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Suffistocation - 90%

Five_Nails, June 16th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, Nuclear Blast

Intricate, polished, and devastating, Suffocation has consistently stood at the helm of the most brutal ship in the death metal armada with mind-bending complicated riffing semaphore, tight ropes of musicianship and production, and an ever-focused eye on what maneuver will cause the most mayhem in the fewest measures. This death metal institution has kept many a fan enamored with its unabashedly aggressive music and innovatively skewed approach that mimicked its insane, slaughterous, and gratuitously gory lyrics. Alongside Immolation, Suffocation formed New York's barbaric response to Florida's death metal monopoly in a jarring outpouring of concrete rhythm, creating an offshoot that abandons the search for melody in favor of a gritty texture on which to flatten its audience.

Featuring a forefront of gruff gutturals roaring ahead of a web of long-winded guitar riffs, all framed in an innovative architecture of prominent percussion, this outfit's layout is the template of how to create the archetypal death metal band. Suffocation presents the percussive punch of hardcore punk within the whirl of an inverted classical cacophony, the hammering hurricanes of such a substantial sound remorselessly ravages its audience with perfect precision. Indulging in blast beats and breakdowns, it is no wonder “Effigy of the Forgotten” (1991) is considered a cornerstone in the foundation of what we now refer to as brutal death metal. Expanding the range of their guitars into a uniquely complex territory, the latticework of treble in “Pierced From Within” (1995) raised the bar for talented musicianship in this seemingly uncivilized sub-culture and separated the aims of a genuine death metal band from its breakdown-oriented counterpart in deathcore. Monumental drum fills between revolutions of riffs left no room for silence as Suffocation sought to submerge its soundscape in an incessant imposition, a filibuster that relentlessly told of the band's talent and dared to be challenged for supremacy in the style.

The band's break-up and reunion is now a long settled situation but the marked difference between “Despise the Sun” and the 2006 self-titled album put this band on a path toward a more incredible evolution than one might expect. The more practiced and proficient that guitarists Terence Hobbs and Guy Marchias got, the closer their riffs would come to plunging into a classical chasm, one where brazen wankery and flamboyant baroque accouterments eventually enticed many other bands' treble response to an exhausting percussive promiscuity mandatory in the music. However, unlike newcomers of Necrophagist or Decrepit Birth ilk, these guitarists remained laser focused on their aims to ungracefully entangle the directions of three sets of strings into a neural net of delirious insanity without the flowery moments of hope given to notes escaping this discombobulation. Suffocation's progeny couldn't resist the allure of such ringing trills but these New York death metal patriarchs, born in the savagery of an undefined extreme metal arena, held close to their roots while playing with hotter fires.

In its latest iteration Suffocation retains only two original members: legendary guttural vocalist, Frank Mullen, who laid down the studio tracks but cannot tour with the band any longer, and Terence Hobbs, the creator of some of the most recognizable riffs in death metal. Alongside these two death metal titans is Derek Boyer who has played bass for Suffocation since the 2004 restart after stints with bands like Dying Fetus, Disgorge, Deeds of Flesh, and Decrepit Birth. That repertoire has followed him into this band as production quality rose alongside the instrumentation, making room for a uniquely visceral bass combination alongside the leading guitars. Joining this experienced foundation are two young newcomers. Drummer Eric Morotti (25) and guitarist Charlie Errigo (24) have appeared out of obscurity to lend a great energy to this album, ensuring that the scope of destruction is just as fearsome as ever.

