Through Acts of God, Immolation Are Death Metal Masters — and Students

We spoke with Ross Dolan of the legendary New York group on their new album and death metal at large
Immolation
(Credit: Dennis Coleman)

Immolation have one of the most consistently great discographies in death metal. Their 11th album Acts of God, out this Friday (February 18) on Nuclear Blast, meets their benchmark for excellence. It is not just their brand of death metal in its prime, but death metal itself in its prime, when it became more complex and sophisticated in the early ‘90s without losing its base fury and grotesqueness. Guitarist Bob Vigna’s labyrinthine guitar still drives them, going in all sorts of directions that seem incomprehensible when dissected on their own, but taken together are unrivaled in flow. How does “The Age of No Light” go from a dissonant black metal intro to pecking melodicism to charging upstrokes all in one song? Incomprehensibly brilliant.

Bassist and vocalist Ross Dolan, the other remaining founding member, still stands tall orating blasphemies against tyrannical religious conventions (“Noose of Thorns” is particularly evocative); he’s one of the few “you know him when you hear him” voices in the genre. Their approach hasn’t changed much since their debut Dawn of Possession or their 2000 masterpiece, Close to a World Below, and yet stagnancy cannot even plant a seed in them, much less take root.

Immolation
(Credit: Dennis Coleman)

Oddly enough, it’s because they have a positive attitude about death metal.

Over a Zoom chat last week, I asked about taking Blood Incantation – who’ve taken some of Immolation’s intricate sound and really ran with it to great acclaim – on the road with them in 2019, Dolan also eagerly rattled off a number of modern groups he’s digging. Among them were Cerebral Rot, Mortiferum (who will be touring with them beginning on the 18th), and Tomb Mold, whose guitarist Derrick Vella I interviewed a couple of months ago about his Dream Unending project. Mainly, he didn’t hesitate a bit – his desire to see death metal thrive is genuine. It’s also part of why Immolation are ahead of many of the bands they came up with – they know death metal is a continual artform, not a relic from three decades back. Immolation’s longevity shines on Acts – Dolan’s bellowing growl sounds richer and deeper than ever (he, Barney Greenway, and John Brannon must share a gene where their voices get stronger as they age), and Vigna still keeps his band, and fans, on his toes with deft twists and turns.

Read more of our conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SPIN: In 2019, Immolation went on tour with Blood Incantation, who have made quite a name for themselves in death metal, and this upcoming tour features Imperial Triumphant and Mortiferum, two bands who are also taking this music into different directions. Do you see a responsibility to expose new talent?
Ross Dolan: When [our] second album [Here in After] came out, the guys in Cannibal Corpse were good friends of ours and they were fans as well, and they reached out and took us out on four tours when [their] Vile album came out. So they were gracious enough to take us out because they liked the band and we were all friends, and they did that a lot over the years. Cannibal Corpse was always one of those bands who went out of their way to foster younger talent or bands they were just fans of, and I always respected that about them. We always felt like if we ever get into a position where we could have 100% say over who we bring out on tour with us, that would be awesome.

Blood Incantation was a perfect example, and we struggled that whole year to get them on that tour. It was a lot of things working against us for that tour, and we put our foot down and said “Hey, this is the tour we want. We don’t care if it’s just gonna be a two-band package, let’s make it happen” because we love the band. Not only as people, they’re fucking great guys, super grounded guys, super talented, very motivated, smart – but besides all that, we love the band. What they’re doing is just fucking awesome, and I love to hear bands like this that take their cues from the early days and take it in a new direction without reinventing the wheel but just doing something fresh and unique.

I get asked that all the time – “How do you see the death metal scene today” and I always say I think it’s thriving because you have a lot of fresh, young bands doing something cool and unique and different and carrying the torch forward. You need that! It can’t be only old bands like us, you need fresh blood.

