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filthy business as usual - 86%

RapeTheDead, February 24th, 2017

Immolation is back! And they finally used their cool logo instead of the boring plain text! There's a lot to get excited about if you're a fan of the band. Ten albums later, Immolation's goal of making pure, unfiltered death metal hasn't changed one bit. They're occasionally criticised for being fodder for elitists and nothing more for that reason, but if there's anything I've learned in my years of metal fandom, it's that if somebody calls a band "elitist", that should probably be taken as a compliment. Indeed, Immolation is probably even a bit too jarring, heady and atmosphere-based for many death metal fans. I know I didn't really get it at first. They're pretty much the archetype for an "acquired taste" in the genre, because you kind of have to force yourself to listen to them a little bit. Robert Vigna's riff style is one that's intentionally uncatchy and obtuse. Once it clicks, though, they're one of the most genuinely unsettling bands the genre has to offer. I listen to an album like Close to a World Below and still get the same sort of chill I got when I first dove headfirst into extreme music.

They're incredibly consistent, too. I don't think they have an album that's just plain bad, because all the misplaced dissonance and sudden tempo changes work once you realize that's exactly what they're going for. That being said, if I had to pick the album of theirs that was the weakest, I'd probably go with Kingdom of Conspiracy. It was a bit too busy in the drumming, and the riffs just sounded too...conventional, for lack of a better term. Like, it was still Immolation, and it was still a competent death metal album, but it lacked a certain special something. It was very sharp and intense, but didn't really have that same sort of creepy vibe going for it. As somebody who got a lot of mileage out of Majesty and Decay, it left me feeling a little bit let down.

Much has changed in the past four years, however, so it might be good to do a rundown of what's changed. Bill Taylor, the secondary guitarist as far back as Unholy Cult, has left the band. This doesn't have huge implications for the band's sound, because Ross and Bob are the two founding members and they've got their formula set in stone. They've brought back the pinch harmonics in spades, as there was a distinct shortage of them on their more recent albums, and at times it seems like they make entire riffs out of them. The pacing of Atonement is notably different as well. Kingdom of Conspiracy was fast n'furious, this is much more slow'n'low to the point where you wonder if the band was listening to a lot of doom metal prior to writing the record. Now, don't get me wrong here, there's still plenty of sudden, jarring blastbeats and overall the album spends more time at a quicker pace. However, what sets Atonement apart is the way it plays with space. They've done this in bits and pieces on previous albums, but this is one of the first albums that uses those simple, dirge-y moments on a majority of tracks.

A more cynical listener might see this as a product of the band getting old and tired and just wanting to write something more straightforward, but I wouldn't say that's true. The intensity is still there, it's just manifesting in a less obvious form. Atonement is still just as abrasive and challenging, but dialing it back just a little bit really helps things breathe and get under your skin. The squealing riffs and sharp tempo changes become the album's strong suits, and the little forays into something a bit different (like the opening of "Lower") work really, really well. I don't think I've ever heard them write something so somber and...pretty, for lack of a better term. They're able to stray from their well-worn path, because they know what works for them and how to bring it back if things ever get too off-track. Never before has the band sounded so comfortable, and I mean that as a good thing. Sometimes their songs do have a tendency to sound like they're at war with themselves, and it's actually quite refreshing to hear them take a break from the chaos to focus on the ominous, lurching riffs.

Ross's vocals sound as good as they ever have (he kind of had this weird tinny sound going on in the early '00s but I think that was just a production thing), and this is one of Steve Shalaty's better performances as well. In all honesty, he's probably my least favourite drummer Immolation's ever had; he was always a bit too straightforward compared to the batshit "let's try and play the whole drumkit at one" style of Alex Hernandez or the pummeling battery of Craig Smilowski. Shalaty sort of sits in a middle ground between the two, but he's also the longest-standing (sitting?) drummer the band has ever had at this point, and it shows, because he follows the riffs quite closely and has slowly been adding some extra frills to his drumming style over time. Despite their first lineup change in over a decade, the cohesion between musicians is at an all-time high.

Atonement is exactly the kind of album you want to hear from a veteran band at this point in their career. Is this the best thing they've ever put out? If you were already a fan, probably not. Your attachment to their older stuff will be too strong. That wasn't what Immolation was aiming to do. They wrote an album that delivers everything a fan could expect, but also threw in the occasional curveball and developed their sound a bit more so things don't seem like a shameless re-treading of older ground. If you're new to the band, this is as good a place as any to start as well. Their modern-era albums (so, Majesty and Decay onward) are a good deal more accessible, and Atonement is the best of those three albums. Might even be the best Shalaty album, period. The masters have delivered the goods yet again, and as it stands, this is one of the best things I've heard so far this year.

(Originally written for The Metal Observer)