Battle Royal: Suffocation vs. Immolation

Two Bands Enter, One Band Leaves

posted on 1/2017   By: Last Rites

NEW YORK: Lady Liberty, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, Coney Island, Wall Street, the Guggenheim, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Five Families, the five boroughs, the New York Times, Woody Allen movies, Tony Bennett, the Sultan of Swat, pigeon feces, big sports, big buildings, big rents, big rats, big slices and big fuggin' DEATH METAL.

When the idea for this particular Battle Royal first bubbled up, the initial plan was to perhaps take our first swing at an eye-gouging, folding-chair swinging, illegal chop-to-the-throat throwing, barbed-wire is A-okay having CAGE MATCH between Suffocation, Immolation, Cannibal Corpse and Incantation. It was a fiendishly enticing concept at first blush, but a decision was ultimately made to pare down the savagery because hammering through approximately forty records and attempting to piece together an actual fair fight was just too much. Plus, despite walloping faves from the two latter bands (particularly Incantation’s latest works), Suffo and Immo remain this particular crew’s favorites of the NY scene that first ripped into the spotlight in the early 90s. Perhaps that in and of itself seems unfair. But then, Battle Royal ain’t exactly meant to be fair, as evidenced by previous bouts 'twixt Metallica & Slayer and (still gasping) Iron Maiden vs. Judas Priest.

So, here we are again – another round of good-natured fisticuffs pitting two New York titans of death metal against one another in a swirling maelstrom of crushing riffs, wolfish barks, and fifty megatons of H.E.A.V.Y. for us to weigh in on in a conceivably intelligent way.

Naturally, once again, the metal world is lucky to have both bands involved in this unjust brawl, particularly if you enjoy having your pathetic body caved in by a wall of noise that hits like a careening D-train with a New Yawk chip on its fuggin’ shoulder. And really, why the Hell wouldn't you?

[Michael Wuensch]


The Contenders!

SUFFOCATION:
Human Waste EP [1991]
Effigy of the Forgotten [1991]
Breeding the Spawn [1993]
Pierced from Within [1995]
Despise the Sun EP [1998]
Souls to Deny [2004]
Suffocation [2006]
Blood Oath [2009]
Pinnacle of Bedlam [2013]

• Formed in 1988 in Long Island, New York
• 7 albums and 2 EPs spanning 25 years

IMMOLATION:
Dawn of Possession [1991]
Here In After [1996]
Failures for Gods [1999]
Close To A World Below [2000]
Unholy Cult [2002]
Harnessing Ruin [2005]
Hope and Horror EP [2007]
Shadows in the Light [2007]
Majesty and Decay [2010]
Providence EP [2011]
Kingdom of Conspiracy [2013]

• Formed in 1988 (1986, if you include Rigor Mortis) in Yonkers, New York
• 9 albums and 2 EPs spanning 25 years

• • • • •


DAN OBSTKRIEG:

Picking a favorite band between Immolation and Suffocation isn’t just cruel and unusual, it’s damned near impossible. First off, you can begin a bio of both bands exactly the same way: X is a pioneering death metal band from New York that released its debut album in 1991, influenced countless bands of admirers and imitators, is arguably responsible for an entire subgenre of death metal, and to date has never released a bad album. But even more important than any of that is that it just feels wrong to pick between the two, given how thoroughly their development is intertwined with the very DNA of death metal. And on a more personal note, the trickiest thing is that no matter how objectively I try to compare the two bands, the real truth is that my favorite is almost always whichever of them I am listening to at the moment.

