FeaturesImmolation - Haunting and Pummeling

Immolation – Haunting and Pummeling

New York death metal mainstays Immolation have championed the sound for over 30 years at this point, providing a unique voice within the extreme music landscape.  With an identifiable sound that has influenced many acts in the scene now, they still continue to impress with their ability to write songs that are destructive but stick with you.  Acts of God, as their latest, does exactly that.  Crushing with brutality, yet it never offers a feeling of redundancy – instead sticking with you after it finishes.  We spoke with vocalist Ross Dolan to get his thoughts on the new material, challenges the band has had to overcome, and a look back at their second album, Here in After.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you say about Acts of God as your latest album?

Ross Dolan: I just think it’s a better album than the last record.  I think it’s a much darker album, and production-wise it’s much better.  Overall, I think it’s a much stronger record: musically, lyrically, and production-wise.  Atonement raised the bar for us, and set the bar high for this cycle.  We finished the cycle for it in 2019, and we knew it would be a hard bar to get close to.  We had a lot of down time, and Bob [Vigna] had started writing the songs in 2018, so when we hit the end of the touring cycle for Atonement, we were like 4-5 songs already.  We already had a feel for when it was going.

Unfortunately, we had an extra two years of downtime, which I guess in retrospective, allowed us more time to make things better – to craft the songs and make them better – more than normal.  It was the same process that we usually had, but we are usually squeezed in at the last minute.  With the writing on this one, we finished it a few months before we even started rehearsals.  In NY, we were locked down quite a bit at the beginning of the pandemic.  We weren’t able to rehearse until June of 2020.  It was a weird year and a half or so!

Dead Rhetoric: At this point, what continues to drive you forward as a band and keep going?

Dolan: I think we all really enjoy doing this, not just the creative process of writing the songs and doing the lyrics, but the whole process: writing, studio time, touring – we have always enjoyed it since we started the band.  Bob and I have been there since the beginning, and Steve [Shalaty], our drummer, has been with us since the early 2000s.  He has over 20 years invested in the band.  Alex [Bouks], even though he joined during the Atonement cycle in 2016, he’s really been there since the beginning.  We met him in the late ’80s when he was in Goreaphobia and we played a bunch of shows together in the early ’90s in the Camden area of NJ.  So Alex has always been a part of the inner circle – we were close with him back then, even though he was only 16-17 at the time, so he has done a lot in his 30+ years doing this with Goreaphobia, Master, Incantation, and now there’s Shadows – so he has done a lot.

It’s kind of a full circle thing to have him with us now.  We went on our first tour with us in ’92, but now that he’s in the band, it’s cool to have someone who is grounded and has a lot of experience in this music.  He knows what it’s all about, and we all share the same vision.  I think that’s a great way to keep us fired up.

Dead Rhetoric: How important is it that the sound of Immolation still, despite innovation, pays homage to the initial sound of the band?

Dolan: It’s extremely important.  One of the things we prided ourselves on in the early days what that we had our own sound and style.  We have tried to stay true to what the essence of the band was, while we branched out and as we grow as songwriters and people.  Sometimes you don’t see the world the same way you did back 30 years ago [laughs], but I think in general Bob and I have shared that vision.  We have always tried hard to keep that sound and style, while still doing something that’s fresh with each cycle.  We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but we want to create new songs every cycle that are fresh and unique, and also have all of those cool elements that the fans have looked to us for.  It’s something that still very much still sounds like the band – that dark, haunting sonically pummeling sound, but try something different.

Bob has always tried to write unique songs and he has a lot of great ideas that he tries to infuse in our music.  Ironically, most o his ideas don’t really come from extreme music.  He’s not really inspired by extreme metal, he is inspired by a lot of different stuff.  Our musical tastes are all over the map.  It’s kind of funny when people sit down and talk to him and he’s like, “I like this, I listen to that, and I’m inspired by this,” they are always kind of blown away [laughs].  You can find really cool ideas and inspiration not specifically in the metal genre that works really well in our genre.  He’s good at finding ideas that other bands have done and wanting to do something like that in Immolation.  He’s always thinking outside the box.  We try to keep the Immolation sound, but we also try to create something fresh each round.

Dead Rhetoric: I think it’s important to pull that outside source in, because when you just try to be 110% metal, you end up sounding like other bands. 

