding throughout their later career, a practice that seems to tie into my impression of them as perfectionist craftsmen; Pinnacle concludes with one of these: "Beginning of Sorrow.")


P.S. Here's a great new interview with Terrance Hobbs, via Phil Freeman at Burning Ambulance.

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