In his review of Suffocation’s previous album, 2013’s world-crushing Pinnacle Of Bedlam, my erstwhile compatriot Zach Duvall posited the half-in-jest idea of The Mullen-Hobbs Code, the qualitative phenomenon by which every odd-numbered Suffocation album is a genre classic, and every even-numbered one… isn’t.
But now that idea doesn’t seem all that silly, really.
…Of The Dark Light is the band’s eighth full length, and you’ll notice right off that eight is an even number, so be it through Zach-fulfilling prophecy, sheer luck, or The Mullen-Hobbs Code, it’s no real surprise that Dark Light is a step backwards from Bedlam. In fact, it’s a step backwards from every Suffocation album so far. In the 26 years since Effigy Of The Forgotten, it’s the first true low-point, the first time the band sounds underwhelming and tired.
Of course, it wouldn’t hardly be a Suffocation album without a line-up change. Terrance and Frank are still here, as always, and bassist Derek Boyer remains, but longtime guitarist Guy Marchais has departed, replaced by Charlie Errigo. Most recently filled by Dave Culross (again), and forever in the shadow of Mike Smith, the drum throne is now occupied by Eric Morotti. Maybe it’s the dissolution of the band’s strongest line-up in a long time, or maybe it’s just a lack of creative gel, but none of the playing on Dark Light feels terribly inspired, especially compared to the sheer pummeling brilliance of the return-to-form on the self-titled, or of the godly Pierced From Within, or even of the crackling Bedlam.
Tracks like “Clarity Through Deprivation,” the title track, and, well… almost all of them feel like Suffocation-by-numbers. Terrance’s riffs run in erratic arcs, never quite resolving into the greatness he usually attains. They’ve always been one or two steps from random collections of notes, but they’ve always coalesced into something crushing in their chaos. Here, even the slams are by the book – the chunky middle of “Your Last Breaths,” or of “Clarity,” both feel like outtakes from earlier Suffocation songs that are getting recycled now. (Although that sudden slam-drop in “Clarity” is one of the album’s earliest and strongest moments, and one of its only real standouts.) In all my listening, only a scant few sections swam up from the depths to stick out, and even most of those were gone by the end of the album.
In addition to the lack of distinct songwriting, a large part of Dark Light’s problem is that it simply sounds flat and lifeless – where Morotti’s kick drums should punch you like Joe Frazier, instead they tap insistently to get your attention. Also, most noticeable and more detrimental, Frank’s vocals are lacking in that guttural punch that has always defined them, less furnace bellow from the depths of hell and more growl from some guy’s esophagus. Mixed by the usually dependable Zeuss – he of Bedlam and of Sanctuary’s killer The Year The Sun Died, among countless others – Dark Light just feels shallow.
Sometimes being one of the greatest bands to ever inhabit a genre has a downside, and forever being compared to your classics must surely be one, however small a downside it would be, all things considered. And it’s important to note that even a half-hearted Suffocation still possesses some notable power, so Dark Light isn’t so much a failure by every standard, as it is just a let-down from a band that can and has done exponentially better. Many bands would never make a record even this good, but Suffocation is better than many bands… better than almost all of them.
I guess The Mullen-Hobbs Code holds up, after all, because …Of The Dark Light is the least crushing album Suffocation has ever done.
But on the plus side, I guess that also means the next one is gonna be a real doozy…