Immolation: Acts of God
Out 18th February on Nuclear Blast
Immolation make for an interesting case study in the phantasmagorical journey that death metal has taken since the 1990s. Steered by the nicest power duo in metal in Robert Vigna and Ross Dolan, they can lay claim to a lengthy run of consistently seminal albums from their debut, 1991’s ‘Dawn of Possession’ right through to 2002’s ‘Unholy Cult’. Since that time, the difficult circle to square about their career is that it never conclusively fell from grace in the same way many of their peers’ did.
There is no Immolation album that was met with universal abhorrence, no undignified stint of embarrassment, just a run of slightly above average death metal punctuated by mediocrity. Their willingness to embrace extreme metal’s homogenisation in the mid to late 2000s with the appearance of digitally rendered cover art, a slicker looking logo, triggered drums and overly compressed mixes did not stop the signature Vigna riffing style from shining through regardless, but it remained mired in the slow degradation of imagination common to metal in the early 21st Century.
Immolation seemed to become alive to this fact after phoning in ‘Kingdom of Conspiracy’ in 2013, with 2017’s ‘Atonement’ at least maintaining the façade of experimentation. The original logo was back, but more importantly was Vigna’s willingness to explore dynamics, groove, dissonance, and counterpoint, a welcome if shaky contrast to the meathead crush of the previous effort. So, some five years and a global pandemic later, where is the Immolation train pulling into next?
Well, much like life, their latest album ‘Acts of God’ cannot offer any clear resolution to this Schrödinger’s cat of a death metal band. On the one hand they appear to be tipping the hat to extreme metal’s increasingly strong penchant for mature sobriety with the gloomy painted cover art, in line with a trend noted across such stalwarts as Rotting Christ and Behemoth.
The production is equally entrenched in contemporary habits. It’s as if mainstream extreme metal has acknowledged that the digitisation of recording techniques, listening habits, and aesthetics since the 2000s did indeed result in a vapid uniformity across recorded output. Yet, rather than attempting to jettison these elements it has instead opted to cloak them. The mix on ‘Acts of God’ is a prime example, being clear, crisp, rich, and precise, yet also oddly embarrassed by these qualities, as if trying to hide them behind imagined standards of consistency.
The drums cut like a knife, with the dull, triggered thud of ‘Majesty and Decay’ long gone, in its place is a consistent yet organic snare hit, and a warm bass drum rumble that leaves enough space for us to distinguish individual cymbal hits, allowing room for us to appreciate the technical ability of Shalaty’s performance on a human level as opposed to his usual artificial rhythmic battering rams. Guitars are equally well restrained. Vigna has rolled back the blunt axe of brutality that defined ‘Kingdom of Conspiracy’ and instead offers us a dynamic guitar tone capable of expression across multiple dimensions from the brutal to the melancholic. Dolan’s voice remains as consistent as ever, with the only notable change in his approach being a slow descent in pitch, as if sinking beneath the earth with every new album.
So, the stage set and the tools selected, do Immolation pull off a comeback smash or just more content? Unfortunately the answer to both questions is “yes”. The genius that defined the 1991 to 2002 run was an ability to compress polyrhythms, dissonance, counterpoint, groove, and good old-fashioned brutality into compositions that always reached for a sense of the epic. Finales would unfold and cultivate diversity from repetition, hints at the teleology of Vigna’s composing style would be delivered in the chaotic build of each track only to gracefully unfold as space was created for individual motifs to air out, these traits would often only be discernible after considerable study of his methods over repeated listens. And with every new album he found new and novel ways to work in his signature style as a player and composer.
There are fragments of Vigna attempting to recapture this magic on ‘Acts of God’, particularly on the tracks ‘An Act of God’ which maintains a strong melodic core, and ‘Noose of Thorns’ which circles around its motifs like a stalking predator. But there is no shortage of unwanted filler across this rather lengthy album as well, shorter tracks that feel like they were collected together from spare parts and riffs that have accumulated over the last few years and found their way onto the album through convenience over creative necessity.
‘Overtures of the Wicked’ is a classic example of this. Opening with a fast and minimal Profanatica style riff, it quickly collapses into classic latter day Immolation brutality as we slow to a deep groove, accented by high end dissonant punches, before Vigna races into a solo that – despite its technical competence and adeptness for melodic character – feels more like an improv piece deployed to fill time. Wrap all this in a slow, plodding repetition to close the piece off with some drab harmonics and job’s a throbber. Not terrible, but horribly colour by numbers.
And this is probably the object lesson to be learned from ‘Acts of God’. Immolation’s style is now unmistakable. It may have taken them over a decade to finally settle on it, but once they did they became trapped in meeting this expectation, forever circling round the same collection of techniques and compositional shapes.
‘Acts of God’ is probably their best album since ‘Shadows in the Light’, whilst this is hardly a glowing endorsement it is enough to say that Immolation are not a cynical act. They care about their craft and despite some duff moves in the last ten years they still sound like a band that gives a shit and are still more than capable of delivering the goods. They will continue to create passable to good material and we the people will continue to lap it up. But if you haven’t already done so, it’s probably time to write them off as an act that has anything relevant to say about the future of death metal.
