It’s little secret that your favorite moldy cheese-rinds here at Last Rites love Immolation to an almost unhealthy degree. Given not only Immolation’s narrowly squeaked-out win against fellow NY death metal titans Suffocation in our recent Battle Royal, but also Immo’s very own edition of our Devil’s Dozen treatment, and it’s fair to say that Atonement, the band’s tenth album, was one of the most eagerly awaited new releases of this still-young year. Although Immolation has never released a bad album, Atonement comes on the heels of relative career low-point Kingdom of Conspiracy, which was marred by too much blasting and insufficiently memorable songwriting. Thankfully, not only does Atonement right the ship after Kingdom, but it does so in such convincingly punishing fashion that it just might be the band’s finest album since Unholy Cult.
With apologies to Tolstoy, all regular death metal bands are alike; each weird death metal band is weird in its own way. The striking thing about Immolation is that it has always been impossible to tell if they are the weirdest regular death metal band ever, or the most regular weird death metal band ever. Regardless, that peculiar equilibrium has allowed them to write songs that are simultaneously cerebral and crushing, dense and inviting, difficult and catchy. More than a quarter-century into their career, and the band’s bag of tricks remains inexhaustible, with Atonement stuffed front to back with Immolation’s trademark wasps-swarming-through-molasses riffs, whip-crack transitions, and gut-level churn.
Immolation belongs to the most elite tier of bands in all of death metal history not only because of their longevity and consistency, but because of the ferociously unique style they have carved out and honed over time. One of the remarkable things about this band is the sheer strangeness they are able to wring out of the most basic of set-ups: no fancy effects, keyboards, or studio trickery, and yet the roiling lebenswelt of Bob Vigna’s inimitable style still sounds like radio transmissions from a planet where the air is a swamp, the ocean is fire, and the soil is alive. As with all of their post-Unholy Cult material, Atonement is more straightforward, more focused, and less chaotic.
Of course, with a band as practicedly wrong as Immolation, those are all very relative terms. Atonement does some of its most effective work at a focused lurch, from the pinched riff of “Rise the Heretics” to the seasick buzzing of “Fostering the Divide” to the heaving half-time crush of “Lower,” where the tumbling fills in each measure precede a shared downbeat like the striking of an anvil. “Destructive Currents,” although hardly the best as a stand-alone single, is a perfect song as a mid-album hinge. Even better is is the sinuous, slow-motion Melechesh two-step that peppers the chorus.
To be honest, there’s not a lot to criticize here. Immo’s songwriting has maintained an immediately recognizable style throughout the band’s career, and each player attacks their marks with an energy that outstrips most bands half their age. As with most Immolation albums from Harnessing Ruin on, you could say that Atonement is a collection of songs with little intrinsic connection. Each song is almost uniformly powerful, but playing the album on shuffle will not yield an experience very different from playing it in order. (There are exceptions: the coda of album closer “Epiphany” feels like an album closer, and the absurdly pile-driving mid-album trio of “Destructive Currents,” “Lower,” and “Atonement” do seem to feed off each other’s energy.)
Death metal, perhaps more than any of branch of heavy metal’s tree, relies on a knowing suspension of disbelief to turn such manifestly silly music into something serious, vital, and occasionally profound. Immolation has always played death metal with a straight face, but particularly as they keep deepening their furrows, it’s easy to hear the real joy even in such devoutly dark, oppressive music. It really sounds, now almost more than ever before, that Immolation are playing for their lives. Strap in, and watch the masters at work.