Immolation: metal’s Faustian bargain with consumerism

Among counter cultures, metal has always been something of an enigma. Staunchly isolationist. Relentlessly oblivious (and sometimes outright hostile) to the ebbs and flows of the outside world. Yet conversely replete with complex codes of conduct, contested lore, and hidden shibboleths. For these reasons and more, its relationship to wider cultural and historical trends is all the more obfuscated. From one angle metal looks like a static object, stubbornly sticking to its own rigid mores at any cost. But from another angle it is the most vibrant, adventurous and ambitious form of contemporary music in existence.

Immolation’s story is an abject lesson in what happens when metal tries to shed its contrarian and free-spirited energy, in favour of being an outward looking and on-trend cultural artefact. It’s a story that sees once original artistic minds second guess their own creative choices in response to the perceived demands of fandom. It has been played out time and again. It is ultimately a story of what happens when metal becomes self-conscious.

Immolation’s career spans over thirty years. They have ten studio albums behind them and a clutch of EPs. They are universally well respected within the global metal community. Artistically, they are responsible for some of the best albums that death metal has to offer. They are also a consistently hard-working live band (at least before 2020). Guitarist Rob Vigna and bassist/vocalist Ross Dolan – between them making up Immolation’s longstanding core – are both articulate, well-mannered individuals who genuinely love sharing their craft with the world. There is not a drop of pretension between them. To put it another way, they are a fixed point of integrity within the death metal community.

So why shine a light on this reliable mainstay? The answer is simple, but also…not. Immolation’s career plays out in microcosm a wider narrative discernable within metal, and counter cultures in general. It’s a story that illuminates metal’s problematic relationship with cultural progression.

Immolation’s history stretches back to the very germinal of death metal in the late 1980s. Then known as Rigor Mortis, the compilation ‘Stepping on Angels…Before Dawn’ concisely documents their evolution from primitive thrash outfit to ambitious death metal. Listening to this collection of early material, we see the songs become more complex, the introduction of dissonance and increasing shifts in time and tempo, Ross Dolan’s recruitment as vocalist brought a generous dollop of monstrosity to proceedings along the way. All of which culminated in their debut LP ‘Dawn of Possession’ in 1991, which was something of a watershed year for global death metal at large. Having ousted thrash as the alpha male of the genre, death metal achieved that rare thing: mass appeal and artistic ambition. ‘Dawn of Possession’ captures this moment almost perfectly. The mix is dirty, the playing and overall presentation still a little rough around the edges, but it is clearly reaching for a sophisticated musical statement beyond the achievements of the previous decade.

And then…Roadrunner kicked them off their roster. As quickly as it had exploded, death metal’s status as darling of heavy music faded. The money followed the rise of alt-metal, nu metal, or groove metal. Just as thrash bands faced the same dilemma a few years earlier, death metal artists were forced to decide whether to throw their lot in with the danceable angst of the 90s, or stick to their underground guns and risk forever sinking into obscurity.

By the mid-1990s, many believed death metal’s creative well had dried up regardless of fading label interest. Where could one go? It’s not possible to maintain the same degree of intensity and artistic originality, one or the other would have to give. Reality seemed to confirm this belief; outflanked by black metal for extremity, and fallen out of favour as far as popular opinion was concerned. The response from some – Morbid Angel, Sepultura, Massacre – is so well documented it’s easy to forget that the mid-1990s saw a brief but enduring spark of sophistication that bucked the trend of rapid decline; the ripples of which can be felt to this day.

A well documented decline

Immolation played no small part in this with their second album ‘Here in After’, released in 1996 on Metal Blade Records. Having brushed themselves off from their bruising treatment at the hands of Roadrunner, they delivered what many hold to be their best work. There is an undeniable maturity to the album that sees death metal outgrow the heady but imprecise days of its youth and morph into metal for thinkers. It would be tempting to view ‘Here in After’ as a diamond in the groove metal rough of that era, dropping at the beginning of death metal’s exile, but they were not alone. Suffocation, Incantation, Gorguts, and Monstrosity; all these and more released some of their most sophisticated works, that swam against the current of the late 1990s. Sticking staunchly to metal’s isolationist principles, ‘Here in After’ borrowed the philosophy of narrative composition if not the raw technique, resulting in an album that endured well beyond the superficial. Calls to ‘innovate or die’ by contrast, are often a veiled false dilemma between transitioning into pop metal or running up the one-dimensional progressive dead-ends Death were prone to at the time.

With the departure of drummer Craig Smilowski in 1996, Immolation recruited an alien with an independent brain in each limb known as Alex Hernandez. This allowed Immolation to normalise the marriage between sonic extremity and sophisticated song writing. They became masters of consistency and quality, a truly rare thing in extreme metal circles. The trilogy of ‘Failures for Gods’, ‘Close to a World Below’, and ‘Unholy Cult’ saw them usher in the new millennium with three unique, dense, and revered slabs of death metal.

