TARTAREAN DESIRE WEBZINE
Long running New York Death Metal madmen, Immolation, will be “Harnessing Ruin” when their new record of the same name, their most mature and accessible album yet, is unleashed on the world in late winter 2005. Tartarean Desire’s Tony Belcher caught up with guitarist Bob Vigna for this e-mail interview in February 2005 to discuss the band’s 6th studio release, the band in general, and maybe even Björk.
The musical style that Immolation pioneered and has played throughout its existence includes some of the heaviest, most brutal riffs around. Simply put, that Immolation sound is unmistakably Immolation, which is a credit to your band. Others have emulated it but no one comes close. What inspires this sound? Along those lines, is there a specific tuning that you use to achieve such a massive sound?
We’ve always tried to do our own thing from the beginning. Whether it was how we recorded the records to how we wrote the music. It really just comes down to feeling. We try and create the best, darkest and heaviest music we can and the result is what you hear. When we started out we just tuned to each other’s instruments. Then when we went in to record the very first album we figured out that we actually were tuning to “C.” So it wasn’t really planned. We adopted the use of heavier gauge strings, which gave us the heaviness of tuning down but the clarity we needed for the riffs to come through.
But that isn’t the main thing. The main thing is the writing. We do not limit ourselves, we try new things and we incorporate new elements into every album. We stay true to our roots but always come at it from a different perspective and put in some new twists. We are also inspired by so many different kinds of music and I think over the years that this has really helped us to create our own style and sound. We are very ambitious, too, and excited with every new release. So now that Harnessing Ruin is out, we are already anticipating what can be done on the next record. We are always striving to bring this style up to the next level. There is so much potential in Death Metal that I don’t think people realize. There is so much that can be done and we just work as hard as we can to really broaden the genre.
Regarding that sort of “signature Immolation sound,” I think I have come up with a term that embodies the totality thereof: Imperial Death. What I mean by that is there is a certain majestic, almost regal aspect to your music. The way the dissonant but harmonized (I’m sure a music theorist is shaking their head or turning over in their grave at the moment) lead guitar stacks atop the crunch of the distorted riff and bass is killer. That is the sound that I think of as Imperial Death. Am I speaking a foreign tongue here or do you think that Death Metal, and Metal in general, already has too much stratification and subgenre labeling as it is now? Is Immolation “just” a Death Metal band in your eyes?
Well, we appreciate your cool words and are glad you are into what we do so much. And yes, I would have to agree with that. Immolation is definitely in its own area. I think that is something that we have tried to do, to get the music to a point where you cannot describe it with regular tags. To me that means it becomes somewhat indescribable, as it is something you have not quite heard before, something different. I mean, it is Death Metal, of course, but it is our unique version of it, a version that really transcends the norm. I think that most bands’ intent is to have an identity, to stand out from the herd, and I think this is something that we have definitely accomplished over the years, especially with Harnessing Ruin. I think this record can be appreciated by our most die hard fans as well as those who might not normally get into Death Metal.
About the new album, Harnessing Ruin, I have listened to it a myriad number of times since I got it a week or two ago and it absolutely kills in true Immolation fashion. It is easily your most mature and yet most accessible effort. How long did the songwriting and recording take?
Believe it or not we wrote it in about a month or so. We had about 3 weeks left before we went into the studio when we first got together with Steve, our new drummer. You see, Steve lives out in Ohio, so me and Ross drove out there 3 weekends in a row, the last weekend going straight from Ohio into the studio. I had about 4 songs semi-complete when we went out there the first weekend. We rehearsed for 1 day, showed Steve the 4 songs. Then while driving back to NY we would listen to the rehearsal tape and make a ton of changes before we even got home. So by the time we went back to Steve’s the following weekend we would have to re-write everything again. So we went from having 4 songs, to like 2 songs. Haha. This went on until we hit the studio, listening to it all, re-writing, and actually even writing a song completely while we were in the studio. After Steve was finished with his tracks of the 8 songs that he knew, we then started showing him another one to learn and then recorded it immediately. So it was a stressful situation.
Now this was in the lyrics, too. We hardly had any lyrics written before we went into the studio. Ross got a couple going, but that was it. Me and Ross went on a lyrical barrage while we were in there. Once the basic tracks were done I would start the leads. So I would write a lead, go in and record it, then come out, then Ross would go in, record some vocals, then we would write some more lyrics, and then back and forth until it was all done. It was pretty hectic! Haha. Even during the mixing part, I would realize that a lead was missing, or a rhythm part needed some notes over it and we would add that in on the spot. Between recording and mixing it took about 3 weeks in the studio.