Out 4th March on Signal Rex
Originally released into the digital aether in 2021, the self-titled debut album from the Irish project known as Valais sees a physical release on Signal Rex this March. As if tying up the disparate threads of popularist contemporary black metal, ‘Valais’ is a work both broad in scope and focused in its intention. This album throws together elements of DSBM, the cavernous atmospherics of Blut Aus Nord, the persistently simple rhythms of early Burzum, and even a hint of drab black ‘n’ roll in places.
But Valais demonstrate a refreshingly blasé attitude to influence, preferring instead to craft an album that very much walks its own path. The production offers a conflicted duality between black metal’s homespun lo-fi charm and the more contemporary impetus toward sizeable and immersive soundscapes. The result is an odd mix of contradictions, with expansive and layered guitar tracks somewhat hampered in their creation of melodramatic builds by garage quality drums. Vocals eschew the reverb drenched animalism of many similar releases, opting instead for an immediacy more common to raw black metal. Trademark black metal rasps sit close to the ear, and further grant the mix an organic quality that seems to fight against the music’s drive toward the epic.
This dualism between intimacy and size is rife across ‘Valais’. It comes to define how these lengthy tracks progress, as the humbleness of old school black metal feeds into the modern aspiration toward macro statements of humanity’s decline. The traditional black metal elements across this album feel almost twee when set against the cavernous dark ambience and doom-laden guitar leads that end up dominating the music by the close.
But far from this making ‘Valais’ confused and cluttered, this is a case of achieving the best of both worlds, as the expansive contemporary influences find their contrast in the raw and personal nature of true-blue old school black metal, and in turn these elements are elevated by being placed in such epic soundscapes. As a result, even the most derivative of riffs don’t feel as such when placed in their proper context. Valais are totally focused on telling stories with their music. Any appeal to old school sensibilities or modern trends is purely incidental as this artist – rather than reinventing the wheel – simply takes pre-existing tropes both old and new and manipulates them into these lengthy and immersive soundscapes. In the process they are able to expand the mood and expressive range of each individual element.
Ritual Necromancy/Fossilization: Split
Out 25th February on Everlasting Spew Records
Ritual Necromancy – along with the likes of Father Befouled – are part of a group of bands who I like to call Incantation scholars. They demonstrate a far superior understanding of what makes the Incantation formula work than pop culture imitators like Tomb Mould. But for all their studied worship of this style of death metal, we end up in much the same place as death metal was in 1992 after the release of ‘Onward to Golgotha’.
But 2018’s ‘Disinterred Horror’ began to show signs of maturation, one that is proudly solidified in this split EP with Brazilian doomsters Fossilization. Ritual Necromancy’s half of this EP consists of one fifteen-minute track that truly embraces the doom clause of their genre tag, with tempos rarely rising above the 100bpm mark. The riffs adopt a funereal, deathlike melancholy which supplements the crushing heaviness of the guitar tone.
The actual melodic ideas are kept to the simplest possible components, with the real progress from A to B achieved via the manipulation of dynamics. A consistently drab colouration permeates the riffs which is in turn accentuated by additional projectiles of guitar noise, intense and guttural vocalisations, and minimal, layered leads. Drums also keep things simple in this regard, preferring to breathe life into the simplest of beats with intense moments of rubato noise through either persistent rolls or cymbal hits. This helps to contrast with the industrial aesthetic of the drumkit itself, bringing the much needed discomfort of spontaneity and human maniacalism to proceedings.
Fossilization from Brazil are the relative newcomers on this EP, choosing two weighty tracks to populate their half. Although we are still markedly in death/doom territory they are happy bringing a degree of rhythmic mischief and even a healthy dose of blast-beats to the table. The riffs flow with an energy of their own, picking up refrains and ideas and driving them through varying tempos and levels of intensity. Despite the choppy nature of the rhythms, the guitars hold true to their melodic character, adding spice via conspicuous dissonance and static tension.
One suspects that there may be a pronounced noise influence at work behind the scenes here. Despite the usual calling cards of death metal being placed front and centre, Fossilization show a greater willingness to collapse the genre’s trademark formalism until it threatens to lose all semblance of structure. The up-tempo segments are hounded by cavernously massive vocals, guitar noise artillery, and borderline static. Although the central motifs can still be discerned they threaten to be utterly buried by these ancillary features.
Equally the doom breakdowns display a rhythmic looseness not often seen in death metal’s variations on the doom format, which normally prefer to keep the tempo and phrasing consistent. But Fossilization are more than happy to almost completely dissolve this music into noise with only the most basic of frameworks left to keep it from sinking entirely into mud. This in itself creates enough tension across these two tracks to hold out attention. but even at the surface level, there is an intensity and sincerity to this performance that warrants keeping a close eye on this artist in the future.