Nevertheless, because we are a bunch of ruthless jerks who consented to this head-to-head matchup, let’s do this thing properly. Suffocation gets an early leg up because Effigy of the Forgotten presents a more fully-formed sense of the band’s style than Dawn of Possession does for Immolation. However, Suffocation also reached their career pinnacle (Pierced from Within) earlier than did Immolation (with Close to a World Below), and their absence in the late 90s/early 00s meant that not only has Immolation thus far racked up nine albums to their seven, but also that Suffocation was almost entirely absent precisely at the time when Immolation became the hulking, oppressive, intimidating death metal powerhouse with their four album run from 1996 - 2002. And although the brilliant Souls to Deny likely bests any of Immolation’s four albums from 2005 onward, yours truly was never much persuaded by either Suffocation or Blood Oath, meaning that on the whole, Immolation’s four-album run from the underrated Harnessing Ruin through Kingdom of Conspiracy is still stronger than Suffocation’s four-album run from Souls to Deny through the late-career peak Pinnacle of Bedlam.

It bears repeating: neither band has made a bad album. Still, the real magic of these bands can’t be captured in any sort of tit-for-tat discographical reckoning. Instead, the true point of comparison between the two bands is something far less tangible. Suffocation has always been a more enjoyable band, and even though on a note-for-note basis their work is significantly more technical and demanding than Immolation, it is nevertheless more easily digestible. And Immolation, for as dissonant and technical and lurching as they can be, are a weird, offputting band that hides their weirdness in plain sight. And where Suffocation is clearly without match when it comes to moving your body and snapping your neck with the most cleverly deployed and deviously stupid slams out there, Immolation mostly wants to move your body in order to ensorcel your soul.

As you can imagine, your favorite knuckleheads at Last Rites have been having a lot of fun behind the scenes as we all divebomb through the catalogs of these two titans of the form. Here’s the truest thing that I have come to think about the two bands: for as flailing and frantic and chaotic and whiplashing as Suffocation can be, whenever they sound that way, it’s mostly the result of production choices or individually technical performances. When Immolation sounds flailing and frantic and chaotic, it’s because the band’s compositions themselves are barely controlled chaos. Whether the band is at the height of its dense, claustrophobic churn (as on Here in After or Close to a World Below) or exploring the more focused contrasts of thick riffs and lumbering shifts (as on Harnessing Ruin, Providence, or Majesty & Decay), Immolation exudes menace, conviction, invention, simmering anger, and explosive rage.

Immolation wins; let Earth receive Her kings.

Dan's Pick:

IMMOLATION

• • • • •


MICHAEL WUENSCH:

I had a clear-cut winner in mind when I first walked into this damn thing, but Battle Royal Ep 3 has proven to be much more difficult than initially expected. Suffocation and Immolation prevail on a top-shelf that manages to surpass simply being considered “important,” and most anyone who counts themselves an old-school NY death metal devotee likely binges on full discographies for days when the Immo/Suffo fever strikes. I love both bands with an intensity that’s fortified by being lucky (and fossilized) enough to have seen them dating back to death metal’s infancy – A Day of Death: Buffalo, NY, 1990 – and I have grown up consuming their combined works with all the vigor of a bulldog happening upon an abandoned stash of White Castle sliders.

Immediate gridlock noted, the most practical way to approach a contest such as this is by comparing/contrasting vital elements common to both bands. Few would argue that the two have experienced benefits and hindrances at the hand of production choices, with a slight advantage going to Immolation for never having released something quite as glaring as Breeding the Spawn. Riffs score a win of equal measure for both – Suffocation literally slams home a victory in terms of brutality, and Immolation does so due to Vigna’s ability to successfully conjure pure evil through jagged dissonance. And while one would have to throw a notch in Suffocation’s favor for The Tank’s unparalleled vocal approach (studio and stage), Immolation evens the score by consistently blood-eagling angels through oodles and oodles of sinfully enticing solos.

So, in the end, in an effort to oblige a sudden-death tiebreaker, a person must dig a little deeper into the feelsies realm for a gut instinct component that yields a final victor. And what better place to dig than the origin stories? Or at least what feels like the origin stories. Immolation, to me, has always felt like a band that walked into death metal the same way I did: after spending the mid-to-late 80s endlessly cranking records such as Awaken the Guardian and Fatal Portrait. Barracuda riffing aside, there’s always been a very old-school heavy metal feel behind the overall Immolation delivery. By contrast, Suffocation seemed to have suddenly beamed in from the planet Slamiter and just commenced to laying waste to the population as a result of an atmosphere of brutality initiated by Earthlings inadvisedly spinning From Enslavement to Obliteration and Altars of Madness.  A sort of "If you spin it, THEY WILL COME" War of the Worlds sort of vibe. There’s a reason Mike Smith’s abilities on a record like Effigy of the Forgotten seem inhuman – HE IS AN ALIEN. They are all aliens. Suffocation is made up of aliens from Slamiter who have since become comfortable eating NY slices and doing drunken karaoke on cruise ships.

