Immolation fiercely maintains its reputation as both innovator and creator of a long run of relevant albums in the death metal genre. The band appeared in Poland on September 27, supported (besides opening bands Sincarnate and In Twilight’s Embrace) by Melechesh and Azarath. In every case the sound was at least good and with their performances they all have made great impression.
Each of these long-running bands has passed the point where it is fair to say that they make records that fit within the death metal or black metal genres. Live, however, this does not necessarily makes their aesthetics less abrasive, brutal or aggressive; instead it makes the structures less heavy. Hollow, budget riffs, reliance on rhythmic fillers, cheap melodic fills, groove, overblown dramatism, lack of the philosophy and feeling of those genres, and nothing meaningful to communicate. When such bands appear, the mind drifts away from individual experience to the broader span of time, as if on some quest to summarize the life of these artistic entities and encapsulate their meaning in some suitable epitaph.
By spending all of its initial energy on their debut, Melechesh created something which at its brightest moment could be considered as a middle eastern version of Pure Holocaust, but for the rest of the time sounds like Primordial or one of the less convincing Swedish bands. Almost immediately after that they devolved into what is a fairly natural state for bands from exotic countries or third world, namely a more neutral, generic form of metal. Created by the British, like the artifacts of Western Civilization which they had dominated, the broad spectrum of proto-metal through hard rock can be applied universally. Any gimmickry superimposed on them becomes completely irrelevant because the core shines through as what it is. In contrast, the black metal form created by Norwegians, in order to be “true”, demanded of music to not be merely interpreted according to the capabilities or cultural signals of given nations, but to be filled with their deeper, volkish content, no matter how different and removed it may be from that of Scandinavia.
With Melechesh perhaps we could receive some of that via the longer songs from older releases, but generally their set was saturated with the shorter ones and more facile treatment of their people’s spirit, expressed by simple musical devices commonly associated with them as grafted onto a typical heavy metal base enhanced by black metal and death metal technique. Trapped in that underdeveloped form, Melechesh sounded similar to Azarath, which as is quite often the case for Satanic/occult bands, already sounds somewhat Mesopotamian.
Typical of Polish death metal, Azarath is stupidly aggressive, fast and precise, as was once established by Vader or Imperator and later only made more complex in accordance to the conventions of modern metal. What we have here in terms of music is for the most part composed of tremolos and fragmented, short bursts of insignificant notes and pointless abruptions: “sounds” which are supposed to constitute riffs. In order to create hellish lawlessness what they are doing is too often without much meaning and as a result it really isn’t that different from things that tech-death poseurs are doing solely for the shock.
Those techniques feel “loose” and it is an curiosity that in the end they somehow assemble into actual songs. While Azarath itself is composed of veterans who always provided an alternative to Vader clones, it can be said that Polish death metal in general was incubated in sameness for a large part of the 90s. By a weird case of self-imposed deprivation or indifference, the Polish death metal scene knew almost exclusively Morbid Angel, Deicide and Vader, and the albums which resulted demonstrated a combinations of these influences. It surely could take a few clues from say, Suffocation, although it is fair to say that Azarath certainly wasn’t deaf to Immolation. Either way, over the years Poles established from this narrow set of resources their distinctive brand of death metal which is relentless, mechanical, and despite busy guitarwork often feels… insubstantial. Hate, Yattering, Decapitated, Lost Soul and others generated releases which sound like “musician’s albums,” or demonstrations of technique and theory without the artistry and world awareness which makes for top-flight death metal.
But the story goes on. Besides being a slave to uncreative tradition there are, let’s call them, ideological or spiritual consequences to that music. Famously distancing themselves from paganism, nationalism and sometimes even outright politicization of black metal, part of the scene turned entirely to convenient but impotent Satanism. And while Azarath and other major players themselves were immune, we can certainly see how their direction prepared the ground for nihilism to necessarily follow, not of the Nietzschean, but existential variety: that of passivity and life-draining misery which now, especially in black metal, permeates younger Polish bands. Those can only phone in their pride, strength and claims to superiority over the flock. Despite that, the Polish scene remains strong in the sense that it emanates its influence globally and is highly recognizable as a unique national sound. While it has attracted many fans, in that misguided affirmation of said nihilism, which is effectively a dead end, there is no ultimate realization of metal, but negation of anything that could be perceived as unique and great in metal.
Immolation requires an entirely different kind of analysis. Not Satanic, but simply anti-Christian, purely on merits of evocative and innovative music, they excelled in creating gloomy landscapes after the death of God, with all of its spiritual consequences beginning at a search for escape from nihilism. However, they never managed to reach an opposite shore to that void. Nonetheless, they are as distinctive as any death metal band and well-known for their technical prowess, artistic aspirations and workmanlike, systematic approach to writing complex music, even after they have switched to more of a groovy speed metal style with the last two albums.
Throughout their career Immolation had also hinted at many interesting possibilities for metal such as their take on counterpoint. After Here In After, the next logical step for their music and metal in general was to lengthen the phrase before it hits repetition, rather than shortening it to a point where its only merit is in collision with the next, similarly-constructed one. The band of course took that latter path and then started to experiment with things on a different level (speed metal, dissonance) as if they were avoiding more promising ideas on purpose.
This new uninspired music dominated their set at the show. Right now they seem to be distancing a bit from most despicable populist direction of Harnessing Ruin — which was a slick creation made of all of the major metal sell-out moments from the 90s — and they returned to some of their older characteristics, only more and more diluted from any traces of will, meaning and brilliance. As always, Immolation was technically precise and demonstrated high energy in performance, but most of the audience would have preferred their pre-2007 oeuvre instead of the set we got, which was heavily slanted toward their newer material, which is simply of less interest to death metal fans.
Looking back over the night, it became clear that Azarath still seem to know very well where the essence of their music lies. Immolation cannot say the same, despite their otherwise impressive self-awareness. Their magnificence lies in the whole, sometimes convoluted structure, not just trademark riffs applied to any song format. Their amazingly energetic, visceral performance was compelling; Robert Vigna really is a sight to behold, and the band looks like they are really personally invested in what they are playing. However, hearing one after another neutered songs about how we are victims of this world, it’s hard not to think about the horrors of having one’s own art become any sort of job.
At some point, it is terrible to — even partially — make a living from your own creativity and how detrimental it proves to be to your potential to create something really sublime. This leads to meditations on how plain wrong is this whole business model of signing contracts for a given number of albums with obligation to tour, promote new product, etc., and finally, how it shouldn’t ever be a dream of young and aspiring bands to do so. To live as such is to live in an art-flavored cage, and these meditations for me adequately sopped up the time while half-heartedly listening to Immolations half-hearted newer material.