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The Darkness before the Dawn - 67%

autothrall, April 24th, 2013

While it often takes a band many years into its career to assemble their demos and rarities into a fan package, Immolation struck fairly early on with Stepping on Angels...Before Dawn, put out through the Repulse Records out of Spain just before the four-year anticipation of the New Yorkers' sophomore Here in After reached a boil. Almost as if the band wanted to just get it out of the way, reveal their embarrassing past, and move forward from that point on. Only the material collected here is not only comprehensive, but it's not at all embarrassing. What you've got is a chronological collection of demo cuts which follow Immolation's gradual transformation from the death/thrash roots of the 80s to the formidable act we today recognize, all in one place, with no bullshit and no sense that they've left any stone unturned. I can't promise you'll be able to track down a copy without resorting to illicit means, but if you're interested in hearing where the New Yorkers' came from, Stepping on Angels... bares all.

The earliest material hearkens from when the group was known as Rigor Mortis, before Ross Dolan had entered the picture. Guitarists Robert Vigna and Tom Wilkinson were present, and they wrote a brute but concise form of mid-paced thrash, with death barks and bass contributed by Andrew Sakowicz. The best comparisons I could make would be to Hallows Eve, Infernal Majesty, Hellhammer, Possessed, early Hexenhaus, with the slower Slayer chugging sequences. Not too exciting, and the spikes of lead guitar feel frivolous and indulgent, but there's certainly a lot of urban anger in there and the recording was adequately punchy and convincing. Four tracks are present from this period, covering two 1987 demos, and I'd say they were all fairly level in quality, though nowhere near as impressive as what would come later. All in all, these tunes are nothing to be ashamed of...think of a more primitive, simplistic forebear to something like fellow New Yorkers Demolition Hammer and you're in the right ballpark. I can't honestly say that they would have made for a standout thrash act if they had headed further in that direction, so the later changes make a whole lot of sense.

...and then we're into Immolation proper, with a bunch of material from their s/t demos in the 88-89 years, about the time death metal was beginning to really explode through bands like Death, Pestilence, Morbid Angel, Carcass and Obituary, and you can hear a similar transition here. The riffs were faster ("as on the eponymous "Immolation"), more brutal and technical than the Rigor Mortis fare, with some vicious tremolo picking ("Dawn of Possession"), and the solo swaps both writhing and evil. With Ross Dolan now in the band, you got these hoarse, callous growls that were like a mix of Jeff Becera, Chuck Schuldiner and David Vincent; and the drumming more intense with some cold, moderately paced blast beats. The one downside to this is that just about all these tracks were re-recorded for Dawn of Possession in 1991, with a far more wholesome and dynamic mix thanks to Harris Johns and the band's improved musical proficiency. You get a few different versions of "Despondent Souls", for example, but I prefer the album take. While aggressive, tight and worthy of landing the group their Roadrunner deal, these do feel a bit dry in the greater context.

The final chunk of the mix is comprised of five live cuts culled from two performances; the first in New York (1988) and the second in Pennsylvania (1989). They sound like what you'd expect: raw and punishing with a barely tolerable mix that was probably a lot better if you were in attendance. That said, you can make out most of the guitar chords, the drums sound pretty poppy and the death grunts are obvious, though somewhat drowning out the musicality due to the primitive recording. The latter two, from the Pennsylvania gig sound somewhat more stereo and bassy, but likewise murkier. You can hear the banter between selections, with the heavy New Yorker accents, and I dig that they chose such early lives to keep the whole collection in context, a clear statement that this was all the past and they're proud to share it. Also, hidden in the last live original, there are two complete cover songs! "Charred Remains" by Autopsy and "Morbid Visions" by Sepultura, the latter of which they manhandle with more efficiency than the Brazilians probably could.

I realize that I'm usually pretty hard on these things; Stepping on Angels...Before Dawn is a bit difficult to criticize, because it's precisely the sort of collection I appreciate: humble, complete, and well structured and ordered so the fan can follow the band's journey. But honestly, other than a brief curiosity, there's not much impetus to choose this over any of their full length studio offerings, and I feel like the unreleased demo tunes were average at best. Still, even if this isn't something I'd often care to visit (if I weren't writing a review), I dig that I got to know the band. Where they came from, and perhaps where they were going. Definitely feels as if this was something the band itself had a hand in (alongside Dave Rotten/Repulse), rather than some mindless wallet grab by a larger label. You can't really ask for more than that out of such a compilation, but musically it doesn't stand alone so much that non-fans should really care.

-autothrall
http://www.fromthedustreturned.com

A band with a strong desire to be heard - 85%

we hope you die, August 2nd, 2011

This collection of early demos and live recordings gives the listener an insight into the early development of these death metal legends. Listening to the whole thing through one can see them grow from humble beginnings into the beast we find on “Dawn of Possession”. The first few tracks show Immolation as a much more thrashy affair, and if taken on their own they would be considered nothing special at all. One is reminded of the countless death metal acts in the late 1980s trying to make a name for themselves and many failing to do so. This is, however, a band trying to take extreme metal beyond the realms of Slayer and Celtic Frost yet one that has not developed a truly unique sound as yet. As with listening to early demos from say Atheist, they are interesting only in the present day context as it charts the development of a band going from the realm of thrash to primitive death metal and finally into something truly distinguished. All that makes the Immolation we know and love today is there only in the very simplest, most primitive form lost behind a bunch of kids emulating the music they love and having fun doing so.

And then we move onto early versions of tracks that found their way onto “Dawn of Possession” and the strength of passion to create something that truly stands out becomes clearer. The riffing is more complex and they connect up with each other in far less predictable ways, rhythms and tempo changes become far more engaging and we are also treated to Ross Dolan’s vocals for the first time. At this time his voice still needed some fine tuning but it serves to take the band beyond the Repulsion/Autopsy school of early, simpler death metal. Production wise there is still much to be desired, but as these are only demos one can let that slide; the songs are still very much listenable but it occasionally takes away from the power of this music. From listening to the live recordings one can tell that even in the early days Immolation had the desire to become truly great musicians and were willing to practice a lot to achieve this; the sound quality is very poor, but good enough to make this one fact out. There are also live covers of Autopsy and Sepultura to be found on the same track as the live version of “Dawn of Possession” for those interested in where Immolation’s early influences lay. These performances, along with the collection of demo as a whole, should serve to remind one how exciting extreme was in Europe and the US at this time if they do nothing else.

In short this should make an interesting companion to “Dawn of Possession” (as the album art may be suggesting), containing early versions of songs to be found on said album and charting the development of not only Immolation but also death metal itself; from kids trying to emulate the music they love into something truly elegant and unique.