Even if I don’t particularly care for a significant portion of the brutal slam units that hail Suffocation as Supreme Progenitor, my vote is cast their direction simply because they did what essentially every band at that time set out to do – push brutality levels over the edge – and they did it better than everyone. Hell, they still do it better than everyone. In this edition of Battle Royal, my vote goes toward brutal innovation. SMASH, kill, destroy.

Captain's Pick:

SUFFOCATION

• • • • •


ZACH DUVALL:

Back for another bout of “Needlessly State Your Preference Between Two Bands That Are Indescribably Important In Your Life!” For me personally, this is the toughest choice yet. Let’s examine the tape:

In one corner, we have Suffocation, the absolute forefathers and still-reigning champs of all things technical and brutal in the death metal realm. From Terrance Hobbs’ squeaky-sliding riff savagery and Frank Mullen’s guttural, deep growls to those ultimate, still unrivaled SLAMS, Suffo has been a whirlwind of mind-boggling musicianship their entire career. But their personality, coming largely from Frank, is what pushes them up that extra level and keeps them above their clones. Brutal goofballs with the chops to back it up.

Facing them, we have Immolation, a band that not only took the whole anti-religion aspect of metal into (usually) logical, (mostly) intelligent territory, but were for a good decade also among the most innovative and evolving. Their development in the 90s from more standard, but still awesome death metal into a thinking man’s version is something most bands wouldn’t dare attempt. But with a guitarist as unique as the ever-twitchy Robert Vigna, and a lyricist as talented as Ross Dolan, they arrived at one of the genre’s true high water marks in Close to a World Below and have maintained a strong record since. Deathly serious, with the chops to back it up.

So you might say this is tough. (Did I mention that they’re both among the greatest live acts, too?). Close to a World Below is likely my favorite album by either band, but I don’t like any two Immolation albums as much as I do the combo of Effigy of the Forgotten and Pierced From Within. But make a choice I must... A lot of bands try to ape Suffocation, and some of them do a pretty good job even if they never quite match the band in total brutal glory. But for all the acts that rip off Immolation, none of them come close to their masters in terms of pure emotional weight. For a genre of music as inherently silly as death metal, that has to be seen as a pretty monumental achievement.

Immolation gets the vote, by the tiniest of split-ends in Ross Dolan’s majestic mane.

Zach's Pick:

IMMOLATION

• • • • •


MANNY-O-WAR:

We’re dealing with two absolute legends, which makes for a difficult, borderline cruel, choice.

These two kings of death metal are so good that they both land squarely in the discussion for best death metal band of all time. They are also responsible for moving the focus of the New York music scene out of the awful hardcore (borderline rap crossover) phase and into the more pleasing, rotten waters of death metal.

In 1991, Immolation produced one of death metal’s best albums of all time with Dawn of Possession (and then came close again with 2000's Close to a World Below). But for me, the stronger complete catalog resides in camp Suffocation. I say this knowing full well how terrific Immolation’s catalog is. I’m even aware of how great their 2017 effort, Atonement, is. In fact, I’m nearly tearing up over here trying to make a choice between these to absolute beasts.

So, what helps me to choose Suffocation by the smallest of knife blade margins? First off, Effigy of the Forgotten provides one of the best vocal performances in death metal history, and likely marks a turning point in harsh vocals. Also, for my money, Pierced From Within might be the best death metal album of all time, slightly edging out Dawn of Possession. Even all the way into 2006 and their self-titled record, Suffocation was making absolutely perfect death metal. Hell, 2009’s Blood Oath is an ass-kicker, despite what some might have you believe. And while the production on Breeding the Spawn is nearly unforgivable, the tunes plain ROCK. Thankfully, Suffocation thought to redo some of the best tracks for future releases.

