Death metal started out in the mid-Eighties as a mad sprint: a scrappy cohort of underground acts each looking to push the limits of speed and shock value. But for many in that first generation, it’s turned out to be a marathon. Of the bands that helped to cement the subgenre’s core features of growled vocals, maximalist drumming, and swarming, seething riffs, many of them — from Obituary and Carcass to Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Deicide, and even de facto death-metal forefathers Possessed — aren’t just surviving, but thriving well past the three-decade mark, regularly issuing new music and drawing die-hard crowds worldwide.
Right alongside them are Immolation. The Yonkers, New York, quartet was never death metal’s most high-profile act — while some of their peers were inking major-label deals in the early Nineties, they were still slugging it out in the underground. But as the years rolled on, and many of those same contemporaries changed course, shed key members, or outright disbanded, Immolation co-founders Ross Dolan and Bob Vigna kept their heads down and all their energies focused on crafting some of the most darkly enthralling records the movement has ever seen. Standouts like their 1991 debut, Dawn of Possession, and 2000’s monstrously intense Close to a World Below have influenced countless younger bands, as well as above-ground titans like Slipknot, whose guitarist Mick Thomson has a blasphemous image from the Dawn cover tattooed on his arm.
Immolation’s unswerving aesthetic means that their current output instantly conjures the pitch-black aura of their classic work. “The Age of No Light,” the second advance track from the band’s upcoming 11th full-length, Acts of God (out Feb. 18), announces itself with an ominously trilling figure from Vigna, the band’s sole composer and a guitarist who often seems more like a spellcaster than a mere wrangler of riffs. The full band — rounded out by bassist-vocalist Dolan, guitarist Alex Bouks, and drummer Steve Shalaty — enters in a blast-beat-powered cloudburst, as Dolan roars out a portrait of the arriving apocalypse. A trademark Immolation move arrives early, in the form of a downshift into a fierce half-time groove, which Shalaty peppers with borderline-funky syncopated snare accents.
Part of the charm of early Immolation was how frantic and chaotic their arrangements could sound, but over time, they’ve become masters of pacing, with each twist adding intrigue to their dark mini epics. The crafty arrangement of “The Age of No Light” — where an ominously trudging midsection builds to an eerie two-guitar break and overlapping solos, pointing the way to a suitably dismal outro riff — shows how, 31 years after their debut, they’re focusing as much on atmosphere as aggression. And on Acts of God, with the help of longtime producer Paul Orofino, they’ve achieved some of their clearest, fullest-sounding studio sound yet. Who knew? Maturity and death metal mix pretty well, after all.
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