 

With this new record, would you say there’s an overarching theme or something running throughout it?
It’s not a concept album in the sense Kingdom of Conspiracy was. Topically, I think we touch on multiple ideas and subjects with this record. The one line of continuity we found – and this came into play when figuring out what we gonna do for the cover artwork – there were a lot of mentions of light and dark on the record, there were also a lot mentions of fire as a means of purification and cleansing and as a destructive force as well.

It is a very dark album thematically, that’s for sure, there’s no happy tracks on this record. It has an overall sense of hopelessness, that would be the common theme. I think we felt very hopeless during the last couple years, not only were we locked down during this crazy pandemic, but you also see the world start to unravel in a lot of ways both in our country and around the world, all of this divisiveness perpetrated by our media.

 

I see quite a bit of Dawn of Possession here aesthetically. Y’all have been around forever so it never really leaves you, but were you looking more towards that record making this one?
I can confidently say no. Bob is never one to look backward, he always looks forward. I obviously have a lot of nostalgia for the early records and we’re very proud of that stuff. But yeah, each record is a step forward without looking back. That being said, we do kinda bring with us everything we’ve done in the past and that obviously carries forward because you’re always trying to learn from your mistakes or you try to make the next one better.

Lyrically, yes, we did harken back to some of those early themes dealing with the religion topics. When we touch on religion with this record, that’s a nod to some of the early ideas, but I think it’s done in a new and fresh way. And religion is still a big force in the world, it’s not something I care for, but I see how it impacts people. It’s something we are always fond of exploring, that mindset and how it affects people, and also the institutions themselves and the corruption within and the horrible things done in the name of religion.

Have you ever had any dialog with fans who are Christian or religious in some way but are also Immolation fans?
I have a lot of friends and we know a lot of people and fans we’ve met over the year who are pretty blunt and say “Hey, I’m not down with the anti-religious thing, but I get it” – I think they appreciate our take on it because we don’t attack so much the individual spiritualism that people find – we attack more the institutions. People who are on the other side of the coin do understand what we’re going for – I respect anybody’s right to believe and feel and listen to and follow or do whatever they want. My only problem is when that creeps into my world and religion becomes a thorn in my side when I’m not a religious person at all. When religion works into how laws are passed and how it dictates certain things in our society – that should have zero place in my world and any who chooses not to believe’s world.

I can have a conversation with someone who’s a devout Catholic or devout Christian and we can talk about the same things and I’m almost positive they’re gonna have the same gripes with the things I’m talking about. It’s not that far-fetched what we’re talking about, really.

 

I think more people are realizing that we’re living on really thin ice, metaphorically speaking.
All our lyrics are about that. We talk about humanity’s missteps and failures and our constant quest for power and dominance, and our huge ego, our arrogance, our hubris. That’s what be talk about – it’s no mystery – look at our history. It’s more of a destructive history than anything else. Sure, we’ve made a lot of great advances as a species, but we’ve also gone backwards in a lot of ways. These are the kind of things we talk about because I think they need to be talked about. You can’t just pretend things aren’t happening. If you look around you and you get really upset with something and you see something happening that’s like “Wow, this is not good, man, I can’t believe how people can’t see how bad this is” – these are the things that I like to write about because these are the things that fester inside of us, and music is a great release for this. It’s a positive release. Otherwise, I’d probably just be a super bitter, cynical, hateful person. This allows me a way to vent and get that poison out in a productive way.

It’s interesting because metal is a sound of wanting dominance, in a way.
Metal was for people like us who didn’t fit in with the status quo. People like us, all of us in the metal scene, kind of look outside the box, people like us who read between the lines and people who see things for the way they are. I never got that as a young teenager, getting into metal, I just knew it spoke to me in some ways.

