eath metal legends Suffocation have been imitated so much that it's easy to forget they pioneered many of the genre's idioms. Those moments where the band cuts away to machine-gun bursts from a single guitar—that's Terrance Hobbs. The inhuman, lower-than-low vocals—that's Frank Mullen. And every death metal drummer only wishes he could hit half as hard as Mike Smith. Add a no-bullshit New York sensibility, and you have a band (one of the few in metal with African-American members) whose aim is pure and simple: annihilation.
The band emerged essentially fully-formed on 1991's Human Waste EP. The edges were rough, but the ingredients were there—downtuned riffs, hyperspeed blastbeats, growled vocals, and hints of thrash. These were all death metal prerequisites, but Suffocation set themselves apart with the abovementioned traits. Most importantly, the band had an amazing ability to switch gears. Hearing Suffocation is like riding in a tank that morphs into a motorcycle, then a fighter jet, and then back to a tank again. Artist Dan Seagrave perfectly captured this mecha robot quality on his cover to Effigy of the Forgotten. Prime Suffocation is slow Suffocation, where huge, hulking riffs chew up the landscape as drums whir menacingly in the background. No band does first gear like Suffocation.
After three full-lengths and two EP's, Suffocation disbanded in 1998. Hordes of imitators sprang up; most death metal bands now, the kind with unreadable logos, have some Suffocation in their DNA (the band's 1993 album was appropriately called Breeding the Spawn). Suffocation regrouped in 2003 and issued Souls to Deny a year later. Souls was a stunning comeback, with balanced production, memorable songs, and those trademark crushing grooves.
Suffocation is more of the same. This time, though, the production is astonishingly heavy. Smith's blastbeats feel like battering rams, and his snares sound like body blows. Mullen's vocals are in top form. Whereas many death metal vocalists achieve inhuman sounds through effects or studio tricks (like cupping the microphone), Mullen is the real deal, sounding monstrous but with projection and clarity. His vocals are upfront in the mix; as a result, he's more intelligible than ever. The results can be unnerving. Lyrically, much of the album deals with disturbed psychological states. The most memorable songs are "Bind Torture Kill" (about the Kansas serial killer) and "Translucent Patterns of Delirium," perhaps the only song ever to have a refrain of, "Shut up, shut up."
Though its execution is perfect, the album has a slight "been there, done that" quality. The riffs aren't as memorable as on Souls to Deny, and the overall presentation, down to the understated artwork, is cold and steely. Of course, hewing to the template is OK for Suffocation since they set it in the first place. But while death metal fans probably have this album already, those seeking a taste of Suffocation should start with Effigy of the Forgotten or Human Waste.