This isn’t to say Immolation hasn’t had a tremendous career themselves, because they absolutely most certainly have. For me, this wafer thin mint of a choice ultimately comes down to three things. First, vocals. It’s hard for me to choose any band’s vocals over Suffocation. Second, drumming. Again, Suffocation is the clear winner. Not only for drum performance, but also for drum production. Third, guitar solos. Although brief in their practice, Suffocation’s noodling and whammy bar whining and diving is just plain perfect.

Manny's Pick:

SUFFOCATION

• • • • •


DAVE SCHALEK:

This is a tough one. Both Immolation and Suffocation are seminal death metal bands with huge influences on the genre. Neither band has a weak link in their respective catalogues (more on that later), even with a few early releases suffering somewhat due to suspect production. Each delivers the goods in a live setting every single time, and with considerable professionalism, polish, and enthusiasm. Each has been able to weather lineup changes over the years. Each appears to have made the most of its business acumen by remaining on the rosters of solid, respected labels, and by touring at regular clips throughout basically the entire western world over the course of decades. Stability is key to each band’s successes, and it shows in the creative output of each. Each band has cool merchandise, each has cool iconography, and, Hell, each is from New York.

So, what’s the deciding factor? Simple. Theme and subject matter; therefore, the winner, hands down, is Immolation. Immolation attacks religion like virtually no one else in death metal. The starting point is a scathing critique of the hypocrisy, the sanctimonious bullshit, and the outright absurdity of religion in ALL forms, and it is done so without resorting to all sorts of silliness and outright stupidity. Although not explicitly stated, I get the impression that Immolation lumps Satanism in with all other religions in that it’s just as stupid and absurd as, say, Catholicism. All of it is done creatively and with clearly enunciated vocals from Ross Dolan. Critics may claim that Immolation has a one track mind with respect to its lyrical output, but I, for one, welcome it wholeheartedly. Metal does itself a disservice by equating its attacks on organized religion with periodically embracing Satanism, which is just as absurd (even though I appreciate the parody).

If we’re going to evaluate each band musically, it’s hard to find fault with either. Each band is distinctive, and immediately recognizable. You may have heard a ton of brutal death metal bands over the years, all descended from Suffocation, for example, but you immediately know Suffocation when you hear it. Same goes for Immolation with its layered brutality on top of the twists and turns.

If Suffocation has a weak link in its catalogue, it’s probably Blood Oath, which is, well, a bit bland compared to the band's other output. If Immolation has a weak link in its catalogue, it’s probably Failures For Gods, and the ONLY reason that I say that is because of the muddy production, which just ruins the drumming for me. So much so that you just can’t ignore it like you can, say, with Breeding The Spawn.

Immolation wins the battle.

Dave's Pick:

IMMOLATION

• • • • •


ANDREW EDMUNDS:

Man, we never make these easy on ourselves, do we? I guess that’s the point, but just once, can’t we do one that’s simple, like Napalm Death vs. some crappy band like Burzum…??

Anyway, here we are again, with another hair-splitting exercise in picking favorites between two absolutely monstrous bands. Unlike the Maiden vs. Priest article we ran some months back, though, I will say that this one is a bit more cut and dried for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love both bands, but when it comes down to it, there’s a simple metric that matters, and that’s this: I’ve known Suffocation longer – they were one of the first death metal bands I ever heard. I love them dearly, and there’s no denying both the depth and scope of their influence and the absolute devastation of their live show.

