Like two trains rushing past each other in opposite directions, the debuts of Immolation and Incantation found them closer in terms of sound than they would ever be again. Immolation would evolve significantly in the four years leading to Here In After, but for a brief moment in time, both stalwarts found some common ground as they struggled to create their distinct vision of what death metal could – and, in hindsight, always should – be.
A young and impressionable mind can’t be faulted for considering these two albums of a kind; after all, the bands share the same initial and suffix, the same apocalyptic imagery, and the same lauded reputation as flag-bearers of New York-style death metal. Incantation and Immolation: even the names have a seductively sinister appeal as they roll off the tongue.
The similarities run deeper than mere surface markers. These two albums are some of the first incidences of death metal bands completely escaping the roots of the genre in thrash/speed metal and making death metal a legitimate, fully self-contained form of music in its own right. Superlative and influential as opening efforts from bands like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Atheist, and even the altogether unique Suffocation were, they were undeniably informed with the technique and energy of the era’s extreme thrash metal. Riffs as often as not would turn back upon themselves in the sort of quick and hyperactive, switchback formation typical of that sub-strain; moreover, because of their frequently attenuated nature, riffs would sit comfortably between the crevices of the sped up thrash beat. The result was potent as a spontaneous explosion of sheer will, but only intermittently did it hint at the revolution that would be brought in by the two bands being discussed here.
Immolation and Incantation papered over these influences – some might say severed them completely – with long, roving streams of tremolo picking almost exclusively based around dissonance and floating keys. Drums during faster sections were a blasting blur, acting like a roiling ocean underneath riffs rather than riding on top of them. Both elements gave greater narrative continuity and heft to the music, a slow-burning quality previously rare in death metal and almost literature-like in ambition. As opposed to the somewhat harried, constant turn-over nature of older thrash-infused death metal, these bands could now take an initial premise and build on it, layer upon layer, thus fulfilling the progressive potential latent in the genre. Not just through riff salad, but by very real development of ideas and themes.
Both albums originate in the same general musical mind space, and this is borne out in the choice of notes, the extremely subtle use of groove, and the punctuation of individual phrases in dissonance. It would be a worthwhile question to ask of the individuals involved whether there was any runoff between the bands, but it seems more likely that both parties were simultaneously influenced by external forces like Mike Scaccia, Euronymous, and Voivod, and somehow created final art that shared salient aspects.
Immolation even at this early stage were by far the more technically nuanced band of the two. There is a wealth of ideas in just opener ‘Into Everlasting Fire‘ that would put most bands’ careers to shame. From a listener’s perspective, good music heard for the first time falls into two broad perspectives: (1) acknowledgment of a job done with consummate skill and integrity, balanced with the recognition of a talent that is special but essentially mortal, or (2) a complete disconnect as listener from the musician’s mind and a helpless fumbling in the hope of discovering the creator’s inner workings. Or to put it more succinctly, “How the fuck did they come up with that?”.
Immolation on Dawn Of Possession would begin tormenting death metal fans with the second of these categories, but the impetuosity of their genius did not come without a certain price. As great as each individual idea here is – and let it be stressed till tedium just how phenomenal these riffs truly are – there is an overall tendency towards somewhat abrupt transitions; in part due to a problem of plenty, but also because of Immolation‘s very nature as a musical entity. For music as “angular” as this, the pasting between parts assumes an even greater significance than normal; Immolation‘s eagerness to express themselves didn’t always translate to ultimate coherence on an internal level.
Incantation, on the other hand, were a far more musically humbler band than Immolation, and this modesty, in turn, would help them create a more seamless album in Onward To Golgotha. Incantation‘s arsenal was only a subset of Immolation‘s; without access to the seemingly endless bag of tricks at the latter’s disposal, they chose instead to focus on the finer points of songwriting. The liberal yet tasteful use of doom in the absence of baroque flourishes was an example of this micro-adjustment. It fleshed out songs while enhancing atmosphere, and simultaneously acted as bridge between parts that might otherwise be too disparate to connect.
This is not to suggest that Onward To Golgotha is without its visceral thrills; if anything, it counts among the most savage of all death metal albums. What Incantation managed better than Immolation – perhaps through natural limitation, but without doubt through conscious will also – was greater control over the minute increments that make otherwise diverse songs cohesive wholes. A note missing here, a part that would be better attached elsewhere, is ultimately all the difference there is when comparing seminal albums such as these. Incantation simply told a better story on Onward To Golgotha.