Of all the foundational death metal bands, Suffocation have perhaps managed to preserve their dignity best. Although the newest album Of The Dark Light doesn’t seem too encouraging on first inspection, the band’s run up to Pinnacle Of Bedlam isn’t without its highlights, and deserves to be looked at in greater detail. But as in all other aspects of life, understanding the present implicitly entails an appreciation of the past. With an eye then towards a more respectful analysis of this legendary band’s contributions, the following is a summary of their music through the 90s:
Human Waste (1991)
So commences the career of one of the four pillars of American death metal. Mike Smith brings percussion ideologically influenced by the sonic terrorists in Siege/Repulsion/Napalm death, but far more advanced technically and endurance-wise and suited to the progressive nature of nascent death metal. Flurries of extreme drum rolls add emphasis to a predominantly multisyllabic tremolo picked riffing style; present also in abundance is the palm-muted flutter of speed metal with highlighted root notes. Which goes to show that Suffocation, consigned to the brutal death metal label as they are, had as much in common with, say, Monstrosity, as they were to with their descendants. One would be amiss, of course, to omit the advent of the soon-to-be-maligned “slam”; Suffocation, for better or worse, are the inventors of the technique as it pertains to death metal, but in their hands, on Human Waste and beyond, it is less crowd-pleasing filler and more an instrument of oppression. Never ones to linger, Suffocation merely touch upon the slam as a breathing point before moving on to more adventurous pursuits.
Effigy Of The Forgotten (1991)
Suffocation never use open chords as primary melodic device; the main source of movement are individual notes, but chords when used are relegated to a somewhat ambiguous, free-floating role, either as chugging slam or as a micro-adjustment between bouts of frenetic activity. Like Cannibal Corpse, but with far more dexterity, Suffocation regularly climax their tremolo runs with flourishing embellishments viz. hammer ons, pulls offs, trills, etc. The effect is decidedly breathless, but never ornamental; despite the many permutations and combinations of notes existing inside these songs, Suffocation, somehow, manage to introduce sufficient color and variation into their compositions; these songs evolve and recapitulate ideas in a way that belies the strictly atonal framework within which they operate. There might be little of the emotionally tangible in Effigy Of The Forgotten, but this is structural death metal in the truest sense, existing in isolation as logic. And logic, inherently, is brutal.
Breeding The Spawn (1993)
Paper-thin drums and overall dry production conceal the most progressive structures the band ever wrote. Released in the same year as Gorgut‘s seminal Erosion Of Sanity, Breeding The Spawn has a similarly contorting riff ethos supplemented by ambitious and more diverse time signatures, and a twanging bass frequently leading the charge. Erstwhile long-chained tremolo picking gives way to more pronounced syncopation; combined with a greater presence of groove, in both fluid and leaden-footed slam form, these two elements herald the true birth of the sub-style called brutal death metal. Unfortunately, most brutal death metal falls short of Suffocation‘s twin virtues of motific potency and thematic reiteration, and instead becomes a display of either sterile, whimsical physical-technical prowess or bone-headed simplicity. Breeding The Spawn is neither and both at the same time, but as mandated by song, not template, and therein lies the triumph of originators over imitators.
Pierced From Within (1995)
Pierced From Within is at once a simplification and an elaboration of previous ideas. Vocals are exhumed from the moldy confines of the crypt and sense the clarity of day for the first time. This renunciation of a once-abstract nature applies to the songwriting at large, too; melody, for one, is no longer incidental but becomes a self-conscious actor pulling strings at opportune times. While no less technically demanding, there is now greater space, less turnover of ideas, and more palpable punctuation in the body of the song. The band’s creative juices however are at an all-time high, and this increased deliberation rather than being cause for stagnation provides them with the ideal canvas to write some of the most memorable songs in this style. All Suffocation is intensely rhythmic, but Pierced From Within qualifies to the epithet of “body music” with rare distinction; it is the sound of rush of blood to the head and bludgeoning corpuscular traffic, more primal than intellectual, and a study in contrasts.
Despise The Sun (1998)
The last recording before the band went on hiatus, Despise The Sun is a good point in the band’s trajectory to take stock of how their sound changed following Doug Cerrito’s departure. This ferocious EP contains four new songs and a rerecording of ‘Catatonia‘ from Human Waste. In all ways possible, it is a rollback of the accessibility that gradually manifested itself from Breeding The Spawn onwards. The most intimidating production in genre history certainly helps; at loud volumes, Despise The Sun can cause genuine heart palpitations, in altered states, a shapeless anxiety.
While grindcore is routinely referenced in discussions pertaining to Suffocation, it is here, and perhaps no where else, that Napalm Death-style short phrase sonic detonations are legitimately heard. Also, Malevolent Creation skinsman Dave Culross gets his first exposure with the band (he would later return on Pinnacle Of Bedlam to regalvanize the band’s lagging tempos), and throws down the proverbial gauntlet; revolutionary though Mike Smith may have been, Culross brings the hyperactive, thuggish attitude of his other band to Suffocation; confrontational and technical, he, more than anything else, pushes the band’s sound through the roof. By the time the revamped ‘Catatonia‘ closes, the verdict is a brass-knuckled punch to the face: there simply wasn’t a better band in death metal in 1998.