Where Immolation goes the route of malevolent atmosphere, Suffocation goes for sheer brutality, pairing their technical expertise with relentless beatdowns . Through seven stellar albums now, Suffocation hasn’t once let up, hasn’t slowed down, hasn’t relinquished the crown. Terrance is still spitting out absolutely crushing riffs, and Frank is still spitting out some of the greatest growling ever, as well as some of the most brilliantly bizarre stage banter… (And those machine-gun fingers…? Classic.) Suffocation is the epitome of live death metal, and let no one tell you differently, but they’re far more than just a live band – beyond the beatdowns, there’s a musical depth on these records, a strength that even the greatest of their peers never mustered. The riffs twist and turn in unexpected manners; no matter who’s behind the kit, the rhythms shift and shift again, sometimes seemingly at random, but always perfectly. The whole band skitters and stutters and then slams into a full-on death metal wallop that almost no other group could execute so perfectly…??

I was maybe 18 the first time I heard Pierced From Within, and it leveled me then. It levels me now, and these days it has to compete with my late arrival to the godly Effigy Of The Forgotten, or the later arriving Souls To Deny, or the stellar Despise The Sun EP… Suffocation may have bred the spawn of a million mediocre slam-death bands, but when it comes down to it, they’re the gods of brutality, and that’s all that really matters.

Andrew's Pick:

SUFFOCATION

• • • • •


KONRAD KANTOR:

Does a parent ever just say, "Fuck it, I like one kid more than the other!"? I mean... how else is one supposed to choose between Suffocation and Immolation in a duel-to-the-death among New York death metal giants? It's a difficult battle on the surface as well as beneath, but let's start with the basics.

On one hand, Immolation has been more productive with its album output, whereas Suffocation went nearly a full decade between Pierced from Within and Souls to Deny. Immolation's sound has also not been affected as much by lineup changes in the vocal and drum departments, as many cite the departure of Suffocation's Mike Smith as a monumental loss, which it is. However, Suffocation expanded the scope of the genre in both technicality as well as brutality. While fully understanding that "most influential" doesn't always mean "best," it sure-as-hell means something when you can look at bands as different as Nile is from Necrophagist and still say they were both cut from Suffocation's cloth. Immolation has been less influential, as the band emulates a style that was already put into place by Morbid Angel, and maintained by a plethora of other bands. But god dammit if the band isn't just so good at portraying that style of death metal so consistently, including in a live setting.

The bottom line is that it all comes down to personal preference. While the two bands capture both heart and mind, Suffocation leans toward intellectual, thought provocative song construction, whereas Immolation handles the more visceral, emotional side of things. As someone who grew up spending a lot of time in the ocean, I can't help but look at it this way: If Suffocation showcases all of the bountiful brutality the ocean has to offer –– whether it be sharks sensing blood and snatching fish off of spears from kilometers away (sometimes biting off divers' arms in the process of taking the grouper off their spears), poisonous fish, electric eels, man o' war or simply things devouring other things –– Immolation is the feeling you get when you are attempting to duck dive under an eight foot wave alone, during a storm, and you see the sand being sucked into its pipeline as you realize there is nothing left to do but brace yourself as the wave sucks you up and its current rips you apart like a pack of wild hyenas fighting over dinner as you begin to suffocate, not knowing which direction is up. Shit, both sound like great options if you like death metal, but if you ask me, we don't just live to enjoy metal; we yearn to be eviscerated by it.

KK's Pick:

IMMOLATION

• • • • •
 

K. SCOTT ROSS:

New York death metal. What a massive sound. Compared to Floridian or Swedish death, the NYC style is a more impenetrable fog; dark, menacing, and inevitable. And of course 1991 was only the beginning, with Immolation’s Dawn of Possesion and Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten being only the first bricks in fantastic discographies that are still expanding twenty-six years later. But when it comes to who can wear the crown of true New York death metal supremacy, for me it’s clear: Suffocation.

The most immediate difference between the bands, and this is relevant for every listening jag, is that Immolation writes albums, but Suffocation writes songs. “Infecting the Crypts,” “Catatonia,” “Synthetically Revived,” “Mass Obliteration.” Those are just tracks from the first EP (granted they’ve all be recorded twice). The sound of Suffocation is one that I can immediately pull into my head and experience. Their riffs are as twisting and jagged as their band logo.

