Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Immolation - Dawn of Possession (1991)

Dawn of Possession arrived the summer before I was about to finish up high school, and like anything with a death metal logo or Roadrunner stamp (of that period), I snatched it up without having even heard of the New Yorkers. Death metal was already a 'thing' among friends and classmates, with names like Carcass, Death, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel having stirred up some attention, and numerous touring packages already hitting the Boston area (and a local Salisbury Beach club which hosted loads of now legendary bands on early N. American tours); but, that said, the metal 'culture' in my region was still heavily embedded in thrash, hair metal, hardcore or the British trinity of Priest, Sabbath and Maiden. Only a handful of folks were seriously picking around in the underground, and I also encountered a bit of confusion with that other Eastern US abomination, Incantation. Understandable, since both started with the same letter, ended with the same suffix, and pursued extremity with a similar depth and conviction.

To some degree, this album got 'second tiered' in my collection due to the fact that I was still in the throes of appreciation for extremely catchy, evil old death metal with the sorts of catchy riff progressions I equated to the speed or thrash acts I was so enamored with. Even today, I wouldn't count Dawn of Possession among my desert island choices for this sub-genre, as the songwriting is simply not so strong or memorable as an effort like Consuming Impulse, Altars of Madness, Realm of Chaos, Leprosy or Cause of Death. But I certainly enjoyed the debut, kept it in regular rotation for a few years, and have never regretted subsequent visitations, even during my dreaded 'Why must all these bands end in -tion and -opsy?' disenchantment phase somewhere in the middle of the 90s. Because, let's be honest: even if Immolation might not have provided me with any personal 'albums of the year' since its inception, there is just so much to appreciate about the band, and they've remained uncannily consistent, never ceding to emergent trends or selling themselves short, and braving even the most dwindled audiences during death metal's stagnation. I must have seen this band live a half dozen times through the years, never with a sizable crowd, and yet they've never given anything less than 100%. The very definition of the 'class act' in death metal (brutal or otherwise), and it's no wonder they've accrued such a high level of respect, online and offline, from the community.

Of course, even if Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna had been a bunch of scumbags, their music would still speak for itself. Dawn of Possession is one of those frustratingly ageless works that sounds no less massive, morbid and punishing today as when an awkward, pimply, unlayable-even-by-a-blind-hooker 16-year old New Englander first cracked its case over two decades ago. From the iconic Andreas Marschall covert artwork, to the choice in engineers, this is a surprisingly 'European' album. I say that because, rather than go with the flow and pursue the same, predictable Morrisound muffled and processed guitar tone that many of Immolation's Roadrunner labelmates had sought, they recorded this at Musiclab in Berlin, with none other than Harris fucking Johns on the boards. Yes, the esteemed producer and mixer of brilliant thrash and speed metal albums like Deathrow's Deception Ignored, Coroner's R.I.P., Pestilence's Consuming Impulse, Helloween's Walls of Jericho. Tankard, Sodom, Kreator, and many other efforts that shaped my childhood and being. Not exactly a stranger to death meal, but with Immolation he was adapting to a thicker, robust brand of punishment. A different style of writing. Even keeping in mind Consuming Impulse, you wouldn't hear this at first and make that connection. Which is why the guy was so damned good: his flexibility, and understanding of those aesthetics that made each of these creatures unique...

