Let’s get one thing clear: Suffocation is, without a doubt, one of the greatest death metal bands in the history of our rotten, festering world. This is, as the Dothraki say, known. But consistent and wholly dependable, they are not. Their classic status comes mostly from their odd numbered albums, 1. Effigy of the Forgotten, 3. Pierced from Within, and 5. Suffocation. (Excluded from this is beastly EP Despise the Sun, because it doesn’t suit my angle.) This isn’t to say the evens are bad, but the best songs on Breeding the Spawn sound much better re-recorded elsewhere, Souls to Deny was a decent reunion effort that was eclipsed by the self-titled, and Blood Oath, well, it’s pretty good, but to break the trend it had to be a classic (it isn’t). It’s like the band is stuck in some rudimentary experiment with binary code, attempting to make contact with some faraway civilization as if their career path is a pulsar of some sort. Sounds stupid right? Well it kinda is, but it leads to…
…album number seven, which we have here. Will history hold true and make this another odd-numbered classic, or would the pattern be broken with a true disappointment? The answer is clear as soon as opener “Cycles of Suffering” goes from zero to sixty in about no time flat. Upon reaching full speed, you’ll be thinking less about some coincidental every-other-album pattern in Suffocation’s catalog, and more about how Pinnacle of Bedlam is a monster.
And I don’t mean monster in the album-by-a-young-band-that-will-slay-us-for-six-months monster. I mean death-metal-legends-releasing-one-of-their-greatest-albums-to-date behemoth. The riffs, impacts, and assaulting blows of Pinnacle could hold their own in a Pacific Rim-style giant alien vs. Voltron battle royale. It’s just that utterly dominating. When Suffo is at their best, they hit on every cylinder possible: immediate and layered songwriting, unforgettable riffs, band charisma, and crushing, balanced production. Pinnacle of Bedlam does all of this and more, making up what might just be the band’s best effort in nearly 18 years.
All of Suffocation’s classics have something that define them as unique, or as unique as possible within the band’s framework of brutal, technical, never-waste-a-second death metal. Here, that trait might be how compact and goddamn direct Pinnacle of Bedlam is. More than a few songs hit instantly with all band members – even vocalist Frank Mullen – at full strength from the first beat. There is a general sense that the entire band means fucking business here, even more so than usual. (All but three songs are under four minutes in length, and the total is under 40.) The density of the album also moves it away from the relative accessibility of the self-titled and puts it closer to the overall feel of Pierced from Within or Despise the Sun. (Mullen also reigns it in some, choosing to forgo some of the glorious, wondrous derpishness he is occasionally known for.) Enhancing the album’s overall feel is the re-addition of drumming guru Dave Culross, who integrates his work into every possible crevice of this music to make the album feel as alive as possible – alive, constantly interesting, and wickedly violent.
Much like Pierced, Pinnacle basically requires an instant replay after the first spin in order to even begin to process the amount of stuff going on here. “Eminent Wrath” shifts from brutal blasting (with great ride cymbal work from Culross) to Napalm Death hardcore-isms at the drop of a hat. “Sullen Days” brings a nice balance of blunt force and infectiousness with some squeaky hooks. Killer death/thrash riffage in “As Grace Descends,” Terrance Hobbs shining in well-designed solo sections all over the place, Frank relentlessly growling “relentlessly, RELENTLESSLEEEEEEEE” in “Inversion”… the onslaught never lets up. And the variety of riffs is as varied here as ever, ranging from unsettling tapping patterns and blistering muted tremolo lines to the kind of uncomfortably slippery material that Suffocation really excels at. (Parts of “Rapture of Revocation” feel like going down a water slide lined with coarse sandpaper.)
Pinnacle continues two eternal truths of Suffocation’s career that always bear mention. First, these Long Islanders continue to be just plain better than their peers at putting all of their various pieces together, maintaining their age-old reputation as masters of the transition and the death metal composition. Second: the breakdown. Suffocation is the Bret Hart of all things slam. Because they integrate their breakdowns into actual songs – as opposed to pandering to drooling troglodytes with the least amount of effort possible – they never cease to completely and utterly slay. There are a few less here than on the self-titled, but when they hit, they do so with lethal purpose.
So yep, this could unequivocally kick the arses of 100 grizzled caber tossers, even if The Mullen-Hobbs Code told us it would. Quite frankly, I’ll take an act delivering a classic every other album over one who coasts just above mediocrity for 20 years. Suffocation could have done this, choosing to even out their peaks and valleys (more like high foothills) to coast into old age. Another album showing the quality of Blood Oath would have more than satisfied their fans, but they had other stews a-brewin’. When this band is hot, they’re unstoppable, and on Pinnacle of Bedlam they’re like the surface of the sun.
Old guys rule the roost. Essential.