This is technical ecstasy.
Immolation doesn’t roll out a new album all that often, so when the venerable New York death metal outfit does, it’s cause for celebration. Atonement, the group’s 10th album and first studio outing since 2013, provides further evidence of meticulous songwriting and an uncanny ability to expertly harness chaos within three and four minute increments.
This is technical ecstasy. The dissonant rage of opener “The Distorting Light” casts us into a fiery pit as guitarists Robert Vigna and Alex Bouks buzz and howl and grind their way from end to end. After that powerful introductory blast, “When the Jackals Come” deepens its sentiments, offering greater nuance to Immolation’s sinister signature. The sting of the hell pit strings as they move atop Steve Shalaty’s unstoppable, unsettling drum rhythms wounds the ears as much as it warps the mind. Despite the technical nature of the riffing and rioting, there are still hooks in this material, latching on to swaths of rhythmic delight amid material such as “Fostering the Divide,” “Thrown to the Fire” and the ripping, snorting title track.
Vocalist-bassist Ross Dolan maintains his position as a formidable front man, spitting out words with venom and the defiance upon which death metal was built. “Rise the Heretics” is a masterclass in how to strike fear into the hearts of mere mortals with each passing verse and line. Easily one of the best on the album, it’s a new high watermark for Immolation and makes the dark pact between performer and listener deeper.
Meanwhile, “Lower” is what a hit death metal track might sound like: It sinks its hooks deep then tears our flesh with hairpin turns in tempo and mood over the course of four short minutes that carry us across an eternity of darkened bliss. If it seems unthinkable that an album, especially a death metal album from such seasoned veterans (Immolation issued its debut in 1991), could get better as it goes along, Atonement shatters all expectations, delivering a stunning wallop with “Above All” and the penultimate track (on vinyl) “The Power of Gods.”
Immolation paces its releases at the perfect rate, for it takes time to fully digest its music. Compositions don’t reveal all their charms on either the first or 50th listen and peeling away those layers in the years between this and the sure to be excellent follow-up seems a necessary interval. Such complexities may be too overwhelming for some, but technical death metal is a niche that doesn’t readily invite the faint of heart or the close-minded.
Are there moments here that don’t work as well as others? Sure. Some may take issue with LP closer “Epiphany” and see it as over-egging the pudding. “Lower” will likely have detractors that find it too polite compared to the company it keeps. But the good here far outweighs the bad, and the band’s reputation as a singular force within a sometimes-crowded genre remains unscathed. Vigna and Dolan have really done no wrong in their career, though they certainly hit their stride with 2000’s Close To a World Below. It’s a streak that, with this effort, remains unbroken.