Dolan: Exactly.  I think it’s important.  There’s so much great music out there.  There’s so many great flavors depending on what mood you are in.  We have always been like that.  Our fans are always surprised to read our song lists or what we are listening to at the time.  I think it helps though, in the big picture.

Dead Rhetoric: My initiation to Immolation was with Here in After.  What do you recall about the time around that album?

Dolan: After our firs album in 1991, we had about 5 years of downtime.  We stepped away from Roadrunner and we got out of our contract.  We were kind of set adrift at that point.  It was a weird time period writing that record.  Once it was finished, we signed a deal with Metal Blade Records for three albums.  So for that album, we recorded it in Hoboken at a place called Water Music.  It was a cool experience.  We had recorded the first album we did in Germany.  We weren’t experienced much at that time, so it was a big deal recording for us.  It was very unique and special at the time to us.  For the second record, we kept it local and recorded with a friend of ours.  He was a young guy and it was his first full-length album.  I think he did a good job!  It was very densely produced and definitely heavy.

In retrospect, I wish the drums sounded better.  Our drummer at the time, Craig, did some really cool stuff on that.  That’s always the story with us – something could always be better.  But for what it was, it was a cool sophomore release, because I think that record started us out in the direction we ended up going in.  Dawn of Possession had a lot of our influences on it.  You can hear a lot of that.  With Here in After, Bob started to come into his own as a songwriter.  You hear a lot more experimental stuff on that record, and the following record Failures for Gods, before he started to rein it in and write more concise and tighter songwriting.  It was a busy touring cycle for that record.  We supported Six Feet Under, then we supported Cannibal Corpse for like 4 tours, and we had Brutal Truth out with us.  We did a lot of touring, after a 5 year stretch of not doing much, it was nice to get out there.  It put us back on the map, that second record.  It was cool!

Dead Rhetoric: That was back in the day for me, when you would go into a record store and buy something based on the cover, which I loved for Here in After

Dolan: That’s how I was too.  You go to the record store, and when you were young, like you said, you buy based on the album cover.  I saw something cool, I would buy it and hopefully it was good [laughs]!  Sometimes it would not be a winner, but the local record store we had in Yonkers – we knew the guy so we would ask so much.  We were friends with the owners, so if you didn’t like something you could go back and be like, “I’m not really digging this,” and they let you exchange it for something else.  That was always kind of cool of them.  But that was how it was, you see some cool artwork and you try it out.

The artist we had for those first few albums, Andreas Marshall, he was just an amazing artist.  He really did a phenomenal job of taking our ideas and bringing them to the canvas.  Back then, people don’t realize – you are working with an artist today and you can see the piece as it is developing.  A lot is done digitally or they can email it to you.  We didn’t have that back then, for our first album, Andreas faxed us a sketch about two weeks in.  When I say a sketch, it was rough – like a line sketch with a placement of the figures on the cover.  That’s all we had to go with, so we said yeah that’s it, I hope it comes out good.  He knocked it out of the park.  For Here in After, we didn’t even get the sketch.  We just told him our ideas and what we wanted the look and feel of it to be.  He mailed us a photo of the actual piece and that’s all we had.  It was an interesting time back then, pre-internet.  But we made it work.

Dead Rhetoric: Could you go into the relationship between yourself and Robert [Vigna]?  Is it at the point where if either of you stopped, Immolation would just be done?

Dolan: If Bob decided tomorrow that he wanted to step off, the band would probably be done.  I wouldn’t continue.  Bob is the main songwriter and written all the music since day one.  If he decided he wanted to pursue something else, it wouldn’t make sense to continue forward with it.  He is the creative force.  Between the two of us, we have managed to keep things rolling for over 30 years.  We each have our roles, but his is the most important as he is writing the music.  It just wouldn’t feel right either.  We have built this from the ground up from like ’88 forward.  I knew him since he was playing in Rigor Mortis, so I was tight with him and those guys before they disbanded.  I have a long history with him, and we share the same vision with what we are doing with Immolation.  It’s been one of the main things that has kept us on track.