Paul Orofino was the producer again. He does a great job and is very easy to work with. He has a good ear for music, so he knows what works and what doesn’t, so he keeps our dissonance on target and prevents it from becoming a train wreck! Haha. The atmosphere in Millbrook is very relaxed -- we have our own studio, ranch style apartment that is connected to the recording studio, so it’s very convenient.
Does an Immolation song start with a riff, a signature bleeding lead, or a blasphemous lyric – or does it change from album to album or even song to song? Also, is the entire band involved in the writing process, or can that vary, too?
Usually I will write the music first -- come up with a basic arrangement. Then we work on it together until the arrangement is solid. After that is where the lyrics come in -- you get the feeling from the song and pretty much match it up with some concepts you may have. Each song has a particular feel that lends itself to a certain subject matter. It changes from time to time, though. The leads and overlaying melodies are always last. Sometimes I get inspired to write the music by a title concept or song idea, too. But that’s basically how it works. In the end everyone has some input to make the songs come out the way they do.
A quick comment about the artwork on “Harnessing Ruin.” Was longtime artist Andreas Marschall unavailable or was it perhaps just time for a change? How did you come to work with Sven of Aborted on the cover?
We just wanted to try something different. We wanted to use digital images and make things a bit darker. Sven has been doing art for Listenable so we asked him if he wanted to give it a shot. We sent Sven the concepts, and after a few e-mails back and forth he nailed it. He actually did such a great job that (to his dismay... haha), we asked him to do about 10 more pieces for the booklet and limited digi-pak! I think this is the best packaging we’ve had yet. There is a panel for every song and a couple of extras too. So we are extremely happy with how it came out, and I think the fans will really dig it!
Thematically, the artwork provides a totally different backdrop for the album. This one does not embody the familiar, explicitly anti-Christian symbolism/rhetoric and I think this even goes back to some of the new album’s lyrics. What gives, has Immolation gotten in touch with their “sensitive side”? :) Seriously, though, what inspired the lyrics on this, your sixth album, and who wrote them? Some could be considered almost personal.
Ross and I write all the lyrics. We wanted to go a different route. I think over our 15 year career we have just about covered all the religious areas we could, so we focused in on what is going on in the world today and what really is at this point more important. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of religious references in here, but that is mainly due to just how religion itself really has its hands in everything. The main ideas of the album are the struggles we are facing today, on both a worldwide scale as well as a personal one. Harnessing Ruin is what we feel the powers that be are trying to do these days. All of us struggle to gain and to control things we really can’t. We try hard to hold onto it all and keep it all together, but it is just crumbling around us and slipping through our fingers more and more each day. We look at the war’s impact from two different points of view: the terrorism and the manipulation of power. We even look at our own inner demons. All the songs actually tie together to bring the whole concept together. I think we present it in such a way that it is very reminiscent of our earlier material, but much more mature in what we are trying to convey. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to the words in their own way.
Overall, there are a few songs on “Harnessing Ruin” that incorporate some entirely new ideas. Specifically, the use of whispered, introductory vocals on “Dead to Me” and whispered, accent vocals on “Son of Iniquity” seem to be firsts for Immolation. How did these new tricks evolve? I think they sound great and offer some real dynamics.
Yeah, I really wanted to try something different to bring out that contrast, that dynamic as you said. We’ve used this before in the past but only in the background -- the acoustic guitar parts, too. I wanted to really use them as a main recurring part rather than just a quick intro. And in the end it really came out amazing. So while we were in the studio I went over these ideas with Ross and he was pretty apprehensive about it. He fought me tooth and nail up to the end, mainly about the vocals, but once he tried it out and realized how powerful it was, he loved it! Especially on “Son of Iniquity” where it goes back and forth. It not only works musically, making such a contrast, but it really drives the point of the lyrics, the words and what is being said that amplifies that power! These are two of my favorite songs off the album.
I have seen at least one online review [that I can strangely no longer find] that stated your new album had “nu metal tendencies” on it, which has to be in reference to the whispered vocals. Do you have a response to this asinine comment?
Ah, that doesn’t bother me in the least -- they might even be right. I listen to all kinds of music from a lot of non-metal (Bjork / Dave Mathews Band) to nu metal (A Perfect Circle / Slipknot / Linkin Park / Muse) as well as the most underground stuff (The Chasm / Incantation / Cradle of Filth / Cephalic Carnage). I think I did see that review, too, but I think the person liked the album a lot, so that’s all I need to know. There are different labels and ways to describe music -- whenever someone mentions that our stuff is more accessible, or more commercial, it does not bother me; to me it is a compliment. It means that we are writing better songs that people can relate to, and that works for me. We know we keep it true and unholy, so no matter what you say the bottom line is that it is still some of the heaviest, darkest and most powerful material out there! And that’s a fact!
