Death metal has a shaky history with its legends. The Golden Age of 1992-94 unleashed upon our unsuspecting asses what would become the seminal release sequence of the genre’s entire history, and a select few of the death metal bands that made waves in the metal world during that span are still making music today. The problem is… a lot of it isn’t very good.
Sure, Incantation, Carcass, Napalm Death, and Cannibal Corpse continue to release relatively high quality material. But it could easily be argued that cornerstone acts like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Suffocation, At the Gates, Obituary, Decapitated, and a veritable host of other bands present in the genre’s early years haven’t released a genuinely great album in decades. Outside of nostalgia porn (which I readily and happily admit that I often participate in with glee when it comes to death metal), the good old days of death metal have for the most part all but relegated themselves to the hallowed annals of metal history. For every new Morbid Angel record there’s a Malignant Altar carrying the sound to new and greater heights. For every Hypocrisy release there’s a Blood Incantation or Artificial Brain warping our minds and opening stargates. Classic death metal bands will always get a listen and hold a special place on my playlist, but the idea that most of these bands are releasing better material today than their disciples is laughable.
Except for Immolation.
New York’s finest purveyors of death metal have been on an absolute, unassailable tear since the release of their debut, Dawn of Possession, back in 1991. One of the few bands in the genre who over the course of three decades and 10 records have yet to release a genuine stinker, Immolation are a classic act that remains as relevant and powerful today as they were back in the Golden Age. It’s honestly not a stretch to argue that some of their latter day material is at least as good if not better than a few of their earlier and most revered releases (Majesty and Decay and Atonement particularly). So any new material dropped from the band reaches my ears with a significantly higher level of hype than I typically give any legacy act, and their 11th album Acts of God has done nothing but justify that perception. Spoiler alert: It’s really fucking good.
First, the essentials. One of Immolation’s strongest and most consistent qualities is their economical, brutal, and sneakily creative songwriting. Atonement felt like a masterclass in boiling down the band’s most methodical and mid-tempo elements into a stunningly cohesive (and perhaps even a touch innovative) record, and Acts of God continues that trajectory but in a potentially even more intense fashion. The album’s first non-instrumental track “An Act of God” unfurls with a sonic blast by drummer Steve Shalaty, who wastes no time reintroducing listeners to the absolute punishment that Immolation has always been able to inflict. The track is a menacing, full-throttled fist to the face that serves as a stirring reaffirmation that Immolation have lost none of their trademark brutality or technical potency. It’s some of the band’s most skull crushing work since Majesty and Decay, and kicks off the proceedings with an unholy roar.
But no Immolation composition is complete without the still deeply impactful work of guitarists Robert Vigna and Alex Bouks (replacing long-time guitarist Bill Taylor since Atonement), who unleash riff after memorable riff with an ease that’s enviable. The sequencing of the record on a songwriting level is immaculate, with Vigna laying out landscapes that bound from wrathful tremolo to doom-laden strumming then on to incredible (and delightfully tasteful) solos with an effortlessness that only truly seasoned musicians and songwriters can pull off. Tracks like “The Age of No Light” highlight the above most precisely, and are an absolute joy to listen to.
For all their songwriting prowess, it’s folly to exclude the bass work and vocal bludgeoning of Ross Dolan as the key adhesive binding Immolation together, and good grief does he sound as enraged and menacing as ever throughout this record. Acts of God feels like a particular resurgence for Dolan, as the album’s production lifts his vocals higher in the mix than we’re used to hearing. This both amplifies his effectiveness and highlights another particular strong suit of the record: the production. While my initial promo file contained some strangeness in the mix, further listening through the label’s officially provided stream cured all of my ills. This thing sounds utterly fantastic, especially for a record this aggressive and dense. Each instrument pops with just the right amount of clarity without sacrificing any punch and allows performances that often feel buried by deeply condensed production to shine.
Another aspect of Acts of God worth noting is its epic scope. Clocking in at 15 tracks and 52 minutes in length, it’s a full three tracks longer than their next most expansive record, while clocking in around 10 minutes longer than their average album length. However, there really isn’t a dud on the record, so while listener mileage may vary regarding how much death metal one can take in a single sitting, rest assured that each of these tracks is more than worthy of your time if you find Immolation’s style of death metal appealing. Given the significant changes COVID-19 has forced upon musicians, it’s hard to fault a band for unleashing more fury than usual. To my ears, it’s not an unwelcome approach.
From start to finish, Acts of God is excellent. Most of us come to an Immolation record for rock solid songwriting, masterful musicianship, and unrivaled intensity, and the band’s 11th full-length delivers on all of those fronts in spades. If you’re a long-time Immolation fan, prepare yourself to be thoroughly satisfied. If you’re new to Immolation, well… where the fuck have you been? Sit down and let these kings regale you with tales of godless futures and bloody histories with a precision and power you won’t find anywhere else. It has been said that legends never die, and while death metal as a whole has proven that narrative slightly problematic, we still have Immolation to give us a fervent argument that some Golden Age legends can still create exceptional and engaging death metal three decades into a stellar career. A fantastic release that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Acts of God drops today via Nuclear Blast Records, and can be purchased on the band’s Bandcamp page.