Like clockwork, Immolation return to deliver another slab of high-quality death metal. Which is particularly impressive given their stock-in-trade; Atonement is no meat-and-potatoes death metal but rather a sub-Gorgutsian dissonant and technical varietal, one that for most bands would be sprinkled across an album as highlights rather than the main entree itself.
That term, sub-Gorgutsian, may strike immediately as a critical term, but this isn’t intentional. There just appears to be very little way to refer to their particular brand of technicality without being self-defining, using the band’s own branded sound as a definition of itself. They employ similar movements as Gorguts, from jarring dissonant chords to more advanced chord motion and voicings to off-the-cuff demanding technical feats of time signature and picking. The difference is that Gorguts almost always sounds like a jazz band playing death metal, an orchestral quartet playing death metal, and playing it competently, but very rarely like a straight-up death metal band, at least not since Obscura dropped and altered their course forever. Immolation, however, have never sacrificed the clear tie to their roots, have in fact on this album returned to the logo (aesthetic being an all-important and very heavily deliberated factor in heavy metal) that they haven’t used since ‘96.
If anything, Immolation’s approach to death metal is best exemplified by the cover of their 2010 release Majesty and Decay. In an image seemingly plucked from WarCraft lore, a frozen lich-king sits in marble upon a throne, face wisping away to bone and ice, hands clutching the arms of the the throne not in malice nor in pain but in something more closely resembling regal control, an absolute certainty of the imperial power contained in its decaying bones written in the placidity of its grasp. It is this term, “imperial”, that perhaps does Immolation more favors, both here and elsewhere; the riffing may at times approach hyper-speed tremolo picking, as extreme metal is wont to do, but the tempo rarely ascends beyond a doom-laden imperial march. It gives, even among the more wild and technical and dissonant moments, a profound sense of control over the proceedings, like you are witnessing less a bestial demon loosed upon the earth and more the resurrection of armies long-dead trudging across the face of the earth.
The primary difficulty here, as with previous Immolation records, is that they most certainly have found a defining and perpetually-potent sound, one that they rarely if ever deviate from. There are few risks taken here, at least relative to their own powerful discography, and so likewise there is relatively little to note here. This is emphatically not a new direction, but likewise it isn’t a disappointment; Immolation’s wisdom comes not from reinventing the wheel needlessly but in spacing out their releases. As a result, this album feels less like a retread and more like a refresher. There are small changes; the notes seem to roll off the fingers a bit more easily this time, playing with a hunger closer to a teen first learning how hammer-ons and pull-offs can transform a mid-tempo KISS or AC/DC knock-off riff into a punishing death metal shredder if the right amount of gain and distortion are applied, and that youthfulness gives the songs a bit more bounce than their previous record Kingdom of Conspiracy had.
And so we return to the Gorguts comparison: It is precisely Immolation’s steadfastness, their immobility of sound over time, that threatens to keep them from breaking into wider audiences that groups like Gorguts or adventurous death metal has. Which is unfair; their songcraft is unparalleled and unlike some groups, they have never abandoned death metal in failed pursuit of mainstream attention. They fall perhaps just a bit too close to death metal proper to truly cross over; which is frustrating, considering how consistently excellent and satisfying their work is in the realm of death metal, a testament to the continued power of dissonant riffing and a deep, menacing growl.