Immolation, Deicide and Skinless
June 22, 2005
San Antonio, Texas
It’s not often that one gets to see one of the few enduring pieces of death metal history, and even rarer than the performance is memorable. By now, most death metal bands have either lost momentum and stopped caring, or have in a misguided attempt to sell records turned themself into the same old thing, at which point no one gives them any respect and they in turn stop caring about their audience. A few remain, and Immolation is one of them: an Immolation show is one of the few to which you can take someone ambivalent about metal, and know they’ll see the genre at its finest and be exposed to the minimum of destructive elements.
Unfortunately, this show was at a little hole of a club called Sanctuary, which has a large amount of physical space but so little class that it feels like watching a show from a polyester-sheathed bathroom. $24 tickets at the door were accepted with avaricious glee by the club owners, who then managed to do so little right that I wondered if $4 would be paying too much. They were basically morons, but no one noticed, since most of the crowd there were clueless little kiddies who wanted to rebel and listen to some evil metal, therefore were busy scurrying around doing anything but paying attention. It was a terrible place for anyone with a brain. Only the credulity of the audience saved this club, as if the audience had been 50% or more savvy people, they would have had a riot on their hands for their terrible sound system, collapsing light display, arrogant low-IQ security people, and of course, usurious policies at the bar, merch stands and door. The Sanctuary is garbage. Never go there.
There were several opening bands, but by the time our intrepid reviewer arrived, Skinless was beginning their set. The guys from Skinless are undeniably nice people, quite personable and cordial, but their music is the kind of waste of time that degrades metal to idiot fodder and attracts fools into the genre, creating a kind of negative evolution by which the audience gets dumber and thus, to sell CDs to them, the bands get mega-stupid. The artistic statement that Skinless makes can be summarized as “4”: 4/4 time, first four frets, and about four minutes before your eyes glaze over. They attracted mainly the kind of dysgenic blockhead that I generally experience as taking forever in grocery lines, slowing traffic, or finding landmines with pickaxes. Waves of thudding bassy power chords, a bouncy cadence, and some throbbingly one-dimensional vocals are the appeal of this band; it’s like death metal with all the adventurous parts taken out, leaving a constant breakdown that has more in common musically with hip-hop than the brainy acts in underground metal.
The real highlight of the night for anyone who could count to ten backwards without a visual aid was Immolation. Hailing from New York, this band has battered out the tunes since 1988, and while they have “progressed” in a convergent approximation of contemporary “metal” with the recent album, the quality of the music itself is high, and my feeling is that they’ll move on to something with more enduring impact. What makes nu-metal distinctive is its tendency to want to sound like trash, because people devoid of self-confidence, like mice, like to burrow into garbage and hide. Luckily the numu elements on the latest Immolation, “Harnessing Ruin,” are a tiny influence considering the whole of its composition, which is mostly a musically erudite version of their 1990 masterpiece “Dawn of Possession.” A welcome change is that they like using more harmonic playing and phrases sinuously deployed on the partial beat, which shows off the guitar work of Bob Vigna and Bill Taylor.
Taking to the stage with characteristic nonchalance, Immolation played mostly new material, but live it took on a life that is not captured on record, being partially faster and more aggressive, but also deprived of any studio finery and stripped down to what can be done on the fly on some stage in some club. New drummer Steve Shalaty was not only completely on cue but also knew when to restrain himself. This and the collective attitude in the band enables them to work together as one, without members standing out or contributing random elements by error, and the result is a militant wave of coordinated action that hits like an occult ceremony. A few older works filled the set, but the band had tired of playing songs from the first album, and this let them adopt their newer persona in full. For this reviewer, it was a welcome move: the band was staying current where so many others lingered in the past.
Vigna’s guitarwork is always impressive not just for its precision but for the flair with which he manhandles his guitar; some joker from Deicide sprayed him with silly string during the first song, and in some sympathy between accidental symbolism and reality the sticky ropes of plasticine goo joined Viga to his guitar like the organic connective tissue of symbiosis. Ross Dolan, on bass and vocals, threw his entire reserve of energy into the perfomance as always, and created not only deafening bassy growls but a surly, contorted facial expression that altered itself in time with the music: eyebrows moved to the high hat, chin to the bass drums, and snarling smile to the pulse of four-string and snare. It seemed too much for the retrograde elements in the crowd, as the dufus horde retreated to the bar and bathroom to let the most complex band of the night play.
To his credit, Glenn Benton seems like a nice guy, but the years have clearly taken a strain on him. Where there was once belief and direction in his life, now there’s duty, and Deicide suffers for it, since he was the glue that held that band together, along with drummer Asheim, and now they’re the only two original members. Some loser who used to play guitar for Tampa Christian metal band Death joined one of the losers from Cannibal Corpse, and together, they filled in for the mercurial Hoffman brothers, but that didn’t matter much as the PA cut out halfway through the first song. Then some idiot woman who was apparently dating the loser ex-Christian metal guitarist started pitching water on the crowd, and all the kiddies – many of whom were literally under five feet tall – started showing the effects of the beer and weed they had oh so rebelliously consumed. Personal drama overwhelmed the show, and Deicide kept playing despite the fact that no one could hear them. When it became clear the sound was not going to get fixed, the few remaining smart people left, abandoing a crowd of groping, sweating, posing, whining teenagers who could not have comprehended Deicide in its prime. The club, having collected $24 from each person there, didn’t have any staff members will to lift a finger to help, so at this point the concert degenerated into a day care center and your intrepid reviewer left. Summary: never go to the Sanctuary in San Antonio. It’s a wasteland.
Immolation played an excellent set. If one attended with a brain, this was the focus. It’s a shame they weren’t given more time, as apparently the wise and expensive club decided to cut short each band’s set, which was convenient as, this being the last night of the tour, they all had to jet off to different places and were ready to leave. However, it was unsettling to watch Skinless recruit more people so profoundly dumb they’d already failed at life by seventeen, and equally disturbing to witness Deicide – what’s left of it – egging on a crowd so braindead it couldn’t tell the guitars were inaudible. On the whole, I have to say that San Antonio is probably even more mentally defective than Austin, as there were very few people there would could have read a Joseph Conrad book and understood it. This to me shows the parallel decay of metal and American society, and having seen this vapidity in action, I now know why mediocre bands are praised and bands like Immolation are slighted.
However, Immolation never let it show – their performance was impeccable and highly professional, and I got the impression that these gents were so focused on creating their music, and then reproducing it well live, that they were almost oblivious to the fluctuations of the crowd. As Dolan said in an interview,
What’s kept Immolation going all these years? We love what we do, plain and simple. It hasn’t been the easiest road to travel down and for almost 18 years… sometimes I think we certainly must be nuts, but then there is nothing else I would rather be doing. That includes every aspect of what we do, from writing, to recording, to rehearsing, to touring and traveling and meeting people all over the world. I stop and think about how fortunate we are to still be doing this and to still really enjoy it and that’s all that matters in the end.
– Ross Dolan, Immolation interview (source)
This attitude resurrected this show from being a total loss to a performance that showed the power of death metal in its original form. The cryptographic song forms and abrupt technicality of Immolation invoked the same effect that death metal as a whole did when it emerged, as people realized they not only could barely recognize it as music but, being well versed in rock, had no language for even understanding it. For this reason, their shows are devoid of the “evil” posing, sophomoric political stances, and blatant blockhead cultivation that blights most death and black metal today, and it makes it worthy to see this band if they come to your town (as long as it’s not at the Sanctuary club in San Antonio).
Sanctuary Club, San Antonio