This music was very helpful to me getting through those crazy, uncertain years where you’re crossing that threshold into adulthood and trying to find your place in the world. All of those early bands that were pissed off and angry and aggressive – that was the sound I was looking for. Being in a world where you always felt misunderstood, people always looked down on people with long hair back in the ‘80s. The misconceptions they had immediately upon seeing someone myself with long hair and [a] denim jacket with patches – you were immediately relegated to the Satanic drug-user fuckin’ crowd and that was it. I always was fuckin’ bitter at that stuff and I wanted to prove everybody wrong by being a better person and by believing in my music and our craft. Fast-forward 34 years, it’s a proud moment to be here, to have as many people around the globe who our message has resonated with. Whether you’re writing about horror or gore or just dark events in the world, or whatever your take is on Satanism or religion, whatever it is, it’s all done in a very dark, artistic way and that’s what I love about our music.

 

Metal has made me want to strive to be a better, more complete person, which is why it’s stuck with me for so long.
I think it resonates with most of our fans, to be honest with you. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done this for so many years now and to have traveled the world and to have met so many just amazing people in all parts of the globe. That’s probably the best part of this for me aside from the whole artistic side. That connection you make with people and to have people specifically come up to me in a place like Serbia, for example, when a fan came up to me – I’ll be quick, but it’s a story that touched me in a profound way. This fan came up to me after our first time in Serbia and the fan after the show ran up to me and grabbed me, hugged me, would not let go, was crying, and was really moved by our performance. I said we’ve never had a reaction like that, trying to almost break the ice and lighten the mood a little bit. There was a young guy, and he was like “You played ‘Father, You’re Not a Father’ and it was one of my favorite songs because my father, when I grew up, was a huge fan from your early days and that was his favorite song” and his father was killed in action, he was in the military, and was killed over there a few years before. It was his son’s way of connecting with us and sharing that moment, like, “Your music meant a lot to my father, it helped him through a lot of hard times, it got me into this music, and it means a lot to me.” It’s just proof you can really touch people and affect people in a positive way through music. Music has always been that unifying force in a world with multiple divisive forces.

We really want to hear the ambient Blood Incantation record too. ‘Til then, here’s more of this month’s best metal:

An Isolated Mind – A Place We Cannot Go (Self-released)

The second album from this confounding California post-black metal project goes further into doom and oft-kilter keyboards that feel more 2000s Bay Area basement than 1990s Norwegian cabin. Like Lifelover’s piano, those creaky organs and dank Casio emanations drive the music more than the guitars do. It’s both more unified and more jagged than its predecessor, as there’s a giant dread overhang that can’t be shaken.

Inhuman Nature – Under the Boot (Church Road)

A British crossover hidden gem, Inhuman Nature strikes fast and tight on their latest EP, condensing and fortifying the cleanest-cutting riffing from their impressive 2019 debut full-length. If you’re into Power Trip and Dead Heat – and you should be – you have to be into this too.

Vinterland – Welcome to My Last Chapter reissue (Black Lodge, originally released in 1996 on No Fashion)

Normally, I don’t feature reissues in this column. However, this album is an essential piece of Swedish melodic black metal, one that still doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves. Listen immediately.

Night Cobra – Dawn of the Serpent (High Roller)

Christian Larson is leading a traditional heavy metal revival in Texas thanks to his Hell Heroes festival, which brings together ancient and modern practitioners of power, thrash, speed, and those who simply just call themselves “metal” for a weekend of unbridled steel in Houston. (This year’s edition, April 22-23 at White Oak Music Hall, features Candlemass, Cirith Ungol, Slough Feg, and Eternal Champion, among many others.) His own speed metal project Night Cobra’s debut makes even the stiffest, most stubborn of heads bang involuntarily and uncontrollably, and there’s even some tasty horror synth to boot.

Homeskin – Cries Methodically (Self-released)

The latest project from Cara Nier’s Garry Brents was made in just two days a couple weeks ago, and it destabilizes Discordance Axis’ ultradense grindcore, engaging with melodic beauty by willingly fraying itself, blastbeats askew and guitars plucking out of their own free will.

IMPACT

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