Four years after the mixed reception of Kingdom of Conspiracy, the death metal masters from Yonkers, New York have returned with their tenth album Atonement. Immolation is one of those bands that has established a reputation for consistency. Sure I like some albums better than others, but for the most part when you pick up an Immolation record you can pretty much expect a certain quality, which has made them one of death metal's truest standard bearers. I liken Atonement to watching a Friday the 13th movie. Everyone in the audience knows that the teenagers fucking on the couch are going to get their guts ripped out. They see it coming, but they still love it regardless. Atonement does not deviate far from Immolation's signature musical style, but within the context of their discography it does continue to demonstrate the band's maturation and overall craftsmanship. The lyrics are still nihilistic and pointedly critical of humanity's propensity toward blind faith, tyranny and self-destruction while on the production front, the team made some important improvements.
The composition on this record is exquisite and the performance is tight. Robert Vigna is still on the top of his game employing frantic tremolo picking, pinched harmonics, ringing dissonant harmonies and the stop on a dime rhythmic and tempo changes that Immolation is famous for. The new comer, Alex Bouks, does a fantastic job keeping up with and complimenting Vigna's style. Ross Dolan still has one of the best guttural growls in the business, which is forceful yet expressive and interesting in a way that a lot of death metal vocalists are not (Glen Benton should take notes). As always, Steve Shalaty is a motherfucking beast on the drum kit and locks in with the guitars and bass with the precision of a Rolex watch. This band is air tight, well rehearsed and professional. Through their career Immolation has allowed their music to breathe more while still being technically complex and proficient. This is still true on Atonement. Vigna and Bouks let chords ring out and allow more space in the music. The meat of the songs are still based around technical riffing, but the moments of space drive home the album's mood and tone. This has been an evolving trend in the songwriting process over the past decade. The cacophonous whirlwind of chromatic progressions are still present (this is death metal after all), but Atonement has moments where the quality of the notes mean more than the quantity. Sometimes the impact of music comes from what is not played rather than what is. I don't mean to imply that Atonement is somehow death metal's Darkside of the Moon by any stretch of the imagination. We aren't listlessly drifting through space and time on this record. It is brutal and merciless. But it demonstrates the maturity and craftsmanship in the songwriting. Immolation has more tools in the toolbox, so to speak, and they know how and when to use them to get the desired effect.
After back to back concept albums, Atonement is more general is it's lyrical themes, but still hits home Immolation's overarching message. 2010's Majesty and Decay riffs on the archetypal tyrant and the Jungian "shadow". Inside every human is the inclination to become a dominating and wrathful monster and the album ponders the question: are people worth saving or does humanity deserve to be wiped out? 2013's Kingdom of Conspiracy was about the perceived malevolent and divisive forces that drive our societies and keep people malleable, docile, and easily manipulated. Atonement revisits both of these themes while also reintroducing Immolation's most reliable and favorite punching bag, organized religion. Religious fundamentalism presenting a clear and present danger to the world today makes these songs all the more relevant. Songs such as "Fostering the Divide", "Rise of the Heretics", and "Above All" rail against religion as one of the primary forces that divides and pits people against one another. But none hit this point home harder than the self titled track "Atonement" which is not only critical, but defiant. "Atonement" doesn't wallow in nihilism like most of Immolation songs do. It is assertive in its indignation. The common threads that tie this album together, and Immolation's entire discography for that matter, are the forces that diminish freedom and individuality. Dysfunctional societies, politicians, the illuminati, religion, and the dark side of human nature itself are all what drive the collective toward self-enslavement, war, and ultimate self-destruction. This is what Immolation has been writing about for decades and will most likely continue to do so in the future.
Paul Orofino returns to the producers chair with engineer Zack Ohren in tow. Orofino has worked with Immolation since 1999's Failure of the Gods and by and large has done a decent job with the exception of the previous release. One of Kingdom of Conspiracy's great downfalls was that the drums were too loud and "clicky" drowning out an otherwise decent performance. I am happy to declare that those short comings are rectified on Atonement. The double kick drums and snares lose that annoying "click" noise and sit well in the mix. Thus the guitars, bass, and vocals have more room and are able to set the tone of the music like they are supposed to do. The production is still "modern" in the sense that everything is compressed and jacked up as loud as possible giving the music little to almost zero head room. But I can't necessarily blame Orofino and Ohren for that. After all, this has been the industry standard in music production for some time now and it is up to the band, not the engineer, to dictate which parts should be softer and which should be louder. A good engineer will pick up on this and bring it out of the performance. There are a few moments of dynamic variations on Atonement, which are given the proper care much to Ohren and Orofino's credit. A lone guitar interlude doesn't need to be blasted through the speakers. The quiet parts give the louder parts more of an impact. Orofino and Ohren demonstrated that they understood this while recording.
In summation this is an awesome album worthy of a purchase from death metal fans. It admittedly lacks an "X factor" that pushes it into the mind blowing and jaw dropping category, perhaps due to it's predictability. Nevertheless, Atonement is a solidly put together release that will undoubtedly stand out as 2017 rolls along. Immolation doesn't make bad albums, which has made them one of heavy music's most enduring and influential bands.