Consistency that sheds itself of creative stagnation is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve within death metal. Immolation’s somewhat modest popularity when compared to many of their contemporaries perhaps created the environment for this success. They were well known enough in death metal circles to warrant label backing in the form of Metal Blade, but the Immolation name carried no currency outside of the metal community, unlike a Cannibal Corpse or Morbid Angel. A relentlessly hardworking live band that still held down day jobs to make ends meet, this was the sweet spot between having the means to achieve a vision, and none of the pretension and over-extension that comes from mass scrutiny.

Despite this, cracks began to appear. The first one being the change in logo. Whilst this may seem like a needless quibble, ditching the old school ‘flame’ font in favour of a cleaner, more formal style was indicative of a degree of embarrassment about the past. It’s one thing to embrace maturity, it’s another to gradually airbrush history. The fact that this first manifested in the form of a logo change also points to a concern with branding.

Branding is distinct from a preoccupation with image. Image, when deployed correctly, interacts with the sonic artistry and enhances the overall experience. Branding embroils one in a feedback loop with public opinion. It leads one to conduct what could broadly be described as ‘market research’. Which bands are popular right now? What is the general aesthetic trend of metal albums? What do fans expect of us? How can we be seen to take risks without being so left-field that fans won’t respond?

The next two albums, ‘Harnessing Ruins’ (2005) and ‘Shadows in the Light’ (2007), whilst respectable albums musically speaking, embraced digital art with gusto, and both covers have aged horribly. Gone are the elaborate paintings and dramatic scenes of angels and demons locked in battle, these were shed in favour of what looks like cheap video game art.

These two albums also saw another shift in clientele behind the drum kit, with Steve Shalaty replacing Hernandez. Whilst Shalaty is a fantastic drummer with an intricate technical ability, he lacks the panache and originality of Hernandez. As one MA forum member once pointed out, drummers of Shalaty’s calibre, particularly in more recent years, are fairly common. Bill Thunderguns Mark-432, at your service. It takes a special creativity that Shalaty lacks to truly stand out. Immolation’s momentum began to suffer as a result.

By the time 2010 rolled around things came to a head. Another terrible piece of digital cover art adorned their eighth studio album ‘Majesty and Decay’. But worse still, Immolation were now explicitly responding to the zeitgeist, and this permeated every aspect of this record. The production was synthetic, with triggered drums, generically brutal guitar tones, with the epic song structures of the millennium trilogy jettisoned in favour of a straightforward ear pummelling. This, it should be pointed out, was Immolation’s delayed response to developments within extreme metal throughout the 2000s, developments which up until 2010 they had largely avoided.

The exponential progression of technology may have opened up new creative vistas for recorded music, but the reality was predictably far more tedious. Scott Burns is often credited as being one of the first to capture and bottle the power of death metal in the studio setting. But many famously lamented the uniformity this encouraged. The second wave of black metal was in part a direct response to this. But by the 2000s, thanks to global popularity, the wider availability of digital recording techniques, higher standards of musical virtuosity, and renewed compositional density now expected of metal, this uniformity reached new heights. I would point to Behemoth’s ‘Demigod’ released in 2004 as something of a watershed album in charting extreme metal’s submission to the whims of mass production.

Gone are the modest days of ‘Here in After’, when death metal – liberated from mass scrutiny and emerging into maturity out of its initial youthful zeal – was able to craft some genuinely ambitious music from the creative freedom this encouraged. A decade later, in the mid-2000s, extreme metal had partially won back popular opinion after the alt and nu metal boom. But the price, as far as metal was concerned, was that in an age now dominated by instantaneous access to content and knowledge afforded by the internet, extreme metal was now one choice among many for undiscerning fans. No one was at the top of metal food chain. There was no overarching trend to imitate. There was simply a selection box of many individual trends, with file sharing sites (and later streaming services) allowing the listener to pick and mix at a rate never before seen in history. In response to this, many simply tried to shout the loudest, be the most brutal, the most theatrical, with the flashiest music video, the fattest mix or an orchestral accompaniment (see Nightwish, Cradle of Filth, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir etc.)

The hint of compromise with this brave new world indicated by Immolation’s logo change had mutated into an ill-fated bargain with the marketing machine by 2011. Toyota set up a record label in the form of Scion Audio Visual, which signed many household names in metal for one or two record contracts and a number of shows, in an attempt to expand its market reach. It’s difficult to come down too hard on Immolation for getting caught up in this one. Being only a mildly popular band consigned Dolan and Vigna to a life of hard graft for little financial reward for many years. The potential reach of the Scion platform – for the sake of one music video and an average EP in the form of 2011’s ‘Providence’ – would have been hard to turn down.

But of course, it was indicative of metal artists once again being bribed into mainstream acceptability. Once a spontaneous, ambitious, and dangerous form of anti-modernist artistic expression is now just one eccentric musical and aesthetic choice among the many on offer in the free market of alternative culture.

