Friday the 24th of February saw one of the most fruitful release days for music in a long while, with new albums dropping left, right and centre from the likes of Thundercat, Oddisee, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Power Trip, Stormzy and so many others. As a result, I have a lot of new material I want to get through from all over the musical spectrum, but I thought I should start with the first album I listened to this past Friday, that being the latest album from Immolation. This New York-based death metal outfit have been a notable name in the music world since the early 90s, when they were put on the metal map thanks to their kooky riffs, off-kilter approach to songwriting and general wackiness that piqued the interest of many. Immolation have often taken their time releasing albums, with the band’s 10th album, Atonement, arriving four years after their previous effort, Kingdom of Conspiracy. I was as intrigued as ever to hear the group’s new release because they have consistently maintained such a high level of quality across their material that the fact that they sometimes keep fans waiting for a new release is completely justified, as the time they put into writing and recording really shows. What’s more, Immolation set themselves apart from other death metal bands who were starting to gain traction at the same time, such as Cannibal Corpse and Dying Fetus, not solely because of their atypical riffage and obscure song structures, but because they would also opt not to evoke imagery of slasher film-inspired violence, rather the band’s lyrics dealt largely with political and social issues, particularly their firm stance against religion. Of course, the lyrics were packaged in an equally dark, grim and confrontational aesthetic as to those of their horror flick-stylised counterparts, but Immolation’s lyrical topics, in conjunction with the band’s incredible musical ability, made the case for a less tongue-in-cheek and a much more serious approach to death metal that has gone on to inspire many artists in the succeeding generations of the genre. Over the years, the changes to the band’s sound have been minimal, rather they seem to have continued to hone the blueprint for their unusual and enthralling attitude towards death metal. Nevertheless, Atonement highlights some changes for the group, most notably as a result of new recruit Alex Bouks on guitar, marking Immolation’s first alteration of their line-up since 2003. Indeed, the Immolation presented on Atonement has somewhat of an air of freshness to it, whilst nonetheless demonstrating the appeal that has made the band such a spectacle since their inception. The end product is yet another impressive addition to the death metal outfit’s almost spotless back-catalogue of material.
The album opens with The Distorting Light, which acts as a fitting summarisation of Immolation’s approach on Atonement. The track is introduced by a weird, sludgy riff, before bursting into a deep and dark blast of growled vocals, pummelling blastbeats and grumbling guitars. Lead axeman Robert Vigna’s guitar lines constantly twist and turn, as the rest of the band fluidly move in and out of sluggish grooves, brutal breakdowns and thumping beats. Vocalist Ross Dolan’s lyrics on The Distorting Light reflect concurrent themes to those that appeared on Immolation’s previous effort, Kingdom of Conspiracy, which he has said was inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. With lines like, “The wicked and corrupt surround us / Their perpetual horrors so blurred / Creating the visions that mislead us / Hiding the terror we’re not meant to see”, the dystopian visions of Atonement‘s predecessor are clearly marked as making a reappearance here. Ultimately, the general atmosphere of The Distorting Light is amongst Immolation’s darker material, which sets the mood for the rest of the record and is distinctly more akin to much of the band’s early work, but nevertheless slightly revised into their more developed approach to songwriting that has come about over their three decades of experience.
Immolation have always been a band who can get away with adhering to their pre-established blueprint to songwriting, simply because it’s such a solid one, but there are certainly some subtle — but nevertheless significant — changes featured on Atonement. Primarily, Vigna’s capacity as a guitarist seems to have broadened, with the axeman incorporating more diverse scales and influences both into his composing and his soloing. When the Jackals Come establishes this slightly heightened awareness of Vigna’s when it comes to soloing, with his intricate — and occasionally discordant — leads swirling over the punishing beat and seemingly displaying an influence from some traditional musical stylings from the East. Rise the Heretics is another stand-out track as a result of Vigna’s guitar work, which incorporates some idiosyncratic phrasing that takes his usual eccentric style of playing to a whole new level. The incredible dexterity of Vigna alone results in Atonement being amongst the most memorable and unique of Immolation’s recent material, with his eclectic approach to playing and writing providing many of these songs with their own, individual flavour.
Ultimately, Atonement succeeds largely due to Immolation’s ability to incorporate the raw energy and bare-faced aggression of the outfit’s early work, whilst also developing their sound and artistry through diversified musical influences and Dolan’s incorporation of ideas pertaining to political philosophy, rather than the exclusive antitheism of his earlier lyrical content. The end product is a record as apocalyptic as the band’s debut, Dawn of Possession, but elevated to a borderline theatrical level, as a result of the diverse passages which the band flow through, with the rhythm section remaining tight and disciplined as Vigna weaves his way through his convoluted and turbulent lead work. It should also be said that the production value of Atonement is greatly improved from the group’s previous album and, for the most part, accommodates their oppressively dark sound fantastically well. Indeed, Immolation’s 10th studio effort further fortifies their position as one of the most eccentric, crazy and outstanding bands in death metal currently and for the past 30 years.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10