Immolation’s Close to a World Below marked a clear departure from their earlier style. Their previous release, Failures for Gods, came out only the year before, but play the two albums back-to-back and you might be surprised it is the same band. On average, the songs are much slower. The dissonance is harsher and often tonality gets lost in a mess of pitch bends. At the same time, almost paradoxically, the production is higher: every part can be heard clearly and is given equal weight. At first glance, the songs are much more chaotic, but on further reflection, they have matured greatly in terms of structure and development. Exploring this idea will be the focus of the review.
In fact, this can probably be best understood by a thorough examination of a single track, “Father, You’re Not a Father.” The opening bass pattern is F descending to C scale-wise, but the catch is it is not a major or minor scale. The scalar pattern is the Locrian mode. Although this is typically considered a “standard” scalar mode, it is almost never used (parts of Sibelius’ 4th Symphony being a prominent exception), because the root chord is diminished. This makes the main chord of the key highly dissonant. The F to C construction is then used to introduce the first main riff (minor simplifications for readability were made):
The riff is offset from the start of the bass, so it occurs in a different place of the measure. It is also played in triplet rather than the bass duple. Everything about how these two main ideas are layered adds to the dissonance, confusion, and chaos of the sound. They even shift up a half step to F# and C# which layers a tritone on top of everything and pulls you temporarily out of the main key. Yet the whole riff is perfectly consistent and coheres with the introduction by being built from the same exact material. This is what I meant earlier when I said the songs sound chaotic at first but upon repeated listens, the internal logic emerges. We’ll call this section A.
The second main riff is introduced shortly after some vocals. A texture change happens for this riff, because it is played as power chords rather than single notes. The time signature also changes to 4/4 from the 3/4 of the beginning. The feel is naturally slowed by the use of quarter notes instead of eighth notes or eighth note triplets from section A. The riff itself ascends in opposition to the A idea which is descending.
All of this taken together is great songwriting, because the slower note values, longer measure, and power chords all contribute to a heavier feel. Each change they made between section A and B contributes in the same emotional direction. Many modern bands don’t understand this type of consistency. I wrote out the B idea for reference, but it there is enough going on that it could be heard differently by different people (maybe some fifths should be in there?):
The track returns to the A idea and then the B idea with some slight changes and vocals layered in. This can be seen as a development of the initial ideas or merely as a restatement. The next section is a true development section, because Immolation take a classical ornamentation idea and appropriate it into their own context. A mordant is a rapid alternating of the main note with a neighbor tone (sort of like a short trill). In this song, they glissando the whole thing and create an ugly, intensified version of it. This develops the A idea into its own groove which gives way to another development in which they elongate the opening bass motif.
While all of this is going on, more and more textures, intense drumming, extra dissonant notes, and layering of power chords contribute to a whole song build to the climax. The climax is the fantastic solo near the end. It teases by starting slow and slurred, almost like the guitar is trying to hold a single note that is unstable and can’t help but flick around. It then erupts into a short burst of technical prowess, and of course, quotes the A theme to tie it all together.
Overall, it is this type of excellent songwriting that makes the album worth listening to (and a departure from their earlier material). The songs are tightly constructed, coherent pieces that simultaneously feel unraveled and chaotic. They achieve a rare balance that speaks to both the mind and the emotions. Many newer bands have tried to copy the style unsuccessfully (the recent Ulcerate album comes to mind). They miss that this is not just static dissonance, but forward moving and organic in addition to being technical and rigid.