It isn’t just the guitar riffs either. Mike Smith’s particular style of blasting forever thickened the sound of death metal; you hear Suffo-blasts everywhere from Hate Eternal to Job for a Cowboy. Suffocation is a prime influence for both brutal death metal and deathcore, and despite how any one individual might feel about those two genres, being on the family trees for bands as dissimilar as Omninoid and Whitechapel at the very least speaks to the mind-infecting powers of your music. Immolation’s music tends to surge and push inwards, making a fiery mass instead of a throny wall. This element is best seen in bands like Ulcerate and Portal, and despite my personal love for those bands, they’re not the ones in this battle, Immolation is.

I don’t want to give an impression that Immolation isn’t an impressive band. Close To A World Below is a thunderous declaration against religion that few other bands have stated better. But to my ears, at least, Ross Dolan has only that one straight line of attack. Frank Mullen’s vocals are just as twisted as the music that he bellows over. He’s somehow managed to keep singing about the same nonspecific dark creepiness for nearly thirty years without it becoming self-parody like some Floridian bands. Just compare “Suspended In Tribulation” from Pierced From Within, “Surgery of Impalement” from Souls to Deny, and “Come Hell or High Priest” from Blood Oath. Frank isn’t just shouting a bunch of horror movie or anti-Christian tropes. He’s interweaving an incredible vocabulary in and out of the lines the guitars, bass, and drums are playing. Instrumental Suffocation would be as incomplete as if they were missing a guitarist.

Look, I don’t have anything bad to say about Immolation. The band is incredible however you slice it. But it’s just plain that Suffocation is all that and more. Long Island beats Yonkers. New York kings.

K. Scott's Pick:

SUFFOCATION

• • • • •


JEREMY MORSE:

First, credit must be given to Suffocation for inventing brutal death metal, practically singlehandedly. To think that an album with the pulverizing intensity of Effigy of the Forgotten came out in 1991 is still difficult to grasp, given where most of the rest of death metal was at the time. That being said, my vote is for Immolation. 

Suffocation, for all its innovation in brutality, is a one-trick pony. When I want brutality, Suffocation is one of the first bands I look to, but I don’t look to them for much of anything else. Immolation, on the other hand, is a much more dynamic, multidimensional band –– at times approaching Suffocation’s visceral ferocity, but with a cerebral component that Suffocation largely lacks. Where Suffocation essentially created its sound by taking established death metal techniques and playing them twice as fast and twice as heavy anyone else, Immolation actually broadened the genre’s sonic palette. The band has been widely recognized for harnessing the power of dissonance, but the group also has quite unique rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. Robert Vigna has made an art of playing the wrong notes at exactly the right time to create some of the sickest, most deeply unsettling death metal ever made. Even without Ross Dolan’s blasphemous lyrics, Immolation’s music screams “evil” with every note.

With Suffocation, you know you’re only going one place: to the back alley to get seven shades of shit kicked out of you, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. With Immolation, however, you’re going on a guided tour through every plane of Hell –– from agonizing torment to soul-crushing desolation; from lakes of fire to mountains of madness.  And when you are done in Hell, Immolation might just bear you up on leathery wings to rattle the gates of Heaven, just to watch the angels piss themselves.

Jeremy's Pick:

IMMOLATION

• • • • •
 
 


So it's IMMOLATION by a smoldering hair atop a broiling angel's pate. New York is destroyed. What adds a particularly compelling afterthought to this battle is the fact that both bands plan to release new material in 2017 that will likely bolster each act midst the eternal assault. Immolation's Atonementis nearly out the door – February 24th through Nuclear Blast Records – and Suffocation's still unnamed full-length no. 8 is just waiting for vocals to be laid down. All that's left to do now is hear how YOU would vote, so we welcome your comments here, on our Facebook page, or through our companion Twitter poll below. And if you just can't get enough of either band, feel free to (re)visit the Devil's Dozen articles we've done for both:

 

 

Here are a couple potent primers  to help get the fires going:

Suffolation forever!

 


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