On a strictly superficial level, Dawn of Possession struck some semblance to other death metal works to have come before it. The tremolo riffing progressions in pieces like "Into Everlasting Fire" had that same menacing, morbid flavor I took away from Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy. The corpulent, unnerving grooves and breakdowns definitely fell somewhere between the Autopsy style and the British bludgeoning of Carcass (Symphonies of Sickness) and Bolt Thrower (Realm of Chaos). Ross Dolan's vocals were like a deeper, more guttural Chuck Schuldiner tempered with David Vincent, albeit with a pretty convincing sustain placed on many of the lyrical phrases. But the ability to fuse together lurching, loping grooves and faster picked passages wasn't playing out too closely to any other band before it. The songwriting is busy without becoming unnecessarily impossible or complex. The rhythm guitars pinch off a number of percussive squeals through the monstrous miasma, but blend them seamlessly into the overall riffing structure, rather than transforming them into an annoying 'feature' as many later, younger brutal death acts would (and still do). The intro to "No Forgiveness (Without Bloodshed)" is a great example. Immolation's choices in notation seemed to birth a strange, surreal darkness; like they were, at long last, translating some indecipherable, ancient infernal text into the language of urbanite death metal.

Yog-sothoth comes to Yonkers! And there was much suffering (and cool photo ops). It doesn't hurt that Dawn of Possession sounds so freakin' amazing. The rhythm guitar churns like a rich compost soil, broad and bright where necessary but pummeling enough to feel it in the colon. Glazed, eerie leads erupt off the contours of the background riffing like abysmal bats taking flight, and employ all manner of tapping and wailing techniques to sound as otherworldly as possible. Dolan's bass lines shadow the guitar, and though they're rarely as interesting, the fact that he's pulling double duty precludes any real disappointment. You can at least hear them swerving along like a 1st edition gelatinous cube sweeping clean a dungeon corridor. His vocals are given some great reverb at points to just hover off over the ballistic undercurrent, and though the guy just doesn't have a super distinct style like John Tardy or Martin van Drunen, his performance here is a perfectly serviceable and disturbing peer for David Vincent and Craig Pillard. By and large, though, I'd have to say that Craig Smilowski's drumming is the most standout component of this record. I simply can't believe that they could be mixed so loudly without losing the rest of the instrumentation!

You can hear every goddamn tom roll, kick, slap, snare and splash throughout, so prevalently that you feel as if you're actually sitting in Craig's chair and battering the kit yourself, effortlessly morphing between blasts and grooves, so second nature that it becomes third...nature. I'm not one of those blokes who pays such close attention to the drumming that every other instrument becomes moot, but these come across as a treat.  Organic, expressive, phenomenal, and punishing enough to support the vaulted ceilings of the philosophical underworld in which Immolation dwells. Speaking of which, the sinister lyrics here, which read like a pathological examination of damnation against a backdrop of Milton and Dante, feel legitimately harrowing, haunting and sincere. Where a band like Deicide, who delighted in God-dissin' blasphemy so directly and theatrically that they created a shockwave through semi-popular culture, always came off 'hammy' to me. Clowns wielding inverted crosses. I have never gotten that impression from Immolation, and this lack of a disconnect really helps thunder home the barbs of darkness with due verisimilitude:

Twist of scripture, Christ possessed
Come forth with wrath, evil obsessed
Hatred and war, sadistic spell
Swallows the earth, thanks be to Hell!

For all its strengths, though, Dawn of Possession is not a perfect album. A near mandatory purchase for any self-respecting man, woman or child who dares wear the mantle of 'death metal fan'? Indeed. But there are a fair share of moments on the album in which I felt more of a swinging through the motions rather than any sense of soul sucking pathos. Where the brutality becomes quite soulless in spite of itself. It's evil as shit, but never quite had me jumping at shadows like Slowly We Rot, Consuming Impulse, Onward to Golgotha or Left Hand Path. A few riffs will miss by a wider margin than intended, and a transition or two will feel rushed or slapped together. In general, even though I consider this one of their best albums, a lot of later Immolation experiments with riffing structure and dissonance to greater effect, and that's really the band most have come to know and admire. Does it belong among the annals of cult classics? Unquestionably, but Immolation is not some flash in the pan or short-term fascination. It would be a disservice to experience just one of their recordings, because almost all of them are interesting even where they take only baby steps in progression. And that baby has a pitchfork, which it plans to shove directly up your...

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (come forth with wrath)


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