I got to see a fresh Steve Shalaty replace Alex Hernandez on tour in late 2002. Did this live stint necessarily lead to him joining as a full time member and was it because Alex’s hernia never healed properly? Feel free to provide an “Alex update” if you have one.
Alex just lost interest. He wanted to settle down and get married, so he did. Once Steve pulled off the US tour without any problems, we knew he was our man. We pretty much knew he was the new permanent member after the first show we played together. Steve is an amazing drummer with a unique style that fits Immolation well. He’s done a great job on both that tour and the new record, and we are glad to have him!
Harnessing Ruin is former Angel Corpse member Bill Taylor’s second album with Immolation. How has he worked out in comparison to Tom Wilkinson? Does he offer something that was missing from Tom’s tenure with the band?
Bill is Metal -- 150% Metal to the bone! Haha. That’s basically his job with the band, just to be metal 24/7! Bill has been playing with the band live since Close To A World Below came out. So, he’s been with us for about 5 years now. Unholy Cult was his first official album shot, but he was with us for a while. Tom has been busy with his business and new family, so he was not able to continue with the band. He does like the new record a lot though! So that was good to hear! Haha.
Regarding Immolation, are there other bands that you are a fan or friend of, or both? Incantation immediately comes to mind. Also, who, if anyone, do you consider to be your true peers in Death Metal?
There are a lot of friends and bands that we know, the list is endless. Everyone from Incantation, Grave, Cannibal [Corpse], Cradle [of Filth], Aborted, I could go on and on… there are so many…. Everyone is in this for the same reason, to make music the best they can and have a good time doing it. We are lucky enough to get along with so many cool bands and people and to be doing this for so long. It is a true passion of ours and it’s cool to be able to share that passion when you are on the road touring with old friends and making new ones. It’s always an experience and we look forward to it each time.
About music in general, what do you guys listen to when on tour, or while at home, etc.? Further, what are some new bands that you enjoy, if any? Is there anything new that you see spewing forth from the underground?
We all listen to a lot of different things. The road is a great place for the old stuff to kick in like [Black] Sabbath, [Iron] Maiden, Slayer, as well as cranking up all the new releases. We also like to throw in some easy listening stuff that Bill really hates but we listen to it anyway! Haha. He just puts his headphones on and tunes everything out! Haha.
Speaking of the underground, what do you think about the somewhat recent reunions of Suffocation and Obituary? I think it is pretty killer that these Death Metal legends have come back to destroy the genre that they helped spawn. How about you?
Well, it helps bring the attention of the music up, that’s for sure. To me everything that can help this style get some notice is a good thing.
Some final thoughts about Death Metal: What do you think are the genre's greatest strengths and weaknesses? How does Immolation avoid the weaknesses and focus on the strengths?
Well, the strength is to be creative and make the music stand out -- make something unique and bring the style higher up [and] beyond what people think its capabilities are. So that’s what we try and do our best and that’s what we try and focus on.
George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher has said that Cannibal Corpse is fortunate to not require jobs -- to have the band as their main source of income. Do you all, like so many other bands, have ‘regular’ day jobs when not on tour? If so, what is that job or jobs? Also, is this the issue that finally caused the end of Tom Wilkinson’s tenure with the band?
Yes, well, Metal does not always pay the bills, so we all work day jobs. Tom decided to go into his cable installation business and does very well with it. I work with stage lighting and video. I like the production aspect of it and creating the mood with lighting -- it’s very similar to writing music, in a way. I plan to incorporate that into our live shows, as I have done in the past, on upcoming tours. Ross has his own delivery business but is able to make time for the band, too. So basically we all do what we have to do to make it work. I think we get closer and closer doing better with the band with each album, so we’ll see. At this point it does not have to be the sole thing I do. I think I will always be interested in a number of different things. I can’t do only one thing, I need to learn and do a number of things to keep things interesting for myself.
I have had the distinct pleasure of bearing witness to Immolation several times now, going back to your all too brief opening set on the 1996 Cannibal Corpse tour (no thanks to Brutal Truth), and I am excited about the new record and the subsequent tour. What are your current tour plans?
Right now we are going to be the main support for Deicide in June around the U.S. Misery Index & Skinless are also on the tour, so it should be a good one! We plan to possibly throw a couple of Euro[pean] fests into the mix at the end of June, if all goes well. Other than that there are no other plans, but we are working on something for Europe.
Well, I could probably ask even more fanboy questions, but these will suffice. I want to thank you for making the time to answer these questions. Do you have any parting words for your fans and listeners?
Thanks a lot for your interview, we really appreciate the support and interest in the band! Thanks to our fans out there, we look forward to seeing you soon! You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website up soon: www.immolation.info. And for current info right now, go to fan site www.EverlastingFire.com.
I also wanted to thank you for all the years of killer music that have already passed. I, and many others, look forward to many more. Hail Immolation!
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