Before the ridiculous flood of top-shelf black metal hit us halfway through the year, I thought 2017 would be the year of death metal. It was certainly shaping up that way in the distant, foggy past of late February 2017. Immolation have one of the finest track records in all of heavy music. Ten albums and two EPs into their career and they’ve had no real stinkers yet. Their patented brand of no-frills, no-nonsense death metal has scared parents and won the hearts of headbangers the world over, and Atonement is another high water mark for the band, and sees them penning a new chapter in an already extensive playbook.
The first thing I noticed about Atonement was the apocalyptic atmosphere. While their past two albums seemed to focus much more on pure aggression, there’s a pervasive sense of unease that simply oozes from every note on Atonement, and the feeling that something just isn’t right never really leaves you throughout the album’s runtime. I mean this in the best possible way, of course. Every drumbeat, riff and bass line seems to be building up to some unforeseen, armageddon-level event, and considering the amount of conviction displayed by Immolation here, it’s not hard to believe that’s the case.
I’ve had a few discussions with my good buddy (and IMV cellmate) Jared [ed. note: lies – we actually like Jared and would never keep him in a cell] about this album, and we both agreed that it was made by its drumming. There are enough odd time signature switchups, interesting fills, and out-of-the-blue blastbeats to make any hobby drummer weep. Throughout the album, I noticed a lot of Portal and Ulcerate-isms, and if I had to guess, I’d wager that Steve Shalaty had been consuming more than his fair share of experimental death metal before recording his drums for Atonement. The best example of this is the intro to “Fostering the Divide.” Holy hot hell this guy knows how to set a mood, and the oddly-timed drumming is an album highlight.
But of course, I’d be nuts not to talk about the guitar work coming from the dynamic duo of Robert Vigna and Alex Bouks. These guys can throw down like crazy, and they know just how to get the hairs on the back of your neck dancing. Try the spine-chilling intro to “Thrown to the Fire,” or the creepy as all hell lick at the 2:40 mark of “Rise the Heretics.” They know just how long to repeat a good riff, and when to switch it out for another before it wears out its welcome, and on album number ten they break out the freaky angular riffs and tortured guitar squeals like they never have before. It’s a nasty, creepy sound that really burrows under your skin, and you never know if it’ll lay eggs or not.
The real king of the album, however is “Lower.” Starting out somber and downcast, it quickly swells to gargantuan size. “LOWER, AND LOWER, MY SOUL IS SINKING LOWER”, howls Ross Dolan, sounding every bit the madman he portrays in the song. Imperial-sounding guitars crank out sinister melodies in the background as Dolan’s earth-shattering vocals are allowed to take front stage for a truly horrifying performance. When he growls “Not even God can save you now,” you believe him. Despite the fact that the material on Atonement is much more “restrained” than on their past two outings, no Immolation track in recent memory outshines “Lower” in terms of sheer acidic fury.
At the end of the day, this is Immolation exploring new territory while staying true to their core sound. It’s creepy, it’ll set you on edge, but it’ll still turn your face into a fleshy bowl of mashed potatoes on a whim. It’s heavy and gross, aggressive and muscular, and much, much more. It’s Immolation’s best in years, and a fine flagbearer for 2017 death metal.
You can find Atonement on Nuclear Blast’s website in all formats.