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I just want to start by saying I am a huge Suffocation fan, as will be very apparent in my review... but that's why I have to be honest on this one.
Everybody has been raving about this album, but I think this has more to do with the disappointment that a lot of people felt about "Souls to Deny" rather than the strengths of "Suffocation," the new album. "Souls" had poor production, and drummer Mike Smith was clearly not at the level he had been when he left the band. On the latest effort, Suffocation returns with a crisp, proffesional sound. Objectively, it's probably the best production they've ever had. The mix is not without its flaws, as the guitars tend to become buried under the drums during the blast beats, and the bass is difficult to hear, but all in all the production leaves little to be desired.
Mike Smith shows major improvement from "Souls," especially in the double-bass category, where he went from patchy footwork at middling tempos to incredibly tight runs at speeds that rival the best in the business (listen to the breakdown in the middle of Bind, Torture, Kill to see what I mean). He also has more variety on this album. On "Souls" he pretty much did the exact same fill every single time, but now he mixes it up a lot more, which is a good thing. But I often find myself wishing he would kick up the speed a notch or two. Suffocation hasn't ever been known to rely on excessive speed to get their point across, but a lot of times the music just seems to demand a bit more speed than it gets. Smith is obviously capable of it, so I wish he would just let it rip sometimes.
The writing on this album is some of the most ferocious Suffocation we've heard in a long time. Mullen screams with relentless fury. Smith beats the shit out of his drums. There are probably more "chugs" than on just about any previous Suffocation release. They sound plain old pissed off, and it comes across well. However, I still prefer Mullen's vocals prior to "Souls." There's a bit improvement from that album, but he needs to go lower. Once again, he's obviously capable of it, as he gets really low sometimes, but he should do it more.
But what I find hidden under this facade of ferocity is a hint of desperation on this album. To me, Suffocation seems like they're struggling to write their own material. While the music is angry and unrelenting, it lacks the artistry that Suffocation displayed on masterpieces such as "Pierced from Within" and "Despise the Sun," and it lacks the sheer primal brutality to be found on "Effigy of the Forgotten." One thing noticably missing are the characteristic "Suffocation runs," as I like to call them, where a riff is ended with a strange twisting pattern that just makes you want to grin and bang your head. These runs abound on "Pierced" and also "Despise," but are pretty much nowhere on "Suffocation." The riffs now sound more stale, there is just one riff after another with no real sense of progression. There is still Suffocation weirdness to be found, but a lot of times it sounds like they're trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, instead of having it add to the music. The individual riffs don't really seem to have their own identities, instead they just sort of blend together. There are few memorable riffs on this album, few things where I can say to my friends, "you know that part, in that song, where it goes like this? I frickin love that part!"
One major problem is the excess of repetition on this album. Riffs appear several times within a single song, with little or no variation, resulting in a verse-chorus type feel a la Cannibal Corpse. While the songs clearly aren't seperable into verses and choruses, certain riffs tend to appear multiple times throughout the song, with the same vocal patterns and lyrics over them, resulting in a sense of predictability that the aforementioned albums did not have. While the earlier Suffocation albums constantly surprise me, even after I've listened to them countless times, I tend to get bored rather fast listening to this album.
This predictability also extends into the song structure. Every song can generally be broken up into "fast parts" and "slow parts." It's almost like they sat there with a sheet of paper and said, "OK, we'll have three fast riffs, then a pause, then a breakdown, then go back to a fast riff, repeat, then solo, etc. Great! Next song!" The earlier albums would always keep you guessing - just listen to the title track of "Pierced," for example. The riffs swirl and twist as if in some strange dance, and you never know what they're going to do next. Time signatures change with no warning, and the same riff is almost never played the same way twice. But on this album, you can guess with pretty sure certainty every time. The time signatures usually only change when the riff changes, which leads to songs sounding like a sequence of parts rather than a connected whole.
It's also clear to me that the loss of Chris Richards was a major blow for the rhythm section. Derek Boyer can hold his own, and he knows his way around the instrument, but he never really adds to the music. As especially evident on "Pierced," Richards had a special talent for creating basslines which distinguished themselves from the rest of the music. Not only were they technically crazy but they provided a third voice while simultaneously keeping the low end heavy. Boyer provides the necessary low end, but I never find myself really listening to the bass, as is often the case with Richard's material.
Suffocation's latest release is brutal, fun to listen to, and certainly kicks your ass live - I can attest to that. It is also a major improvement over Souls to Deny, primarily because of the production. There are also some real standout tracks, especially the last three, "Entrails of You," "End of Ends" and "Prelude to Repulsion," which is actually a rerecording of a track from "Breeding the Spawn." But it just doesn't seem to have that spark that the earlier material does. I honestly view masterpieces such as Effigy, Pierced, or Despise as works of supreme artistry as well as brutality, but I don't feel the same way about this album. Overall, it's certainly worth the money, but I think it's going to find a lot less time in my CD player than Suffocation's earlier works.