2013’s ‘Kingdom of Conspiracy’ solidified Immolation’s decline as a viable artistic entity. But this time…fans seemed to cotton on to the possibility that they might have been had. The song writing was so one dimensional, the production so generic and artificial, the cover art so cliché, that many saw through the veneer and began to wonder if something was wrong. Much like the lament to Hollywood’s decline into special effects free-for-alls, rehashing old comic books or popular films from the 80s, was metal suffering a similar fate to a visually overwhelming and intellectually vacuous world? Counter cultures, once the only sane response to totalitarian consumer capitalism, were now neutered and coerced into the fold as just another entertainment product.

Much has been made of the nostalgia boom of the last decade. One could read it as a direct response to extreme art forms succumbing to the needs of mass production. Counterculture capable of resisting this homogenisation was becoming harder and harder to imagine, even at a conceptual level. On the other hand, a scorched earth policy toward the past can sometimes gift the future rich new soil on which to build. This latter path was not taken however. Reality, as ever, turned out to be more complex. Rather than reach forward towards a new and yet to be formed artistic realm, many turned backwards, and reached into the past in an attempt to replicate and relive a time when such rare sparks occurred. This wasn’t a quest for inspiration so much as it was blunt replication.

And what did Immolation do around this time? They changed their logo back to the iconic flame font. The covert art for 2017’s ‘Atonement’ may embody the same generic cheap video game aesthetic of post 2010 Immolation releases, but the overly clinical finish of digital art had been scrapped in favour of an organic, painted design. The music itself also reached back to the millennium trilogy. The production still had Pro Tools’ artificial fingerprints all over it – partly a function of the bandmates all living remotely and fleshing out the rough tracks sent out by Vigna, only playing in the same room in the run-up to a tour – but there was an attempt to enhance the dynamic range of the music, dial back the constant brutality, layer sounds in consecutive order and not FULL-EVERYTHING-ALL-THE-TIME.  

Although far from being the worst culprit, Immolation’s condition is a microcosm of extreme metal’s general state, one that we are still living through in 2020. Reading the history of subcultures as a story of reaction to circumstance can be informative, but caution is required as it tends to leave out important artistic motivations. Nevertheless, if thrash was in part a reaction to glam, and black metal a reaction to death metal, then the current obsession with a perceived simpler time, the hallowed old school of death metal for example, could be read as a reaction to the era of big budget extreme metal in a post Cradle of Filth world. The 2000s were dominated by this. We can point the finger of blame at technology, the internet, or ruthless marketing campaigns, but whatever the root cause, there is no doubt that this obsessive turning to the past was the only logical response for many. This yearning for a simpler time was not limited to veterans, it could be seen in the music of the young and old alike. Whether recapturing former glory or attempting to resurrect a period you were too young to live through the first time around, it’s redundant to point out the futility of replicating former spontaneity. Just as we could never expect anyone to come out with five ‘Here in After’s in a row.

Immolation were relative late comers to metal’s (and contemporary culture at large) obsession with re-treading old ground. For this reason we must once again question their motives. For newer bands, imitating the past is almost a required step before honing a unique identity. For older artists it could be as simple as reliving glory days. But for Immolation – and for many others it should be added – the impulse stemmed from the perceived demand of fans. This condition stretches right back to the ‘Harnessing Ruin’ days. The cart was put well and truly before the horse. Immolation were caught in a feedback loop of second guessing what was expected of them and attempting to honour the needs of the market.

To put it another way, they had become self-conscious. The visceral reaction to the overly clinical theatre of the 2000s – something that stretched well beyond metal’s insular bubble – took the form of lifting elements of the past piecemeal as a way to redress the balance, and recapture a humble but ultimately more creatively exciting time. But no magical resurrection took place. Immolation, who once swaggered across underground metal, throwing out complex, layered soundscapes of a standard many could only dream of achieving, were now second guessing every step, settling for less, responding to the imagined needs of their fanbase.

The fact that metal at large suffers from this disposition has led to a flood of the average. Even sycophants and what passes for music criticism in larger metal publications struggle to find words to justify its existence. Technically competent, creatively risk averse, an endless parade of music that is ok, because it sounds like x band in their heyday.

The qualities that have given rise to this ennui are anathema to everything that made metal unique amongst the counter cultures. Isolationism has its drawbacks. A patchy history of absorbing exterior influences being one of them. But the staunch disregard for the ebbs and flows of wider contemporary culture, a fierce dedication to artistic and aesthetic principles, regardless of how others might view it, be it vulgar or out of touch or just plain barbaric; all have created a nursery for some of the most ambitious and complex contemporary music going. But when metal becomes self-conscious, too aware of its own virtues and shortcomings, the compromises and half measures that Immolation succumbed to cut the heart out the beast, and left it floundering in insecurity.

This is only one very specific reading of extreme metal’s rise and fall, as played out in miniature through the ups and downs of Immolation’s career. But unlike many of their contemporaries who followed a similar path, there is a naivety and honesty to Vigna and Dolan’s approach to all this. A genuine desire to do right by their fans, and what they believe is expected of them. One gets the impression that any callous capitulation to the demands of ‘the market’ are not of their doing. Unlike more canny market operators within metal, Immolation were seduced by the dark arts of commercialisation precisely because of their working-class status. A Faustian bargain they never recovered from.

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