Allow Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull to paint the scene: Detroit, 1943. Monochrome glory. Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta and Johnny Barnes’ Sugar Ray Robinson dance in a rhythm of graceful chaos, each step bent on discord. They glide across the ring, exchanging blows to body and head in a waltz of pain and tactical brutality. Robinson’s is a style of speed, flash and fluidity; an undefeated technique. LaMotta’s is, as the film’s title suggests, that of a raging bull. Lunge, bruise, punish, and destroy. Eight rounds pass. Blood is spilled. LaMotta, eyes blazing with the fire of close victory, charges Robinson with a barrage of blows that knock him from the ring. LaMotta backs away, and the cameras follow his every move. He slowly stalks the edge of the ring like an apex predator, a vicious god: great, terrible, and full of vengeance. Robinson stumbles back into the ring. The warriors re-engage, LaMotta on a path of war. A path of victory.
With their latest record, Atonement, Immolation has brought to our ears what is essentially Jake LaMotta in audio. It is not attempting to impress with flashy speed or impenetrable technique. It is instead a fiendishly calculated and precise blow to the face; a menace glowering over the fallen, emanating power and reveling in destruction newly wrought. It is punishing. It is methodical. It is precise. It is destructive.
But is it any good?
Immolation are in essence the Martin Scorsese of death metal (fight me, nonbelievers). Like the legendary filmmaker, Immolation are a revered act that hardly need an introduction. In fact, Scorsese is an aesthetically applicable reference point when discussing the career trajectory of Immolation. Similar to the film titan, Immolation have been regarded from their inception as a staple in the death metal community. Forward thinking, consistently excellent, and possessing a unique and distinctly recognizable style, they have long been considered giants in the world of metal. In their expansive and storied career, which began in 1991 with the release of Dawn of Possession, Immolation have arguably not released a bad record. Which is a feat of sheer insanity given the typical longevity of metal bands playing a style as abrasive and off-putting as death metal can be. Nevertheless, here they stand, gods of metal over twenty five years since the release of their first record, with their tenth album under their belt. Happily, their streak of excellence continues.
Atonement presents a fairly significant stylistic departure from the band’s last outing, 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy. While that album set souls aflame with its intense speed, blast beats, and general ferocity, Atonement takes a vastly different, more measured approach. From the first track, one of the most noticeable aspects of this record is its more restrained and deliberate pacing. It isn’t necessarily slow, but more measured. Spacious, even. The frantic flagellation of Close to a World Below is here replaced with thunderous drums awash in heavy, propulsive rhythm guitar passages. For fans of the more speed-oriented demolitions of Immolation’s past, this record may seem like the band stuck in slow motion upon first listen. Be patient. This one is a grower, and Immolation’s songwriting prowess and mastery of the death metal style have thankfully only increased with age, which becomes increasingly apparent as one delves more deeply into the album.
Opening track “The Distorting Light” sets the overall tone for the album well with an introductory guitar passage that instantly puts the band’s new emphasis on space and pace front and center. The riff fest that follows feels like quintessential Immolation, though with a notable twist. Throughout the track, and honestly the entire record, Immolation give atmosphere and groove prominent placement. Though debatable, this may be Immolation’s most atmospheric and groove-focused record to date, leaving violent blasts and face-shredding guitar solos almost completely behind. This may sound like the worst possible thing that could happen to an old school death metal band. In this case, it isn’t. Mostly because these tracks are varied, expertly performed, and often incredibly punishing. Robert Vigna’s guitar work is as sharp and heavy as ever, and Ross Dolan’s signature growl adds potency and menace to these tracks, ensuring that Atonement never loses its sense of urgency and intensity.
The jarring and propulsive gyrations of “Destructive Currents” and the spacious disharmony of “Thrown to the Fire” both share some classic death metal fury, but also highlight the album’s devotion to groove and less suffocating arrangements. Such emphases are heightened by some stellar production that provides both warmth and space to these compositions, creating rich and oddly smooth textures to the album without causing it to lose its edge or aggression. And fear not. There is plenty of aggression in these tracks. “Lower” and the album’s title track offer a one-two punch of nastiness that recalls previous Immolation records such as Unholy Cult and Harnessing Ruin. It is Immolation, slightly slower and groovier, but just as deadly.
With a history of releases as accomplished as Immolation’s, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the band cashed in on their notoriety by releasing a string of “greatest hits” records that settled into repetitions of their most glorious moments. Instead, Immolation continue to create excellent death metal records that are filled with expert musicianship, creative songwriting, and high levels of intensity. While Atonement isn’t breaking new ground in the world of death metal, it serves as a testament to the ingenuity and continued verve of a band that defined a genre, and refuses to let that legacy dissolve into parody or obscurity. Immolation persist and thrive as a raging bull, in full black and white, staring down the competition with a smirk and fists of iron.
All hail the king.
Atonement is available on February 24 via Nuclear Blast Records and can be pre-ordered here.