Shadows in the Light
oor death metal. Once fearsome, it peaked in the '90s, then choked on the vomit of its own success. Improbable major label deals imploded. Innovators spawned a glut of copycats. The music balkanized into sub-subgenres—technical, brutal, melodic—and spewed forth endless variations on these themes. Weary of machine-gun kicks and death growls, the metal market moved on. Larger labels divested themselves of death metal holdings, save for blue chips like Cannibal Corpse and Nile. Now, death metal is the domain of boutique labels that mainly cater to the converted.
Immolation is perhaps an unfair victim of all this. The band came from the early '90s New York death metal scene that yielded fellow "-tion" bands Suffocation and Incantation. After a savage debut, Dawn of Possession, Immolation found their sound in 1996's Here in After. The band had two trademarks: pick squeals (high-pitched harmonics via digging into strings with both pick and flesh) and bends. The latter were aching arcs of microtones, the notes between notes. Anything that could get bent did—solos, riffs, pick squeals. The result was mournful and menacing, a diabolical update of the blues.
But though Immolation are one of the few instantly identifiable bands in death metal, they haven’t enjoyed recognition accordingly. Perhaps that's due to their straightforward, uncompromising approach. They don't have a shtick like Cannibal Corpse's gore or Nile's Egyptology. Instead, their lyrics hew to the old metal standby: fuck your god. To their credit, though, they haven't embraced faux-Satanism like many; on Failures for Gods, they noted, "No Jesus, No Beast." Their music has changed little but for slightly more streamlined songs in later years. Immolation is about as straight as death metal gets.
Musically, Shadows in the Light is simply yet another Immolation album. Its solid, catchy songcraft, however, is a lost art in metal. Whining, nagging bends run rampant, with blastbeats tastefully complementing bulldozer riffs. The tremolo-picked melodies in "Whispering Death" threaten to skate skywards, while "Deliverer of Evil" sinuously weaves harmonies in contrary motion. "World Agony" and "The Weight of Devotion" pivot around cutting, plaintive hooks; the title track is surprisingly groovy thanks to strategically placed hi-hats. "Passion Kill" has basic, bruising minor key riffs, with matchingly memorable lyrics: "God will punish you / God will torture you / God will silence you / God will destroy you."
In lesser hands, this would be paint-by-numbers blasphemy. But Immolation don't lose sight of the larger picture: "Arm the masses and disarm the truth / As the pious bask in a holy fervor." In recent years, Immolation have begun to explore political themes (albeit vaguely so); lines like "The error of man, the error of faith / Shaping tomorrow, destroying today / Nothing ahead, nothing to be / Anger is one, anger is all" are quite pertinent to today's climate of religious fundamentalism. Music is cyclical, and by dint of perseverance, Immolation remain as relevant as ever.