As Suffocation's eighth full-length, “. . . Of the Dark Light” is from an era somewhat removed from the seminal '90s albums. The album cover is merely a person being atomized in open space rather than a monstrous machine consuming a victim. The monsters have all but disappeared from the band's contorted universe. Changing form to become either metaphysical torments in a balanced domain where they could be deserved punishments or appearing as inhabitants of an unforgiving universe where such pain is predetermined. The desolation of the 2006 self-titled cover shows a world ravaged by scampering critters similar to the blood-soaked beast central to “Human Waste”. The skeletons adorn lifeless sands ushering in what looks to be the end of a human era of Suffocation, however without any prey to hack with their saw-bladed hands, the progeny of the 1991 creature has also run its course. “Blood Oath”, with demonic dementors excising their own hands in a mephistophelian offering, represents a movement to a metaphysical realm that places more emphasis on the implications of an earthly action's remittance through suffering, something that was well-concluded in the lyrics of many early songs but never truly explored until this later period.

Like the album covers, Suffocation has lyrically worked through this evolution to bring back the “Reincremation” recriminations of established dogmas and extol the cataclysmic death knell of societies and species. Through “Pierced from Within”, the lyrics sought to discover just which one was the final straw that broke a character's mind. Whether it involved an apostate turning his back on a religious concept imbued into his mentality from his first moments of sentience, or was the result of a botched experiment that left a person in a state of persistent catatonia, or if it was the last indignity one could endure before shedding his yoke of societal hangups and indulging his most basic desire, murder, there has been a common theme of the 'why' for 'what' horror one inflicts or receives and describes 'how' that time has come to pass. Songs like “Thrones of Blood” and “Bind, Torture, Kill” explore the mentalities of its protagonists as they strip themselves or others of one life and await the menacing horrors promised in the next. Through the early albums Suffocation's lyrics deprived many mentalities and traditions of their potency in order to uplift the influence of the individual, standing firm against his own perceived oppressors. Yet the individual's impropriety was tragically denied any chance at the godhood he sought when songs like “Depths of Depravity” and “Synthetically Revived” came to their twisted conclusions.

As some delusions of grandeur failed, still others would gain traction in title tracks like “Pierced from Within” and “Souls to Deny” where expository pieces described the distance between two worlds: an Earth infected with indoctrination and a Hell populated by protagonists. Since these situations have come to a head in the self-titled album, Suffocation has taken a new and more metaphysical direction. The personal stories are nowhere near as relatable, instead these two separate worlds have combined through “Blood Oath” and “Pinnacle of “Bedlam” to describe mayhem on the surface without exploring as much of the mentality causing it. Instead the implication is that the mentality is an inherent aspect of the society from which the mayhem flows. With this change it could be said that Suffocation has lost some of its lyrical edge, or simply forgotten the twist of the mind necessary to drive home the cerebral intimacies that can enhance the intensity of this very violent music.

This rigid and more matter-of-fact approach follows “Return to the Abyss” as a logical stomp into the nightmarish other-world that has overtaken this misshapen universe. While characters end up “Caught Between Two Worlds”, the fact of the matter is that Suffocation has been more than around the bend through nearly thirty years of existence and seems to be tiring of explaining how to go 'there and back again' across these ridiculous lyrical realms. “Your Last Breaths” shows little hope for ameliorating the lyrical woe while “The Violation” fuels its world with the energy released from an unalterable slaughterous realm. Condemned to a predetermined fate, no amount of frustration with the circumstance or attempt to follow the 'forked tongue' promising free thought and a chance at diverging from destiny will keep one from maintaining the path to ruin set before this new model narrator. This stability drives madness in a way that only four nondescript padded walls can, breeding resentment for one's lack of agency in a universe filled with protagonists doomed by its own design.

Musically striking out from its tremendous template, Suffocation's “. . . Of the Dark Light” continues the legacy that the band has laid out over nearly thirty years to further explore this expansive evolution. Massive sounding open and palm muted guitar notes lead erupting double bass bursts in the stunning opener, “Clarity Through Deprivation”. Breakdowns are a staple feature of Suffocation's sound and in these early few minutes the desolate atmosphere leaves large spaces for a head-crushing delivery. Unlike the numerous bands it has inspired, Suffocation uses breakdowns more sparingly and with great impact to absolutely demolish a structure and drive home the intensity and immensity of the aesthetic for which it aims. The polished production doesn't diminish the impact of bass as the thumping energy patters against a chest in anticipation of the pummeling it will receive at a live show. The guitars clasp together in horror-striking harmony without blending while maintaining the down-tuned vibrations that tear at the sanity of a listener with the psychotic sincerity that the twisted mind narrating each song projects, instilling sense and rationale for its malicious universe.

