Metal Blade, 1999
This album was highly anticipated by a number of people in the death metal scene, for a variety of reasons. For one, Immolation rarely disappoints on any level, and I think many people were ready to hear an American death metal band come back with a good album to offset the tremendous deficit that we have been building in relation to the stellar European scene. Secondly, Immolation always seems to deliver music that is perfectly representative of where the American scene is (in terms of progression) even while they give us albums that can be pointed to as uniquely their own in the matter of style. It is no coincidence that the American scene always rallies behind these guys - they have earned that position through year after year of hard work and dedication.
Immolation is first and foremost an amazing live band, and I still don't think their albums do justice to that fact - but that's a commonplace. I had the opportunity to see Immolation twice this year, at the Milwaukee Metalfest and at a show here in Dallas, and both times I came away stunned by the emotion on display. In a live situation their music gives off much more deadly energy than it does on disc or tape, and to see them perform is, I think, a chance to witness the potential and power that this form of music really can evoke. On stage they are black malevolent violence personified...they are one of the angriest death metal bands I have ever seen, and that passion is what sets them apart.
Having said that, let's turn to this, their newest work. I have been a fan of this band for about eight years now, since their demo days, and I have watched their progression all along with interest and attachment. This is easily their best album - why? Because it resonates with the listener long after it's first abilities to startle or provoke have been ameliorated by repeated listenings. After a while it's the underlying melodicism that comes through, not the 'brutal' edge or the savage power that it holds. I don't think I can say that for their other albums - except for select songs like 'Those Left Behind'. This album sets a new standard for Immolation in that it's much more melodically complex and richer in thematic scope - if not as technical as 'Here in After'. This album penetrates much deeper into the musical world that they have created on the last two releases, and explores more of the infernal reflection of reality that Immolation set themselves up to be. It is also a much more relaxed album in that it unfolds at its own pace, and doesn't seek to cram as many catchy riffs in the first few songs as it can - it allows some breathing space for the solos and more room for added dynamics and/or shades of meaning. For the first few listens, I would suggest putting this album on while you are engaged in doing something else - not as background music, really, but in order to give the songs a chance to sink into your consciousness without trying to pay attention to every twist and turn critically. That way when you come back to it after a few days you will be able to pick out the highlights without much difficulty, and the album will expand with your understanding of its structure.
I have always been an admirer of Bob Vigna's guitar playing and this album does not let me down in any way. He has continued to bring more and more dynamics and thought to his playing and/or composing, and in the space of a single song he and Tom now have the ability to sum up an entire decade of death metal melodicism - from the simplest and catchiest of doomdirge riffs to exquisitely layered and vibrant dark soundscapes. He has an original melodic vision (much in the same way as Trey Azagthoth) and I love the way that he makes Immolation's music so dense and malleable that it often seems to be moving and standing still at the same time: pulsing while it freezes, writhing while it shrieks to a halt, falling while it urges you to rise.
For me, this is the ending statement for American death metal in the '90s. I think Immolation have summed it all up for us while offering little in the way of hope for the future - in fact the last song on this album ends with a doom-filled slow march of despair, while the guitars take turns crying out over the martial rhythm in a beautiful little melody that is probably the most affecting thing they have ever written. 'Where can it go from here?' the music seems to say, and I find myself echoing that sentiment. This is a work of endtime art, a paean to the power of the abyss...