The death metal of Suffocation allows no human emotion. As often suggested by Dan Seagrave’s mechanistic cover paintings, this is the music of an age where humans have ceased to exist or, at the very least, have been reduced to a pathetically subservient role before a boundless, unfeeling power. Deicide expressed the fiery rebellion of a youth disgusted with the status quo of a geriatric, terminal religion, and you could feel the rage inherent in their music. Immolation expressed the same idea through a more mature meditation on the very real ills perpetrated in the name of Christendom through the centuries, throughout the world, and the queasiness was all too apparent in their music. Morbid Angel chose to adopt an alternate, fictional religion – though all religions start as a figment of fiction in somebody’s imagination and only become worth the name once they gather enough followers – borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, spitting out a superlatively arrogant cosmic ideal in the face of dogma that has seen fit to treat the planet as its playground. And the feeling of being in the presence of great and hoary powers was all too palpable in their music.
Take your pick of classic death metal bands from anywhere in the world and chances are more than even that beneath the aggression lies genuine feeling, and either a lashing out at the reality in evidence, or a nose dive into myriad unsavoury fetishes, or a contemplation that goes beyond the temporal, reaching out to the stars. Demilich ? A surrealistic nightmare from the bubbling sewers of the mind’s backwaters. Autopsy ? Human perversion personified. The Chasm ? Tearing through banality and escaping into a secret dimension. Point being, a majority of death metal is relayed from the perspective of the individual and is subject to his emotions in all their fickle, transitory capacity. Bands like Malevolent Creation, Monstrosity and early Cryptopsy may have followed a similar musical template as Suffocation but still felt like they were based within the framework of the mind, albeit one slightly more disturbed than is the norm. But Suffocation upended genre conventions entirely by attacking the listener with a music unconcerned with human frailty, and redolent of burning insulation rubber showing the copper veins within and grinding cogs turning mindlessly in the service of some iron-clad monolith.
It is not easy listening. Suffocation brought a percussive technicality to death metal that simply did not exist before, mixing the choppiness of thrash with the fury of the then-nascent grindcore scene, binding both to create ever-evolving song structures with a very unique, lyrical sense of groove. This hybrid proved to be one of the most decisive offshoots for the genre as a whole. Some might argue, with good reason, that it also proved to be one of the more unfortunate developments in death metal; many are the bands that have tried their hand at this blueprint but without an understanding of the nuances that made Suffocation‘s vision complete. But from a purely instrumental proficiency standpoint, at least, death metal owes Suffocation a huge debt of gratitude for their incessantly pummeling contributions.
And yet it is not human music. There is an impersonal, insistent, and metronomical aspect to it that stands aloof from mortal preoccupations and exists on its own terms as documentation of a parched, nuclear future. Even by death metal’s standards, Suffocation‘s music is startlingly amelodic, the only reprieve provided by Terrence Hobbs’ and Doug Cerrito’s occasional, piercing guitar solos. For vast stretches of albums, however, precisely chugging guitars substitute the flowing tremolo lines of traditional death and black metal, inducing a tired resignation in the listener in the face of insurmountable odds. Suffocation‘s music is callous, but in the way of a superior, calculating intelligence to whom we must seem as little more than ants, a pestilence to be cleared on the path to recolonization. There is no joy to be found here, no ebullient strain of optimism, and no Terminator-style resistance; the sun of the future is a dull and smeared orb that struggles to find its way through ashen skies, while remnants of human kind cower in caves from the acid rain.