The rip-roaring tremolo riff in “Some Things Should be Left Alone” displays the evolution well as the band showcases its incredible talents in spurts between meditative and sensible stomps into the death metal pit. “The Warmth Within the Dark” is the catchiest song on this album with a most melodic moment when a riff rises in an almost metalcore fashion, dancing its way across a long looping bridge that crumbles beneath the weight of the ensemble's backlash against such an out-of-place moment of hope. Suffocation betrays to its listener how conscious and dulcet its music is within immense, brash, and frantic structures. The calm of “Caught Between Two Worlds” is as delicate as it is intense when delirious guitars start screaming against the percussive weight tumbling down upon them. The bass comes through beautifully in the re-recording of “Epitaph of the Credulous”, rounding the album out with an homage to the lesser-known album “Breeding the Spawn”.

As Suffocation has been reminding its audience of the 1993 album on every new album since 2006, with “Prelude to Repulsion” appearing on the self-titled album, “Marital Decimation” on “Blood Oath”, and “Beginning of Sorrow” on “Pinnacle of Bedlam”, these re-recordings show how much the band's sound has changed from its bouncier beat-'em-up template in 1993 to the uncompromising assaults that this 2017 iteration offers. The little bits of personality found throughout the masonry of such imposing musical constructs keep this album fresh. An upward driving scale in “Some Things Should Be Left Alone”, a sitar-sounding riff adorning “Return to the Abyss”, and an extra tier to a by-the-numbers breakdown in “Your Last Breaths” enhance the multi-dimensional approach that Suffocation used to make a name for itself. “. . . Of the Dark Light” is no “Pierced from Within”. Rather than shove its every fluctuation down the listener's throat, there is a nuance to this album that can easily go unnoticed in the first listens, something that shows its fury as one that burns for longer, not to be taken lightly, for each assault is coldly calculated, premeditated. While the lyrics are doomed to their confinement, the sophisticated exploration of the guitars, like a British expedition into the untamed heart of darkness, show a smarter and faster band, versatile enough to endure a drastic lineup change and still succeed. Listening to Suffocation is like attending Hell's opera. The masquerade is a refinement of tone within a frantic and chaotic tableau. Each intensely crafted scene has an air of improvisation while simultaneously featuring tightly-crafted choreography, displaying exceptional musicianship and a professionally cultured finishing, betrayed only by the casual cursory first glance that seems base and barbaric.

Suffocation has been around the bend throughout the outfit's twenty-nine year history and has consistently come out on top delivering an impactful sound, even as its members' passions may have fluctuated. As one of the originals of its day this band still creates the signature churn of complex sounds that metalheads have grown to love, a rare cacophony that has inspired death metal offshoots that explore and expound upon certain moments of Suffocation songs in order to write their own full albums. Being a fan of Suffocation is a privilege, exploring its music is a joy, and having the chance to do the band some justice through a fan's words is something that I see as a necessary homage to this all-powerful pioneering group. “. . . Of the Dark Light” is no “Pierced from Within”, it is a maturation bred of those fundamental days and an expansion of the band's instrumental path, ever seeking excellence and without such smug satisfaction in itself that the chase is ever done. Suffocation has soldiered on since the 1990s to corrupt any sense of propriety in favor of indulging our most basic human desire, murder. Death can deal with its namesake, Akercocke can have all the sex it wants, but Suffocation has always explored the why and how while innovating a direction so obtuse and multi-faceted that new techniques had to be invented in order to achieve these ambitions.