We are still very hungry to do this, and we work well together.  We bounce ideas off each other all the time, and when we are at the point of discussing arrangements and lyrics.  There’s no shame in throwing an idea Bob’s way, if he doesn’t like it, no big deal – and vice versa.  We got over all that weirdness years ago [laughs].  It’s a good relationship and we work well together, and the other guys do too.  We give feedback, and for 95% of the time we are usually pretty happy with whatever Bob sends out – we figure once it has gone to email, it has gone through his process already mentally.

Dead Rhetoric: The lyrics frequently target Christianity and religion.  What fuels your inspiration for new material?

Dolan: With this album, a lot of people asked if I got a lot of inspiration from the pandemic.  It was a dark time and it had different effects on all of us, so I didn’t really want to make this a pandemic album.  There is so much other craziness in our world to draw inspiration from.  I think that’s what our lyrics have always been about.  Look at the world around us.  There’s plenty to draw from.  That said, with this album, we harkened back to some themes from the earlier records, heavily on the religious side of things.  It’s more about the organization and institutional part of it.  Its stuff we have touched on before.  The first song on the record, we touched on that years ago, and apparently it’s still a thing that just festers.  You read the articles in newsfeeds and can’t believe you are reading it.  Those are the things that make their way into our lyrics.  It’s the same for this album.

It’s not a concept album.  A few people have asked that due to the similarity in themes, and I would say no its not.  The ideas behind each song are specific to that song.  But again, we try to write the lyrics in a way that is someone ambiguous so fans can get what they can about it. I had to lead everyone by the hand and say what it’s about.  I’m a lyric guy and the first thing I would do when I got a new vinyl is put it on and go song by song with the lyrics.  It’s always cool to interpret the lyrics, and I hope its fun for our fans as well.  We put a lot into the lyrics and try to write them in a way that makes sense.  I think our fans get the most out of them.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s one of the toughest challenges you’ve faced as a musician?

Dolan: I think juggling the music/band with life.  Obviously what we play isn’t the biggest genre to get involved in, so we have always had to be realistic about how we approach what we did.  For many years, Immolation wasn’t our only focus.  We had day jobs.  It was a balancing act.  When I moved up here in 2016, we left our day jobs to focus on Immolation full-time.  It is a full-time job as things progress.  For Atonement and the touring cycle, because it was received so well we had a lot of touring opportunities and it was like a full-time job dealing with the logistics and everything for touring.  Bob and I are pretty hands on and take care of all the business.  We manage ourselves so we do that end of things.  We have agents that book the tours, but we deal with most of the logistics here in the US.  We have a different set up in Europe so it’s a bit easier.

It took us a long time to get to that point, but we can finally focus 100% on the band.  In promoting the music, writing it, making sure things are organized.  Bob worked in the entertainment industry for weddings and lighting and sound for corporate industry, so there is a lot of that knowledge he brings to the table.  For our videos, he has filmed and produced the last 4 or 5 videos because he has that knowledge and is able to do it.  It works out really well, and now he has the time, so he can make really cool videos, and they are from someone who creates the music so the vision is the same.  It’s not like we are getting someone from the outside to try to explain our vision.  Bob knows it, and we talk at length about what we want to achieve with the videos and the album covers, and so on.  It’s the perfect scenario to have him involved with the video stuff.  We spend a lot of time on this stuff.

I can’t imagine how we made it work before we left our jobs.  We all worked crazy jobs.  I was a truck driver in Manhattan for 15 years.  I had the worst, craziest schedule!  I can’t imagine how we kept the band firing on all cylinders while doing that full time.  We are in a much better position now.

Dead Rhetoric: You will be touring soon, what else is on the agenda for Immolation this year?

Dolan: We have a busy year planned in the US.  We have the tour that starts on the album release.  We are totally excited about the line-up and doing that.  We have Maryland Death Fest in May, which we will be playing the Wednesday preshow.  We have something else in the works around that time that we are waiting to be confirmed.  We have something for the end of the year in the States that we are waiting on too.  If everything pans out, we have a lot going on in the US.

Unfortunately, Europe is another story.  It’s still a bad situation over there with COVID.  We have the Netherlands Death Fest in April, and another fest in France around that time.  NDF is the same guys as the Maryland Death Fest, So we are tight with those guys.  We will be playing that if all goes well, and I think any other European stuff we will wait until 2023 and hit hard then.  That’s all we can do for now, and just work with what we have and try to stay positive.

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